After crossing Bury Bridge into Elton, the early traveller had three possible choices of route – due west, towards Ainsworth and Bolton; north-westwards towards Walshaw and Tottington; or due northwards, towards Holcombe. This latter route hugged the Irwell briefly, before crossing the Kirklees Brook, and then forking at Woodhill Fold, to bear either left to Brandlesholme, or right to Burrs.
Sometime between 1790 and 1819, Croston’s Road was extended northwards from the Dusty Miller (Point A) to Woodhill Fold (Point D), crossing the Kirklees Brook on a new bridge. But the gradients and the obvious dog-leg were inconvenient to wheeled traffic, so in about 1840, a massive curving causeway was run across the valley carrying Brandlesholme Road, between the Help me Thro’ (Point B) and Woodhill Mill (Point C). This now had the effect of reducing the old road to a series of local access trackways, and its final decline had begun.
By the 1960s, from where we lived at Woodhill Street, you would follow this ancient routeway, to take a short cut to Bury Bridge, by going ‘down’t Widdle’, in the local vernacular. The ‘Widdle’ appears to have been the area around Woodhill House and Rothwell’s Croft, the old bleachworks which was by then a roofless ruin.
It was only decades later that I made the link between the ‘Widdle’, and the 17th century home of the Kay family at ‘The Widdel’ or ‘The Widdall’. The later derivation of ‘Woodhill’ appears to be incorrect – the original etymology probably related to the ‘Wide Dale’ instead, i.e. the broad valley of the Kirklees Brook hereabouts.
From our house, the routeway followed the front of the Woodhill council estate, before passing Woodhill House, the site of which is now occupied by the offices of Cheetham Hill Construction. The Kay family had lived here since the 15th century, and the core of the house sadly demolished in 1974 was probably of 17th century date.
On the right, behind Dagnall’s shop, and running parallel to the Kirklees Brook, was the site of a tear-shaped millpond which powered the waterwheel of a Woolen Mill (Point E). After the latter was acquired by the Rothwell family, it was rebuilt as a large bleachworks, and in the 1960s the stone walls and the huge octagonal brick chimney still stood. Thirty years ago, Bury MBC were considering creating a Country Park here, similar to Burrs, but nothing came of this plan.
The routeway followed the high mill wall on the right, to cross the Kirklees Brook on a footbridge, which had probably replaced an earlier ford. From this point onwards, the track followed a narrow tongue of land between the river and the canal; and at the head of the canal was a building stood on iron columns (Point F) which carried a cast-iron plate bearing the legend ‘Irwell Forge 1846’, the date when Webb’s Foundry was established. This plate was last seen on the gable of Fred Dibnah’s house in Bolton.
Once industry disappeared from the Bury Bridge area, Lower Woodhill Road was downgraded to a footpath, and just north of Bury Bridge, a series of sluice gates can still be seen near to the weir, which extracted water from the Irwell, to top up the canal. This source soon proved inadequate, and the construction of Elton Reservoir and the canal feeder through Elton from Burrs were to follow.
You could still walk down t’Widdle from Woodhill Fold to Bury Bridge even after the great flood of Boxing Day 2015 extracted a wide bite out of this pathway. And if you were able to follow this ancient routeway in January this year, you may well have been the last person to do so, as the second great flood of 9 February cut through this path permanently.