Our operational patch takes in a variety of terrain – from peaty moorlands, heathered slopes, crags and quarries to field systems, wooded areas, semi–rural farmland and town parks. Not to mention the urban and industrial landscape we are frequently called to work in.
Our border traces a line from Whitefield in the south, heading north east along the M62 beyond Rochdale and Littleborough, before meandering north along the edge of the Pennines towards Earby and the A59. Here it takes a turn south westwards, following the path of the River Ribble past Barnoldswick and Clitheroe until, just short of Preston, it turns south and east, back towards Blackburn, skirting north of Darwen and Bolton and west of Bury, to run parallel to the M66 back down to junction 17 of the M62.
Along the way, we take Bacup, Burnley, Nelson and Colne, Haslingden, Rawtenstall and Water. Not to mention the beautiful Pendle Hill with its picturesque neighbouring villages of Whalley, Sabden and Newchurch.
All volunteers, funded by donations alone, saving lives 24/7 365 days a year
Where did we come from?
The morning of Sunday 25 March 1962 dawned bright and breezy. Just the sort of day for a brisk spring walk across the fells. Three teenagers, a girl aged fifteen, and her brothers aged eleven and eighteen, set off from the village of Chipping, over Parlick Hill and the Bleasdale Fells to the Langden Valley. It’s an isolated valley, even by today’s standards, their route a single faint footpath winding its way through the boulders and heather alongside the three mile length of Langden Beck.
Absorbed by each other’s company, and warmed by the exertion of the walk, maybe they failed to notice the subtly changing weather. But, by the time they came to start back home, the sky was overcast, clouds closing in on the surrounding hills and moorland. The fluttering spring breeze had gathered to gale force, driving gentle rain to sleet and snow as temperatures dropped. As an early darkness descended, the three youngsters would doubtless have felt disorientated and frightened. Certainly, they would have begun to suffer from the cold and exhaustion.
Sensibly, they found some rocks to shelter in for the night but, though the morning brought a slight improvement in the weather, the youngest boy was already unconscious with exposure. The other two decided to move on in an effort to get out of the mist and off the fells, and to find help for their brother.
Meanwhile, their failure to return home had been reported to police around midnight. Local farms and roads were checked, but the deteriorating weather and darkness prevented the police and other helpers from venturing onto the hills until morning. Even then, their search had little success. Until at 10.30am, the girl struggled, exhausted and distressed, off the hills into Saddleside Farm, to report having left one brother in the shelter of rocks and the other collapsed en route to find help.
Following her directions, police found the eighteen year old semi-conscious a the bottom of a steep sided gully, but it was too late. Rushed to Preston Royal Infirmary, some twelve miles away, he was dead on arrival. Two hours later, his eleven year old brother was found – he had been dead for some time. The search had involved over eight policemen, dogs and horses, farmers and a helicopter from British Aircraft Corporation in Warton.
The death of two local teenagers hit the press hard. Demands were made for some sort of search and rescue service for the Lancashire area, similar to that in the neighbouring Lake District. By May, the South Ribble Fell Search and Rescue team was formed, swiftly followed by the Northern Rescue Organisation, both based in the Preston area and within easy travelling distance of the Bleasdale fells, scene of the tragedy. The stage was set for a network of teams in an area which many would question the need for ‘mountain’ rescue – even Pendle Hill, rising conspiratorially at the heart of Lancashire’s ‘witch country’ only manages 1831 feet on a good day – 169 feet short of official recognition as a mountain. Team members might exchange lighthearted banter about their surreptitious efforts to tip the tape measure – but that’s an awful lot of soil to carry up your trouser leg. And, truth be told, they love her just the way she is.
Fifty years and counting has brought more than the odd name change – from Rossendale Fell Rescue Team to Rossendale Search and Rescue Team to the Rossendale and Pendle Mountain Rescue Team of today – the frequency and nature of incidents, and the consequent demands on both the team resources and its members’ time has changed dramatically. Far more than those early volunteers could have imagined.
In recent years, as the popularity of climbing and rock scrambling has grown, so has the incidence of call outs to steeper ground. Typical of this was an incident in 2000, when we were called to Widdop crags to rescue a 34 year old woman. Abseiling down a 40 foot drop on the Minstrel climb, she had caught her glove under the rope at the crag edge. In an effort to free herself, she had instinctively taken her right hand off the rope controlling her descent – rapidly dropping ten foot, hitting a rock block and fracturing her right tibia. Managing to grasp the rope, she lowered herself onto a narrow ledge, where her climbing partner tied her on securely. The pair had been practising their abseiling skills in preparation for a charity event later in the year.
By coincidence, a team member was also climbing in the area. He ran back to his car to call for help, but was forced to drive a short distance to pick up any signal on his mobile phone. Finally able to raise the emergency services, we were called out and the North West Air Ambulance mobilised. Once on the scene, team members climbed up to the twenty foot high ledge to administer pain killers and medical treatment before strapping the casualty to a Bell stretcher and lowering her to safety.
Of course, you don’t have to be climbing or abseiling to fall over and sustain life-threatening injuries. Ian Pote-Faulkener was simply enjoying the sun and fresh air with his family and their pet dog at a favourite picnic spot in Ashworth Valley when he slipped and fell sixty foot, landing on his unfortunate dog. He sustained a punctured lung, broken ribs and suspected liver damage, but lived to tell the tale. Perhaps in no small part due to the speedy care and evacuation he received. Surgeons removed part of his lung and used an incredible 36 pints of blood in the course of treatment and, after four weeks on life support, Ian had little memory of the accident. Several months later, and two stone lighter than his former self, he came along to thank the team for saving his life.
Great to have a happy ending – but sadly, it’s not always so. The most harrowing incidents are those involving missing children, such as the high profile searches for Joe Geeling, Jamie Lavis or Rosie McCann, all of which occupied many hours of team time.
When five year old Rosie was taken from the room in which she slept, police initially asked the neighbouring Oldham team to assist in the search of woodland near her home. But, ultimately, as many as 500 rescue team members from across the north of England – including Rossendale – were involved alongside search and rescue dogs and the RAF. In fact, the incident wonderfully demonstrates the versatility and capability of the mountain rescue service as a whole, the collaboration between the teams on major incidents and the dedication and commitment of its individual team members.
It began on 15 January, 1996. Rosie appeared to have been abducted by thirty one year old Andrew Pountney, her mother’s boyfriend but, when arrested at his home, the little girl was not with him and he denied all knowledge of the abduction. As a swathe of dense fog cloaked the north west, the initial woodland search was extended to include police divers, scouring the lake at Alexandra Park Oldham. The police meanwhile had secured a 36 hour detention order allowing them to keep the boyfriend in custody until 6.00am on the Wednesday. When he appeared in court, later that morning, he was further remanded in custody until Friday, for his own safety, as feelings in the community ran very high. By then ‘Holmes’, the aptly named computer system used by the police to correlate data, would have been investigating possible links with other reports of missing children. Every action would be inputted – street names, times, witness reports, vehicle details – `a veritable cocktail of information through which the computer sifts and searches, making the vital links which drive an investigation. Search parties from three rescue teams were searching the four square miles adjacent to Rosie’s home and a further area close to the town centre. Even the dustbin men were asked to postpone their rounds so that dustbins could be searched for evidence.
As search parties combed the town centre for the third successive day, police were reluctant to extend the search beyond Oldham, believing the person responsible for Rosie’s disappearance had barely enough time to take her any further before the alarm was raised and the search was underway. They appealed for people to search their industrial premises. As time ticked on to a week, and the chances of finding the little girl alive were receding fast, imagine the rush of thoughts and emotions battling it out inside each searcher. Mountain rescue team members are volunteers. They may be highly trained and professional in their approach, but not all are as accustomed to the horrors of human misfortune in the way a paramedic or police officer might be.
The start of a search can be exciting, adrenaline filled. There’s an expectation of success, every single searcher aware that he or she may be the one who finds the missing child. Many have children of their own, able to imagine, all too readily, how they would feel. But as time goes on, there’s a switch. A week of searching, early morning briefings, late night debriefings, standing around in the cold and the fog for hours waiting to be deployed, making excuses to understanding employers and families, fuelled in the main by Thermos coffee and snatched junk food, leads to fatigue and frustration. Filter through this the gradual realisation that this search is no longer about a living person, but a body, and you can see the dilemma – the almost bloody-minded determination to find a child alive, against the dreadful prospect that you may be the one to find her dead.
Actually, it was some weeks before Rosie’s body was found, inside a flight bag, stuffed between two walls on derelict land, a stone’s throw from where the search had been. In fact, the spot was still marked on the map as being a factory – so hadn’t even entered the search parameters, throwing into sharp perspective the way maps are viewed in search management.
As for her abductor, mountain rescue personnel were yet to play a part in his eventual conviction for murder. Caught on a garage forecourt camera, in an area he claimed not to be in at the time, Pountney was seen purchasing a Twix bar and a packet of ten Benson & Hedges. Witnesses reported a young girl in his van. So, the focus moved and team members were tasked to search for the evidence of his purchases. There may well have been hundreds picked up and bagged but the empty fag packet and discarded sweet wrapper which carried Pountney’s DNA were amongst them, his conviction secured.
In Rosie’s case, the role of mountain rescue subtly changed and evolved over a period of a few very intense weeks. It showed all too quickly how a missing person search can turn into a search for a body or, on very rare occasions the hunt for evidence. Sometimes incidents remain on police files for months and years before resolution. Such was the case when a former milkman left his home in Burnley one bitterly cold afternoon in November 1997. Newspaper reports claimed (although it was never confirmed as fact) that, wearing only a lightweight zipped jacket, grey trousers and light coloured shoes, and with just two pounds in his pocket, he set off to return to the hospital where he was a patient. But he never arrived. An immediate search of the moors near a local reservoir by police, the force helicopter and team members found no sign of the missing man. He would feature in team annual incident reports for almost three years. It became a regular call out – even, on one occasion, the subject of a joint exercise with the police.
The very lack of information had convinced police and the team that he or, more accurately at this stage, his body, would be in the locality of the initial search area, an area of open moorland on the fringes of Nelson. In October 1999, it was suggested a new search be mounted under the guise of a police/mountain rescue exercise. Henry Stott, police radio engineer and a former team leader, saw an opportunity to try out his radio systems. Team member Barry Robinson who, as a serving police officer at the time had been involved in the original missing person case, identified an opportunity for even closer co-operation with the police.
Two weeks later, on a chilly November morning, Rossendale & Pendle team members, police officers and the search support unit were joined by the Assistant Chief Constable, John Vine (who was using this as an ideal opportunity to learn more about mountain rescue) but nothing was found that day.
In fact, it was in early July 2000 that a badly decomposed body was found, half submerged in boggy ground at the top of the moors, just two miles from Coldwell reservoir and outside the previous search area. A post mortem later confirmed the body to be that of the missing man. The subsequent inquest heard he had long suffered from severe depression after giving up his milk round – attempting to take his own life with an overdose just days before his disappearance. His wife reported him leaving the house on several occasions saying he wanted to die but, each time, he was found by police. Poignantly, on his last afternoon at home, he rose from the settee, said ‘I am going’ and walked out of the house. Whatever his state of mind, we will never know. There were no marks or injury on the skeleton and, because of the length of time the body had been exposed, pathologist Dr William Lawler was unable to give a cause of death. Most likely he had died from exposure after walking away from the road and tracks.
You might think three years of fruitless searches and the discovery of a body would signal the end of the story for the rescue team? Well, yes – almost. But not quite. Because the problem now was not in locating a missing person, but retrieving his remains from a spot so isolated that detectives had been taken to the scene in a police helicopter. When the call came through, the pager message was short and to the point. ‘Body recovery. Meet base 18.00,’ swiftly followed by another indicating the job could take two to three hours – clearly not a straightforward suicide recovery.
A farm worker rounding up his sheep had found the body, about a mile or so from the nearest vehicle track and a fair distance from any footpaths. A convoy of three vehicles left base, other team members joining them on the way. At the farm, they were met by various police officers, the coroner and the farmer, who had led them along the track and then out over the moors.
It was evident this was not going to be any ordinary body recovery. Three years after death you might expect little but the skeleton to remain. But what team members had not anticipated was the preservative effect of lying down in a peat bog. Apart from the obvious effects of exposure to the elements here was the recognisable figure of a man, specs still gently resting on his chest.
But, in the event, the mechanics of recovering this body were no different to a living casualty – a normal casualty lift but with shovels. Then into the body bag, onto the stretcher, carry off to team vehicle, transfer back down to the road head and over to the waiting undertakers.
We’ve come a long way from those early tentative days when the sole aim was to provide a service to those who became lost or injured in the hills and moorlands surrounding the Rossendale Valley. Today’s team – although still entirely voluntary – offers a skilled, professional resource to the statutory emergency services. The majority of team members have certificates in casualty care and first aid and training covers all aspects of rescue work – stretcher handling, response driving, steep ground work and helicopter training.
When the pager goes off, it might be a call for anything from search advice to full team call out on a missing person search; from the spot pick up of a casualty in a local fell race, through heart attack victim on Pendle hill, to body recovery and transport to the mortuary on behalf of the coroner; from assisting the ambulance service during poor weather conditions to transporting a pregnant woman in labour from a remote farmhouse.
Forty five years have brought changes in radio communications between the team members and with the emergency services, radical improvements in the equipment and vehicles, and vastly superior technical clothing and footwear. The team now has three Land Rover rescue vehicles and a control trailer (which acts as a communications centre during search operations) and we have also seriously outgrown our Clegg Street base. With our new base appeal, we hope to rectify that situation and take the team firmly into the twenty first century. And many more years of mountain rescue service.
Are team members paid?
Categorically no. And we can't emphasise that enough. There's a perception out there that mountain rescue teams are just another department of the statutory emergency services and, as such, paid employees.
In fact, mountain rescue team members are all unpaid volunteers, giving their time freely to be on call 24/7, throughout the year, come rain, shine or snow. We are called out by the police through the 999 system, and work with police, fire and ambulance services as required.
All team members have full time employment, across a variety of professions, with family commitments and homes and lives to run. Apart from a few basic items of kit provided by the team – waterproof jacket and trousers, radio and pager – team members fund their interest in mountain rescue, often travelling some distance to incidents and training exercises in their own vehicles, and leaving their workplace to do so.
What do we do?
Rossendale and Pendle MRT deal with an average of 70 incidents each year, most of which require some sort of medical intervention. So it is absolutely key to the service we provide, not just that we have the specialist equipment to deal wi