Hiking Bleaklow's Higher Shelf Stones - The Sombre B29 Memorial and Crash Site

Hiking Bleaklow's Higher Shelf Stones - The Sombre B29 Memorial and Crash Site


Posted 2024-01-10 by John Burnsfollow
An Accessible Introduction to Bleaklow

Exploring the western reaches of the Bleaklow plateau.

Where: The Higher Shelf Stones on the Bleaklow plateau, near Glossop in the Peak District.

What: A walk of around 3 miles, taking in the stones, as well as the memorial and crash site of the B29 Superfortress plane that came down here in November 1948.

When: The route can be hiked at any time of year, but trails may become icy and difficult to find during the winter months. Be aware that conditions on Bleaklow can change rapidly, so take plenty of layers.

How: Drive to the Snake Pass car park from Sheffield or Manchester. Leave your car in the designated parking area and walk northeast from here towards Bleaklow. Alternatively, take the 257 bus from Glossop or Sheffield, although this currently only runs on Sundays.

A NOTE: Bleaklow is an incredible place of wild moorland that feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Sheffield and Manchester City centres. However, this particular walk is tinged with tragedy, as it visits the crash site where 13 people lost their lives. This guide includes photographs of the wreckage that remains there as part of the memorial to the souls taken on that day.

Part 1: Snake Pass to Higher Shelf Stones

Looking towards Glossop

You can reach the beginning of this walk by car along the A57 which runs between Sheffield and Manchester. On Sundays, you can take the 257 bus from Sheffield or Glossop. While the road is called Snake Road, it’s commonly known as Snake Pass Road. This actually refers to only a short stretch of its total length, the highest point of the road, west of Glossop.

It’s at Snake Pass where the walk starts. Between Lady Clough to the east and Ramsey Moor to the west, the otherwise winding Snake Road straightens out, with the hulking shapes of Bleaklow and Kinder Scout now visible to the north and south.

Here you’ll find parking spaces. Be aware that these parking spaces fill up quickly at the weekend and on public holidays, so it’s advisable to get here early, or to take the bus on a Sunday. Don’t attempt to park illegally along the road if the designated parking areas are full – it might seem remote up here, but parking inspectors can and do venture up from the town, and there’s a high chance you will get fined. There is alternative parking to the east at the head of Lady Clough, although this will extend the walk by several kilometres.

Once you’re parked up, begin the walk by heading north along the main path towards Bleaklow. After about 900 metres, you’ll reach a crossroads, where the Doctor’s Gate path bisects the main Bleaklow trail. Take a left here and head westwards towards Crooked Clough.

After about a quarter of a mile, the Doctor’s Gate path drops down into Crooked Clough and you’ll get a view of Glossop and Manchester beyond. Double back here, and head northeast along the rim of the Clough, as the Higher Shelf Stones appear beyond Gathering Hill on your left.

One mile further on, you’ll reach the head of Crooked Clough. Cross the stream here and head northwest along the trail towards the summit at Higher Shelf Stones.

Part 2: The Memorial

The poignant memorial to the lives lost on this spot.

Higher Shelf Stones is an interesting place in its own right, and is one of those pleasant and otherworldly gritstone features that dot the landscape up here on the moors. Looking westwards, you’ll see the quieter Lower Shelf Stones, and James’ Thorn beyond that.

Heading northeast from Higher Shelf Stones, you’ll begin to navigate the jumble of paths that criss-cross the moorland on the Bleaklow Plateau. Some of these actually will be paths, others will just be areas of worn ground that look like paths but which end abruptly in quagmires and tussocks. Proceed with care, and you’ll begin to encounter other features that are less natural to the moorland landscape – the bleached and scarred metal of plane wreckage.

This is the crash site of the B29 Superfortress. It’s a sombre location, and deserves respect and decency from all who visit there. Amid the strewn remnants of the plane, which covers a wide area, there is a formal memorial to the lives lost here. But, in truth, the entirety of the site is a memorial and should be treated as such.

‘Over Exposed’ – The Fate of the B29 Superfortress and her Crew

Markers left for the 13 people who tragically perished on this spot.

The career of the B29 Superfortress – named Over Exposed – had been a colourful one. Tasked with recording images of the nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in 1946 , Over Exposed found herself in the South Pacific, bearing witness to the beginnings of a new and frightening age of global geopolitics.

Two years later, she was in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was drawn across Europe and the Cold War began in earnest. From the summer of 1948, Over Exposed and a legion of planes just like her flew more than 250,000 missions into West Berlin, bringing aid and supplies in an attempt to beat the Soviet blockade. While this was a peacetime operation, around one hundred people are believed to have been killed in accidents and incidents during the airlift. History was unfolding in real time, and Over Exposed was right there amongst it.

The Flight

The wreckage covers a wide area.

On November 3rd 1948, the mission was an altogether more straightforward one. Over Exposed, with her crew of eleven as well as 2 passengers, would take off from the British base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, headed for the American base at Burtonwood in Cheshire. In addition to the passengers, the aircraft carried [LINK https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/things-to-do/walks/23096655.final-flight-b29-exposed-bomber-crashed-bleaklow/
$7,400 in wages] for the American personnel at Burtonwood. The mission meant crossing the Peak District, but, at just over 600m tall, this range of hills was hardly the Himalayas or the Andes. The journey should have been no problem. It was routine.

The crew took off at 10:15 that morning. Thick, low-lying cloud hung over the Peak, and visibility was poor. Again, no problem. The B29 was still a technologically advanced aircraft back in 1948, and her instruments were more than capable of guiding the plane and her crew safely onwards.

It’s not clear what happened next. At just before 11am, it appears that the crew made a miscalculation. Believing they had cleared the higher ground of the Peak, they began their descent towards Manchester and to Burtonwood beyond. Tragically, they were wrong. Descending too early, Over Exposed smashed into Bleaklow close to the summit at Higher Shelf Stones, erupting into a ball of flame. Had they begun their descent just three or four hundred metres further on, they might just have cleared the summit and made it in one piece.

The Attempted Rescue, and the Scale of the Tragedy

Much of the wreckage was left on the mountainside to serve as a reminder of what happened here.

Visibility was so bad that no one saw the B29 go down, not even the two other planes flying the same mission to Burtonwood. When Over Exposed failed to materialise out of the cloud at the American base, it became clear that something terrible had happened. In a small stroke of good fortune on an otherwise luckless day, the RAF Mountain Rescue Service was on a training exercise on Kinder Scout to the south west of Bleaklow.

Called into action, the RAF crew headed for Higher Shelf Stones, but they could not reach the crash site until 16:30 that afternoon. Met with a horrifying site – man and metal scattered across the desolation of the moor – the rescuers confirmed Burtonwood’s worst fears. Over Exposed was lost, and there were no survivors.

The names, roles, and ranks of the men lost on that day are:

The Pilot

  • Captain Landon P. Tanner

  • The Co-pilot

  • Captain Harry A. Stroud

  • The Engineer

  • Sergeant Ralph W. Fields

  • The Navigator

  • Sergeant Charles R. Wilbanks

  • The Radio Operators

  • Sergeant Gene A. Gartner
  • Sergeant David D. Moore

  • The Camera Crew

  • Sergeant Saul R. Banks
  • Sergeant Donald R. Abrogast
  • Sergeant Robert I. Doyle
  • Private William M. Burrows

  • The Photographic Advisor

  • Captain Howard E. Keel

  • The Passengers

  • Corporal Clarence M. Franssen
  • Corporal George Ingram Jr.

  • The Bleaklow Crash Sites

    Heading northeast away from Higher Shelf Stones, there are still eerie reminders of what occurred here in 1948.

    Over Exposed was not the first plane to go down on Bleaklow. In 1939, a Bristol Blenheim aircraft crashed on Sykes Moor during a training flight, killing both men onboard. In August 1941, two more RAF men were killed when their Boulton Paul Defiant flew off course and hit Bleaklow Stones, and were not discovered for almost a month. In December that same year, a Blackburn Botha collided with Round Hill on Bleaklow in poor visibility, resulting in the death of its pilot.

    In 1943, a Vickers Wellington came down on Birchen Bank Moss during a night flight, killing three crew members and injuring two more. The injured navigator and wireless operator are to date the only two people to survive a crash on Bleaklow. In 1945, two separate incidents killed 13 people, after an Avro Lancaster collided with James’ Thorn and a Douglas Dakota hit Shelf Moor. Poor visibility was a contributing factor in both crashes.

    Tragically, Over Exposed was not the last plane to suffer this fate either. In December 1956, an air traffic controller at Burtonwood – by this point an RAF base – misidentified an American De Havilland Beaver, sending her into a premature descent at Bramah Edge. Both the pilot and the passenger lost their lives.

    Part 3: Completing the Loop, and Other Options

    It can be difficult going, particularly in winter.

    After leaving the crash site, continue eastwards along the tangle of footpaths until the trail begins to solidify again. Choosing to take the direct route will see you tumbling up and down the moraines of peat cloughs that characterise this landscape, and be advised that you are likely to encounter more wreckage in some of these depressions.

    Around a mile further on, you will reach another big crossroads on the moor. Ahead of you, to the east, the Alport River weaves its way across the moor. To the north, the well-defined Bleaklow trail continues, to Bleaklow Head – another of the mountain’s summits – with short deviations westwards from the trail to the Hern Stones and the Wain Stones along the way. From Bleaklow Head, there is the rather more arduous trail eastwards across the plateau to Bleaklow Stones – the easternmost of Bleaklow’s 600+ metre summits. There’s a good view of the Derwent Watershed from here, as well as the feeling of accomplishment that comes from having crossed the Bleaklow Plateau.

    The simplest way to complete the loop, however, is just to head south. The path is good here, with well-maintained flagstones leading a curved course back southwards, following the line of Crooked Clough and depositing you back at Snake Pass. This is probably going to be the busiest part of the walk, no matter what time of day, or what time of year, you decided to set out.

    The Higher Shelf Stones – A Few Things to Keep in Mind

    The wintry majesty of Bleaklow.

  • Remember that the B29 crash site is a memorial, and the location of significant loss of life in a tragic incident – be respectful during your visit.
  • Some of the trails are great, others less so – you’ll need sturdy hiking boots to navigate the terrain.
  • The loop WILL get busy during weekends and public holidays.
  • While you’re never far from the car, bear in mind that conditions can change quickly up here.
  • Paths may disappear completely during winter snows, and even the main flagstone trail can become treacherously icy.
  • Try to stay on paths whenever you can – although admittedly this is not always possible. Aim to protect the fragile moorland ecosystems.
  • The route is accessible by car from Manchester and Sheffield – park only in the designated parking areas.
  • Bus routes also serve this part of the peak – you can catch a train to Glossop and take the 257 bus up to Snake Pass. Be advised that the bus only runs on Sundays.

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