Now within Greater Manchester, Rochdale has been around since at least the 11th century when it was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The town rose to prominence through the woollen trade in the 18th century and then went into overdrive as a textile manufacturing mill town in the 19th century.
A striking monument to the boom days is the town hall, one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the UK. The modern Co-operative Movement, also a product of the industrial period, was born in Rochdale in 1844 when the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers set up a shop in the town, and the very building has been turned into a museum.
1. Rochdale Town Hall
Often hailed as one of the UK’s greatest municipal buildings, Rochdale Town Hall is a Gothic Revival wonder designed by William Henry Crossland and opened in 1871. The clock tower, soaring over the Esplanade and the River Roch, is actually a replacement, as the original burnt down in 1883, to be redesigned by Alfred Waterhouse along the same lines as Manchester Town Hall.
Take some time to appreciate the main facade from the car park, where the portico with three pointed arches is crested by four gilded lions.
Further up you can make out Rochdale’s coat of arms, along an embattled parapet decorated with gargoyles.
Public tours are given on the first Monday of the month, and it’s a chance to grab with both hands, to explore the labyrinth of corridors, the Great Hall, Mayor’s Parlour and old Magistrates’ Retiring Room and enjoy a 15-minute recital on the James Jepson Binns organ installed in 1913.
2. Hollingworth Lake
Excavated in 1800 to feed the Rochdale Canal, Hollingworth Lake evolved into a tourist escape in the Victorian period.
You can see why, as the reservoir has a location full of drama, looking north and east to the Pennines and the distant gritstone escarpment of Blackstone Edge.
Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the Channel in 1875, trained at Hollingworth Lake.
Since the 1970s the lake has belonged to Rochdale Council as a country park and has been revived as a leisure amenity.
There’s an activity centre on the west bank for sailing, kayaking and canoeing, rowing and windsurfing.
Around the shore to the north is the visitor centre, which houses a cafe, a permanent exhibition of local heritage and wildlife and a small art gallery.
You can also pick up a fishing licence at the centre, and see if you can land one of the lake’s many carp, roach, tench, bream and perch.
In a lovely Historicist building made from Yorkshire stone, Touchstones is a town museum, art gallery, visitor information centre and study centre.
The venue is the Central Library, Museum and art Gallery, dating from 1883 and extended in 1903 and 1913. As a museum, Touchstones uncovers Rochdale’s human and natural history, charting the cotton mills, Rochdale Canal and the advent of the railway, and showing how the landscape was cut by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
You’ll also be introduced to some important Rochdale locals like the Victorian photographer Roger Fenton and the broadcaster John Peel.
Like the museum display, the art gallery is on a constant rotation, calling on a collection of 1,600 pieces by the likes of L. S. Lowry, Charles Burton Barber, Jeremy Critchlow and Jeffrey Edwards.
In spring 2019, “What if We Tried?” was an attempt to hang as much of the collection in a single exhibition, across three galleries.
4. Rochdale Canal
The namesake canal cuts through the south side of Rochdale on its 32-mile course from Castleford Basin in Manchester to Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire.
Built at the turn of the 19th century, this was a major navigable waterway for its 14-foot-width, accelerating the Industrial Revolution in the region and acting as a highway for cotton, wool, timber, limestone, salt and coal.
Traffic had dried up by the 1920s, and the canal was eventually closed to boats in 1952. But since its restoration was completed in 2002, the Rochdale Canal is one of the few historic waterways that is navigable on its entire length.
Of the 92 original locks, 91 remain, as locks three and four have been merged into one.
And if you want you could walk the 32 miles, or simply break out into the countryside south and east of Rochdale for Pennine scenery and industrial history (the section in the centre of town is a bit gritty).
5. Healey Dell Nature Reserve
Only a couple of miles from Rochdale town centre, Healey Dell is in dense woodland on the tight banks of the tumbling River Spodden.
Here the river has hewn a sharp gorge, and bubbles over rapids and waterfalls that once drove, corn, wool and cotton mills.
Best of all though is the Victorian viaduct spanning the gorge.
This was built in 1867 for a long defunct railway and is a fantastic viewpoint 30 metres over the river.
Faint traces of industrial archaeology await along the river at what’s left of the Broadley Wood Mill, Stone Rubbing Mill and Th’Owd Mill l’th Thrutch.
6. Healey Dell Heritage Centre and Tea Rooms
In the nature reserve’s converted ranger office there’s now an exhibition about the dell’s industrial heritage and a quaint tearoom.
This Victorian building was restored in 2013, and has quickly become essential to any visit to the reserve.
You can come for a light meal, high tea or decadent chocolate fondue, or to peruse the heritage room, which also puts on short-term exhibitions by local artists.
The centre is open on Fridays and weekends, and your meal or tea will often be accompanied by a musician on the baby grand piano.
7. Tandle Hill Country Park
Between Rochdale and Oldham is 110 acres of verdant grassland and haunting mature beech woodland.
When the weather is good Tandle Hill affords romantic views over the Manchester Plain, the Pennines and even across to the Welsh mountains.
You can visit the countryside centre in the park, which has picnic tables out front and presents information about the park’s wildlife and the history of the area.
You could pick up a leaflet on birds regularly sighted at Tandle Hill, and try to spot a lesser redpoll, twite, song thrush or bullfinch.
There’s a children’s play area with a sand pit, while the cafe is open most weekends.
8. Greenbooth Reservoir
There are spellbinding walks to be had at this string of four moorland water reservoirs to the north-west of Rochdale.
The three upper reservoirs to the north were completed in 1846 in the steep valley above the village of Greenbooth.
But as Rochdale grew in the post-war years another reservoir was needed, and so the village was wiped from the map.
The lower reservoir was opened in 1965, and on the side of the dam is a plaque in memory of the village.
There’s a choice of walking loops on this natural ledge overlooking Greater Manchester, letting you explore the landscape for anything from 30 minutes to several hours.
In this rugged Pennine setting you’ll be in the company of flocks of sheep, and will have views to savour to the south, and across to Yorkshire in the east.
9. Rochdale Pioneers Museum
The building at 31 Toad Lane is enshrined in history as the place where the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers started trading in 1844. This was an early consumer co-operative made up of skilled workers like weavers, who were being thrown into poverty by the increased mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution.
The aim was to provide high-quality basics like sugar, tea, butter, tobacco and flour at affordable prices, and the Rochdale Pioneers laid down the foundation for all modern co-operatives around the world.
The pioneers moved out of 31 Toad Lane in 1867, but the Co-operative Movement bought the building and turned it into a museum in 1931. The museum offers context, showing the climate in the mid-19th century, and outlining the principles of the textile manufacturer Robert Owen (1771-1858), one of the founders of utopian socialism and the co-operative movement.
You’ll learn how co-ops helped set the ball rolling for 20th-century reforms involving women’s rights, education and poverty.
10. Ellenroad Engine House
The world’s largest working steam mill engines, Victoria and Alexandra are caged in the engine house of a former spinning mill.
The mill itself, dating to 1890 and rebuilt in 1916, was pulled down in 1982, but the engine house and its boiler chimney were saved.
Victoria and Alexandra were installed in 1917 and together form a twin tandem compound steam engine capable of 3000 hp and so believed to be the most powerful in existence.
Also in working order are Ellenroad’s mill pilot generator engine and sprinkler pump, as well as two more engines sourced from other factories, and the remnants of a third currently being restored.
Victoria and Alexandra are woken from their sleep during Steaming Days on the first Sunday of the month.
There are non-steaming days weekly on Tuesdays, Sundays (outside the first Sunday) and on the first Saturday of the month, when the engine house is open and you can take a look around.
11. Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum
A few landmarks in fire-fighting history have taken place in Manchester.
England’s first municipal fire service was set up here in 1826, while the first ever motorised fire engine in the country was put into service in Eccles in 1901. At Rochdale’s Art Deco fire station, dating to the 1930s, there’s a free museum open Friday and Sunday and recounting this history of fire fighting in the Manchester region.
The museum plunges you into specific time periods, like a Victorian street scene and the depths of the Manchester Blitz in autumn/winter 1940. There are 23 large-scale appliances to inspect, among them a hand-drawn pump from 1741, hose carts from 1900 and 1904, and a fine Dennis Metz 125-ft turntable ladder from 1957.
12. Queen’s Park, Heywood
This Green Flag park came about after the wealthy local merchant Martin J. Newhouse died in 1873. He didn’t make a will so his estate went to Queen Victoria, who donated it back to Heywood.
With those funds, the town built a dignified park for its residents, on the ground sloping down to the River Roch.
Queen’s Park has held onto its Victorian layout, and monuments like the Lodge House and Victoria Fountain.
Awaiting you here is a riverside path, a lake, a visitor centre, a cafe, play areas for little ones, formal flowerbeds, bowling greens and spaces reserved for wetlands and wildlife.
The visitor centre puts on a small exhibition about the history of the park, while lake’s island is inhabited by a large flock of herons.
13. St Edmund’s Church
Now redundant as a place of worship, St Edmund’s Church is Grade I listed and an astounding piece of Victorian religious architecture, blending neo-Gothic with Masonic symbolism.
It was commissioned by the industrialist and freemason Albert Hudson Royds, and was designed, built and decorated to exceptionally high standards.
The degree of Masonic symbolism at St Edmund’s is unheard of in UK churches, and is inescapable in fittings like the hammerbeam roof (embellished with lilies, water-lilies and pomegranates), the lectern, weathervane and in the stained glass windows.
The Royds Chapel is a high point, featuring a window evoking Nehemiah and Ezra, and depicting the Masonic outer guard, the Tyler, holding the Tyler’s sword.
You can also make out an image of Solomon’s Temple, and eagle-eyed observers will see Hudson Royd’s likeness in one of the master masons here.
14. St Leonard’s Church, Middleton
A few miles south of Rochdale proper, but still in the borough, Middleton’s parish church is also a Grade I monument and merits a closer look.
Most of St Leonard’s is from the 1520s, with a few earlier remnants like the south arcade, south porch and tower from the 1410s, and the priest’s door dating back a century before that.
The church was completed in a Perpendicular Gothic style by Sir Richard Assheton as thanks for the knighthood he received for his role in the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Make sure to see the Flodden Window in the sanctuary, thought to be the UK’s oldest war memorial.
St Leonard’s also has a tremendous array of monumental brasses from the 1500s and 1600s, among which is the only brass depicting a Civil War officer in full armour.
15. East Lancashire Railway
Heywood in Rochdale is a terminus for a 12-mile heritage railway extending north to Rawtenstall in Lancashire.
The East Lancashire Railway was established in 1846 and was eventually absorbed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway in 1859. This was closed to passenger services in 1972 and restoration has been ongoing since 1986. As of 2019 there are seven stops on the line, with a new halt opened at Burrs Country Park.
It’s as if the South Pennine landscape, littered with Victorian townscapes and cotton mills, was made to be traversed by steam locomotive.
For the younger generation the line is a way to sample the sights, smells and sounds of a forgotten era.
The timetable is busiest between April and September, when there are services from Wednesday to Sunday.
The line has a calendar of special events, like an Ale Trail, 1940s Weekend, Ghost Trains at Halloween and a regular “Wizard Academy” with a nod to Harry Potter.