Mapping out ancient footsteps

Hebden Bridge author and keen rambler Chris Goddard
Hebden Bridge author and keen rambler Chris Goddard
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When an Ordnance Survey map let him down, Christopher Goddard set out to create his own. Sarah Freeman meets the man who has put the West Yorkshire Moors on the map and brought the history of the Pennine landscapes into the present day.

When he first moved to Hebden Bridge one of the first things Christopher Goddard wanted, was a bird’s-eye view of the area.

Leaving boxes still unpacked, he headed for the nearest hill and began to climb. It was about getting a feeling for where the picturesque town sat in relation to the rest of the valley, for Chris it was about finding a sense of place. Armed with an Ordnance Survey map, he went first to High Brown Knoll, then onto Stoodley Pike. However, when he tried to cross both Midgley and Erringden Moors, the usually reliable dotted lines showing the public footpaths turned out to be nothing more than swathes of heather and bogland.

“I guess we’ve all come to depend on Ordnance Survey maps and discovering that they weren’t an absolute bible came as a bit of a shock. Not only did some of the tracks not exist at all, but as I carried on I stumbled across one really good footpath that wasn’t even marked on the map.”

For most, it would have been a minor irritation. However, for Chris, who reckoned that with a bit of time he could probably do a better job than the good people at Ordnance Survey, it represented a challenge.

“When I mentioned the difficulties I had up on the moors, quite a few other people said they’d also had problems. The Rights of Way network is old and it can be a bit spurious, it’s easy to see how inaccuracies can creep in, but I just began to think maybe there’s a book in this.”

A little while later, Chris found himself on wandering back across Midgley. It was the kind of walk he’d done a hundred times before, but this time he was determined to follow every last sheep track to see where it led and chronicle each and every unusual feature of the often bleak moorland landscape.

“I’ve been interested in maps every since I was a small boy growing up in Sheffield. Our house was near to woodland and as a child I mapped and remapped every inch of it. I gave names to every lost quarry and every old mine working. Honestly, I spent hours and hours on these incredibly detailed drawings.

“Maps have always been just the way I understand a place.”

So much so that when he went on holiday to Corfu in Greece and found the maps there well below British standards, he decided to do his own of the town of Kassiopi and its coastline.

“My mother always said I was born a century too late, she said should have been out exploring and mapping the world in the age of empire. She was probably right, but I’ve never had much desire to go to the other side of the world to indulge my love of maps. I’ve always found that there is enough on my own doorstep to keep me occupied.”

It’s six years since the Ordnance Survey map let him down and in between paid work surveying Rights of Way and National Trails, Chris has fitted in his own personal explorations. He doesn’t use any special equipment or clever technology. Instead his tools are a keen sense of spatial awareness, a pencil and a notebook. It’s cartography the old fashioned way.

“I take reams and reams of field notes and each map probably requires at least half a dozen trips before I really think I’ve got a handle on an area. Once I think I’ve got all the information I need, I’ll sit down with an A4 sheet of paper and really begin to flesh out the skeleton of the map. The trick really is including enough detail without overloading the page. With a walking book you’re restricted in the sense that you have be able to carry the final book in a backpack. There’s no point producing a huge weighty tome.”

To the untrained eye there may little to distinguish Blake Moor from Craggs Moor, but as the project developed Chris was determined not simply to mark the paths as accurately as possible. He wanted to fill in the apparently empty scenes by tracing lost names and identifying and sketching everything from the smallest landmarks to the area’s wildlife.

The resulting maps bear more than a passing resemblance to those created by the famous fellwalker and illustrator Alfred Wainwright.

“I purposefully didn’t look at any of Wainwright’s books while I was mapping the moors. I guess I wanted to approach my book as a completely blank canvas and there is always a danger of muddying the water if you start looking at how other people have done it.”

While Chris was keen to pinpoint the landscape’s characteristics as accurately as possible, the maps were also a chance to explore the history of the area. So on the map which depicts Black Hill he notes how Bilberry Reservoir was responsible for the worst of the Holmfirth Floods. In 1852 shortly after its completion the dam began to leak. Built on top of a spring which undermined it, when it eventually collapsed it killed 81 people and swept four mills and dozens of other buildings away. It is, he says, remarkably still ranked 23rd in the list of the world’s worst ever flooding and landslide disasters. There’s also a sketch of the tumbledown barn known as Wrigley’s cabin and a note about the nearby plane wreckage. It’s that, says Chris, of a Canadian Sabre which crashed there during an exercise in 1954.

Similarly when he gets to Withins Height, he tells how in September 1824 the silence of the moors was broken by an explosion as the bog spewed out rock and earth across the hillside following a particularly heavy storm. It polluted the River Aire so badly that its water could not be used for a time and it created two large depressions that can still be seen today.

“This whole project has allowed me to follow in centuries-old footsteps,” says Chris.

“The moorland we see today is the product of thousands of years of climatic and human development. Originally many of these areas would have been but as settlements grew and moved many of the trees were cleared.

“These were often highly populated areas and for centuries the moors were used for transporting goods. Things really began to change with the Industrial Revolution which brought more people down the valleys and led to the steady decline of cottage weaving industry. However, for a while as long as reservoirs, tunnels and railways were being built and roads laid the moorsides were alive with activity and the shanty towns of the navvies who worked on them. Once they left, the buildings lay abandoned and they reverted to being the playground of the wealthy.”

Chris’ book, The West Yorkshire Moors, while essentially a walking guide, also sheds light on how the landscape changed during the 19th-century with the advent of grouse shooting.

Gamekeepers were employed to manage the moors in such a way that its owner could net the biggest commercial return. However, the burning of heather needed to create the right environment for grouse, inevitably saw clashes between shepherds and gamekeepers.

“Each generation has brought something different to the area,” says Chris.

“Though much of it is hard to trace with any certainty, the moorland bears the scars of its history. Its haggard face is worn with many lines, tracks, ditches and ruins.”

The book is also in part a celebration of the success of the Countryside Rights of Way Act which in 2000 opened up huge areas of land which had previously been off limits.

“Even 10 years ago it would not have been possible to publish a book like this. Wainwright got away with it partly because it was a different era and also because most of the Lakeland fells were already common land. Access to the moors of the South Pennines has always been more contentious.

“While the Marsden and Rombalds Moors are considered to be in public ownership, the bulk of the rest were in private ownership and before 2000 there was limited access. I remember when I first came to West Yorkshire how surprised I was to find ‘private – no access’ signs daubed on rocks. I wasn’t used to being told that the countryside is off limits and this book is about giving people a way into an area they might not know. The beauty of maps is that they are merely suggestive and there are always blank spaces to be explored.”

To order a copy of the book go to www.westyorkshiremoors.