Sunday, 11 October 2009

Walking the Old Road by Andrew Simpson

The old road must be as old as the township. It ran from Hardy Lane past farms and cottages, cutting through the village before heading off across the flat lands beside the Mersey and onto Stretford. It may always have been a dark and slightly mysterious place.

Any one starting out along the road as it left the village would have to pass Sally’s Pond. The spot is secluded and just to one side of the track. It is easy to feel that something is not quite right about the place. On a wet autumn afternoon with the light fading and the leaves heavy with rainwater you begin to feel very alone. But landscapes change and Sally’s pond was not always shrouded in undergrowth. For most of its existence it was just an open space, a stretch of water more than likely created by farmers hollowing out the clay which then filled with water. Its end was no less mysterious. Sometime in the late 60s it had become a dumping ground for old bikes prams and the odd milk crate and was filled in. The hollow can still be seen through the trees just beyond the stumps. And the stumps themselves have passed into folk memory. My friend Tony and Oliver the son of Bailey the farmer remember freewheeling down to those very stumps on warm summer days and of the time one lad miscalculated and took his bike and body into the stump.

The old road has had many names. Before it arrived at the edge of the church yard it was called Brookburn, beyond the Green it took several more names before becoming Ivy Green and then as it passed out of the village settled on Hawthorn or Back Lane.

Not much moves along it today, but in the past it would have busy. Old farmer Higginbotham will have used it to drive his cattle home to his farm on the Green. Farm wagons would have trundled in the opposite direction on their way to the Canal to offload their produce on the barges heading for the Manchester markets and perhaps collecting a portion of night soil emptied the day before from the city’s privies.
A sight guaranteed to offend the more delicate wealthier villagers who chose the same route to pick up the Dukes fast packet boats. These were still until the 1840s the marvel of the age. Fast and comfortable our passengers could be in the heart of Manchester in just under half an hour.
The walk would also take us past the stone weir built to guard the Duke’s canal against the threat of being swept away by the sudden flash floods which burst the banks of the Mersey. These were awesome events and took the township by surprise. So sudden and unforeseen was one flood in the 1820s that one farmer just had time to unloose his horse from the cart before being engulfed by flood water. And the same storm swept the haycocks of Henry Jackson and Thomas Cookson’s from their meadow land up by Barlow Hall down to Stretford while the fierce winds drove the very same haycocks back a few days later.
Not that the weir proved steadfast. It too was lost in a torrent of storm water and had to be replaced. Today you reach the weir along that part of the track which runs beside the tall banks that separate it from the Mersey and which offer some protection from the danger of flooding.
By the time the old road reaches the weir the journey is nearly at an end. Here the track opens up a little and the curious might stop off at the cemetery. Close to where we walk and about as far away from the church and its respectable dead are the graves of paupers. Their headstones lie in rows of six and reveal that each was a multiple grave. In some as many as six or seven were interred.

There is it seems a close density in death as there was in life. For many would have come from mean humble dwellings of wattle and daub and later cheap brick. Their lives lived out in small places crammed into two or them rooms before old age or poverty drove them into the workhouse and a pauper’s grave.
And as if this was not grim enough, just beyond is another multiple grave. In this case to those who died during the blitz and in particular to the night when the nearby church was hit and those sheltering inside were blown away. So final was their end that many could not be identified.

But the road does not end at the cemetery; it runs a short distance more. First under the arches that carry the railway which arrived at Stretford in 1849. The road occupies just one of the arches, the others are for the overflow from the weir should the Mersey ever breach its banks. This railway arch is wide and shows the evidence that the railway line had been extended. The canal arch with stone facing is still more impressive. Perhaps I suppose because of the volume of water that flows above it. Here and only here beneath this arch is a raised section of pavement, perhaps recognition that pedestrians need some form of protection in the confined space when the farm wagons rolled past.This is where the road ends. Beyond is Stretford. Above just a few yards away on the canal is the Watch House, with its white walls. It is easy to romanticise the old road but for hundreds of years it was one of the only routes in and out of the village. More than likely those bringing the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would have passed on along it into the village as would an obscure soldier fired by missionary zeal to preach the Methodist message about the year 1770.

Andrew Simpson, October 2009
Editor's Note: The illustration is a painting of Sally's Pond, which was not far from the Chorlton end of Hawthorn Lane (on the right hand side if walking from Chorlton to Stretford). The painting was by a local artist called Montgomery. Andrew is not entirely sure who Mr Montgomery was; if anyone has any information on him we would be delighted to hear about it.

1 comment:

Graham Ingham said...

Thank you Andrew for a very enjoyable read. I absolutely agree with your feelings of a dark athmosphere about the road. In the late sixties, when the River Mersey was heavily polluted,the weir was home to many fat perch and eels. This made it a favourite place to play truant and fish the schoolday away. One grey autumn day however my school pals didn't show up and I found myself alone.Within an hour I noticed that there was no sound whatsoever, no wind or background noise at all. I found this prickly athmosphere so unnerving that I packed up my rod and went into school for a double period of maths, whioh believe me was a first! I am sure that the watch house was the subject of paranormal investigations, so who knows?
Many Thanks Graham Ingham Brooklands