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There's more to Manchester than the city. And there's even more to Manchester than just a city that happens to be surrounded by countryside. Manchester's countryside connec-tions are deep and special.
In fact, Manchester can fairly claim to be the spiritual home of the British outdoors move-ment. It's probably because it was the world's first great industrial city that the outdoors became so important so early. Men and women may have worked six days in the mills (quite possibly dark and satanic ones) but on Sundays they flocked in their thousands to the surrounding hills and moors. There's even a song about it: "I may be a wage slave on Monday, But I am a free man on Sunday."
The lines come, of course, from Ewan MacColl's "Manchester
Rambler". Salford-born, MacColl was directly involved in the
outdoors movement and especially in the famous Mass Trespass of
1932. The Trespass itself took place on Kinder Scout, a few miles
over the border in Derbyshire, but it was born in Manchester.
Today, of course, we can walk freely over all the high moors and mountains. And the Greater Manchester boundary encompasses great tracts of high ground, heathery moors with broken fringes of gritstone crag: high places of wide horizons, which include the northwestern corner of the Peak District National Park and stretch on up into the Pennines. Here the loudest sound you hear may be the startled rattle of a grouse or the rippling call of the curlew.
However, you don't have to "get all your pleasure the hard moorland way". There's plenty of scope for easier walking, by rivers and through great estates like Dunham Park, famous for its deer. First and foremost, though, are the Country Parks, many of them based around reservoirs or reborn from old industrial sites.
One of the best, and best-loved, is Jumbles, north of Bolton, but wherever you are in Greater Manchester you'll never be too far from a Country Park. If you like to combine a gentle walk with some bird-watching, then the place to head for is Pennington Flash, near Leigh - a mile-long lake formed as a result of mining subsidence. Over 240 different bird species have been recorded here, probably the most spectacular being the Marsh Harrier. In summer it's also a great place to see dragonflies and damselflies and there are some superb wild-flower meadows.
Closer to the city, we'd have to mention Boggart Hole Clough, even if its only claim to fame was the most Northern name in the land. In fact it has a lot more to offer, being a Local Nature Reserve noted for its ancient semi-natural woodland around a handsome lake. It's even given its name to a local brewery. By the way, for the benefit of Southerners, a 'bog-gart' is really a mischievous household sprite; the Harry Potter version is pure fantasy. Oh, and a clough is a steep-sided river valley.
If walking - even the 'hard moorland' variety - doesn't generate enough adrenalin, then the crags which fringe the moors have some great rock-climbing. British climbing is cen-tred an axis between Manchester and Sheffield, with the British Mountaineering Council having its HQ in West Didsbury. The Peak District has hundreds of crags and thousands of climbs; the main concentration within Greater Manchester is around the Chew Valley, east of Oldham. Between them, Dovestone Edge, Quarries, The Ravenstones and the weirdly-sculpted Wimberry Rocks have over 500 recognised climbs; some may be little more than scrambles, while right next door you may find some of the hardest test-pieces around.
A little further north, Blackstone Edge has some pleasant climbs in the lower grades and is a beautiful place to be on a sunny evening. If you've never sampled the rough delights of gritstone climbing, there are plenty of guides and activity centres who can give you a safe introduction; the classified section of www.ukclimbing.com is a good place to find them, while the BMC website www.thebmc.co.uk can quickly guide you to climbing clubs. Or you can get a taste of climbing in warm, dry surroundings at at an indoor centre like Climb Rochdale or the Manchester Climbing Centre; occupying a converted church, this is one of the largest indoor walls in Europe. These are also good places to track down guides and instructors for outdoor climbing.
Where there's a wheel
Climbing isn't the only sport that has its centre of gravity in Manchester. The city is fa-mously at the heart of the British cycling revival, but it's not just about the now-hallowed track of the city's Velodrome (HQ for British Cycling). Even track stars like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton use the roads for some of their training - and Tour de France stars like Bradley Wiggins hammer out thousands of training miles in the Pennines and Peak Dis-trict. If your ambitions are more modest, or you'd just prefer to avoid the traffic, there are quiet lanes and traffic-free routes on canal towpaths and through country parks. CycleGM www.cyclegm.org has detailed maps for download, or to order in good old-fashioned paper form, as well as an interactive route planner. The Trans Pennine Trail www.transpenninetrail.org.uk also passes through Greater Manchester, making great use of old rail lines and towpaths as it climbs gently into Derbyshire on its way across the backbone of England.
There's plenty of the rougher kind of biking too. Greater Manchester includes a fine section of the Pennine Bridleway; a couple of loops based on this are the 11-mile Diggle Jiggle or the Lake to Lake loop (10- or 20-mile versions based on Hollingworth Lake or Walsden). These aren't outrageous but they are proper mountain biking: several sections that will rapidly expose the limitations of the £99 'supermarket special'. Fortunately Manchester has a terrific selection of real bike shops. Of course, even the best bike demands some skill from the rider; again, there are numerous activity centres and instructors who'll help get you started. Ask around in a good bike shop or try Googling. One instructor we'd rec-ommend is www.mountainbikeinstruction.co.uk, usually working out of Rivington, a few turns of the pedal over the Lancashire border.
The Trans Pennine Trail isn't just for bikes, of course; most of it is also open to horse-riders. In the west, circling around Altrincham and Sale, it's pretty rural and a good place for some easy hacking. The riding centre founded by International show-jumper John Shaw, in Urmston, has easy access to the Trail, and Ashton Hall Eques-trian Centre is also nearby.
The Pennine Bridleway is also very much aimed at horse riders, but it's steeper and rougher, calling for more experience form both horse and rider. The best source of in-formation about riding schools, clubs and livery yards is The British Horse Society, www.bhs.org.uk.
Water of Life
We have to admit it; Manchester has a bit of a reputation for rain. It's not entirely fair - there are plenty of wetter places - but yes, the region does get its share of precipitation. But that's not all bad, especially if your idea of fun involves getting wet anyway. The reser-voirs dotted amongst the hills don't just keep Manchester hydrated, they also provide end-less opportunities to play on, in and around the water. Top sites for sailing and/or windsurf-ing include Watergrove Reservoir, Hollingworth Lake and Dove Stone Reservoir. Water-grove is home to the West Pennine Sailboard Club, which welcomes day visitors. Dove Stone - overlooked by some of the aforementioned climbing crags - is mainly a dinghy sailing centre and has regular training days.
Pride of place, though, goes to Hollingworth Lake http://tinyurl.com/ao27tq, recognised by the Royal Yachting Association, among others, as the premier provider in NW England. There are Taster sessions on alternate Saturday afternoons (a bargain at just £10) and Open Nights on Thursdays through the summer. As well as sailing and windsurfing, the centre provides courses in kayaking, mountain biking and rock-climbing; Blackstone Edge is on the horizon and there's a handy indoor climbing wall when the weather isn't so fa-vourable. All in all, Hollingworth Lake is the closest thing to a 'one-stop shop' for outdoor sports in Greater Manchester.
If it's falling water rather than flat that floats your boat, Manchester you might want to look further afield kayakers probably the best site is Burrs Country Park near Bury, www.burrs.org.uk/park.htm, where the River Irwell has been adapted to make a great training ground. Experienced paddlers can have plenty of hectic fun on the Irwell, from Ramsbottom down to Burrs. Manchester's other prime river is the Goyt, tumbling down from the Peak District to Stockport. Here it meets the Tame to form the Mersey; there's more potential paddling here but it doesn't have the clear, clean water of the Goyt.
For more information about what there is to see and do in Manchester's Countryside, including de-tails of the walks, trails and cycling guides that are available, check out: manchesterscountryside.com