Lockdown Diary 7 – Medieval Heaton Moor: Moats and Field Systems

Back to a more obviously historical theme this week.   When the lockdown relaxed I went for a socially distanced evening walk with Dave from the history group around Heaton Moor golf club.  I already knew about the site of Peel Moat, which Dave was planning to show me – but what we also saw was a much more extensive medieval site, as far as I know not recorded elsewhere…

Peel Moat itself is the site of a moated medieval hall, built at some point between about 1250 and 1450.   Described as a “pleasant and breezy spot” by the members the Cheshire and Lancashire Antiquarian Society who visited in 1885 (see online – Proceedings of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarians Society, May 17th 1899), it is now at the beginning of the 15th hole!

Peel Moat – looking across the moat from the north east corner to the platform in the middle

The hall would have stood on the raised, roughly square, platform of land, 24 by 26 metres.   This platform is surrounded by a sizeable moat, which varies in width from 6 metres to a considerable 18 metres on the east side.  It’s hard to make all this out from the photos, but the first one is taken from the north east corner looking over to the central area where the hall was built – you can see a wide area of lilies and waterlogged land in the dip of the moat.  The platform of land in the middle is the teeing off point for women players and they have to clear the moat and not hit the trees to get to the hole.   Historic England mentions that the waterlogged land is full of interesting organic remains – Dave noted that it is also full of golf balls!  If we’d had more time he was keen to root around in the lilies to retrieve them…

Peel Moat – looking across the moat from the central “island” platform

The interpretation of the site is a little confusing.  Historic England describes it as a moated site, which are quite widespread (there are about 6,000 in England), and are found particularly in the central and eastern parts of the country.  They tended to be symbols of power rather than serving a defensive purpose. 

But taking the name as a clue, it was perhaps more likely to have been a peel tower, square sided stone towers found from Cheshire to the Scottish borders, in increasing numbers the further north you travel.  These were generally built from the 1400s onward.  There is a good example in Fenney Bentley in Derbyshire (Fenney Bentley Old Hall) which has been incorporated into a farm house.  The fact that so many were built along the Scottish border suggests that they also had a defensive purpose – in addition many of those further north look like small castles.  However we interpret Peel Moat, it would have been the home of someone of considerable social importance in the area.

Fenney Bentley Old Hall, showing the peel tower at the front

There is some evidence of a building in the middle and foundations were still visible in the nineteenth century, but the fate of the tower is uncertain.  The antiquarian visitors in the 1880s and 1890s noted an entry in the Didsbury parish registers for May 4th 1748 – “buried John Hulme of Didsbury from ye Peel”, suggesting that the site was still inhabited at this point.  An old man in the 1890s stated that “Owd Oliver” [Cromwell] had destroyed the tower during the English Civil War, while an old woman said that “the place was let in by a storm… or by an earthquake”.  But the most likely thing is that the building was simply abandoned and gradually fell into disrepair.  If it was built of stone the stone blocks would probably have been removed for other building work. 

The account in the 1890s of mentions a similar moated site in Rusholme “in the margin of the Rush Brook”, in a place called Castle Hill, which was probably on Moss Lane East.  The level of housing development during the nineteenth century would probably have destroyed any evidence of the site.

Ridge and Furrow field system – near the 15th hole

Walking away from the moat, the most noticeable thing in the low evening sunshine was the shadows cast across the golf course.  These revealed that, far from being flat as I would expect, much of the golf course is patterned with low parallel ridges, not unlike the texture of corrugated iron sheeting.  These are evidence of ancient farming methods and are known as ridge and furrow – they are also evidence of the open field system which existed before the enclosures of the late eighteenth century.  They were formed by continuous horse drawn ploughing along the same lines, with the earth from the plough creating the ridge and the plough itself the furrow.   There would also have been ploughing along the ridge, but the main build-up of soil along the ridge was not affected by this.  The diagram explains it a little better!  The shape of the ridges provided good drainage for the crops, with the water running off into the furrows.

Ridge and Furrow formation

We can’t be sure of the dates of the fields.  The earliest ridge and furrow survives from about 800, and it was still being used in places as late as early nineteenth century, but it is most likely to date from the Middle Ages or, perhaps, the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. 

The survival of the field system, and that of Peel Moat, is probably mainly thanks to its location in the grounds of Mauldeth Hall and the golf course itself, which would have protected the area from development for housing and industry.  Even in the countryside most of ridge and furrow has been destroyed by modern farming techniques. The golf course is accessible to the public, with footpaths passing next to Peel Moat and across the ridge and furrow – I would recommend an evening walk to catch the lengthening shadows across the ridge and furrow.  I’m not aware of any reference to this field system, so if anyone has any information please send a message. Finally, thanks to Dave for showing me around.

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