Lockdown Diary 11 – Echoes of Country Life

Although lockdown has eased since I last blogged, I’ve decided to keep the name of these posts the same for a while.  They’re still mostly based on walks and cycle rides I took during the strictest period of the lockdown, so the name still seems appropriate.  This post is based on some very early observations I made during the spring – and many thanks to Toni Hunter for her help with the research.

The starting point is a cluster of old houses at the junction of Nelstrop Road North and Marbury Road on the Levenshulme/Reddish border.  When I moved across Levenshulme last August I was surprised to find what appeared to be cottages and farm houses in an area of much more recent housing.  Two are white painted and slate roofed, with substantial gardens, the third is a pair of low adjoining cottages, while the fourth, at the bottom of Nelstrop Lane, is a brick built house dating from about the mid C19.  With a little research (thanks Toni!) I was able to piece together aspects of their stories, while some of the other observations I made add more.

Shore’s Fold – Cherry Tree Cottage on the right, Shore’s Fold Cottage on the left, Shore’s Fold Farm concealed by the trees on the left

The various Ordnance Survey maps from the mid nineteenth century clearly mark the houses.  The 1848 map shows an area of farmland with field boundaries, trees and ponds, surrounding what is in effect a small hamlet, Shore’s Fold.  To the east of Shore’s Fold, Houldsworth Mill would not be built for another 17 years, although the canal had been dug 50 or so years earlier in the 1790s to connect the industrial centres of Stockport, Ashton and Manchester.  The map also names the houses – Shore’s Fold, Cherry Cottage, Yew Tree Cottage and Pink Bank (cottage or farm). 

Shore’s Fold in 1848

The names are linked to ownership or are descriptive.  The most substantial house is Shore’s Fold Farm which was probably named after an owner of the farm – a “fold” is a fenced off area of pasture.   The cottages take their name from their most distinctive features or locations – cherry trees are obviously dramatic when in blossom, and yew trees are very long lived and rich in folklore and legend.  To my mind, most evocative of all are Pink Bank Cottage and Farm, located on what was then Pink Bank Lane (Nelstrop Road North).  Even now, with the Rosebay willowherb in July bloom, the banks of the lane are pink – 150 years ago, before intensive farming, there would have been campion, cranesbill, mallow to add to the colour.  With the exception of Yew Tree Cottage, which had disappeared by 1894, the houses and their names have survived to the present day.

Nelstrop Lane North

Shore’s Fold Farm is a grade 2 listed building and Historic England provides more information about its date and significance.  I had assumed it was eighteenth century at the earliest, but in fact it probably dates from about 1670.  It is an unusual example of a small house with a rectangular, almost double-depth, plan and is linked with the smaller Shore’s Fold Cottage, probably of a similar date and likely to have been built for farm labourers.

Shore’s Fold Farm c. 1670

The 1881 census tells us a little about the people living on the farm.  The head of the household was the 55 year old Samuel Smith, who was originally from Wirksworth in Derbyshire.  Samuel farmed 50 acres, probably a mix of arable and pasture land, and employed two labourers.  He lived at the farm with his wife, Mary, and his two unmarried daughters and son, who would have also helped on the farm. 

The census also lists the splendidly named Joseph and Fanny Claret and their one year old daughter, Martha, living at Shore’s Fold Farm – they were almost certainly living at the adjacent cottage.  The young couple reveal how the area was becoming increasingly industrialised at the time, shifting from simply farming – Joseph worked as a manufacturing chemists’ labourer, and Fanny was an unemployed cotton jack tenter.  The job of a tenter was to stretch dyed or bleached cloth on wooden frames so that it didn’t shrink, using tenterhooks to attach them – hence the phrase “on tenterhooks”.  Fanny may have once worked at Houldsworth Mill, a short walk across the fields.

Shore’s Fold Cottage in the early 1970s
Lane leading to Highfield Farm and House – the houses were located on the right
Highfield Farm – c. 1900

Moving north from Shore’s Fold along the old Pink Bank Lane (Nelstrop Road), you soon arrive at an imposing pair of stone gate posts on the left, more clues about the area’s rural past.  These once led to two substantial houses, Highfield House and Highfield Farm, both still standing in the 1970s and 1980s.   The lane from the gates to site of the houses is lined with mature chestnut, beech and sycamore trees, dating from time of the houses, and an ornate iron gate still marks the entrance to the farm.  Another connection to the farm is the pets’ graveyard concealed in woodland not far from the site of the farmhouse.  The earliest is dedicated to Jim (“1st” was probably added later), who lived from 1925-1936 – presumably a dog.   A later grave is for Jimmie, Farm Dog, born April 4 ’42.  A very recent arrangement of stones and flowers suggests the tradition has continued.

The entrance to Highfield Farm
Jim 1st 1925-1936
Jimmie farm dog born Apr 4 ’42
A more recent pet burial?
Ordnance Survey map 1911 – showing Highfield Farm and the Levenshulme Bleach and Dye Works

In a sense the change in Highfield is the reverse of what we might expect.  The 1911 Ordnance Survey map shows the Levenshulme Bleach and Dye Works right behind the farm, so it would hardly have been an idyllic rural spot at the time.   But while Shore’s Fold has moved from rural to urban, Highfield has reverted back to nature over the past few decades. 

One final discovery in the undergrowth was a well preserved and strangely shaped inscribed brick.  This is a firebrick, manufactured by Poultons of Reading, and would originally have been installed in an industrial kiln, probably for making pottery.  Poultons closed in 1908, so this is well over a century old.  The firebricks are relatively uncommon – one was recently uncovered while building Crossrail, the first to be found in London.  Our firebrick presumably ended up at Highfield when it was the local dump, and connects with Manchester’s industrial past. 

Poultons Kiln Brick – Highfield

Cities, towns, villages, and even the rural landscape go through a constant process of change.   This is particularly true of a city like Manchester – no sooner do we get used to the layout and buildings of the city than the demolition ball flattens them and the skyline is filled by forests of cranes, building taller and taller towers.

But the past resonates in the present with echoes of how life used to be.   These echoes from the past remind us how, although nothing is permanent, the present intersects with the past and much of what we see (and often take for granted) is a physical dialogue between different times.

Lockdown Diary 6 – Shelters and Common Land

Walking through the woods in Highfield Country Park and Reddish Vale, I’ve been struck by how this edgeland, at the margins between city and country, has become real shared space.    People walking dogs, families looking at nature, musicians playing in the open air… they are exercising their rights to the common land, in areas that were once industrial and have now been reclaimed by nature.

Hidden in clearings, camouflaged by the trees, are shelters and the remains of campfires, the embers sometimes still hot, with benches and seats circling around them.   The combination of schools being closed and the beautiful weather has led to children and their parents (and possibly adults?) actively playing, building huts and enclosures.  Some of them are quite ambitious, with sticks woven into roofs, but more often they are sticks leaning against trees forming a sort of wigwam.   What they all show is that, given the opportunity, people like to play outside.  Last year the local history group was visited by two groups from Green End School and we talked about how playing has changed between the generations.   There were obviously differences – children now have games consoles and TVs – but assumptions about children not playing outside were partly wrong; most still enjoyed the open air.

Timber wigwams – Highfield
Substantial shelter – Highfield

The hunter gatherers who lived in the region during the Mesolithic, 10,000 years ago just after the last Ice Age, would almost certainly recognise the shelters built in Highfield and Reddish Vale.  They were not settled in one place, but moved in small collective tribal groups, taking regular routes and returning to the same places in different seasons.   A hazel nut tree I spotted in Highfield would have been an autumn attraction, and they would probably gathered blackberries at the same time, much like people today.   The animals from the period haven’t survived, but they would have hunted deer, wild pigs and aurochs (wild cattle), while hoping to avoid wolves and bears!  The shelters that these Mesolithic people built would have been simple, temporary and rapidly built, using the materials around them.  They would have sat around outdoor fires, sharing their experiences and making tools.  In some parts of the country archaeologists have found the remains of fires from this period, with the debris of stone tool making still on the ground, behind where they sat in a circle.

Reconstruction of a Mesolithic Camp
Campfire – Highfield (unfortunately by the time I took the photo the mobile made of cider cans hanging from the trees had been removed!)

Another shelter I found in Reddish Vale is more like a shrine.   Made from woven wood, the branches are festooned with messages of hope, ribbons, toys.  It reminded me of a tree I saw at a Hindu temple in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago, weighed down with small wooden cots and ribbons, given by people hoping to be blessed with fertility by the gods.   It is also very similar to shrines in Catholic countries.   At some point these may be of interest to future historians, but for now they show a simpler ways of doing things, and people playing and working together, sharing our common land.

Covid fairy tree – Reddish Vale

Milwain Road in the Nineteenth Century – A Rural Idyll?

One of the members of the group brought the deeds of his house to a session.  Amongst the deeds was an interesting map of the Milwain Road area prior to its development for housing.   The map provides a fascinating snapshot of the rural nature of the area bordering Levenshulme and Burnage in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Cringle Brook is clearly marked on the left hand side of the map (the top of the map is roughly west), and the names of the fields give us clues about the landscape at the time – Gorse Field was presumably named after gorse bushes.  The other fields have less original names – Far Pasture, Far Meadow, Long Pasture.  But the curiously named Widow Hole needs further research – it was probably owned by a widow at some point, but who and when is a mystery.  The neighbouring landowners are also shown on the map, James Bibby and Edward Rushton on one side, the trustees of the late Thomas Bibby on the other side.  The Bibbys were presumably the owners of Hyde Fold, but it is not entirely clear from which generation.  There was also a pond in Far Meadow, perhaps a horse pond to keep the farmers’ horses watered.