Monday, 29 June 2009

Common Spotted Orchids

The end of June is the time to look for our commonest wild orchid - the Common Spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). This is the plant that hybridises so freely with all of our Marsh Orchids and causes such confusion (see 'Marsh Orchids' 11.06.2009).

It is also very variable and the flowers can vary in colour considerably. In the photographs above you can see a plant that I found in Stretford, this year, with very striking, deep magenta markings and a plant that I found in Chorlton, last year, with pure white flowers.

The flowers can also vary in shape. They all have three lobed lower lips - but these can be quite sharp and angular or fuller and more 'blowsy'. The main photograph hints at this variation but this picture should be interpreted with some caution as this could be a 'hybrid swarm' and at least some of these flowers could be Marsh Orchid hybrids.

Dave Bishop, June 2009

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

28th June, 1959

As there had been quite a large amount of rain during the last few days I thought it would be a good idea to visit the plot, in the hope that there might be some water in the stream. However, although the ground and the grass was very wet, the stream was still quite dry. The lower vegetation appeared brown and dead, but the long grass looked very fresh and green.

New leaves are still appearing on the Sycamores, and many of them are eaten away. The stems of the new leaves are a deep red. Undersides of the leaves were covered in greenfly.

Searching among the tall grass I found an oak tree growing, the lower leaves being green, and the newer ones green and brown.

The Sorrel is now seeding. The Willow Herb is flowering half way up the stem. Also hidden in the grass I found Long-Rooted Cat's-Ear [Common Cat's-ear = Hypochaeris radicata - a yellow flowered, Dandelion-like composite, still very common in this area, Ed.], of which a specimen was taken.

The Pleurococcus [i.e. green algae, Ed.] on the tree trunks was very bright green.

A number of insects were collected.

Specimen also taken of Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium).

Posted by Dave Bishop, 28th June, 2009.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Wild Flower Planting

I was walking in one of our ‘wild spaces’ earlier this week and came upon the scene illustrated above. This had all the hall marks of ‘wild flower planting’ – a dubious practice that has much less merit than its adherents would like to think.

I am struck by the fact that many conservation groups seem to think that they should be planting things. Almost as soon as the ink is dry on a new group’s constitution they are out in the field planting trees and ‘wild flowers’. Pick up any local newspaper and you’ll probably find a picture of spade and trowel wielding ‘eco-warriors’ doing their bit for the environment. You will often find that these groups have been awarded grants for doing this, even though the grant-awarding bodies should really know better! The thinking seems to be that trees and flowers are now ‘rare’ and all we have to do to repair the damage is to plant some more. There’s also an unthinking assumption that any old tree or flower can be planted in any old place and it will thrive. But I can take you to at least half a dozen spots in South Manchester where wild flowers were once enthusiastically planted (sometimes there’s even a faded sign commemorating the fact) and all that is to be seen is a sad patch of docks and nettles – look at the picture above – can you see the dock leaves already sprouting in the middle?

If you must plant things (my advice is don’t!) here are some things to bear in mind:

- Your local environment is probably much richer than you give it credit for. Have you looked at it? Can you identify your local species? I estimate that, in the Mersey Valley alone, there are at least 500 species of plants growing wild – and as I keep finding new ones that’s probably a gross underestimate.

- Trees and flowers plant themselves – and have been doing very successfully for millions of years. Gardening is a great pastime and certain types of gardening (those that don’t stress excessive tidiness) can have great ecological merit; but attempting to ‘garden’ the wider environment is a mistake unless you really know what you’re doing (even many ‘professionals’ don’t seem to, as far as I can see).

- The main reason why our environment is impoverished, now, compared with the past, is because habitats have been destroyed. Since the Second World War we have lost ancient woods, hedgerows, meadows and wetlands by the score. In urban areas, like South Manchester, we are still losing the remnants of what’s left to property developers and the activities of ‘licensed eco-vandals’ (see ‘Why is the Springtime the Killing Time Around Here?’, FoCM blog, 15th May). In my experience it is often the richest habitats that are sought out and trashed – often because some bureaucrat thinks that they are ‘untidy’ (nice, safe lollipop trees planted in straight lines on closely mown, weed-free turf - the town planner’s dream!). You can’t undo that damage by planting stuff.

- Re-creating habitats is either very hard or impossible (you can’t plant an ancient wood, for example). This is why I get annoyed when I see the planting left to children. If the adults don’t know what they’re doing, children are certainly not going to – caring for the environment is not child’s play! By all means involve children in the environment, give them the opportunity to play in it and interact with it, and give them a good, well-grounded environmental education – but telling them that we can mend the damage that has been done to the environment, by previous generations, by just planting any old stuff anywhere is just wrong! It is mis-education.

- Inappropriate planting can actually damage the environment. In the Mersey Valley, in the 1970s, we lost hundreds of acres of irreplaceable, species-rich, unimproved grassland to inappropriate tree planting – and all we’re left with is a lot of spindly trees with an impoverished ground flora. The plants in the photograph are actually corn field weeds from an unknown source. We once had corn fields in South Manchester, but these are long gone. Interestingly, in some places, the seed bank still appears to be in the soil – so our original corn field weeds still spring up occasionally when the ground is disturbed. If the plants in the picture are from foreign sources (as they often are) then that genetic legacy could be diluted or lost.

So, if you’re a keen, committed, green eco-warrior, what should you be doing? Here are some suggestions:

- Get to know your local environment and find out what habitats it contains and which are worth conserving.

- Learn to identify the plants (everything else depends on these). Start by equipping yourself with a good field guide (see my review of the new ‘Collins Flower Guide’, FoCM blog, 29th May ).

- Keep good records.

- Draw up a long-term, ecologically sound management plan for any area for which you have some responsibility; get advice on this if necessary.

- Start nagging your indigenous bunch of ‘licensed eco-vandals’ to stop trashing your local environment, at the wrong time of year, and to start following the letter of the law by working to conserve and enhance local biodiversity. Persuade them to draw up long term, ecologically sound management plans for the areas for which they are responsible.

- Compile a list of things to do and move ‘planting stuff’ from number one on the list to number 1,823 – or, better still, remove it from the list altogether!

Dave Bishop, June 2009

Monday, 22 June 2009

Ida Bradshaw's Memories of Hardy Farm

Some time ago Ida Bradshaw, of Neale Road, sent me some of her memories of Hardy Farm. Unfortunately, I managed to lose her letter in my 'deep litter' filing system. Luckily the letter has now turned up and I can post Ida's memories on the blog - sorry, Ida! If anyone else has little snippets, like this, that they would like to share, please feel free to send them to me (and I really will try not to lose them - honest!).

My great aunt (d. 1962) knew the wife of the farmer at Hardy Farm. When my father (b. 1899) was young he and my grandparents used to visit great aunt and they would walk through Chorltonville to Hardy Lane and visit the farm and have tea with them.
The farmer’s wife used to go to the small orchard at river bank for crab apples to make chutney with for the Christmas Fair at St. John’s. This was where my great aunt got to know the farmer’s wife. She died in the 1920s and when the farmer died a few years later it passed to the son. After the Second World War the owner changed it from a farm to a stables which it continued to be until he died. The family did not want to carry on and it was sold. I presume this was when UMIST bought it.The original path from Brookburn Road only went to the football club [I presume that Ida means the present site of the Chorlton and West Didsbury Football Club – Ed.]. There was no path to the river. [The fields] were used as grazing for the horses and ponies at the riding stables. [They were] originally used as grazing for cows.

Ida Bradshaw, 19.03.07

Friday, 19 June 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

19th June, 1959

It was a cool sunny evening when I visited the plot, with a slight breeze blowing.
There were many small insects hovering round the small Sycamore trees, and also in the stream bed which was completely dry. Pleurococcus was seen on the bank where the bed of the stream disappears.

Two moths were caught for identification.

The flowers of the snake weed [Bistort = Persicaria bistorta, Ed.] have now died off, and a number of the leaves are turning an orange-red colour; specimens were taken.

It was difficult to walk on the plot as there are many dips in the ground which are obscured by the long grass.

Willow herb had started to flower (Rose-Bay - Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Posted by Dave Bishop, 19th June, 2009

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Network Rail and Environmental Destruction

You may remember the article that I posted on here, on 15/05/09, entitled 'Why is Springtime the Killing Time Around Here?' Well, the continuing destruction of wildlife by contractors, employed by big organisations, has now reached the national press. Network Rail has been removing trees from their embankments all over the country. Locally, this has happened at Heaton Chapel in Stockport, where, based on a BBC local TV report, I believe that the contractors added to the distress of local residents by working through the night by the light of floodlights!

The full story is in the following article in the online version of the Daily Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/5468283/ Network-Rail-cuts-down-trees-to-prevent-leaves-on-the-line.html

(you'll probably have to cut and paste this link into your browser).

Note, that no-one is disputing the 'right' of Network Rail to remove trees - it's the unthinking brutality of the action that is criticised - and the fact that it has been done at the wrong time of year. As usual Network Rail claim all sorts of 'green credentials' but if they were really as green as they claim they would have a proper management plan for their embankments, which would mean that trees were only cut in the winter on some sort of rotation basis; such 'linear coppices' would actually be beneficial to wildlife.

I am convinced that one of the reasons why we are losing so much biodiversity in this country is because of the actions of such 'licensed eco-vandals' as Network Rail and their contractors. It's time that they started re-thinking their operations so as to enhance biodiversity rather than just mindlessly destroying it. It wouldn't take much - and probably would cost very little. All it would take would be some elementary environmental knowledge, a respect for the natural world and the requisite will.

Dave Bishop, June 2009

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Rushes may not be such spectacular plants as orchids but they played a part in the lives of our ancestors which would be almost unimaginable today.

There are numerous species of Rush but three of the larger species are very common throughout the UK (and the Mersey Valley) and tend to grow in either shallow water or where the ground is poorly drained. These three species are: Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Compact Rush (J. conglomeratus) and Hard Rush (J. inflexus).
These all form large clumps composed of numerous cylindrical stems. Each stem tapers to a point at the top. The flower-head appear to erupt from the side of the stem about three-quarters of the way up.

In the Soft Rush (top picture) the stem is smooth and a uniform glossy green. If the stem is split open it is found to contains a uniform, white pith (a bit like a solidified, dense foam). The flower-head (i.e. the ‘inflorescence’) consists of many tiny, yellowish brown flowers. When examined with a hand lens each flower is seen to be rather lily-like with six petal-like structures (‘tepals’), six stamens (male, pollen producing organs) and three stigmas (female parts); these flowers are wind-pollinated.
In the Compact Rush (middle picture) the stem is ridged, rather greyish-green in colour and not glossy. The stem contains a continuous, white pith. The inflorescence is very compact with the flowers jammed close together and close to the stem.
In Hard Rush (bottom picture) the stem is ridged and is a noticeably dull, glaucous, greyish-green colour. The pith inside the stem is chambered and not continuous. The inflorescence is considerably more diffuse than those of Soft Rush and Compact Rush.

In the Middle Ages rushes were used as floor covering. In those days poor people lived in hovels with beaten earth floors and the rich lived in castles and manor houses with stone floors. Strewn rushes were found to be a cheap and effective way of softening such harsh surfaces and in keeping them clean. According to the historian, Dorothy Hartley (1), “In the feudal system there would be special official rushcutters. Rushes were cut, drained and loaded into great deep baskets, carried shoulder high between two men, to be delivered to the ‘rush women’, who did the strewing and were supposed to clean out the old rushes before they put down the fresh.”

Rushes were also used for lighting purposes. It’s difficult to imagine, now, what life was like before electric lighting. In the summer people often went to bed when it got dark and got up when the sun returned in the morning. But coping with long, dark winter nights must have been a trial. The rich used candles – but these were expensive and, from the beginning of the 18th century on, were even taxed. The poor used ‘rush lights’. These were made by peeling the stems of Soft Rushes until only a long thin strip of outer skin was left to act as a support. The pith was then soaked in animal fat. The fat loaded taper thus produced was held in a spring loaded clamp and could be burned to produce (what must have been) a rather dim, smoky light.

The great 18th century, Hampshire naturalist, Gilbert White (2) gives more detail: “[The] rushes are in best condition at the height of summer; but may be gathered, so as to serve the purpose well, quite on to autumn. It would be needless to add that the largest and longest are best. Decayed labourers, women and children make it their business to procure and prepare them. As soon as they are cut they must be flung into water, and kept there; for otherwise they will dry and shrink and the peel will not run. At first a person would find it no easy matter to divest a rush of its peel or rind, so as to have one regular, narrow, even rib from top to bottom that may support the pith: but this, like other feats, soon becomes familiar even to children ... When these junci are thus prepared, they must lie out on the grass to be bleached, and take dew for some nights, and afterwards be dried in the sun.
Some address is required in dipping these rushes in the scalding fat or grease; but this knack also is to be attained by practice.”

He goes on to relate how bacon fat was often used for the purpose of dipping the rushes but how this could be improved upon by adding beeswax or mutton suet. He found that a “good rush” measuring, “two feet four inches and a half” burnt for, “only three minutes short of an hour”. He estimated that a poor family could purchase five and a half hours of, “comfortable light” for a farthing (a quarter of an old penny).
Give me electric lights any day!

Dave Bishop, June 2009


1. ‘The Land of England’ by Dorothy Hartley, Macdonald and Jane’s, 1979.

2. ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White, Penguin Books Edition, 1977 (first pub. 1788 – 9).

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Alex Krause

Alex Krause is leaving the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service (MVCWS) and taking up a new post at Reddish Vale.

Alex has occupied the post of MVCWS Ecology Warden for the last five years and has been FoCM contact within the Warden Service for the last two or three years. We owe her a great deal. She has worked incredibly hard on our behalf, put together some interesting and challenging programmes and given us lots of support.

Alex has an MSc in Ecology and has worked in Tropical Ecology and Environmental Education. Her homeland is Brazil and she tells me that it was a bit of a shock coming to a temperate country with actual seasons! It took her a while to become familiar with our local wildlife but she also tells me that she has had a lot of support from local naturalists, who have helped her a great deal, and to whom she is very grateful.
We wish her the very best of luck in her new job.

Having said all that we will not be losing touch with her completely as she will still be living in Chorlton and has expressed an interest in becoming an ‘ordinary’ member of the group (oh, alright then, Alex – we’ll let you join!).

Our new contact within MVCWS will be Education Warden, Andy Martin. I hope to be posting a profile of Andy in due course – although I haven’t asked him yet!

Dave Bishop, June 2009

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Marsh Orchids

If you’ve been walking in the Mersey Valley in the last couple of weeks you may well have encountered some very attractive plants with pink or magenta flower spikes. These plants are probably Marsh Orchids.

There are a number of species of Marsh Orchid in the UK but the commonest are Southern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa), Northern Marsh Orchid (D. purpurella) and Early Marsh Orchid (D. incarnata). As the common names of the first two species suggest they tend to occur in southern and northern Britain respectively. Thus if you live in Berkshire or Cumbria (for example) you can be fairly certain about the identity of your local Marsh Orchids. But in some areas, particularly Lancashire (including Greater Manchester), Derbyshire and parts of Wales the distributions of the two species overlap; this means that in the Mersey Valley we’ve got both and they often grow together.

Telling the two apart around here is not easy - I keep finding plants which appear to have some of the characteristics of both species. And then there are the plants which look a bit like Early Marsh Orchid ... but not quite enough to be sure. And the best examples have always been half eaten by slugs or snails. Oh dear!

Are we dealing with hybrids here? That’s the usual explanation in cases like this. Unfortunately, one of the latest books on the subject, ‘Orchids of Britain and Ireland’ by Anne and Simon Harrap (1) tells us that Northern and Southern Marsh Orchids are not as closely related as their common names suggest, and hybrids are, “surprisingly scarce”. Not only that, but the book also states that the hybrid between Early and Northern Marsh is “scarce” whilst the hybrid with Southern Marsh is “rare”.

But it gets worse (or, possibly, better)! There is another species involved: the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). This starts flowering towards the end of the Marsh Orchid season – but it is very ‘promiscuous’ and seems to hybridise with everything. For example, it hybridises with Northern Marsh Orchid and the hybrid, “can be common”. It is partially fertile and can back-cross with either parent to form a “hybrid swarm”. It also hybridises with Southern Marsh Orchid and can back-cross with both parents. The Harraps tell us that this hybrid is, “probably the most common orchid hybrid in southern Britain.” Finally, the sterile hybrid with Early Marsh Orchid, “has been found scattered throughout Britain and Ireland”. At least some of these hybrids can display ‘hybrid vigour’, i.e. they are much bigger than the parent plants (I have heard them described as, “bottle-brush orchids”).

So the reason why I have so much difficulty in putting names to our Mersey Valley plants may be because they are hybrids, and even complex back-crosses, and it seems reasonable to hypothesise that many plants may well contain D. fuchsii genes. I think that our local Marsh Orchid plants may well repay closer study by an orchid expert.

The pictures above show a possible Northern Marsh Orchid (top), a possible Southern Marsh Orchid (middle) and a strange, but rather beautiful, plant that might involve Early Marsh Orchid (bottom) ... or possibly not ... Oh, I’m so confused! Help!

Dave Bishop, June 2009


‘Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guides’ by Anne and Simon Harrap, A&C Black, 2005.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

10th June, 1959

It was a beautiful warm, sunny evening, with a blue sky and a few cumulus clouds. The plot looked very fresh and green, but there were many flies and gnats hovering in the undergrowth. There was quite a lot of cuckoo spit on the long blades of grass and on other plants. A number of different grasses were collected for identification.

Bittersweet was found growing among the small Sycamores.

Some of the Sycamore leaves were found to be covered with a red spotty growth, other of the leaves were covered with white spots - specimens were collected.

Bittersweet - Solanum Dulcamara

Yorkshire Fog - Holcus Lanatus (this is a grass species, Ed.)

Posted by Dave Bishop, 10th June, 2009.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Banded Demoiselles

Out walking in the valley earlier this week I was cheered to see an insect I always associate with those first really warm days of the year: the banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens). Banded demoiselles are damselflies, smaller and more slender than their robust cousins dragonflies and hawkers, but one of the first of this group of insects to be seen each year. The clue to identifying them is in the name as banded demoiselles are easily identified by a dark blue thumbprint shaped band on otherwise translucent wings which in flight gives the impression of an almost butterfly like flitting flight.

Banded demoiselles emerge in mid May and can continue through to September although in the Mersey Valley I only ever seem to see them in May and June. Perhaps due to the relentless mowing of the river banks. What I always find fascinating about damselflies and dragonflies is that they only emerge as adults for a relatively short period of their life cycle. If you see damselflies flying around bonded together it is because they are mating. Once mated the male stays attached to the female until she has deposited her eggs by dipping her abdomen into the water and attaching the eggs to vegetation in the river. The eggs hatch after a few weeks, but it is then the larval stage which can last several years. Banded demoiselle larvae live in muddy bottomed rivers and canals for 2 years until they crawl out of the water and across ground, up to 100m, to scrub or woodland habitat where upon the adult will emerge from the larval case.

My book tells me that "this species is very sensitive to pollution and needs healthy emergent plants for perches and egg-laying" so I'm interested to know from people who have lived near the valley longer than I have when banded demoiselles first became one of the wildlife stars of Mersey Valley.1

Richard Gardner, June 2009

1 Brooks, S. 2005. Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Gillingham: British Wildlife Publishing.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

6th June, 1959

As there have been heavy showers all day I made a visit to the plot in the evening, still hoping to see the stream running, but there was merely a little mud in the bed. I found specimens of Shepherd's Purse and Bladder Campion. The ground was very damp underfoot, and the wet grass too long to search very far.

Shepherd's Purse - Capsella bursa-pastoris

Bladder Campion - Silene Cucubalis

Ed.'s Notes

As I type this out, on Saturday morning, 6th June 2009, it's pouring with rain outside - just as it must have been 50 years ago!

The scientific name for Bladder Campion is currently Silene vulgaris.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 6th June, 2009.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

House Martins near Ivy Green Road

On Monday morning I happened to be walking down Ivy Green Road and at the entrance to the Meadows, on that road, noticed FoCM Treasurer, John Agar, leaning on the metal gate and staring intently down the footpath. Naturally, I joined him to see what he was looking at. At first all I could see was a puddle in the middle distance – but as we watched some small birds swooped down and appeared to be drinking from the puddle. John explained that the birds were House Martins (Delichon urbica) and they were, in fact, gathering mud from the edge of the puddle to build their nests in the eaves of nearby houses. House Martins are in the same family (Hirundinidae) as Swallows and Sand Martins but are much less closely related to the superficially similar Swifts (Apodidae)(1).

John told me that he had been watching House Martins gather mud from this particular area, at this time of year, for at least 30 years. He believes that they prefer this particular spot because it is very open and they have a 360 degrees field of view. For several years now John has been bringing buckets of water down to top-up this puddle during dry spells. He notes that there are far fewer of these little birds present now than in the past. He believes that this probably due to the ever increasing desertification and degradation of these migratory birds’ over-wintering grounds in the Sahel region of North Africa. Having said that, other local birdwatchers tell me that several House Martins’ nesting sites have been destroyed in the recent mad scramble to over-develop Chorlton.

This glimpse of these remarkable birds reminded me of one the strangest coincidences of my life. In the early 1980s I first encountered the works of the Edwardian natural history writer, W.H. Hudson – particularly his book, ‘A Shepherd’s Life’(1910), which is, in my opinion, one of the finest books ever written about the English countryside. The republication of this masterpiece seemed to lead to several other of his books being republished around this time. Among these revivals was a book of his essays entitled, ‘Adventures Among Birds’ (first published 1913). This new edition (2) came out in late 1983 and I remember ‘pouncing on it’ with glee! I recall travelling back on the bus, from the centre of Manchester, to Chorlton, with my ‘prize’ and a copy of the Manchester Evening News (10th December, 1983 – to be precise). I first turned to the newspaper and read (as was my custom in those days) the ‘Country Matters’ column by George Hawthorne who described seeing a Red Squirrel in West Wales. He also lamented the fact that the native Red was being displaced by the introduced American Grey (a process which is still on-going, of course). I recalled seeing a Red Squirrel, about 9 or 10 years before, in the plantation of Corsican Pines which back the sand dunes along the North Norfolk coast, between Well-next-the-Sea and Holkham. I then turned to Hudson’s book and opened it at random to a page in an essay entitled, ‘Autumn 1912’. Imagine my amazement when I found myself reading a description of the antics of a Red Squirrel in exactly the same place that I had seen mine – in the same pine plantation!

Later in the chapter Hudson described how, in the cold, wet autumn of 1912, some House Martins had raised a new brood of chicks and were still feeding them, “... in a nest under the eaves above a sweetstuff shop, within two or three doors of the Wells post office.” He speculated that this particular pair must have produced at least 3 or 4 broods that year. He feared for the survival of the chicks and, “... the women of the house compassionately offered to take them in and feed them, in the hope of keeping them alive until the return of warm weather”. Nevertheless, the birds continued to feed their young and tried, and failed, to lure them from the nest. Then one day the parents abruptly vanished. Hudson procured a ladder and found the chicks dead in the nest. He suggested that, in this particular case, the brooding instinct had over-ruled the migratory instinct – but once the chicks were dead the parents had no option but to set off for Africa.
Oh yes, and I’m pretty certain that the, “women of the house” were my grandmother and great-grandmother – who, at that time, owned a sweet shop near the post office! Sadly, my grandmother died in 1966 – so I never got to ask her about meeting one of my literary heroes.
Dave Bishop, June 2009


1. ‘The Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow, 3rd Edition, Collins, 1974.

2. ‘Adventures Among Birds’ by W.H. Hudson, Breslich & Foss reprint, 1983.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Mersey Floods by Andrew Simpson

Below Chorlton local historian, Andrew Simpson writes about the history of floods in the Mersey Valley:

I can remember the very first time I walked the meadows. It was a warm summer’s evening over twenty-five years ago and during that long lost summer we followed the narrow twisting lanes explored the old water channels and pondered on how long the fenced off areas with their straight saplings would become woodland. And yet which ever route we took whether it was following the Brook or straight across the fields, the journey always ended at the foot of those towering banks of earth which so dominate the place and separate the meadows from the Mersey.

This was our first warning of the power of the river. They were built and added to over the centuries as the main defence against a powerful threat to the lives and livelihoods of all those who lived beside it. Generations of farmers have laboured to construct this natural wall to repel the flood waters of the Mersey.
The village and the isolated farms were all built beyond the flood plain. Even so this was not always sufficient protection. The Mersey has on countless occasions risen and breached these towering banks sometimes even sweeping away the defences themselves.
It was for this reason that the weir was built. Just beyond the point where the Brook joins the Mersey and at a bend in the river the weir was built to divert flood water from the Mersey down channels harmlessly out to Stretford and the Kicketty Brook (Note 1). Not that it always worked. Soon after it had been built flood water swept it away and during the nineteenth century neither the weir nor the heightened river banks prevented the Mersey bursting out across the plain (Note 2).In July 1828 the Mersey flood water transported hay ricks from the farm behind Barlow Hall down to Stretford only later to bring them back, while later floods proved to be even more destructive (Note 3). It was, wrote Thomas Ellwood the local historian:
no uncommon thing to see the great level of green fields completely covered with water presenting the appearance of a large lake, several miles in circuit.” (Note 4)

These historic floods were quite sudden. One such event left a farmer just enough time to release his horses from the cart and stampede them to higher ground, while on another occasion one man was forced to take refuge in a birch tree till the following morning (Note 5). As destructive as these floods were they did deposit silt from the river onto the land which the farmers prized. In normal times it was the practice to “open the sluices or floodgates in order to get the advantage of such sewage upon the land as the river affords, thus saving the trouble and expense of carting ‘management’ there.” (Note 6)

It would be easy to think that all this was a thing of the past, but even now the river can present a real threat. Back in 1991 on a cold wet day in February or early March walking the uppermost part of the banks I was convinced that the river threatened to overtop even this high point. And much the same happened to my friend David earlier this year when after what seemed to be weeks of rain the river rose and topped the protective banks, leaving him scrabbling for safety (this was me - Ed.).
It is perhaps these two recent awesome experiences that reminds me that despite its pleasant and comfortable appearance the meadows remain as much a part of nature as they have ever been.


1. After a heavy flood in August 1799 broke the banks where Chorlton Brook joined the Mersey, there were fears that the Bridgewater Aqueduct across the flood plain could be damaged by flooding it was decided to build an overflow channel improving the course of Kicketty Brook and build the stone weir. Lloyd, John M., ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’, Page 71.

2. This happened in 1840 and in the following year it was rebuilt by the engineer William Cubitt. After litigation the cost of repair was borne by The Bridgewater Trust £1,500, The Turnpike Commissioners £500, Thomas Jos de Trafford £1,000 and Wilbraham Egerton £1,000 and the cost of maintenance was agreed between The Bridgewater Trustees ½, Thomas Jos de Trafford ¼ and Wilbraham Egerton ¼. Lloyd, Page 71.

3. Ellwood, Thomas L., ‘History of Chorlton cum Hardy’, Chapter 1, November 7th 1885. Ellwood describes serious floods a few years later which destroyed a bridge across Chorlton Brook and six major floods between December 1880 and October 1881. The last time the weir took an overflow of flood water was 1915.

4. Ellwood, Chapter 1.

5. Lloyd, Page 71.

6. Ellwood, Chapter 1.