Monday, 29 September 2008

Chorlton's History - From Agricultural Village to Suburb - by Andrew Simpson

I've known Andrew Simpson for many years now. Recently, we were having a chat in Morrison's and he told me of his interest in Local History. Subsequently, Andrew has shown me what he has learned so far and I'm very impressed by the depth and ambition of his research. In the article below he introduces his project and its objectives:

It takes very little in the way of imagination to place Chorlton in a rural setting. Stand on the Green and all the features of a country village are there. At one end is the lych gate and graveyard, opposite is a half-timbered pub and on the remaining two sides are the old school and a farmhouse.

But the timbers on the Horse and Jockey are no more than 100 years old, and the farmhouse had been the office of a garage for most of the last half century. Even the lych gate only dates from 1888. And yet despite this, the fact remains that for perhaps a thousand years Chorlton was a village which became a suburb of Manchester in less than forty years.

It is difficult today to picture a landscape dominated by farms, fields and open land, but that landscape is only just passing out of living memory. It is this transformation and the story of the people who lived through it that I set out to record.

During the last half of the nineteenth century Chorlton changed from rural village where people farmed the land to a Manchester suburb. What is remarkable is how late the transformation was in happening. There were working farms around the Green till just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The blacksmith on Beech Road continued to serve their needs well after 1900 and in 1907 it was still possible to stand at the corner of Beech and Cross Road and look across fields to the River Mersey.

In 1845 there were 490 acres of arable land, 680 acres of meadow and pasture and 10 acres of woodland. To the north in what is now Whalley Range there was Holt Wood and to the south there were Barlow Wood and Holland’s Wood. Along the river where the land was low lying and liable to flooding the area was mainly given over to meadow. To the east where today the long roads of Longford, Nicholas and Newport run out towards Stretford the area was full of streams and lakes. This area was known as the Isles and provided more meadow and pasture land. Twenty years later there were still eighteen farms, as well as market gardens and orchards.

And this has been the starting point of my story. What was daily life like for the people of Chorlton? And how did a way of life which had lasted for a thousand years end in such a short period of time? Moreover who were these people who saw their village change but who have been lost to history?

In the last few months their lives have become clearer. There was for instance the Nixon family who from the 1840s ran pubs around the village and looked after the post office in what is now Marmalade. They married into the Gresty family who made their living as farm labourers and lived in one of the last wattle and daub houses close to the old parish church. There were the farming families like the Higginbothams, the Whiteleggs and Haysons who ran farms of varying size. Dominating all of them were the two large landowners who between them owned 80% of the land. Our farmers and indeed all the villagers paid them rent and lived on their land.

We can see the same rural pattern of life as elsewhere. Many farm labourers were hired by the year, lived with the farmer and some were prone to persistent drunkenness that eventually cost them their jobs.

Outside the hours of work the villagers engaged in the village brass band, played on the various bowling greens visited the Reading Room and kept older traditions going till the last quarter of the century. The Brundrett family along with the Hollands, Baguleys and Lunts built the Wesleyan Chapel on Beech Road and sang in its choir. George Whitelegg, publican of the Horse & Jockey was a Poor Law Guardian, who administered those “Poor Law Bastilles” so hated and feared through out the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

John Gresty was another of these people whose life is slowly coming to light. He was born in the village in 1817 and worked as a farm labourer until his death sometime before 1885. He had been born during a period of economic hardship, reached manhood at a time when agriculture was still the main occupation and entered old age as farming went into decline. As a boy he might have played beside the canal at Stretford and watched the barges heading towards Manchester. In his thirties he could have worked along side the notorious and much feared navvies in building the railway which cut across the fields and ran beside the canal. And in old age he would have talked with villagers who worked in the city and owed their living to manufacture and commerce.

In 1848 it would have been possible to leave the village and walk by the way of farm tracks past fields and the odd house all the way to the far edges of the township. A farm labourer making that journey just before the turn of that century might try hard to remember the landscape and rural features which would have been familiar to him as a child. Much of the agricultural land beyond Chorlton Cross towards Whalley Range was now terraced housing and shops.

But so much has survived. We can trace the changing landscape through pictures, and postcards, the lives of the people through the census material, parish records and land documents and above all by talking to people who remember the last farms and fields.

The next task will be to interview the people who remember this transition. To this end I would welcome any suggestions of people to talk to and nay material whether it be pictures or written records which will help.

Andrew Simpson
September 2008

Friday, 26 September 2008

September by Roger Barnes

Here's a poem from local poet, Roger Barnes. Roger tells me that he derives much inspiration from the Meadows. We share a common interest in the Valley's plant life and we often phone each other with news of new finds.

This poem is from Roger's first collection, 'Some Seasonal Sonnets' (2007).


First fieldfares fly in to find their winter room
pickings a plenty tumbling round the town
fresh fallen apples tempting rosy bloom
one bite and spit and quickly throw it down!

hops high lanterns hanging in their hundreds
where the new green berried bryony grows
hedges hips and haws yellow orange reds
golden rod plumes and Michaelmas daisy shows

mosquitoes and gnats knit days end in dance
thermal thousands throng translucent light
crane flies take their tentative tremulous chance
crows cavort commune with flashy flight

So much manna this mellowing month contains
September salad days are here again!

copyright R.H. Barnes, 27th Sept 2006

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

30th Anniversary Celebrations at Chorlton Water Park

As reported previously, The Friends of Chorlton Water Park and the Warden Service celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the park last Sunday (21st September) - and what a splendid event it was! Well done to everyone involved for a great day out for local families!

For a start the weather couldn't have been better. The warm September sunshine could not have provided a greater contrast with the damp gloom of the last few weeks. A variety of stalls were present, representing everyone from Red Rose Forest and the BTCV to local businesses selling everything from tasteful items with a 'green hue' to food and drink.
During the day lots of small children, and quite a few adults, got to bang drums - which they seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I'm sure that many listeners enjoyed it as well ... possibly ... ?

Moving swiftly on, boat rides were also available on the lake and, judging by the queues, these too were very popular.

Situated at various points round the lake were a series of boards on which were posted information and photographs relating to the history of the site and anecdotes and stories from local people related to their experiences there over the years. One lad actually recalled kicking a football around with George Best and other Man. Utd. players, on the field that was there before the lake!

During the day Mrs Durrant, who had been a GMC councillor in 1978, and had actually opened the park, was given a tour around the lake.

I left the event thinking that the whole day had had a great community feel to it and reflecting, not for the first time, on what a great place Chorlton is to live!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Autumn Crocus

If you take a walk along certain sections of the river bank, adjacent to Chorlton Ees, at the end of this month, and the beginning of the next, you should encounter the beautiful flowers of the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus). This is probably the flower for which the Mersey Valley is most famous. It is a Greater Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan Notable Species and, in stylised form, it is the symbol of the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service. Nevertheless, it is not confined to the Mersey Valley and tends to occur within a circle drawn around Nottingham, Warwick, Shrewsbury, Preston and Halifax.

First, it may be necessary to clear up a constant source of misunderstanding. There is another plant, in the British Flora, which sometimes bears the name, ‘Autumn Crocus’ and that is Colchicum autumnale. Although C. autumnale looks superficially Crocus-like it is not a Crocus! Colchicums are in the Liliaceae (Lily family) and have six stamens. Crocus nudiflorus, on the other hand, is a ‘true’ Crocus in the botanical family Iridaceae (the Iris family). True Crocuses have three stamens which are much shorter than the feathery, orange stigma (which is, in some species, the source of the spice, Saffron). Colchicum autumnale is called in some books, ‘Meadow Saffron’ – but this doesn’t help matters as it doesn’t produce any Saffron – and you wouldn’t want to ingest any part of it as it is highly poisonous!

Finally, it is very unlikely that that C. autumnale would occur in the Mersey Valley at all. It tends to grow in a few limestone areas – with its main stronghold in Britain being The Cotswolds. The closest place that it is likely to be found to Manchester is Whalley in Lancashire.

It all goes to show that you should never pay too much attention to a plant’s common name – only its scientific (ie. ‘Latin’) name is unambiguous and meaningful.

Crocus nudiflorus, like other Crocuses, grows from a ‘corm’ (a swollen underground stem, forming a storage organ). This particular corm is unusual because it tends to send out horizontal ‘stolons’ (creeping, underground stems); these stolons are rather like those of couch or twitch grass except that they produce new corms at their ends – hence this species is patch-forming.
The other unusual thing about C. nudiflorus is that it produces its flowers in September/October but its leaves in February/March. The leaves are thin and grass-like with a vertical white stripe; as they age they tend to elongate up to about 10 – 15 cm before they fade away.

C. nudiflorus is not a British native but is naturalised here and comes, originally, from South West France and Northern Spain. So, how did it get here? This, it turns out, is a remarkable and surprising story – but first a word about Saffron.

The word Saffron is an Anglicisation of the Arabic word, ‘Zà-ferán’, which refers to the dried stigmas of the Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus). It is the world’s most expensive spice because 4000 stigmas yield only 25g of Saffron. These must be harvested by hand and it takes 150,000 flowers and 400 hours of work to produce 1Kg of dried Saffron. These days Saffron is known mainly as a culinary spice, used in rice dishes, bread and cakes, puddings and soups. In past ages it was believed to have medical uses as well. In 1670 the German Herbalist, Ferdinand Hertodt published ‘Crocologia’, a treatise on the virtues of Saffron as a panacea. He claimed that Saffron could cure plague, melancholia, bites of venomous beasts, toothache and madness and other afflictions and maladies. Another old use for Saffron was as an anti-spasmodic ingredient in herbal remedies to treat malaria (malaria was once endemic to many European countries including low-lying, marshy areas of Britain).

It is only feasible to grow Crocus sativus on a commercial scale in the dry, south eastern corner of Britain and the town of Saffron Walden, in Essex, took its name from this now defunct trade. Luckily, C. nudiflorus is easier to grow in the Britain and its stigmas are also a source of Saffron. So who introduced it?

For most of the first half of the 20th Century the Yorkshire naturalist, W.B. Crump took a keen interest in the occurrences of C. nudiflorus around Halifax. He noticed that, around that town, the plant always grew in the meadows near the hill farmsteads and that many of these were formerly the property of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. More recently the historian Alan Marshall has shown that the occurrences of the plant in the Rochdale/Oldham area also correlate with sites once owned by the Knights of St. John. A list in a document of 1291 comprised 98 holdings which included Middleton, Oldham, Crompton, Milnrow and Healey.

The Knights of St. John were one of the so-called ‘Military Orders’, set up after the Siege and Conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. These Orders also included The Knights Templar and The Teutonic Knights.
Once the First Crusade had ‘liberated’ Jerusalem (ie. indiscriminately slain all the inhabitants, including Muslims, Jews and Christians!) the Holy City could, theoretically, be visited by Christian pilgrims from Europe. But the Holy Land was full of bloodthirsty brigands – mainly renegade (nominally) Christian soldiers and knights who preyed on the pilgrims. The Military Orders were established to protect them. The Knights of St. John also established a hospital to minister to the pilgrims’ medical needs; hence they are sometimes referred to as ‘The Knights Hospitallers’. It is highly likely that the Hospitallers were some of the most accomplished physicians of their day who could draw on European, Middle Eastern and Eastern medical traditions. It’s also likely that they were fully aware of the therapeutic applications of Saffron.

The Knights of St. John were a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region for nearly 700 years. This history mainly consisted of one long struggle with the forces of Islam, who displaced them first from the Holy Land and then from the island of Rhodes. Their nemesis was the great Sixteenth Century Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (who viewed them as pirates and obstacles to trade). At the beginning of his reign, in 1521, he laid siege to Rhodes and the Knights capitulated the following year and eventually established themselves on Malta. In 1565, at the end of his reign, Suleiman laid siege to Malta. This was one of the bloodiest sieges in history – at its end only 600 Knights remained but Suleiman lost 30,000 troops. Given this turbulent history, and the ever present threat of annihilation, it’s not surprising that the Knights acquired land in Europe, including the North West of England, as a sort of insurance policy. Incidentally, the Order still exists today and are the founders of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade – their ‘Maltese Cross’ emblem is a familiar sight at sporting fixtures and other public events.

To sum up, then, The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem acquired land in the Southern Pennines. They grew the South Western European species, Crocus nudiflorus as a source of Saffron, which they valued for its medicinal properties. I have seen no evidence to suggest that the Knights of St. John owned land in the Mersey Valley so I strongly suspect that our plants were washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

At least, that’s what I thought until, a few years ago, I read an article in a natural history magazine which added a whole new level of complication … but that will have to wait for the next instalment!

Dave Bishop, September, 2008.


1. ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, A&C Black, 2003.

2. ‘The Crocus’ by Brian Mathew, Batsford, 1982.

3. ‘A Handbook Of Crocus and Colchicum For Gardeners’ by E.A. Bowles, Waterstones reprint ed., 1985 (first pub. 1924).

4. ‘Alan Marshall and C. nudiflorus in the Rochdale/Oldham Area’ – personal communication from Diana Downing (Manchester Field Club), 2006.

5. ‘The Knights of the Order’ by Ernle Bradford, Dorset Press, 2nd Ed., 1991.

6. ‘The Monks of War’ by Desmond Seward, Penguin Books, 2nd Ed., 1995.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

30th Anniversary of Chorlton Water Park

This is a message from Tracey Pook, Chair of the Friends of Chorlton Water Park:

"The Friends of Chorlton Water Park have been working alongside the Mersey Valley Warden Service to organise an event to celebrate 30 years of Chorlton Water Park, on the 21st September starting at 10am till 3pm. Chorlton Water Park stands on what was the site of Barlow Hall Farm. Up until the 1950s the farmer flooded the field to increase the fertility of the land. He recalled that ‘the sluice gates were never opened for the first flood as this brought down the rubbish: the second flood brought down rich mud’.Gravel was excavated from the site and used in the construction of the M60 motorway in the 1970s. The gravel pit was subsequently flooded; creating the lake that is central to the Water Park today. Chorlton Water Park is a Local Nature Reserve. It is also a holder of the Civic Trust’s Green Flag Award-recognising the high standard of environmental value and community involvement- and the UK Man and the Biosphere Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence. It has also been awarded the Green Flag award for the past 4 years! To mark this day we have organised the event to include:A display to show the history of the Water park,alongside people's memories. Also caneoing, facepainting, Arts & crafts, tombola, hair braiding, games, Samba performance by Cavendish Rd PrimarySchool children (12pm), Hot food and beverages and various stalls from jewelrey to recycling.There is no admission charge and all activites are free. I really hope you can along and help make this event a success. "

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Mersey Mystery by Ingrid Burney

And now for something completely different (as they say!). Chorlton resident, Ingrid Burney tells us of an eery encounter that she had recently on the river bank.
Be warned! After reading this you will probably have to sleep with the light on tonight ...

Mersey Mystery

[as told at ‘Chorlton Telling Tales’ Storyclub}

It happened last year, last Autumn to be exact. My friend Amy and I had arranged to meet up for a walk by the River Mersey, my favourite local walk. If you don’t know it, it’s about an hour’s walk, starting off through Chorlton Meadows, a nature reserve, and then following the Mersey round, crossing over two bridges to get back to The Meadows and home. By one of the bridges you find a pub, ‘Jackson’s Boat’, and that is where we planned to stop for a bit, walking back before it got dark.

Even though it turned out to be a drizzly, overcast day we decided to go ahead. After all (as seasoned Mancunian walkers) we were well prepared, with waterproofs and boots. However we soon realised that this was not just surface drizzle. This was the kind of drizzle that creeps, surreptitiously, sneakily, into your very skin. Since we were walking with hoods down (after all, how else can you talk properly?) it wasn’t long before our hair and faces were dripping wet. But it didn’t matter. We were engrossed, catching up, putting the world to rights. The ducks and geese by the river didn’t mind the weather either. The cyclists who silently crept up behind us, expecting us to leap out of the way for them, looked as impassive as usual. The runners, their faces concentrated, or contorted (in agony or ecstasy?) seemed unaffected. The dogs were enjoying themselves, as usual, together with their jovial owners. We were about the only people just walking, walking, talking, talking.

And that’s why we didn’t notice. Not until he was right in front of us. And then …he was gorgeous! Tall, dark, handsome and …a smile. To drown in. Dark, sleek hair, luminous skin, immaculate sports gear and trainers …and the smile. But, for me, he was too gorgeous, too handsome – but then, I’ve always distrusted perfect looking men. But even without looking, I knew how Amy felt. You know how it is, when you see someone, and every cell in your body does a somersault before settling down, not quite like before. Well, that was Amy. Instantly smitten. She smiled a smile that was so wide it stretched until it met itself at the back of her neck, as they say. And so it started. She talked and talked, smiled and smiled. He talked and smiled that smile. She talked and smiled and talked and smiled. He talked and smiled.

And I knew it was coming. Maybe before she did. She turned to me and asked,’ Ingrid, do you mind if he comes to the pub with us? ’Well, I was a gooseberry, I knew it. But I was going to be a gracious gooseberry.
So I replied, graciously, ‘Of course, it would be great’. Then I looked at him. I mean, really, really looked at him. And my blood ran cold. I hoped he hadn’t seen. I averted my eyes and hoped he hadn’t noticed.

So, thinking quickly I said, ‘But Amy, I really need to talk to you about something. Would it be ok if we go on ahead and he joins us, say, in about 15 minutes?’ She looked at me, in a ‘What are you playing at?’ sort of way, but shrugged her shoulders, and answered,
‘Yes, I suppose so …if it’s that important’. But she wasn’t happy and it showed. So she explained the situation to her friend, who smiled, and we made sure he knew where the pub was and whereabouts he would find us – Amy was very explicit. Then we turned away – us towards ‘Jackson’s Boat’, him to wander up-river a bit, along the path, to join us in a bit. So we smiled, and hugged and parted.

We’d barely turned round when she grabbed my arm and hissed,’ Ingrid, what was that all about?’
‘Didn’t you see?’ I hissed back. ‘Didn’t you notice?’
‘What was there to notice? He’s gorgeous’
‘He wasn’t wet. There wasn’t a drop of water on him or his clothes.’
We looked at each other. Rats tails of hair. Water dripping down our faces and clothes. Muddy boots.

Then, simultaneously, we turned round, to look at the man.
But of course, he wasn’t there.
We looked along the whole length of the path along the river. He wasn’t there.
The grass on the high bank on the other side of the path showed no sign of anyone having walked through it, and besides, even Superman couldn’t have climbed up in that time.
We looked along the path again, and saw our footprints in the mud.
Our two sets of footprints.
Only two sets of footprints.
Then Amy went pale.

We went to the pub, and we had a drink, and waited, but of course he didn’t show. I wasn’t surprised and I don’t think Amy was either. We chatted about this and that but not about what was really on our minds. Not then. We left early and got home well before dark.

Now, I’m happy to walk along this part of the Mersey in daylight anytime. But maybe, in future, I’ll be wary when I walk on October 31, Samhain (or Hallowe’en), because, this gorgeous man with the wonderful smile, if he wasn’t a ghost, what was he?

Copyright : Ingrid Burney 2008

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Bat Walk, Saturday 6th September 2008

When I looked out of the window at 6:00 pm it was raining again! No-one's going to turn up to traipse around the Meadows, at dusk, in the pouring rain, I thought.

Imagine my surprise, then, to get down to the car park and to find 16 people there! And, as it happens, the rain did hold off for most of the evening.

Jim Taylor of the Greater Manchester Bat Group told us about the species of bat that we were likely to encounter on the site ie. Noctule, Daubenton's and Pipistrelle. He explained a bit about their biology and habits and supplied some of us with hand-held, electronic bat detectors. Bats locate their prey by echo location but the sounds that they emit are very high frequency and hence inaudible to most people (I could sometimes detect these calls when I was younger - but it was like someone inserting a fine needle into my ear drum! I'm rather glad that I can't hear them any more!). The bat detectors reduce the frequencies of these calls and make them audible.

We all walked through the woodland to the river bank and suddenly the detectors chattered into life. The first species we heard was a Noctule (Nyctalus noctula) whose call the detector renders as a rapid "chip-shop, chip-shop!" sound. This was followed by a Daubenton's (Myotis daubentoni) which sounds a bit like a revving motorbike.

As we walked along the river bank, in the direction of Jackson's Boat, we began to detect the rapid, slapping sounds of Pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). At one point we descended some steps to a sheltered spot below the river bank and suddenly the air was full of Pipistrelles and the detectors were slapping away like mad. Jim's powerful lantern beam picked up the tiny bats flitting through the air and also the thousands of flying insects that they feed on.

So, a very successful evening, in spite of the weather. I hope that everyone who attended enjoyed it. I will ask Jim to write a more detailed account in due course.