Five people stand on the moors, looking out over the landscape

Blackstone Edge is the setting for an immersive experience that adds new meaning to this iconic landscape.

On a very rainy Wednesday, off the back of an exceptionally sunny weekend, I made the trip to Blackstone Edge – a reservoir perched high above Rochdale on the border of Greater Manchester. I was there for the first performance of Breaking Barriers production company’s binaural walk, entitled Elevation. For those who don’t know, a binaural walk uses headphones to deliver a sound recording in 360 degrees – combining audio with the tactile experience of walking in a place. The Elevation piece uses the moorland of Blackstone Edge as its setting, characteristic of what some fondly term Brönte Country. It is a place where your experience is at the whims of Mother Nature, as I would come to discover.

Pulling in to park (although the walk would also be accessible via bus) at the White House Inn, an iconic local pub, I did not relish the thought of going for a walk in what felt like torrential rain. Thankfully I came prepared with walking boots and raincoat – although if the forecast is grim I would recommend a pair of waterproof trousers as well. Waiting sheltered under the porch of the pub for the group to assemble, it was hard to deny a certain charm to the whole scenario. After all, walking in the rain is a fairly British experience. It added a layer to the audio experience that I personally appreciated.

A country pub viewed from a distance. It sits on the horizon on a gloomy day over the moorland.
The White House Inn. Image: Anja Jungmayr

Following the distribution of Bluetooth-linked headphones, we walked a few metres up the roadside to access Blackstone Edge itself. This was where the audio element began – and in the interest of your own experience should you choose to visit Elevation, I’ll be vague on the details. What I will say is that the walk itself is nothing to be concerned about, it is completely accessible and despite the name, requires no elevation gain. The group leader moves at a glacial pace, which in this instance is a good thing, as it allows you to take in the visual surroundings completely as you are steered by the audio. Even on the cloudy day I visited, the view out onto Rochdale, and further in the distance Manchester, was something to behold, and if you are lucky enough to pick a clear day, rumour has it that you can see as far as Wales.

I also had the opportunity to speak to the team behind Elevation after the walk. The piece had repeatedly been described to me as a sort of aural tapestry, and it was intriguing to discover the initial threads from which this was weaved. For starters, the artistic director of Breaking Barriers, Parvez Qadir, recalled going up to Blackstone Edge with his family as a child, but in the way that children are prone to perceive things as infinitely larger than they actually are, would call it ‘going to the mountains’. He formed a spiritual connection with the landscape that has endured into adulthood. The company had also discovered in previous projects that for many other people across Rochdale, the moors and Blackstone Edge in particular were important and imposing places – whether they had visited them or not. Just the ability to see the Edge from within Rochdale had a lasting impact on people.

Looking towards Rochdale from the moors on a cloudy day, some landscape features are visible, but not clearly.
The view across the moors. Image: Anja Jungmayr

It also became clear that there was a clear delineation between those who walked the moors, and those who merely gazed upon it. Many people with global majority heritage had never been empowered to venture out to Blackstone Edge, uncertain of where the walk began, how it was to be walked, or even what to wear. Elevation was conceived not only as a way to tell the story of a landscape that is often assumed to be voiceless – but also as a way to invite communities to experience nature in ways that they may previously have felt excluded from. In fact, the team behind Elevation hope that the piece will serve as a gateway for these people, and anyone else, to explore Blackstone Edge and the surrounding areas on their own in the future.

The piece itself, from the natural soundscape of Blackstone Edge to the stories of the past, present, and future being told, was recorded almost entirely in situ. This posed unique challenges for sound engineer Jo Kennedy, who planned recording sessions around the weather forecast and spent hours pitched up in a tent trying to capture the ambience of the land. One of the key challenges was the wind, liable to whip away words for itself instead of allowing them to be immortalised in recording. But over the course of months, a rich collage of sound and story was created, telling a story that I guarantee you have never heard before.

Promotional image for the Elevation experience, from Breaking Barriers

In order to realise the project fully, Breaking Barriers also partnered with Culture Co-op, a pioneering Rochdale partnership between residents and organisations across the borough involved in the cultural and creative industries. They worked to find ‘cultural pioneers’, people from the community who could guide the audio walks on Blackstone Edge, embedding public participation in a new form of creative economy. The cultural pioneers will continue to work, and be paid, to co-create new creative experiences within Rochdale. It echoes a theme of the piece itself, which is that the spaces that matter in our communities should belong to said community, and people should feel empowered to engage with those spaces fully.

Elevation runs until 28 June. Performances are at 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm, Wednesday to Friday. You can book a free ticket here.

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Featured image: Breaking Barriers

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  • Anja Jungmayr

    Anja is a climate justice activist and campaigner from Rochdale who writes for The Meteor, and takes the lead on social content. She is interested in engaging a wider community, especially young people, through telling the truth about what goes on in Greater Manchester in an accessible way.

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