There is arguably no better way of appreciating the extent of the Greater Manchester conurbation than from one of the hills that surround it on its northern and eastern edges, and which contribute the most to its normally damp and grey climate, creating, as they do, a natural sink for the moist air that comes in from the west. At dusk, from the flanks of Kinder Scout – the highest hill in the Peak District – the distant conurbation below gradually lights up, the spreading sodium glare revealing the urban region’s true extent. In complete darkness, the city is a fiery orange glow that fills the western horizon – magnificent in its contrast to the pitch-black moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, but unhelpful as a navigational aid on descent, as I discovered.
Hills have long been important in how Manchester has been apprehended, particularly by visitors to the city. In the Victorian period, strangers felt overwhelmed by Manchester’s seemingly endless and monotonous townscape of brick: its countless mills with their tall chimneys, interspersed with rows of terraced housing, warehouses and other industrial buildings. The nearby hills provided a convenient vantage point above the smoke, a place where one could gain an overview of the city, free from its oppressive reality up close. William Wyld’s painting Manchester, from Kersal Moor (1852), commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her first visit to the burgeoning industrial town in 1851, provides an early example. The painting attempts to naturalise Manchester’s industrial basis. Although we see a veritable forest of smoking chimneys in the distance, they don’t compromise the otherwise bucolic scene: indeed, the industrial town only occupies a small part of the canvas, the rest being filled with an arcadian landscape, complete with pastoral figures (and a dog) in the manner of 17th-century Italian old masters like Claude Lorraine. At this distance, the noise, pollution and extreme social division of the industrial city could be conveniently ignored. As the Art Journal put it, responding to the painting when it was exhibited in 1857, the scene called to mind ‘thoughts of active enterprise, industry, and accumulating wealth’, rather than the unrelenting misery that Engels found when he got up close to the working town and its residents in the 1840s.
Fast forward over a century and that view from afar was perhaps even more impressive. In W. G. Sebald’s semi-autobiographical novel The Emigrants (1992), the narrator meets the artist Max Ferber, a fictional version of British painter Frank Auerbach. Recalling his arrival in Manchester in 1942, Ferber describes the view of the city from its surrounding hills. As in Wyld’s painting, ‘the most impressive thing, of course … were all the chimneys that towered above the plain and the flat maze of housing, as far as the eye could see … thousands of them, side by side, belching out smoke by day and night’. Yet, Ferber was of course describing a city of the past. By the late 1980s, over half of these chimneys were gone, the rest now abandoned and smokeless.
Manchester’s hills were and are also a place of escape from the city and, with the seaside, a leitmotif in cinematic depictions of the city from the 1960s onwards. The industrial pollution that characterises Manchester and Salford in A Taste of Honey (1961) is relieved when the central misfit couple leave the industrial city for a ramble on the moors. Escape of a very different kind is seen in Hell is a City (1960), where illegal gambling takes place on moorland overlooking a chimney-filled Oldham. The clean moorland air of these hills clearly refreshed and invigorated an urban populace steeped in soot and darkness. In Malcolm Lynch’s childhood memoir The Streets of Ancoats (1983), the late-1920s industrial suburb is portrayed as a place of unrelenting grime and monotonous work, relieved only in the early morning, when ‘the wind comes down Every Street … from the Pennine Chain’, spreading its sweetness before ‘the big chimneys wake up and puff their black rolling smoke into the sky, and the air is suffocated’. Slightly later, the great escape that was the Kinder Trespass in 1932 was a radical working-class response to the oppressive industrial city, the 400 or so subversive walkers claiming freedoms denied to them in everyday life, immortalised in Ewan MacColl’s song The Manchester Rambler (1932). Graham Mort’s poem Manchester draws us out even further. In its lines, Manchester is at root a city of migrants, where people from all parts of the world once gathered for the industrial work it provided. And each migrant brought with them an unquenchable longing for home – somewhere beyond those always visible hills; ‘the moors touchable, soft as cotton waste’ pointed to the wide world, always there to remind the city of its global connections.
But the hills harbour darker forces too. Damaging floods periodically convulsed industrial Manchester in the 19th century, when torrents of rain falling on the moorlands swelled the Irk and Medlock until their banks burst, sweeping away houses, trees, and even the bodies of the long-buried in their wake. More infamous are the bodies of the five victims of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, buried on Saddleworth Moor from 1963 to 1965; the remains of Keith Bennett, their fourth victim, remaining, to this day, unfound despite repeated searches. The Smiths song ‘Suffer Little Children’ (1984) speaks of 1960s childhoods haunted by these murders, where ‘fresh lilaced moorland fields / Cannot hide the stolid stench of death’. As if echoing the unspeakable horror of these hidden remains, Jeff Noon’s imagined future Manchester in his cyberpunk novel Pollen (1995) sees the bleak hills around the city recast as a savage ‘limbo’ haunted by the undead. Only the foolhardy or desperate venture here. Much more recently, in June and July 2018, an enormous fire raged over parts of Saddleworth Moor, almost certainly started deliberately, its apocalyptic flames kept alight by a long and exceptionally dry heatwave. When the wind blew from the east, as it did on 27 June, a vast cloud of smoke spread right over the city, blotting out the sun and leaving, for days afterwards, an ominous aroma of burning in the air.
The hills that encircle Greater Manchester on two sides are the city’s implacable edges; indeed, the boundaries of the urban region extend, in places, right up to their summit ridges – the highest point, at 472m, being Blackstone Edge above Littleborough. By day, walkers leave the city in search of succour; at night, from their summits, the city seems like a fairyland, a twinkling paradise of promise. Those hills are also places where the city’s more unpleasant realities are consigned to oblivion – unseen because out here we feel distanced from them. Yet, as flood and fire show us, those hills are still very much connected to the urban region – ramparts that return both succour and savagery to the city at their feet.