40: Heaton Park, City of Manchester

Heaton Park telecoms tower
Heaton Park’s telecommunications tower, from the walk’s most rural section.

Date: 1st September 2021.

Weather conditions: A bit cloudy and cool at first, but it improved. It was another wholly dry walk. The last time I walked in precipitation (including in the Lakes) was on Dunstable Downs in early May.

County Top bagged: Heaton Park, the summit of which is at 354 feet/108m above sea level, grid reference SD835045. This is the highest point in the City of Manchester. The top is crowned by a building known as ‘The Temple’, although it may actually have been an observatory (though the evidence for this seems to be circumstantial).

The Temple
The Temple: highest structure in Manchester.

Historically this point was in Lancashire. It is not anywhere near being the Top of this county, nor was it anywhere near being the highest point of Greater Manchester either (Black Chew Head, now in Oldham, is over 1,400 feet higher), but it nevertheless became a CT in 1986 along with all the other summits of boroughs in former metropolitan counties. By altitude Heaton Park ranks 149th of the modern Tops and 172nd of the full list.

The Temple is not in fact the highest point of the walk, which (if you choose to attain it; see route notes below) is the pictured trig point, at SD829052 which stands at 110m a.s.l. But this is just over the border in Bury. And in actuality the highest point in Manchester on which one can stand is the 659 feet/201m summit of the South Tower of Deansgate Square, the tallest building in the UK outside London, completed in 2018.

[ << Ben Lawers, Perthshire (39) | (41) Mount Battock, Kincardineshire >> ]

Trig point at 110m
The half-buried trig point at the summit of the walk (but not of Manchester).

Start and end point of walk: Started at Heaton Park station and finished at Besses o’ th’ Barn station (apostrophes compulsory). Both of these are on the Metrolink tram line that connects Manchester Victoria station and Bury.

I stopped and started so many times on the walk that it seems pointless to offer an exact itinerary, but I am sure that 2½ hours would be ample time to do it.

Pub at (nearly) the end: The Frigate, at the end of Sandgate Road, is about half a mile from the terminus. It’s a completely unreconstructed boozer, and doesn’t do food, but it does cheap, good Holt’s ales and has a pleasant beer garden that, I can attest, definitely catches the sun on a summer’s evening.

Distance walked: 4 miles/6.4km approximately.

Tramlines in the park, heading for the museum.

Feet of ascent: Not many, to be honest. 200 feet/60m at a push, and perhaps not even that.

Difficulty: ★. I did consider giving two if only because some sections are going to be muddy if you do it outside of a dry period. But in the end, this award cannot really be justified, so let’s leave it at one.

Ease of access: ★★★★. No direct rail access: you need to change onto the Metrolink, and for me this meant travelling into Manchester city centre from the north and then heading back out again. But it certainly isn’t a hard walk to reach.

Scenic qualities: ★★. Manchester is obviously an urban local authority but this is not a particularly urban walk until the last mile and a bit; it starts off in parkland, and there are later outbreaks of what feels, almost, like countryside. The summit area has reasonable views.

Oldham in sun
Part of the view from the summit. Oldham enjoying some sun.

Points can then be added for a high blackberry quotient (at this time of year, bring tubs for collection) but, on the other hand, deducted for the rampant Himalayan Balsam. See the commentary.

The area: Though Birmingham would dispute this, in many ways — economically, culturally, and in sporting terms (it hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002, and the bowling events took place in Heaton Park) — Manchester has a good case to be considered the UK’s second city.

Yet what is administratively ‘Manchester’ is only a relatively small slice of a much bigger conurbation and much of what might be considered intrinsic to the place, not least Manchester United FC, is in fact located in neighbouring local authorities, e.g. Trafford, Salford.

University of Manchester
The University of Manchester (in November: it’s not that autumnal just yet).

We do have to give the city credit for Factory Records though: Joy Division, the Haçienda nightclub, Blue Monday and the best record sleeves of all time. Not to mention the world’s first programmable computer, the discovery of the atomic nucleus, the invention of graphene and other achievements that have taken place on the campus of my current employer, the University of Manchester, who I guess I should big up. I’ve worked in Manchester (well, now and again) since 2005, and this does affect my perspective on it as it feels like a place to work and not play.

Map: OS Explorer 277: Manchester and Salford covers the area but is not a necessary piece of luggage.

Map of walk 40

Route: This was a decent bit of exercise, and Heaton Park is worth exploring, but if you come all the way to Manchester just to do this and you’re not already familiar with the city, then you’d be missing out on plenty of other entertainments. There will be some busy parts of the park but some other passages of the walk were surprisingly quiet, at least in terms of people. The M60 ring road does not intrude visually, but you’ll be hearing it plenty.

As with any walk through such territory there are plenty of alternative routes available, so what follows is simply a description of how I did this. My options (and also the scenic qualities of the walk) were limited because of fencing that had blocked off most of the portion of the park south of the boating lake, due to a rock festival taking place next weekend. Not to mention the ongoing, low-level Paranoia which has hit Manchester particularly hard (see commentary) and meant that many buildings within the park remained closed to the public.

Boating lake
On the boating lake. The giant swan looks suspicious to me.

Coming out of Heaton Park station, turn left at the top of the ramp and one of the park gates (number 13, apparently) will be right in front of you. After heading through this, it would be best to turn right at the first main junction and then drop down to the south of the boating lake, but because of the aforementioned festival I could not do this, so instead I headed straight on, then turned right, and headed along the north shore of the lake instead.

I wanted to investigate the Tram Museum which is marked on the map at SD836040 but this was closed due to the Great Fear, unfortunately. Either way, after this, head north and slightly uphill, passing a memorial to the men of Manchester who fell in the WW1 Battle of the Somme, and heading for Heaton Hall. On the way there is a little hut which sells teas and ice creams, a nice spot to sit for a while and watch people hack away at the pitch and putt.

Pensive lion
The rather pensive-looking lion statue that sits outside Heaton Hall.

The low, sprawling Heaton Hall is the reason there is a park here. Built for the 1st Earl of Wilton in the 1780s, it now looks more like what it is, a municipally-owned bulding that the council can’t quite work out how to use best. The lion and lioness guarding the entrance look rather pensive, as a result.

Just above this, and obvious, is the Temple that sits on the highest point of the park, and the city. Climb up to this, then sit on one of the several benches for a while and admire the view to the Pennines, the best of the day: though that is Oldham you are seeing in the distance, not Manchester. According to the view indicator Blackstone Edge is visible from here.

View to city centre
As much as you see of Manchester city centre, from the Temple.

Moving on, follow the pathway that curves round below the Temple, through the woods, keeping the golf course on your right. When the woods open up, and the concrete BT tower becomes visible, go through the fence into the field, and keep the tower on your left. From this point on I met no more people and it is possible for a time to feel like you are in a fairly rural area (though it’s an illusion).

The path brings you out at the park’s rather neglected, but significantly numbered, ‘Gate 1’. Go through this and turn left along the wall, at which point you enter the territory of Bury for the remainder of the walk. If you want to attain the trig point mentioned earlier, it’s on the right, up an obvious but steep, and litter-strewn, track. After the collapsing one on Ben Lawers this trig point is my second in a row to be less-than-proud, being half-buried in packed earth.

Grey squirrel
Grey squirrel.

Carry on along the path below, through profuse outcrops of blackberries. On the left for the next third of a mile is the Heaton Park reservoir. This is the principal water supply for Manchester, connected by aqueduct to Haweswater in the Lake District, 82 miles away; the water comes along this by gravity only, and in more-or-less a straight line, which is an impressive feat of engineering. But the reason there are no panoramic lake vistas on this page is that the stone banks are built so high that you never actually see the water.

When the lane comes out onto tarmac, there are different options for ending the walk. You could turn left here and keep following the reservoir round, returning to the starting point through the western half of the park. But I chose to go straight on. Follow this street down past the houses until, at a sharpish bend, there is a path on the left that takes you past a waterworks pump house, through scrubby woodland then under the motorway via a tunnel that is not a particularly pleasant experience. Turn left at the end of this tunnel, and come out onto Derwent Avenue. When this ends, turn left once more, have at least one pint in the Frigate, and then carry on along the dead straight Thatch Leach Lane until reaching Besses o’ the’ Barn station.

Besses o' th' Barn station
Besses o’ th’ Barn station — eventually.

New Boots and Balsam Commentary: Like the other ones that are, for one reason or another, particularly local to me (Blackstone Edge, Withins Height), the City of Manchester’s Top was bound to fall sooner rather than later. It was just a matter of when an opportunity emerged; or when I didn’t have anything better to do.

There were at least two catalysts for bagging it this afternoon. The first was the proximity of Prestwich Heys AFC, their ground being visible on the map between the reservoir and the motorway, and so after completing the ‘hike’ (more of a parkland stroll) in the afternoon and then sitting in the sunshine outside the Frigate for a while, I watched them win 3-2 in the FA Youth Cup and still got home for 10.30pm — explaining why the pic of Besses o’ th’ Barn Metrolink station was taken in the hours of darkness (and is that not the most northern name for any public transport terminus that you can think of?).

Pitch and putt
On the pitch and putt course (neither player looking all that interested).

The other excuse was the desirability of breaking in a new pair of hiking boots. I’ve been using Joe’s since my own last pair developed a massive hole in the leather, but as he’s off to uni in Scotland in ten days, no way am I letting him go without his boots; not with the landscapes he will have the chance to explore. Time to shell out for some more of my own. They did OK today, though it was hardly a stern test.

Two things bugged me about Heaton Park however, both of which, in different ways, are signs of neglect and a lack of care. Firstly, even more so than in Wigan, the invasive Himalayan Balsam (see pic) really is rampant throughout its whole 600 acres. Insidious though this weed is, there are known strategies of mitigation, but they have clearly not been applied by the city council over the last few years, and at the end of the day, this is the body that is wholly responsible for this slice of public land.

Wood scuplture and balsam
Wood sculpture, weeping about the Balsam that surrounds it.

And while the southern bits of the park, at least, were busy with people, and preparations well in hand for the rock festival at which, for certain, many thousands will be gathering in close proximity, the park’s interior spaces, such as the museum and the Hall, remained closed. As far as I could tell the adjacent municipal golf course was also still closed: certainly I saw no one using it today (unlike the pitch and putt). I cannot see any reason for these ongoing arbitrary closures except for the fact that — as a staunchly Labour-controlled administration — Manchester City Council simply want to stick two fingers up to Boris Johnson and the rest of his government. Now, I’m all for that, but aren’t we past this now? Particularly if we’re prepared to countenance the festival?

Anyway, moving on. That’s four Greater Manchester Tops done (Wigan, Bolton, Rochdale and Manchester authorities), but there are still six left; Oldham, Tameside (tough walking), Bury, Stockport (middling), Trafford and Salford (easy). My next CT should be back in Scotland, the weekend after next.


4 thoughts on “40: Heaton Park, City of Manchester

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