The Township of Over Darwen is situated in the heart of the highland district of Lancashire. It is of great extent, spreading over 5,134 acres of hill and valley. From its southern slopes the streams run into the tributaries of the Mersey; while on its northern side the river Darwen takes it rise and flows down to the Ribble. Irregular in outline, variable in soil, and with a difference in elevation of nearly 1,000 feet, its physical characteristic afford many striking contrasts.

The tops of the higher hills are still covered with heath, and their sides seamed with deep cloughs, some richly wooded, others stony and desolate. The main valley is fast filling with a mixed population, and traces of the olden time are rapidly disappearing. On the uplands, however, there still exist many hamlets and folds of great antiquity, whose inhabitants preserve many of the distinctive peculiarities of speech and manner and pursue the daily intercourse of life in the tracks made by their Saxon forefathers and drive their teams over the self-same roads that Hadrian marched his armies at the beginning of the Christian era.

Along two of these roads I now propose to conduct my hearers while we seek for objects of interest on the route. The more ancient one possesses few attractions now, except the associations of Eld; but along the other and humbler way many places will be passed worth our notice from their great beauty, while around others linger shadows and traces of men who were once with us, but now have gone hence.

The Roman Road from Manchester to Ribchester enters this township at the spot now occupied by Grime Hills Bridge and is almost identical in line with the present highway from that bridge through Blacksnape to the point where it is joined by the roads leading from Hoddlesden and Waterside. This road was probably made about the end of the firs century, and it appears to have been constructed almost entirely by twentieth Legion and Auxiliaries. Our part of Lancashire was then occupied by the Setantii, a powerful and warlike tribe. For some 300 years this road, now so quiet and desolate, was swarming with armed men; and the district through which it passes was the scene of frequent and terrible contests. Beside the Twentieth or Victorious Legion, whose head-quarters were at Chester, the Roman army, which garrisoned and overawed this district, was composed of horsemen from Sarmatra and the valley of Sambre, mountaineers from the Alps and Thrace and Frieslanders from the mouths of the Rhine. Some Idea of the difficulties of the country and the power of its native race may be formed from the fact that in one of his campaigns against the Brigantes, Julies Agricola employed an army of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry; and from Roman period to the Norman Conquest the evidence are numerous that the hilly country was at all times a stronghold for the native races against each successive wave of invasion.

What may have been the appearance of the country about Grimes Hills, when the Romans first bridged its stream, would now be difficult to realise, but it is probable that less change has taken place hereabouts than on any other part of the road. The cultivated land is bleak and of limits extent, while tracts of moss extend on every side. The brook which forms the boundary of the township is also used as a road to the farms bordering on Aushaw Moss. Although frequently used, this road is very difficult, for the brook flows over a rocky bed, and instances have been known of saddle horses losing three shoes in traversing half a mile. On the lower part of the stream, in a sheltered hollow, lies Wittlestonehead, a quiet hamlet of great antiquity. At both sides of the bridge are cottages in all stages of ruin. Roofless, windowless, doorless, the decaying walls covered with moss and lichen, they present an appearance of desolation it is impossible to exaggerate. I only noticed one inhabited house—the “Crown and Thistle," occupied by John Yates. He ought to be naturally of a cheerful disposition to withstand the depressing influences by which he is surrounded. When the long winter sets in, and the brook becomes a torrent, and the uplands are shrouded in drizzling rain or swirling sleet, this lonely inn must be a dismal abode except there is within the warmth and sunshine of domestic life. Ascending from the bottom, we pass Grime Hill School, on the edge of the moor of that name. This school, once in connection with the Holy Trinity Church, but now in the new parish of St. John's, stands invitingly near the road, the chain of its little bell hanging down in the highway with quaint simplicity. Steadily rising, and never deviating more than a few yards from the Roman line, we reach Drummer's Stoops, at an elevation of 1,024 feet, when the view changes as if by magic, and we see the valley of Darwen lying at our feet, and a wide extent of country which must have reminded the ancient legionaries of the lower ranges of the Jura. From no other point can such a complete view of our valley be obtained, and I have often been struck with its great extent, as seen from this point, when contrasted with its apparent narrowness as viewed from the lower road. Although the hill on which we stand is in the words of an old Lancashire song, “wild and bare," the evidences of higher cultivation are before us, and lower down there are some charming meadows, fringed with extensive woodlands. Passing by Rushton Heights and Baron's, we rapidly descend through Blacksnape, in the days of hand-loom weaving a populous and thriving hamlet, the abode of many respectable families, but now showing on all sides evidence of decay. For nearly half a mile the road is bordered with houses, some roofless, others neat and tidy as of old, and mostly occupied by a hardy race, who linger on “the tops" and love their keen breezes more than the shelter of the valley. Amongst this population the dialect is preserved in its most racy forms, and stories of the past linger long—how famous wrestlers went forth th challenge the champions of other townships; how foot-ball matches had been played for generations with the men of Offside and Tottington; said matches nearly always ending in fights which called out the manhood of half a dozen valleys; and how young men had gone forth and won glory on nobler fields, marching beneath the banners of England through the long Peninsular war, assisting to overthrow the great Emperor at Waterloo, and following him to his grave beneath the willows of St. Helem.

At the point where the road from Hoddlesden crosses the highway and enters Pole Lane, the line of the Roman road leaves our township and enters the fields on the easterly side which are in Eccleshill, continuing through them in the direction of the “Flash," near which place it again joins the highway to Blackburn, where for the present we bid farewell.

Almost at right angles with the Roman road, and therefore crossing our township from east to west, there is an ancient bridle-road, of unknown age, but of undoubted antiquity, probably coeval with the Saxon occupation of this country, Tradition says it was once the only road across this part of the country from Preston to Haslingden, and it is most likely a portion of that old pack-horse road called “Limersgate," which traverses the northerly side of the Forest of Rossendale, and is said to have been at one time the principle means of communication between the west of Lancashire and the easterly side of the kingdom. The road descends from Pickup Bank Heights, a detached portion of Rossendale Forest, and entering Long Hey Lane a little to the south of the Independent School, crosses Pickup Bank Brook into the township of Over Darwen, a short distance from the village of Hoddlesden. In asking you to traverse this road with me to-night, time would fail me if I attempted to point out all the little deviations which the present track makes from the original way. These, alas, are very numerous, and almost every instance have injured this old useful road, which is still, in many places, the only means the public have of reaching some of the most beautiful spots on our hillsides.

The Pickup Bank Brook flows over a bed of living rock in a clear and pleasant stream in which are many pools much frequented by trout. After rising from the hollow of the stream the road passes Meadowhead Farm, and on the right, we get occasional peeps far down the valley in the direction of Blackburn and Billinge; but on the left the land is poor, the pastures showing here and there tufts of heath, and altogether having the look of “going back to its own." Turning Sharpley we pass the front of Holker house, which bears unmistakeable evidence of having once been the abode of some family of note. Facing the south, with the remains of its pleausance occupying the space between the front and the road, this old homestead attracts irresistibly the thoughtful passer-by. The porch, the ponderous lintel and well-hewn corner-stones, the recessed windows, and one old but well-designed chimney, tell, after the lapse of many generations, that its owner was a man of taste and means. Approaching nearer we can discern a stone, on which is sculptured the letters R.E.I. between two arrows, a griffin, the owner's crest, and the date 1591. Who owned this old house in the days of Queen Elizabeth I cannot at present ascertain, but the subject is worth inquiry. For nearly 600 years Hoddlesden has been known in our county history. It is connected in some way with the Forest of Rossendale, and it has on several occasions furnished Greaves of that forest. Depend upon it this old mansion, now so faded, has a history, whose clue lies in that moulding tablet and rampant crest. One great sycamore still stands in front of the house but will not long survive the cutting winds of this elevated position. A little further on there is a road which branches off past Mr. Place's colliery to Vale Rook mill, but our route keeps on higher ground and passes Langshaw Head, a quiet fold, in which there is a large garden containing several bee-hives, which are generally well filled each season, principally from the heather bloom on Hoddlesden Moss. My informant was a young man from the neighbouring farm, who walked with me, and was himself accompanied by a sprightly heifer, which followed him like a dog, came at his call, and when stopped to talk rubbed her head against his hand with evident fondness. Below Langshaw Head the road, overhung with large trees, sinks into a green and beautiful hollow called the “Slack," which the young farmer described as “a merry place in the summer time." The road rises steeply from the “Slack," and is in a very bad state for some distance, and soon enters Heys Lane. On every side this part of the vale exhibits unmistakable evidence of having relapsed from a state of Comparative beauty to its present bare and dreary aspect. Some fine trees still exist about Hoddlesden Fold, but they are lessening in number, and the Hall has degenerated into a rural “public," and it old gateway and walled garden are improved(?) away.

In ascending into Heys Lane, towards Blacksnape, the land becomes still more bleak and cheerless, till we arrive at the junction with the old Roman road, where we obtain a fine view over the westerly side of the township. The road now runs for a long distance on the line of the high-way till it arrives at the end of Pole Lane; but formerly it crossed some fields to the left and entered Pole Lane a little lower down, which we will now make our standing point.

In descending this lane to Sough, there is little to interest the passer-by. The land on both sides, but especially on the left, is in a neglected state; the fields are covered with bent grass; the fences are mostly rotten cops, and the few trees scattered about look as if they had been exhumed from a bog and were tending thither again. The appearance of everything about is grey and colourless, contrasting disadvantageously with the rich browns, greens, and purples that chequer and adorn the opposite side of the valley. Half way down the lane, on the right-hand side, there is a row of houses terminated by a walled enclosure. Looking through the rusty iron bars of the narrow gate, we behold a small roofless building; and among the tall rank grass, the burdock leaves, and miscellaneous rubbish a number of tombstones. The inner side of the enclosure is lined with some stunted trees. The wall is very high, excluding both the sunshine and the Breeze. A more forlorn and desolate place can scarcely be imagined. It might be the last resting place of our outcasts. And yet this is the graveyard of Pole Lane Chapel; that roofless building was the vestry, and the dead who lie here were the fathers of those who now worship in the spacious chapel at Belgrave Square. How is it that they lie “forgotten in unthankfulness?" I know not! But forgotten they are, almost as completely as the ancient Britons, whose urns were disinterred at the building of Ashleigh. And yet this little chapel and graveyard, now so quiet, was once the scene of active religious labours and exciting events. On the first Sunday of August, 1806, the then minister ascended his pulpit stairs for the last time. Two stern deacons, who deemed him unworthy of his office, seized him and forced him into his pew and locked the chapel against him. His alleged fault was one which has often in all generations vexed humanity. Lower down we descend suddenly into the hamlet of Sough and pass the residence of the late Mr. J. Pickup, now converted into an office. In front, leaning against the wall, are some huge blocks of coal, which, the old gentleman called his black diamonds. The inhabitants of Sough differ in many respects from their neighbours; but they probably have a law of their own and walk by peculiar lights. Our road originally crossed the railway almost opposite Mr. Pickup's house and passed the clump of cottages known as the “City of Troy." It is now carried over the railway bridge and passes on over the river Darwen and up Culvert Lane, at the end of which it crosses the Bolton highway and at once enters a more beautiful and interesting part of the township.

Immediately before us is Whitehall, an ancient dwelling, something over 200 years old, now the residence of Mr. John T. Kenyon. It was once the residence of the Hiltons, a family who possessed commanding influence in the town, but have now left it entirely. Their paper mill was the largest in the world, and for many years their business was very flourishing. At last misfortunes overtook them like a cloud; their mills passed into other hands and were finally swept away. The family then dispersed. One, the eldest set sail for Natal to engage in cotton planting, but died shortly after his arrival out. He was an accomplished and energetic man and did more than any other resident to improve the external appearance of this district. Some of the most beautiful woods and walks which adorn our hill sides were laid out and planted by him. For some years he resided at Spring Bank, a few rods from Whitehall, now occupied as a school by Mr. Singleton. In front of both houses there stretches a beautiful meadow, and on a grassy knoll is Ashleigh, the abode of Mr. W.S. Ashton. In excavating the foundations of this house several mortuary urns were discovered of ancient British or Romano-British origin. Pursuing our route from Whitehall, we pass Woodlands, an Elizabethan mansion, the residence of Mr. R. S. Ashton, whose father built the place. The outlines are soft and artistic and in beauty it far exceeds any other house in Darwen. Of its original owner I need only say here that he was a good man who died too soon for his many friends. Leaving Woodlands on one side and Spring Bank on the other we descend into a pleasant hollow, with woods and plashing waters on every side. A few buildings lie about, now converted into cottages, which once formed part of the print works of Messrs. Potter and Maud. It is a lovely spot. Two streams descend from the loftiest of the moor, through wooded cloughs and fall over a rocky bed into a deep gorge, where they join and a little lower down enter the grounds of Mr. Eccles Shorrock, at Low Hill. Most of the charms which once distinguished our hill-side still linger here. The trout still leaps in the pools and glides in the river; the kingfisher and the woodcock haunt the alder and the silver birch; the cry of the grouse may be heard from the moor; the hare steals like a shadow over the lea; and the coney dwells among the rocks as of old.

Nor is the locality devoid of other interests. One day while leaning over a wall watching the falling waters, my attention was attracted by the smoothness of a large stone in the wall and on examination it proved to be a boulder of the mountain limestone, with the outlines of its buried shells as distinctly visible as when they were entombed millions of years ago. How this stone came here no one can tell; perhaps with the drift, for its parent rock is far away. I have spoken of Low Hill house, which lies a little below. Although not exactly on our route, it may interest those of my hearers who are not aware of the fact, to learn that the central portion of this house was built and occupied for some time by Samuel Crompton, the inventor of the spinning-mule. Some of my elderly friends knew him when they were boys and speak of his great love for music and pleasant character. Of his unselfish genius and life-long disappointments I need not say much here; they are matters of history. While living here he carried on business as a bleacher for some time in part of the works now occupied by Messrs. Wardley, at Spring Vale; and one of his sons with whom I was acquainted started a small business of the same kind. At Hoddlesden. Both places were carried on unsuccessfully and the Cromptons left Darwen for ever. Low Hill was afterwards occupied and much enlarged by the late Eccles Shorrock, one of the most eminent cotton spinners in the county. By a gentle ascent our road leaves Print Shop and soon reaches Bury Fold, one of the finest situations in Darwen and still occupied by several members of the old and respectable family from which it derives its name. The farm house is a beautiful old place and appears to have been built nearly 300 years. It was evidently erected by a man of taste and is still interesting, in spite of several vulgar additions. Some of the window panes are arranged in patterns and the window heads are curved in a rare style. An old Yew tree stands on the sunny side of the house and is probably of the same age. None of the Bury family are acquainted with the exact age of the dwelling or the name of its builder, but they have given their surname to the Fold and lane and many fields. Widow Bury, who now occupies the house, is as good a specimen of a yeoman's wife as any county can produce. May she and her family long dwell in the home of their ancestors!

Our road from the Fold crosses Benjamin Bury's Rough pasture and then ascending the lane for a short distance, turns to the right and enters the Astley Bank estate. At this point the moor sends down towards the valley one of its finest spurs, which is feathered with a pleasant wood and in Autumn glows with the purple and gold blossoms of the heather and gorse. Winding along a pleasant lea through the fold of Astley Bank and under an avenue of trees, we pass the residence of Mr. James Shorrock, once the abode of the Smalley family, who have been connected with the township for many generations. Our view now widens with every curve of the road and becomes especially interesting at the point where it crosses the little bridge at Radfield Fold. Here is obtained the best view possible of the large campanile which forms the chimney of India mill. This noble structure is one of the finest towers in the world and will in all likelihood survive the cotton trade of this country. Its massive base is just visible among the many mills and buildings in the valley, whilst its summit rises past us into the midst of “the sailing birds and the silent air."

Radfield Fold occupies naturally a splendid situation. Looking westward, the moors retire, forming an immense amphitheatre and on the side next the town the land shelves steeply down, affording to the spectator a view which is only bounded by the distant hills of Yorkshire. Among the houses forming the Fold one stands conspicuous from the rest. Grim and square and old, it arrests our attention, without exciting our warmer emotions. There is something cold and forbidding in its aspect. It looks like the creation and the abode of an austere and formal min. On the tablet outside is sculptured the date 1723 and the initials, IHI.

Tradition says it was built by one Hamer and that it was the subject of a Chancery suit; but reliable information is not easy to obtain, as all of that name and family appear to have left the district. It is now the property of Mr. Eccles Shorrock and is tenanted by one of his principle employees. Immediately on leaving Radfield the road plunges into a deep wood, embosomed in which lies a beautiful reservoir, supplied by a stream which flows over a precipitous rock clothed with the richest ferns and overhung with graceful trees. The clear, smooth water with its grassy margin, looks like a mountain tarn. A painful interest attaches to this quiet spot. On the 23rd of August, 1848, a fearful storm of rain swept over the hills. Down this cascade the moorland waters rolled in a torrent; ran over the embankment, whose base they washed away and then, with a sudden rush, the contents of the reservoir swept down the clough, drowning twelve people in their short career. There is beside a long catalogue of painful incidents connected with this place. Many suicides have taken place here and to old residents these glassy waters reflect the forms of several who sought to end their sorrow with their lives. Rising from the wood the road winds gently up the hill, leaving the town further away. At the pinfold we strike suddenly due west and crossing an elevated plateau a thousand feet high, we see before us an almost boundless prospect. At this point the road loses for a while it human interest and winds along the boundary of the township without passing any dwellings. Crossing Sunnyhurst Clough over the embankment of the Water Works reservoir, it enters Tockholes on its way to Preston.

But if Immediately around the attractions fade, it is more than compensated by the noble view which opens up on every hand. It cannot be excelled in England for historic interest. We look upon a country which is intersected by no less than three Roman roads. Almost at our feet lies Anglezark, the Arx or citadel of the Angles. Further on shoot up the spires and chimney shafts of “Proud Preston;" and well may she be proud of her storied past, the culture of her people and her beautiful river. Beyond, like a black spot projected into the bay of Morecambe is the castled hill of “time-honoured Lancaster." Our own river Darwen flows past Hoghton Tower and joins the Ribble at the spot where Cromwell at “push of pike" won one of his most famous victories. Close at hand is Blackburn, in every age the abode of a brave and industrious people. The poet of Flodden described her sons long ago as

“Lither and light
And fierce for fight;"

and many a time since then they have done “the State some service." Down that road Lord Derby marched to besiege Blackburn and fled back discomfited. Prince Rupert swept along it with his army to the crushing defeat at Marston Moor. North and east extend the hills and valleys which once comprised the Forest of Bowland, of Pendle, of Trawden, of Rossendale and others of lesser note. Clitheroe Castle and Whalley Abbey lie beneath the shadow of Pendle, who looks down on many a spot dear to the memory of Lancastrians. From these valleys and hill sides went forth those billmen and archers who turned the tide of battle at Flodden Field and destroyed the chivalry of France at Cressy and at Agincourt. Nor is the district around us interesting to the historical student alone. There are many sweet places within the range of our vision and in the borderland of Lancashire and Yorkshire lie vales whose supreme beauty so won the heart of Turner, that in is latter days the mention of their names brought tears to his eyes of this great artist. Lest I be tempted to enlarge beyond your patience upon a theme so rich we will descend from the moor while I commend to your intelligent examination this noble prospect of sea and land, of Mountain and plain, of populous towns and rolling-rivers.

After the reading of the paper an interesting discussion took place, in which Messrs. H. Green, W. Holden, Jeremy Hunt, J. Knowles Fish, B. Fish, James Moore, G. Butterworth and others took part. At the suggestion of the Chairman, it was resolved that the paper should be published in a pamphlet form, at the expense of the class, for sale to the public; and a vote of thanks was awarded to Mr. Ashton, on the motion of Mr. F.G. Hindle seconded by Mr. Blacker.

The proceedings then terminated; the chairman announcing that the subject for debate on the following Tuesday would be a resolution to be moved by Mr. Irving Kelly, to the effect “That this country has on the whole been largely benefited by the assistance of a titled and privileged aristocracy;" to which an amendment would be moved by Mr Webb.


Printed At “The Times" Office Blackburn.


A Short Biography of William Thomas Ashton

William Thomas Ashton was the son of William Ashton and Susannah Barker. He was the youngest child of 6, born at Blackburn on the 1st of January 1832. His father was a weaver and attended Chapel Street Independent Chapel. His parents had married in May 1823 and had children, Mar?, b. 1820; Richard, d. 1822; Mary Ann, b. May 1823; Susannah, b. 1826; Elizabeth Barker, b. 1829. William Moved to Darwen in 184​7 when 15 years old  and worked as a weaver, before becoming manager of Brookside Mill. At some point he left Brookside Mill and became cashier at Bowling Green Mill, keeping this position until 1857 when he c​ommenced business for himself at Hope Mill, in partnership with S.A. Nichols, this partnership continued until 1867 when it was dissolved. He carried on the Mill with his sons as W.T Ashton and Sons.

Thomas married Lydia Grace Deakin in April 1860, they had 9 children: Henry Deakin 1862-1925; Grace 1863-1903; Lucy 1864-1942; Alice 1867-1925; Sidney Antrobus 1868-1953; William 1870-; Rose 1872-1875; Clive 1874-1875; Muriel 1880-1890.
He played a big part in Darwen's Mechanics Institute giving lectures like the one above. When the Free Library started in the town in 1871 he was elected by the rate payers to be one of the Commissioners, remaining as one until the Free Library was transferred to the Corporation.
William was also one of the first borough Justices being elected in 1881.
Perhaps he will be best remembered in Darwen as Playing a big part in the bid to re-open old footpaths and create new ones on Darwen Moor thus giving the public the right to access the moor.​

​​back to top​​