Blackstone Edge, the Tour de Yorkshire, and Chartist meetings

In 2009, I published an article about radical and Chartist meetings on moors. It's in Northern History, and you can read the pre-print here:

The Chartists in particular were keen on holding mass meetings on moorland. In part this was because the radical movements were increasingly restricted in when and where they could hold large public meetings in the towns. But meeting on moors was also part of working-class culture, drawing from the Methodist camp meetings held on the same sites, a love of rambling, fell-racing and naturalism, and what Malcolm Chase terms 'radical agrarianism', an attachment to the land as representing freedom and self-sufficiency.

Blackstone Edge
Blackstone Edge was one of the most famous sites of Chartist monster meetings. Large processions from either side of the Pennines would trek up to sit in the declivity of the land near the White House inn, where a natural ampitheatre would amplify the speakers and radical hymns. Blackstone Edge wasn't just a site out of the reach of the authorities: it was a familiar site, foreboding in bad weather but glorious on a summer's day, a place of freedom where the working classes could breathe fresh air and observe nature before they trekked back down to the factories and slum housing in the towns below.

When I was researching the article in 2007-8, I took a field trip to most of the fields and moors that radicals and Chartists used for meetings, including Blackstone Edge. This was incredibly useful in helping me gauge distances and topographies, and showed me the variety of sites used. Each field and moor is different in its size, topography, distance from urban areas, and routes to it from different places.

However what I could not replicate was the experience of a Chartist camp meeting on any of these sites. There were generally not many people around apart from a few ramblers. Each year there is a walk up Blackstone Edge to commemorate the Chartists, but  that only involves a few dozen people, rather than the tens of thousands that attended the original meetings.

This Sunday just gone, however, provided a much better opportunity for my historical imagination. It was the second stage of the Tour de France, which this year went through Yorkshire. The cyclists whizzed up Cragg Vale to Blackstone Edge, and by the reservoir, went through a few hundred metres of Lancashire.

like a camp meeting on Blackstone Edge?

And it seemed that the whole of Rochdale decided to go up Blackstone Edge to watch. Many went up the new road in council-organised shuttle buses, or cycled up themselves. But thousands also walked up and down the 'proper' way (as you're always told if you grow up here), the 'Roman Road' (which is more likely a 17thC packhorse route). Those from Ripponden and Yorkshire walked up t'other side.

Although most of us had trekked up the moor early on the Sunday morning, it wasn't quite like a camp meeting - we were lining the bend in the road by the reservoir rather than all convening near the White House, there were no hymns sung or prayers said, or indeed any speeches by famous orators.We weren't in Sunday best. We hadn't processed in one line with banners.

imagine this was a Chartist procession from Rochdale (ignore the pylons)

But the atmosphere was carnivalesque. It was full of anticipation for something to happen. There were flags, including a few tricolors, though most were union jacks or Yorkshire flags (I was one of the few with a Lancashire flag). People had fun, made their own entertainment, joked about the French. We were close to nature and up the top you can't hear any roads, but only the wind and skylarks singing.

And the journey back down gave some illustration, (if you squinted), of what mass numbers of people processing in a line on the moor would have looked like.

we're going down the Roman Road; line of cars & bikes on the new road on the right


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