WHILE undeniably, steam pushed the Industrial Revolution to its limits, it was water power that got things started.

Lancashire's uplands provided not just the damp atmosphere necessary for cotton production, but the powerful streams needed to turn the water wheels that ran the machinery long before steam power came on the scene. They were also home to the farmers on whom the industry was built.

For a quarter of a century or more, water was the only motive power available to the mill owner.

However, the Industrial Revolution cannot be divided neatly into pre- and post-steam eras. When steam eventually entered the picture, the two systems would run side by side for the best part of a century, and even some of the hill-valley mills converted at least partially to steam, switching to mechanical power in times of drought.

But just as the supermarket eventually forced out the corner shop, coal power would inevitably see off water power in the end and, with the need for waterwheels removed, mills would move down from the hills and into the towns, where workers were more readily available and communications were far easier.

Manchester sits in a natural amphitheatre, circled from the South East to the North West by hills and moorland. The prevailing, moisture-laden winds from the Atlantic unload their rain here as they cross over these high places, and dozens of brooks and streams flow down. They converge into the Rivers Irwell and Mersey, which join west of Manchester and reach the sea at Liverpool.

Many of these moorland waters were harnessed to power the early mills of the revolution. The hills above Manchester's satellite towns of Stalybridge, Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury and Bolton are still scarred by the remains of these early industrial enterprises. By looking at just one valley economy, we can understand how they all developed and thrived.

The Cheesden Valley runs North-South, midway between Bury and Rochdale, and the Cheesden Brook is an inconsequential little stream, rising in the high moors near the village of Turn and flowing through the valley for a distance of maybe six or seven miles before joining the River Roche, which feeds the Irwell near Bury.

Before the coming of industry, the hardy folk who farmed this inhospitable countryside eked out a living by weaving - mostly wool from their own sheep - at the handloom, and the early mills were designed to help them with their supply of yarn and the provision of ancillary services.

Significantly, the Cheesden Valley is just a couple of miles, as the crow flies, from the farmstead at Park, where John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733 to transform handloom weaving and spark off the Industrial Revolution. Coincidentally, another John Kay built Cheesden Valley's Lumb Mill in 1786, as a fulling mill, turning woollens into felted materials.

What sort of life did these early textile workers lead? Richard Ramsbottom, sometimes known as "Great Dicky" or "Dicky o'John's", may have been typical. By day he worked at Cheesden Mill, and afterwards he, his wife, two sons and seven daughters tended their farm, which boasted a couple of cows.

A.W. Sandiford and T.E. Ashworth, whose book The Forgotten Valley tells the story of Cheesden Valley, relate how, every Sunday, the entire family, dressed in their best clothes, would be up early to walk to Park Chapel.

Loomshop ruins Haslingden
EARLY FACTORY ... ruins of late 18th-century loomshops attached to a farmhouse near Haslingden, Lancashire. Up to nine looms were operated here by weavers who rented the space

Ramsbottom was a fine bass singer, all seven daughters sang in the choir and son John played the fiddle. All the family would have been involved each Christmas at Cheesden Pasture, where Handel's Messiah was performed in the mill's schoolroom.

The first mill in the valley was probably that erected at Kershaw Bridge in 1780 by Thomas Allanson. It was a fustian mill and probably used Arkwright's water frames.

John Haworth's Four-Acre Mill was high on the moors above Cheesden and was powered by a 36-foot waterwheel. Haworth, who diverted the waters of a tributary stream to turn his wheel, later built a huge lodge to provide a consistent head of water for himself and other millowners - until then, they had been at the whim of the weather, laying off workers during dry spells and calling them in at all hours when the valley flooded.

Soon, the seemingly short stretch of Cheesden Brook provided power for no fewer than 15 mills and employment for 2,000 workers - proof of the old millers' dictum that water power can be used but never spent.

Bustling communities grew up in what had once been a desolate region. The way of life changed - as powered weaving was introduced, the putting-out system died and with it, the cottage handloom. The first stage of industrialisation was complete.

These moorland mills held their own for more than half a century against their big-town rivals, many finding a niche for themselves, as mainline competition increased, by developing as cotton-waste spinners.

This involved recycling the inner core of yarn cops, which had been stiffened in manufacture by the application of starch paste to avoid the need for separate wooden bobbins. During the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War in the 1860s, these waste mills actually experienced a boom.

However, by the 1870s the writing was on the wall for the moorland mills as they struggled to compete against the economics of their massive rivals in the towns and, before the turn of the century, they had all but vanished.

Today, all that remain to remind us of these once-thriving communities are a few crumbling walls and the odd scrap of rusting ironwork.