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 8 – Skiing for Refugees in Reddish Vale

As the sun beats down on a glorious June morning I’ve chosen to write about something very unseasonal – skiing in Reddish!  At first it seems an unlikely story.  But looking at the incline of the slopes along the Tame valley you can see why two Norwegian students at Manchester University were inspired to stage one of Greater Manchester’s more unusual sporting events over two days in early March 1960.

1960 was World Refugee Year, and Lars Eie and Erik Hoff, members of the Manchester University Skiing Club, came up with a novel idea to raise money for the cause.  With the help of the Students Union, they combined their desire to help refugees and their love of skiing by organising an international ski jumping competition.   

The obstacles to their plans were considerable.  Firstly they had to find a suitable site with large slopes – Reddish Vale was chosen because of the steep sides to the valley, on the Denton side of the river.  They also needed to extend the height of the jump an extra 40 feet – this was done by constructing a scaffolding platform.   In a nice touch, Stones the scaffolders proudly put an advertising hoarding at the top of the run.  The final slope measured over 100 feet, allowing for a maximum jump of 130 feet. 

Finally, the biggest problem – they needed to find the snow.   It was very unlikely to be snowing in Reddish in March, so 10 tons were dug from Devil’s Elbow in the Scottish Cairngorms and immediately transported to Reddish in sealed lorries.  The snow had been treated with ammonium chloride to stop it melting and extra artificial snow was brought from Chester.   The Saturday was a very sunny day, and an army of volunteers spent two hours laboriously spreading the snow on the run.  This provided a thin and rather narrow covering for the ski slope, enough for the competitors but not for the bottom of the jump, which had to be covered with cut grass for a soft landing!  It looks like vegetation was also put at the side of the ramp in case the jumpers skied off target.

The event attracted huge crowds over the weekend of the 5th and 6th March.  15,000 people crowded into the Vale, each paying 2/6  to watch skiers from Norway and Britain compete on what was at the time the largest artificial ski slope built in Britain.   In addition to the main competition the crowds were entertained with “acrobatics and fancy jumping”.  What the “fancy jumping” involved isn’t clear, but the whole event must have been a completely new and exotic experience for the spectators, very few of whom had probably ever been skiing or even been abroad. 

According to local news reports “none of the British skiers did outstandingly, but at least one of them earned commendations from the Norwegians when they learned how little practice they had had” – memories of Eddie the Eagle come to mind!The winner, in the second round, was the Norwegian Arve Johnsen, who “swept forward and into the air with arms spread like wings, and came down with perfect balance knee deep in the grass at the bottom.  He had jumped 106 feet.

Overall the weekend of skiing was a great success.   Despite the weather being sunny, and the fears of the people attending, the snow didn’t melt.  Money was raised for World Refugee Year and the competition even made the national newspapers, with an article and photo in The Times.  The event was never repeated, but the possibility of further skiing in Reddish Vale re-emerged in the 1990s, with plans for a snow dome being discussed.   By then the area had become a very well used country park and there were widespread objections, so the plans were shelved.

The local press account from the time shows how doubters were challenged by the enthusiasm of the two students. “Not a few local cynics scoffed at first when the scaffolding was going up and the snow had not yet arrived.  But by the time the jumpers began to take off, the two young Norwegian students had shown that bad weather – or rather the wrong sort of weather for a skier – need not stop anybody… This example would leave British Industrial cities with no excuse for much of their dullness.”

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.

Lockdown Blog 2 – Coppicing and Wood Hall, Reddish

Coppiced Sycamore Tree, Reddish

I’ve become slightly obsessed with Reddish Vale and the Tame Valley during lockdown. It’s a relatively wild strip of countryside, reaching to within a mile of Stockport town centre, and it’s looking glorious this spring, the woods carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. There are also many clues to the local history of the area – mysterious cobbled roads, fragments of masonry and walls half hidden by undergrowth. So expect many more posts about the Vale!

On a walk last week on the Reddish side of the valley I spotted this sycamore tree. It’s an unusual shape with a number of tall straight shoots growing from the original trunk and is good example of a coppiced tree. Coppicing is a very ancient form of woodland management. Trees would be cut down to just above ground level, allowing straight shoots to grow from the sides of the trunk. These were usually harvested quite young, the poles being used for fencing, handles, posts, thatching spars and for many other purposes. They were also used for producing wood to be made into charcoal, needed for smelting iron. There would be a constant supply of new shoots growing each year, so it was a very effective use of the resource.

The coppiced sycamore tree at Reddish has been left to grow, presumably when the practice went out of use, so the straight shoots are now the size of small trees. It is on the site of Wood Hall and Wood Hall Farm, and is interesting evidence of land management on the estate. The first definite reference to Wood Hall (“Wode Hall”) is in 1501/02 and it is clearly marked on a map of 1818/19. During the Civil War, Wood Hall was owned by Henry Stanley, a supporter of Charles I – Stanley had to pay to get his property back after it was requisitioned by Parliament. His brother was a staunch supporter of Parliament and died from wounds he received at the siege of Manchester in 1642, showing how the war often split families.

Johnson’s Map – 1818/19 (published 1820)

By the 1890s Wood Hall Farm had been built next to the Hall, but sadly neither have survived – the Hall had been demolished by 1960 and the Farm by the mid 1970s. The pond shown on the map has survived and contains a number of Koi carp!

Wood Hall Farm

Postscript

When I was walking nearby yesterday I had a chat with an 80 year old local resident who reminisced about stacking the sheaves of corn on one of the farm’s fields. The field is now covered in tree growth.

Stook - Wikipedia

Trip to Stockport – St Mary’s Church and Staircase House

On a very cold January afternoon, after a morning flurry of snow, the group braved the elements for visit to the old heart of Stockport. We began our visit to St Mary’s Church, located on the edge of the market place of the old medieval town. The large parish church was originally medieval, but only the original chancel survives, and the rest of the church dates from 1813. Apparently the locals were ringing the bells with such enthusiasm after the victory at Trafalgar that the tower and church were in danger of collapsing and had to be demolished.

We spent a fascinating hour at the church and, in particular, the heritage centre in the vestry. This contains a remarkable collection of local photos and exhibits and can be recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of the area. The volunteers at the centre were very helpful and well informed.

Roberta studying hard in the heritage centre

After fortifying ourselves with hot drinks we continued our trip with a tour of Staircase House, a rare survival of a merchant’s house that spans the centuries from the later middle ages to the Victorian period. The house is a warren of rooms, each dressed for the different eras with period furniture and fittings. It provides an illuminating insight into the evolution of a domestic building, its building materials and functions, and you feel as if you are stepping back in time as you pass through the rooms. Some of the group found the uneven floors and the audio guide tricky to navigate (particularly the audio guide set to German!), but overall it was an excellent trip and can be heartily recommended! Many hadn’t visited before and are planning a return trip.

Enjoying a well-earned rest
Engaging with new technology…