People in the South Pennines

People have been making their mark on the South Pennines landscape for thousands of years.

The first dramatic effects of human influence on our landscape began when Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) people began to take up a new way of life – farming. The early farmers needed open areas of grassland for grazing their animals and soils free of other plants in order to grow crops. This meant that areas previously covered with trees had to be cleared.

“People have been making their mark on the South Pennines landscape for thousands of years.”

Prehistoric people also left behind many rock carvings that can still be seen on some of our South Pennine moors.

Thousands of years of human exploitation, combined with drop in temperature and higher annual rainfall, led to waterlogged, acidic, infertile soil in the uplands. Few plants could grow in these conditions and this led to the formation of open moorland. It was only lower down in the valleys that farming was able to continue and where people increasingly had to live.

With soils inadequate for arable farming – and a cool, wet, windy climate – the land of the South Pennines was only suitable for grazing hardy sheep. On such poor land, not enough income could be generated from farming alone: Pennine farmers became skilled at adding value to their only saleable product – sheep wool – by spinning and weaving it into cloth. This cottage industry was based in the hillside farms and hamlets, where most people then lived. The weavers carried finished cloth in ‘pieces’ along packhorse ways and early turnpike roads, to emerging market towns such as Halifax and Rochdale.

Later generations were quick to harness the power of fast-flowing moorland streams and rivers to create the first water-powered mills – the basis of the area’s textile industry.

In the centuries before motorways and fast trains, the South Pennines were an immense physical barrier separating the growing towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire: an inhospitable landscape, difficult to cross for trade or communication, especially during long Pennine winters.

It was the coming of the first great Trans-Pennine canals through the narrow Pennine valleys in the 18th and early 19th centuries that initiated the Industrial Revolution which was to change the world. Not only could raw material and finished goods such as limestone and wool be exported from the South Pennines by barge; but energy in the form of coal from the great coalfields in the nearby Pennine foothills of Lancashire and Yorkshire could be brought in. This allowed more efficient steam power to replace the early water powered mills.

The canals were soon followed by railways, built by such engineering geniuses as George Stephenson. The Manchester-Leeds Railway, now the Caldervale Line, conquered the physical barrier of the hills, and further expanded Victorian prosperity and progress.

These developments, together with a move away from wool towards cotton, spelled the end of the cottage weavers. Many farms became abandoned as they could not survive without the money generated from weaving.

The cool, damp western slopes of the Pennines were ideal for cotton spinning and, during the 19th century, cities such as Manchester – ‘Cottonopolis’ – in the west and the great wool and worsted centres of Bradford and Huddersfield in the east, became world centres of textile manufacturing.

This rapid growth was not without its problems in terms of pollution, poor housing and exploitation. However, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, men and women of vision such as John Fielden, Sir Titus Salt and Samuel Lister laid the foundations of modern towns and cities – the social housing and great public buildings; libraries, schools and institutes; parks, galleries and universities from which we still benefit.

In the twenty-first century, the process of change is still visible. The decline of the old industries and accompanying air pollution has allowed the outskirts of many Pennine towns and cities to be transformed into places of natural beauty, where the remains of industrial activity are being reabsorbed into the natural world.

Many of the old packhorse trails can still be seen today and form the basis of some of the walks which take a new generation of travellers – walkers – across the South Pennines.

The magnificent open hilltop moorlands and intimate valleys of the South Pennines are a huge asset to the people of the great towns and city regions of the North: offering green space for fresh air, exercise, education and spiritual renewal – all so vital for modern urban communities.

The close relationship that still exists between the South Pennines and the cities is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the great Victorian waterworks and catchment areas which still dominate the Pennine moorlands, bringing clean water to crowded industrial towns.