There are lots of stories about the moorland round here. Some are out-and-out grim – a torso in a suitcase in a layby, Hindley and Brady. Some are weird, including the ‘Longdendale lights’ – an unexplained phenomenon that might involve land and rocks but is usually written off as ghosts. And then there are local anecdotes: car crashes, near-misses, hardly-romantic trysts. The names behind the little shrines you see fixed into wet stone walls.
I don’t remember when I first heard about the plane wrecks up on the moors. Unlike many of my friends, I was never taken to see them as a kid. But I do know the idea of wrecks being up there has captivated me for a long time, and that I’ve often wanted to go up and find them while driving over the Snake and Woodhead passes.
I guess what fascinates me about these wrecks being there at all is their isolation, the quiet sadness of it. And how strange it is. To leave these broken things up there on bare land, out in the naked peat, seems so unlike the way we do things. The Dark Peak is hardly Everest, after all. And then you start thinking about the families left behind, pilgrimages, unmentioned anniversaries. You think about young school kids on field trips, who, without knowing better, squirrel tiny pieces into their pockets: nuts, bolts, other fixings. You wonder how many people round here keep a piece of old plane in a drawer somewhere in their house.
When we moved back up, we planned to finally get up on Bleaklow so I could finally visit a wreck for myself.
On November 3rd 1948, the USAF B-29 Superfortress Overexposed (so-called because it was part of the reconnaissance group that photographed the Bikini Atoll nuke tests) flew out of Scampton near Lincolnshire on a routine flight to Burtonwood, close to Warrington.
The crew, flying in low cloud, started to descend without knowing they hadn’t cleared the gritstone hills on Bleaklow above Glossop. All thirteen on board were killed. According to the brass plaque that memorialises them, it is ‘doubtful the crew ever saw the ground’.
Getting on to Bleaklow isn’t hard at all. Drive about ten minutes out of Glossop on the A57 Snake Pass, and you reach a sort of natural plateau whose edges have been tarmacked and gravelled. Here you put on your waterproofs (and in our case, baby carrier) and set out on the narrow path that takes you a mile or so up the moor. On a clear day, you can see a lot from there – Manchester city included. We, however, are walking directly into heavy cloud, which only thickens as we start to wind our way through banks of peat, winter heather, and hardy brown grass. It’s pretty squelchy, and we quickly lose sight of car headlights on the Snake.
After half an hour or so, and with the cloud now fully around us, we leave this path and cut into the moor proper. The rain and wind are immediately harsher without the protection of the banks shielding the path; visibility is so bad that you could be trapped in your own pocket universe, the only people left on earth. Civilisation drops back. The ideas of driving, or central heating, seem utterly futuristic. Our only markers for a time are the large white canvas bags full of ‘geotextiles’ that have been airdropped to cover areas of exposed peat. These bags look like excavated white stone blocks from a distance, and up close seem invasive, completely out of place in the landscape. While the walking here is easy enough, carting a heavy toddler up and down some of the shelves is starting to become a challenge.
We ascend gradually for the next twenty minutes or so. In the squall it grows harder to hear (or speak), and the boggiest areas are hungry for your boots. Our son wakes and isn’t happy about the situation, but apart from his keening, we’re all silent, concentrating, and – maybe for the first time – getting a bit of a sweat on. In that kind of weather, and almost soaked right through, it’s impossible not to feel lonely.
The first piece of plane debris we comes across makes me think of a strange creature’s remains. To say it’s been there for sixty years is bizarre: a clean-looking metal rib, stitched with rivet holes, and showing hardly any visible corrosion. More debris quickly appears in the dips between moguls of dark peat. In a larger area there are three almost-intact engines and various chunks of fuselage. There’s also a whole section of landing gear. It’s silent. At this point we’re struggling to see beyond twenty metres, and the desaturating grey light is nothing less than unsettling. The only thing that seems remotely human about the place are the poppies and crucifixes left on the last Remembrance Sunday. ‘The old boys come up and do it every year,’ my brother finally says.
I take my pictures and can’t decide if it’s perverse to be excited by seeing the wreckage first hand. There’s an interesting aesthetic to abandoned things, yes, but there’s something else that’s hard to qualify; more like a mix of feelings that definitely take in loss – of the past, of lives. A strong sense that Overexposed might have only come down yesterday. And so too comes the sadness I always figured I might feel. Our waterproof jackets are the only colourful things in a mile radius. I’m glad to finally be here, but more glad to know those men died quickly.