Winter Hill plane crash

On the subject of things ta de, when ya nae cyclin’, other things soon fill the gaps. The New Year snowfall in Lancashire made it unsafe to cycle for almost two weeks, but you could still just about walk, and the private road that runs to the top of Winter Hill from near where I live was kept clear by snow ploughs, gritters, and tractors so the staff who work at the TV transmitter at the top could get to work. So I walked up there several times instead of cycling, and in between went to the local Heritage Centre to find out more about this place whose history I know is interesting but of which I know very little.

Winter Hill masts from Rivington Pike

Storm clouds gathering over the Winter Hill masts, seen from Rivington Pike

It’s hard to imagine now, but Winter Hill, 1500 feet high, was once covered with forest. In ancient times, that is. More recently in the 1800s and early 1900s it was extensively mined for coal and is littered with old shafts and collapsed tunnels. Because of its height, and the fact that it’s exposed on the South West fringe of the West Pennine Moors, over the years several aircraft have crashed into Winter Hill. The most disastrous was in 1958. 35 people from the Isle of Man were killed when a Manx Airlines (Silver City) passenger plane flying in cloud at 1500 feet crashed at the top – the country’s eleventh worst loss of life from a non-military air accident since 1950 (the statistics).

I remember the 1958 crash but never thought about where it actually happened, even though I’ve walked and cycled up Winter Hill hundreds of times. There’s a memorial plaque on the building near the TV transmitter and a Rotary Club plaque on a stone gatepost nearer to the scene of the accident but nothing to mark the exact spot. Why is that, I wonder?

No-one at the local Heritage Centre seemed to know where the plane actually crashed, nor how to find out, but they played me a 40-minute video about the disaster. The only hint was a still of a newspaper photograph taken at the time, from the air, which vaguely shows the crash site and pieces of wreckage. So I recovered the photo online from the newspaper’s archive and decided the next time I cycle to the top of Winter Hill I’ll make a point of going to the scene of the accident. That was yesterday, beginning my first decent cycle ride of 2010.

Winter Hill plane crash

A 1958 aerial press photograph of the Winter Hill crash site

When it hit the ground the Bristol 170 (a freighter converted to carry passengers) didn’t disintegrate completely. The Manchester Evening News caption to the 1958 photograph above is: “Wreckage was spread over the area,” but the tail section remained fairly intact. Seven people survived, including the pilot and a few others who were mostly sitting at the back of the plane. The foreground of the picture above appears to show the tail section pointing right, and in front of it, pieces of debris strewn over the hillside. Or does it? I’m not sure.

Bristol 170

A Bristol 170 similar to G-AICS that crashed on Winter Hill

The Aviation Safety Network’s web page states that the aircraft crashed on the “northeast slope of Winter Hill, at a height of approximately 1460 ft,” which tallies with statements that it would not have crashed had it been flying just “ten feet higher,” and the fact that the staff at the TV transmitter station no more than a couple of hundred yards away heard nothing of the impact.

Comparing the 1958 newspaper photograph with the terrain on Google Earth I fixed some geographical co-ordinates and rode up on my bike. At a bend in the road I lifted the bike over a style and humped it across the boggy moor until my GPS indicated I was at the spot.

Winter Hill plane crash

The place where I reckon the plane hit Winter Hill

Winter Hill plane crash

Looking in the other direction over the North East slopes of Winter Hill

The masts in my photos are not the same as the one shown in the older photo, which was replaced in the 1960s with the huge one that is there now. And there’s no sign of the crash to be seen on the ground 52 years later. The metal detector brigade will by now have recovered every fragment, but I might go there again in the Spring and take a closer look. For now, it’s back to cycling.

After taking my photos I rode back down and met up with a friend. Then we cycled about thirty miles. What strikes me about all this is how we’re oblivious to the history of landscapes we cycle through. It’s just a landscape, often beautiful, always a pleasure, but mostly unknown to the past. It makes me think I should not take it so much for granted.

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