Alex Langfield

Britain’s most incredible art hike — Irwell Sculpture Trail

Robert Wade (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Britain’s most incredible art hike — Irwell Sculpture Trail

Hiking Collection by Alex Langfield
3-6 days
3-6 h / day
46.6 mi
2,025 ft
2,825 ft

Following the River Irwell from the atmospheric Rossendale Moors to the bustling Salford Quays in Manchester, the Irwell Sculpture Trail is Britain’s largest and most incredible art hike. It features more than 70 works of art by internationally, nationally and locally renowned artists on what is a superb 33-mile (53 km) route full of scenic, cultural and historical interest.

The art works are invariably inspired by either the beautiful landscapes, proud industrial history or the people that call this region home. From the rugged moors of Rossendale and its mill towns to the modern architecture and dockland heritage of Salford Quays, the sculptures along the way allow you to delve deeper into what it is that makes Manchester and the Irwell’s towns and villages so special.

After exploring the Pennine grandeur of Rossendale, the Trail shadows the river south into Greater Manchester, to Burrs Country Park and on to the market town of Bury. After this, you follow the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal’s towpath to the town of Radcliffe and discover dozens of art works in the surrounding country parks. Finally, the Trail winds south to a marvellously revitalised Salford, where the Irwell meets the Manchester Ship Canal.

The sculptures are officially grouped into 13 clusters: Bacup, Stackheads, Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom and Irwell Vale, Burrs Country Park, Bury, Close Park, Radcliffe, Whitefield, Outwood Country Park, Clifton Country Park, Chapel Street and Ordsall. Many of the sculptures — in some cases, entire clusters — are a short deviation from the main Trail.

In this Collection, I have plotted an itinerary to visit every cluster so that no artworks are missed, which brings the total distance to 47 miles (75 km). Detours to outlying sculptures and clusters are usually out-and-backs, meaning you still walk the vast majority of the main Trail. I have split the route into five stages of between 5 and 13 miles (8 and 21 km), each ending at either accommodation or at public transport links to Manchester City Centre.

How you decide to experience the Trail is up to you. There are enough public transport and accommodation options along the route to allow for endless permutations. A great alternative is starting in Salford’s urban sprawl and enjoying the gradual shift from urban to rural as the Trail ventures upriver to Rossendale.

This is a walk for all ages and abilities, with little by way of elevation to deal with. The walking is mostly on riverside paths, towpaths, through parkland or on pavements. You are never far from amenities, as the majority of the Trail explores an urban environment. It is an itinerary for all seasons.

The start point, on the moors above Bacup, is mostly easily accessed by car via the A56 or A646. By public transport, the best option is the 464 bus from Manchester City Centre, which takes around 45 minutes. Salford Quays, at the end of the Trail, is a short ride on the Metrolink to Manchester City Centre.

For a Collection featuring the Rossendale Way, a long-distance trail that circumnavigates the moors above Haslingden, Rawtenstall, Whitworth and Bacup, see:

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    12.5 mi
    2.2 mph
    1,175 ft
    1,675 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    The first stage follows the Irwell on its journey through the picturesque Rossendale Valley. It visits clusters of sculptures in Bacup, Stackheads and Rawtenstall, before deviating from the main Trail to visit Halo on the moors above Haslingden.

    The Trail begins on the moorland above Bacup and makes its way down to the town, where there are two sculptures: the Sentinel and the Birds. The Sentinel is a cairn-like structure that was created using the traditional skills of stonewalling and felting, while the Birds are metal structures that refer to Bacup’s industrial history and point to an optimistic future. You follow the A681 into the village of Stackheads.

    Three fantastic sculptures — Frond, Ferroterrosaurus and Echo Fly by Robin Dobson — have you heading south to Lee and Cragg Quarries. Once centres of industry, they now form an excellent mountain biking centre. After exploring the quarries, the Trail heads back to Stackheads and ventures west to visit the Weave, a beguiling sculpture by Michael Farrell on the side of the main road.

    You shadow the River Irwell, past a cave-like sculpture named Spaces 9.XXXV’94 by Macedonian Petre Nikoloski, to the town of Rawtenstall’s main roundabout. Here you find the Bocholt Tree. It was created by artist Bernard Tindall, along with Raku Works Sculptural Arts, to celebrate the valley’s twinning with Bocholt in Germany. A detour onto the moors to the futuristic, otherworldly Halo is a must. This collaboration between John Kennedy and LandLab is one of Pennine Lancashire’s Panopticons series and glows sky-blue at night.

    Retrace your steps to the roundabout in Rawtenstall and take the path alongside the station to Gateway 1 and 2, a pair of marvellous structures designed by Chrysalis Arts that pay homage to the East Lancashire Railway. From here, you can either journey on the East Lancashire Railway or hop on the X43 bus service back to Greater Manchester. Alternatively, seek accommodation at Sykeside Country House Hotel on Haslingden Road.

    10.3 mi
    2.4 mph
    275 ft
    500 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The second stage continues south, exploring the town of Ramsbottom before venturing deeper into Greater Manchester. A trio of sculptures await at the regenerated Burrs Country Park, before you end in the market town of Bury and its cluster of artworks.

    From the station, the Trail ventures south alongside the river, past the water treatment works and Irwell Vale station, towards Ramsbottom. The first artwork in this cluster is Remnant Kings, Ian Randall’s nod to Rossendale’s textile and mining industries. Next, Richard Caink’s In the Picture frames the valley and provokes thoughts around land ownership, access and the age-old struggle between the classes. The river path continues, departing Lancashire and entering Greater Manchester.

    Eventually, you arrive in Ramsbottom, where two more pieces await your attention. Hetty Chapman and Karen Allerton’s The River is a path of stainless steel that culminates on a collection of 34 wooden posts that give you a view of the railway. In the town centre is Tilted Vase, Edward Allington’s industrial artwork, which was inspired by the region’s industrial heritage.

    From Ramsbottom, the Trail shadows the River Irwell and the East Lancashire Railway past Nuttall Park and Summerseat station. West of the village of Walmersley, you pick up a riverside path that hugs the Irwell’s banks to Burrs Country Park, where a trio of sculptures are found: David Kemp’s Waterwheel, Julie Edward’s Stone Cycle and David Fryer’s gigantic mouse trap, Picnic Area.

    The town of Bury lies to the east of the main Trail. Cross the river via the bridge halfway down Woodhill Road and continue into the town. In this cluster you find: two neon textworks, Genus Trogon by Shaun Pickard and From Northern Soul by Ron Silliman; Metamorphic Lights, an interactive light sculpture by artist Jo Fairfax and lighting designer Adam Spinos; Thrutch, Woolfolf, Ogden, Grane by Noah Rose, etched metal gates by the Trackside bar of the East Lancashire Railway; and finally, Glass Work by Martin Donlin at Bury’s police headquarters.

    From Bury you can catch the Metrolink to Manchester City Centre or stay the night at the Old White Lion Guesthouse.

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  • Intermediate
    7.32 mi
    2.4 mph
    200 ft
    175 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    This stage explores three separate clusters at Radcliffe, Whitefield and Close Park. In the park, Mark Jalland’s stainless-steel origami figures are a real treat, while the artworks on display in Radcliffe are an interesting mix of text works, neon signs and sculptures.

    The Trail takes a break from the river, instead joining the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal as it heads south and then south west.

    The first cluster is at Close Park’s 27 acres (11 ha) of gardens and parkland, which lie just to the east of the main Trail. James and His Ball of Fire and Tara in Her Trainers are a pair of shiny, stainless steel origami style figures. The former is an impressive dinosaur, whist Tara is cheetah-esque. Joining them in the park is Chococupcake Boy, an intriguing fusion of boy and cupcake. The trio of artworks were masterminded by artist Mark Jalland and choreographer Ruth Jones, with inspiration and ideas from local school children.

    Retrace your steps to the towpath and follow it into the town of Radcliffe, passing under the old railway bridge and Lawrence Weiner’s Water Made It Wet text work. There’s a whole host of sculptures in the town. You will have to deviate slightly from the main Trail to find Nailing Home by Jack Wright, In the Bulrushes by William Pym and From the Tower the Falls the Shadow by Brass Art. You walk past External Wave by Adam Reynolds and cross the River Irwell in sight of another piece by Lawrence Weiner named Radcliffe Horizon.

    To finish the stage, there are two works of art in Whitefield, a couple of miles off the main Trail. I’ve plotted a detour through Coronation Park and alongside the river to reach the town. David Appleyard’s multicoloured Canaries in the Park adorn Whitefield Park, all 121 of them. Meanwhile, by the nearby supermarket, is Steve des Landes’ Castings at Morrisons, which depict a famous brass band from the region and local workers.

    There is no accommodation in Whitefield, the closest is the Hawthorn Hotel back towards Radcliffe. It does have a Metrolink station, with fast links to Manchester’s vibrant city centre.

    10.9 mi
    2.4 mph
    250 ft
    375 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The penultimate stage visits two lovely country parks before making a beeline for Salford City. Three clusters are explored at Outwood and Clifton Country Parks and the Chapel Street region in the buzzing centre of Salford. You could start this stage by returning to Whitefield, but it makes more sense to start from Radcliffe.

    From Radcliffe, pick up the Outwood Trail, which uses the track bed of the old Manchester, Bury and Rossendale Railway. This brings you into Outwood Country Park, where Ulrich Rückriem’s mysterious monoliths are the first sculptures of the day. Still on the Outwood Trail, continue to the south of the park to Stephan Gec’s Trinity, a moving memorial to those who died constructing the railway line.

    Retrace your steps briefly and make for Clifton Country Park, which is off the main Trail to the south of the River Irwell. It features Tim Norris’ the Lookout, Rosie Leventon’s Dig and Stephen Charnock’s Wet Earth Sculptures, all inspired by the nature reserve’s former use as a colliery. After this short detour, rejoin the main Trail by crossing to the north bank of the Irwell beyond the M60.

    After this, you follow the Irwell for 4.3 miles (6.9 km), passing some pretty parkland, before arriving at the next pair of artworks in Peel Park. Fabric of Nature by Julia Hilton is a superb earthwork sculpture inspired by local nature, while Adrian Moakes’ Monument to the Third Millennium is a vortex of fish, a nod to the area’s historic tendency to flood.

    After this, the Irwell engages in a sharp U-bend, so you leave it behind and head for the Chapel Street Cluster, where three further works await discovery. Rise by Liam Curtin honours those who have taken collective action to fight just causes; Seed is a sycamore seed enlarged by a factor of 100, a splendid symbol of growth and optimism on the open ground in front of St Philip's Church; and the Whole World is a Garden is a heart-warming community mosaic, a result of two generations of effort.

    This stage ends within easy walking distance of Manchester’s city centre and its many eateries, hotels, amenities and transport links.

    5.53 mi
    2.4 mph
    125 ft
    125 ft
    Intermediate Hiking Tour. Good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The final stage is all about Salford Quays, the recent regeneration of which is a triumph. Today a world class centre of art, culture, media and sport, it is a magnificent place to explore and a fitting climax to the Irwell Sculpture Trail.

    There’s so much to see on top of what is covered by the Trail here, so even though the stage is short at 5.5 miles (8.9 km), you could spend all day exploring places like the Lowry, the Imperial War Museum, Media City and Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.

    From Salford Central, head west to Oldfield Road, cross the railway and turn left, following the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal for the last time, before it joins the Irwell. You follow the Irwell River Park path and enter the docklands.

    The Trail takes you past Ordsall Hall, where there are two works. Timeline by Lesley Fallais tells stories of the region’s past and is carved into stone paving outside the hall. The Moat’s wooden swans pay tribute to the moat that would have once surrounded the building. From here, you follow the Irwell to the bustling Salford Quays.

    The main Trail ends outside the Lowry, after mostly sticking to the east of the docks. However, to visit all the sculptures, I have plotted a meandering course through the best of the Quays.

    Dotted about are the various artworks: Factory Girls by David Appleyard, enamelled figures found throughout the quayside; Four Corners by Noah Rose tells stories of the former dock workers; Erie’s Rest by Ingrid Hu, which represents the ebb and flow of the canal; Nine Dock by Mor is engraved with quotes from local people; Where the Wild Things Were by Unusual celebrates the legacy of the Manchester Ship Canal; and Casuals by Broadbent is a group of giant representations of dock workers’ union cards.

    To return to Manchester City Centre, you could either walk or catch the Metrolink from Exchange Quay.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
  • Distance
    46.6 mi
  • Duration
    19:49 h
  • Elevation
    2,025 ft2,825 ft

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Alex Langfield

Britain’s most incredible art hike — Irwell Sculpture Trail