For the past five summers, Ralph Higginbottom, former painter and decorator, and Sandra Stunna, his common-law wife and former dance artiste, have been leading treks around upland Lancashire. "It's reet grand," Sandra said as she swallowed a Wall's pork pie and turned her gaze wistfully towards the cluster of TV transmitters on the summit of Winter Hill, now almost obscured by chimney smoke from the nearby nasal snuff factory.
The pungent aroma of wet nettles and Sandra's underarm deodorant gagged in our throats as we marvelled at the yellow sunlight that now filtered through the smog and painted the valley floor in jaundiced brush strokes. Or was it emotion that caught our breath? So much had happened since we'd first taken up our bulging Tesco carrier bags in Ralph and Sandra's back yard, our legs trembling with anticipation of adventures to come.
Our journey of discovery had begun that morning as we toiled up the cobbled alleyways of Bolton accompanied by a colourful throng of street urchins. Empty Coca-Cola cans rained down on us like confetti as they honoured us with a typically exuberant Lancashire send-off. Though pitifully undernourished from their diet of muesli and Sainsbury's washed green salad, these affectionate Boltonian children pedalled their Muddy Fox mountain bikes with astonishing speed and skill as they repeatedly buzzed past Eric on his ponderous Raleigh. But before long they grew weary from cheering and pelting us with half-bricks and returned home to watch videos and play their Nintendo game machines.
At the crest of Naggingbowel Rise we paused to sate our thirst, squirting Tizer into our mouths from the neck of the knotted pig's bladder strapped to the crossbar of the uncomplaining Raleigh.
In the distance,barely recognizable through the industrial haze, glinted the glass canopy of Bolton North railway station where we had disembarked only the day before. Now the stations and its busy platforms lay far behind us as we trekked west towards the uninhabited uplands. Only when you leave behind the claustrophobic bustle of the towns and begin to penetrate the scrubby hinterland do you begin to appreciate the enormity of the barren wilderness that is Lancashire. And still we toiled, the crane flies rising from our feet like a plague of locusts, the interminable drizzle stroking our foreheads like the spittle from the toothless jowls of a Rochdale call-girl. And then, unexpectedly, we came to the crumbling brink of an escarpment from where we peered down on to the tormented boulders that littered the floor of Wilton Quarry. Had we arrived in the evening we might have spied the elusive Bolton Raiders shooting rabbits and anything else that moved with their rudimentary shotguns, or groups of leather-jacketed bikers mating in the bushes, but now, in the full heat of midday, the quarry was silent but for the echoing cries of flimsily clad climbers as they tumbled from the slippery rocks.
Eric, our noble bicyclist, worked in the quarry during the winter to supplement his meagre income as a trekking porter, stripping copper and other semi-precious metals from abandoned household appliances. He grinned humbly as we complimented him on his handiwork each time we passed the empty husk of a Hotpoint fridge-freezer.
By late afternoon, having consumed the suet pudding and pale ale, we stumbled across stunted heather towards a smaller rock-walled depression on the far side of the moor. This, we learned from our knowledgeable guide, was the famous Brownstones Quarry, historic scene of many bitter and bloody struggles. It was here, way back in 1949, that Eric Parr, Prince of Brownstones, subjugated the ferocious 20ft fissure of Parr's Crack, and where Hank Pasquill, Duke of Wilton, later reigned unchallenged for almost a decade by his ruthless application of tight-fitting EBs. Viewed at dusk these sombre ramparts can still evoke their turbulent history.
In the green dell beyond the quarry we reached our lodgings for the night. Eric had pedalled on ahead, and by the time we staggered into the clearing, tangy woodsmoke was already curling into the still evening air from among the circle of abandoned gypsy caravans.
There was bread and dripping for supper, and a gallon of silk-textured stout to round our bellies. As we sat in a circle around the campfire, doubled up with abdominal pains, Eric played the harmonica while Sandra entertained us with her exotic dances. During the poignant interludes while she recovered her tassles, we listened in awe to the sounds of the wilderness. Beyond the fireglow, in the shadowy gloom at the perimeter of the clearing, we could hear the rustling of rodents as they scavenged among the sacks of household refuse, while from nearer at hand came the staccato bursts of flatulence as our alimentary expulsions ripped through the night air.
Next morning we packed our carrier bags early and descended into the chaotic village of Horwich for an authentic Lancashire breakfast of fried eggs, fried bread, fried bacon, fried sausage and fried tomato, twice, causing a grease blockage of the gullet so severe that only a pint of piping hot tea would shift it.
Trek Guides-Ralph Higginbottom and Sandra Stunna
It was in Horwich that we exchanged Eric's faithful but now impractical Raleigh for the Sierra taxi that would take us and our baggage down the winding mountain roads to Lower Ince and the end of our journey. Darren, our driver, seemed oblivious to traffic signs and road markings as he steered his bucking vehicle one-handed down the pitted and crumbling highway, scattering villagers and dustbins with undifferentiating abandon.
Lower Ince encapsulated all the vibrant romanticism I expected of South Lancashire, and it was wonderful to relax among the clutter of foam trays and chip forks in the bus shelter as we waited for the number 59 back to Bolton. Yet somehow I remained an outsider in this tourist town, a foreigner among the broad-hipped local women who, with bent backs, shuffled along the pavements under their enormous loads of disposable nappies, and yet equally distanced from the camera-clicking visitors who bartered for trinkets along the row of factory reject shops. I was here yet not here, for my heart was still in the barren uplands, where the crows had wheeled in patient circles above Ralph's ageing pet whippet and the rain fell upon us in a cleansing shower of dilute sulphuric acid. Where the only sounds were of the ceaseless marital bickering between Ralph and Sandra, and of Eric's convulsing lungs as he fetched up another gobful of tar. And where we promised ourselves that one day, whatever the sacrifice, we would return.
Ralph and Sandra's 'Bolton Wanderers' weekend treks are featured in the High Falutin Holidays summer brochure, available from most travel agents. Other adventure treks include 'Glorious Glossop', `Accrington Adventure' and `Wild Wirral'. Prices for two nights, including bus fare
from Lower Ince, start at £287 per person.
The maximum number for any trekking group is 200. Apart from humping two
carrier bags (bring your own or buy them from Ralph at 7p each), there is no backpacking involved; all heavy luggage is carried on Eric's trusty Raleigh bicycle. Anyone who is reasonably fit and capable of digesting large quantities of lard should be able to enjoy this holiday. Accommodation comprises one night bivouacking on the wash-house floor of Ralph and Sandra's house at 47 Lumbago Avenue, Bolton, and one night in a derelict caravan somewhere near Horwich. All food is provided, though the operators regret that they are unable to cater for vegetarians. Prospective trekkers are advised to take out health insurance and to bring with them a supply of Rennies.
(Steve Ashton travelled to Lancashire as a guest of High Falutin Holidays).
Next Month: Skelmersdale Safari
first published in High: July 92.