Sitting in plain view, but easy to miss, in front of a row of terraced houses on the A6 near the junction with Cringle Road is a weathered milestone. I have passed by many times over the years without noticing it, still less thinking about its story and the hidden history of the road. This post looks at the stretch of the A6 between this way marker and another in Longsight, and considers the evidence of what was once one of the most important long distance roads in England.
Why was the A6 an important road?
A clue to road’s importance can be seen in Stockport where an early twentieth century signpost shows that London is 182 ½ miles in one direction, while Carlisle is 118 ½ miles to the north. The A6 was for centuries one of the key routes linking London to the north of the country. The road, and others leading to the capital, grew in importance during the later 1600s. By 1700 London had a population of about half a million and, as it grew, was becoming increasingly dependent on supplies from the provinces, the north included.
What does the Levenshulme milestone tell us?
Although the milestone in Levenshulme is weathered and damaged by pollution it is still possible to make out some of the lettering on its two sides. On the side facing Stockport, for travellers heading towards Manchester, the words “Miles” and “Manchester” can just be deciphered. The other side, for travellers heading south, is too badly eroded to make any sense of the letters, but it would have once shown the distance to Stockport.
The way marker comes from a time when travel was very different from now and when the landscape of the area was unrecognisable. The ordnance survey map from 1845 reveals a stretch of countryside with few familiar landmarks. This part of the A6, then called the Manchester and Stockport Road was obviously there, as was Broom Lane, forking off to the right as you travelled to Manchester. The railway linking Manchester to Crewe was being opened in stages from 1840, representing the future of travel, and Black Brook is still visible south of McDonald’s and KFC. But all around were fields, cottages and farms, so the milestone would have stood out to those travelling in stagecoaches or on horseback.
The map marks the milestone (MS), showing its importance and telling us that it was 4 miles to Manchester and 2 miles to Stockport. Way markers served a crucial function for travellers. For long journeys by coach or horse the milestones told travellers of the next town where they could rest, get food and drink, and a change their horses for the next stage of their journey.
What is the story of The Packhorse pub?
A mile to the north The Packhorse pub, now Jandol Restaurant, was for hundreds of years an important coaching inn. The current impressive building was constructed in 1907, but it was first licensed in 1587, when Levenshulme was little more than a collection of cottages, so it wasn’t built just for the locals. We can’t be sure what the original pub would have looked like, but a photo from about 1890 shows The Packhorse as it would have appeared from probably the early 1800s –a large coaching inn, for both long distance and more local travellers. At the front was the mounting block, a set of stone steps to help riders get on their horses and the gates at the side, kept in the 1907 rebuilding, led to the stables. Apparently the mounting block survived until very recently. The other clue is, of course, its name – the Packhorse. Packhorses were the simplest and cheapest way to move goods at a time when roads were notoriously potholed and difficult for travel. So, no doubt, the stables would have seen a mix of packhorses and stagecoaches during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
How did the Midway pub get its name?
At the other end of Levenshulme stood another grand Edwardian pub, The Midway. The Midway was also licensed early, in 1604, and this coupled with its size and location might indicate another coaching inn. In fact, a photo of the Midway House, as it was then known, in the late nineteenth century, shows a very modest hostelry – more of a country pub than the grand Packhorse. The Midway was also rebuilt in 1907, and is more of a reflection of the changes that were taking place in the area at the time, with a massive expansion of housing and industry. The name comes from its location. Looking at the OS map from 1845 it is very close to another milestone (now lost), showing that it stands at the midway point between Manchester and Stockport, three miles in each direction.
Although not a coaching inn, the Midway was a stopping point for the omnibus to Manchester. A very evocative description of the inn, and the rural atmosphere of Levenshulme in the 1860s, can be found in the writings of the Rochdale poet Edwin Waugh. “I went up to Levenshulme, to spend the afternoon with an old friend of mine, a man of studious habits, living in a retired part of that green suburb… After tea, he came with me across the fields to the “Midway Inn,” on Stockport Road, where the omnibuses call on their way to Manchester. It was a lovely evening, very clear and cool, and twilight was sinking upon the scene. Waiting for the next omnibus, we leaned against the long wooden watering-trough in front of the inn. The irregular old building looked picturesque in the soft light of declining day, and all around was so still that we could hear the voices of bowlers who were lingering upon the green, off at the north side of the house, and retired from the highway by an intervening garden.” (from Home-life of the Lancashire Cotton Folk during the Cotton Famine, 1862 – reprinted from the Manchester Examiner and Times)
The Waggon and Horses – another coaching inn?
A few miles further to the north, on a stretch of the A6 that in 1845 was called the London Road, stood a large pub called the Waggon and Horses until its demolition in the 1990s. I used to drink there as a student in the early 1980s, and remember its mock Tudor exterior and a cavernous interior, by then rather sparsely populated with customers. The black boarding on the outside and leaded windows were probably an Edwardian attempt to give the building an ancient patina, even though the pub dated back to 1690 anyway. Comparing the photos from the 1890s and 1970s, the original building appeared pretty much intact until it was demolished.
The Waggon and Horses shared many of the same features as the Packhorse, indicating that it too was a coaching inn. A worn and well used mounting block stood at the front, visible on the photos and still there until the 1990s. At the side on Birch Lane was a large gate leading to stables, its name made the link to transport and goods, while its location, on the main road from the North West to London, supports the idea of a staging post for travellers.
A final survival of the historic importance of the road is another stone way marker, very close to the site of the Waggon and Horses. Like the Levenshulme milestone, this is also badly damaged, but it is possible to make out “The [Town]ship”– either referring to Manchester or Stockport.
Was the Levenshulme to Longsight section of the A6 a turnpike road?
As transport expanded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the growth of London and industrialisation, the need to improve the roads also increased. In theory the maintenance of roads had been the responsibility of the local parishes and communities, but in practice they had been neglected and some were virtually impassable. Turnpike trusts, established by acts of Parliament, were set up to upgrade and repair sections of the roads, using tolls as a way of recompensing private investors. This led to a speeding up of road transport – the journey from Manchester to London by road fell from 90 hours in 1700 to 24 hours in 1787.
It is unclear whether our section of the A6 was a turnpike. Certainly many sections from Carlisle to London were, and the existence of coaching inns and milestones, suggests that this may have been the case. Another compelling piece of evidence is a property boundary map that came with our house deeds in the post a few weeks ago, drawn up in 1893, that clearly marks the “Turnpike Road”.
Although only covering a short section of the road, careful observation and detective work has revealed a lot of hidden history. The milestones and coaching inns show its importance, both before the industrial revolution and during its early years, while the siting of rail and road, side by side, illustrates the changing nature of transport during the C19, from the slow travel by horse and stagecoach along the “Turnpike Road” to the speed of the new steam trains. It would not be long before industry and dense housing followed, changing Levenshulme from open countryside to what we know today.
With thanks to Jez Hall for alerting me to Edwin Waugh’s comments on the Midway.