14/15: Billinge Hill, St Helens and Crank Road, Wigan

Billinge Hill summit
The tower on top of Billinge Hill, the summit of St Helens (and of Merseyside).

Date: 17th July 2020.

Weather conditions: Very decent for walking, being mild, still and dry. However, as with my last two walks, it was rather grey and cloudy,

County Top bagged: This walk bagged two; first, Billinge Hill, which is 587 feet/179m above sea level, at grid reference SD526014.

Up until 1974 this hill was in the historic county of Lancashire, and very far from being the highest point of it. But when St Helens district was created, as part of the new metropolitan county of Merseyside, it acquired the status of a County Top: a proper one too, as it is not only the Top of St Helens but also of the ‘ceremonial county’ of Merseyside. So it is a modern Top, but not a historic one.

Leigh Branch
On the Leigh branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, in Wigan.

Peak-baggers can note that it’s prominent enough to be classed as a Marilyn.  It is formed of a ridge of Millstone Grit that, many millennia ago, may have been connected to the Pennines (predominantly formed of the same rock) but has long since eroded down to this remnant lump. By altitude, Billinge Hill ranks 116th of the 172 modern tops and 137th of the full list of 196.

A few hundred yards north of this summit, the tarmac lane marked on the map as Crank Road passes over the shoulder of Billinge Hill, at SD522018 and an altitude of 542ft/165m above sea level. This is also a CT as it is the highest point in the metropolitan borough of Wigan. Today therefore becomes the second of my walks (after walk 7/8 down south) that ‘doubles up’. Crank Road is 124th of 172, and 145th on the full list.

[ << Burnhope Seat, Durham (13)  |  (16) Langdon Hills, Thurrock >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Began at Wigan North Western rail station. Finished at Orrell rail station. I started walking from WNW at around 9:35am, and was in Orrell in time to catch the 13:51 train back to Wigan.

Pub at end: I just about had time to drink one at the Robin Hood, near Orrell station. It is so good to have such places open again. There was a wedding party there today. I was not able to stick around for long, but I liked it.

Horses on Drummer's Lane.
Horses on Drummer’s Lane.

I also had 50 minutes’ train changeover in Wigan so went and had another beer in the agreeably laid-back and pleasantly seedy Raven Hotel, a few minutes walk from the station(s). Also recommended.

Distance walked: 9.7 miles/15.6km approximately.

Feet of ascent: 525 feet/160m approximately. The map confirms that this walk has an almost constant ascent for the few miles from the Wigan Flashes (at about 30m/100ft a.s.l.) up to the summit of Billinge Hill, yet this climb is extremely gradual, and almost unnoticeable.

Difficulty: ★★. It’s a long enough walk to be more than a stroll, and there are some muddy sections. But the gradients are very easy indeed. A few sections are mildly overgrown, but nothing will cause difficulty.

Mersey docks, from the summit
Distant view of the docks on the River Mersey, from the summit.

Ease of access: ★★★★★. Wigan North Western station is on the West Coast Main Line, and even if services back from Orrell only run every hour, there are also buses back from here if you time your arrival badly and just miss a train. Not only that, but the M6 runs right through the route of the walk and of all the Tops I have done so far, this one is closest to a motorway. No cause to complain about the walk’s accessibility, therefore.

Scenic qualities: ★★. On the whole, only OK, though the walk has two saving graces. The principal highlight is the view from the summit. Despite its relatively low altitude, as a morally true County Top should, Billinge Hill has a great panorama, truly feeling like the highest point for miles around. South-west, towards Wales, there is nothing higher until the Clwydian Hills at least twenty miles distant.

Geese over Scotman's Flash
Geese over Scotman’s Flash.

A subsidiary highlight comes early on with the canal and the wetlands of Wigan Flashes, which is (or are) a beautiful spot. In season there will also be many blackberries to graze upon.

On the other hand, the central third of the walk is a little tedious, blighted by both the M6 and the race circuit of Three Sisters, and it ravaged my hay fever something chronic today (see the commentary). I must deduct credit for it being the most litter-strewn of my walks so far. There is also incursion by Himalayan Balsam, a dreadful invasive weed. People of Wigan — if you want to keep these places from being overrun in five years, next spring, it’s time to start tearing up this monstrosity.

The area: St Helens is a place I’ve been to once, for an obscure football match, and which just seemed like endless housing estates and dual carriageways. It is part of Merseyside, which to me is a maritime county, thanks to the docks of Liverpool then the dunes further north, around Crosby and Southport. This walk is not that representative of the place, and only about 15% of the mileage is actually spent wiithin, or along, the borough’s borders.

DW stadium
The DW stadium, seen from the summit. (And Winter Hill, CT of both Bolton and Blackburn.)

The town with which you do get more acquainted, and where most of your day will be spent geographically, is Wigan. If the outside world has heard of this place it will probably be because of one of three things: 1) George Orwell’s classic documentary account of working class misery in the 1930s, The Road to Wigan Pier; 2) Wigan Casino, home of Northern Soul, sadly burned down in 1982 but beforehand granted the accolade of the World’s Best Disco; and 3) Wigan Athletic FC, who have reached the Premier League and won the FA Cup in recent years. (Their DW stadium can be clearly seen from the summit — as pictured here. Or, maybe, you prefer rugby league, a sport I do not understand, being essentially Southern.)

Do all these things make it worth the journey, then exploring via a 10-mile walk? Well, I had a reasonable day for sure. But there are also passages of urban and suburban neglect; this is not a glamour hike.

Map of walk 14

Map: This summary map shows how I tried to thread my way between housing and keep the day as rural as possible. And I managed this, but to do so required frequent consultation of OS map Explorer 285: Southport and Chorley. Bring along a copy if you can.

Route: The interesting thing about this walk is how it starts right in the midst of a large industrial town yet, quite quickly, slips out into the countryside and generally stays there, except for the mild incursion of suburbia around Billinge. The passage in the middle, between Land Gate and Billinge, is dull farmland, making it feel a long walk relative to its scenic pleasures. High levels of litter don’t help either.  However, on a sunny day it’ll be pleasant and grief-free exercise, and probably works OK in either direction.

On the towpath
On the canal towpath. (Yeah, I think he’s carrying some major weaponry, too.)

From the entrance to Wigan North Western station (and note that Wigan’s other station, Wallgate, is mere yards away up the road), turn left, go under the railway bridge then immediately turn left again. At the end of this road, turn right, cross over the dual carriageway then descend left onto the canal, and leave urban Wigan behind.

Take the towpath down the right-hand fork of the canal, the “Leigh Branch”. This heads along a causeway between the wetlands of the ‘Wigan Flashes’, old reservoirs that are now havens for wildlife (and watersports enthusiasts). Keep going down the same side of the canal (the balsam really needs attention here) until eventually leaving it down a clear path on the right, signposted as the ‘Wigan and Leigh Walk’. This heads straight on through the woods until reaching the newly abandoned Park House Farm, mecca for urban explorers — catch it now before it is condemned/squatted/featured on Grand Designs.

Park House Farm
What remains of Park House Farm.

From here, carry on down the path until hitting a broad lane, where turn right. Pay attention here — totally unexpectedly, a 30-tonne truck came past me at one point. The aural tranquility of the walk also suffers in this section from ridiculous noises stemming from the nearby race circuit at Three Sisters.

Stay on the lane until it reaches the main road near Land Gate school, where turn left, then first right and second right onto Drummer’s Lane. This is a bit of a rat-run, leading over the twin spurs of the M6. Past the second one, turn right near Rycroft Farm and down the straight path ahead. This is the first part of the walk where the views make it evident that you have gained height.

Hay field
Serious hay. Your left eye may or may not react like mine.

At the end of this path, turn right down Ashton Lane a short way, then first left: this is the most unpromising-looking path so far but it stays tolerable through the fields. Stay as straight ahead as you can until coming out onto a main road by a white-painted cottage, where turn left, stay on the pavement and follow the road, finally crossing into Merseyside upon reaching the little town of Billinge.

I was here about noon (2½ hours from the station), so had my sandwiches at one of the tables in Bankes Park on the right. The route up to Billinge Hill then starts up Beacon Road, just by the park. Head past housing into the woods. Ignore the landfill site, take the path that keeps going uphill and you will be on the summit about 15 minutes after leaving Billinge. The old tower on the summit is no fairy-tale castle, but the view is excellent. On a clear day you can see, at least, the rest of Merseyside, the hills of north-east Wales, Manchester and the West Pennines Moors (that is, Winter Hill — see the picture above).

On top of the hill
Take this path off the summit…

From the Top, head down along the path through the crops, to the left of the radio masts. When this reaches the golf course, bear right, then at the road, right again and immediately left to follow the public footpath sign. It is at this precise point that you hit the summit of Wigan, as the map makes clear. So without additional effort, feel satisfied at bagging your second CT of the day.

When this footpath comes out onto a lane — marked as ‘Smethurst Road’ on the maps — turn right and follow it down, past a naff, plastic new housing estate, into Orrell. To find the Robin Hood pub, turn left down the main road, right and right again down Sandy Lane, and there it will be. The railway station is five minutes further on.

Allergic reaction commentary: Gosh, three CTs in a week. I did check out the weather forecast in the Lake District today but it was too poor to consider a visit. This walk was one of those that came to me pretty quickly as I browsed the maps, and noticed the possibility of starting in Wigan, a town I can reach on a direct train from home in less than ninety minutes. Ideal.

Canal overbridge
Overbridge on the canal.

It just about stood up as a scenic day out. As I’ve tried to describe above, the first and final thirds had plenty of interest. Mind you, the middle part was not just a little boring, but something in the fields gave me the worst hay fever attack I have had in years, focused almost exclusively in my left eye, which went virtually blind. Hopefully that is just a personal thing and not evidence of the plant kingdom generally beginning to conspire against us. Like…  no, I won’t mention it.

Man, it was liberating to travel to this walk on public transport and also to be able to drink in pubs at the end. No one was seen by me to be behaving inappropriately. Wigan was just about alive later on: the Raven Hotel was agreeably normal. I have been to Wigan three times in the past, all for football matches at the DW stadium and all ending in ignominious defeat for my lot (I’ve mentioned their identity on the blog before — you can check back if you like). So today offered a more positive perspective on the place, which I also discovered today a) is the home of Wallace and Gromit and b) shares a birthday with me, having been granted its charter on 26th August 1246 and thus being exactly 723 years older than I.

Land Gate estate
The estate at Land Gate.

Inhabitants of the modern borough could do with tidying up a bit perhaps, and bashing the balsam. But I had a decent day. There are still few other entertainment options open for me other than walking, so I will keep up this pace where I can. My intention is to do the next CT somewhere down south in a couple of weeks. It’d be nice if the sun kicked in a little more, but maybe that’ll be prompted by getting closer to the equator.


14 thoughts on “14/15: Billinge Hill, St Helens and Crank Road, Wigan

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