This is the shortest walk in the book, but it packs a lot in.
Distance 2.5 miles (4km)
Minimum time 1hr
Ascent/gradient 640ft (195m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Field paths, old railway line and surfaced tracks, 5 stiles
Landscape Open fields, enclosed and densely wooded valley
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL21 South Pennines
Start/finish SD 879155
Dog friendliness Can roam free in Healey Dell but not on grazing land above
Parking Parking by Healey Dell Nature Reserve Visitor Centre
Public toilets By junction of A671 and B6377, near access road
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1 With your back to the visitor centre, turn left and walk past the first range of buildings. Cross a bridge and turn right. Take the lower path, along the river, past more overgrown ruins. Near a green footbridge go sharp left up the bank then right, along the edge of a clearing, and back into woods. Go left just before a stream on a narrow path, climbing steeply in places. Stone flags give a little help over a wet patch before the path dips to cross the stream. Climb again on the other side and join a broader green track. Where this narrows, continue over a stile and up the edge of a field to Smallshaw Farm.
2 Go left before the first building then through a gate into the yard. Go left on a track to a road. Go right and up to a bus turning circle. Turn right opposite this along a track. Follow this for about 400yds (366m) to Knack's Farm.
3 Continue over a cattle grid and down a lane between high banks, then fork right on a track. After a slight dog-leg the track becomes greener. Follow it round left and back right, then over a stile ahead and down a field by a ruined wall. Go over a stile at the bottom, down to a lane and go left a few paces.
4 Go down a ramp and steps to an old railway line. Turn right along it for 500yds (457m) then cross the viaduct high above the Dell. Go left down steps to the access lane, down under the viaduct then sharply back right on a broad path. Where this starts to level out there's a stile on the left. But first go a short way upstream, until the path starts to climb again, to see the cascades.
5 Return to the stile and cross it. Follow the stone setts (which are often slippery) down to a sharp bend, with more remains just down and right. From the bend a footpath follows the tops of some old walls then curls down steeply to a weir. Step across the water-cut on some stone slabs and follow it down. When it enters a tunnel carved in solid rock, the footpath goes to the right. Almost opposite a tall pillar it swings away from the river and out past a terrace of houses to the lane. Go down this below a tall brick retaining wall and back to the start of the walk.
Healey Dell is a gem, and so unexpected. Even from the visitor centre it doesn't look especially promising. In fact it is packed with delights in a small compass. You could spend hours exploring. You'll sample its delights on this walk, but you'll also climb out on to the open slopes above, which give both contrast and context. And although it is a very short walk, its twists and turns make it longer than it looks on the map.
In classic Lancashire fashion, what was once an industrial site is now a haven for wildlife, although the industrial archaeology adds an extra dimension. The fast flowing River Spodden carved the gorge down through the gritstone beds, harder strata creating a number of waterfalls. It also provided a power source for a succession of mills, from early ones grinding corn to later wool and cotton mills.
Near the start of the walk, where the valley is wider, several substantial mill buildings remain. One of these now houses the visitor centre which has permanent exhibitions on the industrial heritage of the reserve. Even in the very tight confines further up, mills were constructed on what must have been very awkward sites, but were unable to compete with larger factories and steam power. The Dell is crossed by the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line. You come down to this line, from the open fields above, close to the site of Broadley Station, where platforms still survive. You follow it through regenerating woodland, feeling quite enclosed, before suddenly bursting out on to the viaduct at treetop height. This impressive eight-arched structure, 100ft (30m) high and 200ft (61m) long, was completed at considerable cost in 1880, but the line was never an economic success.
From its far end you drop down steeply into the shady Dell. Some tumbledown walls remain and a couple of frail-looking arches span the rushing stream. Illustrations from a century ago show these arches still supporting the walls of a two-storey building. Just below, almost directly under the pillars of the viaduct, is an old sluice and the start of the water-cut that fed the great mill pond lower down. You follow the cut down until it disappears into solid rock. This tunnel, probably carved out with nothing more than hand tools, is another example of the extraordinary efforts that were needed to exploit this tricky site. The mill pond itself is now colonised by anglers. As you descend below its retaining wall you get an idea of the depth of water - the head - that it provided to the larger mills just below.
Rochdale has a special place in history as the place where the Co-operative Movement, which now has 700 million members worldwide, began in 1844. The Rochdale Pioneers Museum is based on the original tiny shop in Toad Lane. Rochdale also has one of the finest Victorian town halls in the region, if not the whole of England.
The Oxford is the first pub you come to on the A671 going towards Rochdale. There's a beer garden at the rear, well insulated from road noise. The beer's well-kept and there's an extensive menu with good fish dishes - check the specials boards around the dining area.
The steep slopes and, especially, the viaduct, give you an angle on the treetops that you don't often get. This gives great opportunities for close-up views of squirrels, woodpeckers, jays, and many other woodland species. The pied flycatcher, which may be seen from April to October, is a distinctive woodland bird, though only breeding males are truly 'pied' - in other words, black and white.