Visitors to Platt Fields Park today may come across an unusual Dark Age relic in the form of the mysterious Nico Ditch. Tucked between the boundary wall of Manchester High School for Girls and a long set of iron railings, the scheduled monument runs for around 140 metres. At the end closest to the boating lake is a small stone plaque hidden in the undergrowth that states: Part of the very ancient Mickle or Great Ditch sometimes called Nico Ditch. Well known A.D. 1200. Extending over five miles from here to Ashton Moss and bounding several townships. Described fully in Vol.XXIII of Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society.
Old maps show that the ditch stretched from Platt Fields and headed east for some way, before it curved north to Ashton Moss. Much of the route can still be traced, using a modern map. Although most of the ditch is now covered up, it still remerges today in Mellands playing fields and on Denton golf course. The route is easy to trace along modern streets, so reach for an A-Z or Google maps to see its full extent once it leaves the park:
The route of the ditch leaves Platt Fields at Platt Chapel and follows a virtually straight line eastwards along Old Hall Lane, Park Grove and Matthew Lane. On this same bearing it reappears and can still be seen at Mellands playing fields. It takes a north-easterly tack from then on, going around the edge of Gorton Cemetry and onto Laburnum Road. From here it goes onto Denton golf course where it can be seen in its most impressive form today. Swinging north it passes under Audenshaw Resevoirs and then follows the route of Lumb Lane. From there it extends to Littlemoss. The Northwestern edge of Ashton Moss is the terminus of Nico Ditch in the east.
Historians believe that the Nico Ditch also ran westward from Platt Fields. Its route can’t easily be traced today, neither on maps nor on the ground. By looking at maps of old field systems they believe that it ran from Hough Moss (grid reference 828 941) to the mossland of Moorside in Urmston (grid reference 783 950). The grid references can be looked up on a modern A-Z to get an idea of the distance.
What the Nico Ditch created was an effective defensive barrier, which incorporated the boggy and frequently impassable mosslands. This would give a defensive structure between the River Irwell and Moorside peat bog in the west, and the River Medlock and Ashton Moss peat bog in the east. In between the two mosses lay the large defensive ditch, so anyone approaching from the south had to pass over it or attempt to get through bog country either side.
Although the ditch was built in Saxon times, it continued in use as a landscape marker well into the medieval period. It is mentioned in two charters granting land in Audenshaw to the monks of Kersal Cell in Salford. It was called ‘Mykelldiche’ and the Latin ‘magnum fossatum’ which means ‘great big ditch’. A century later in the early 1300s it was variously called ‘Mekeldyche’, ‘Mikeldiche’, ‘Muchildiche’ and ‘Mochelidich’. It’s name today ‘Nico Ditch’ is probably just a corruption of the these various spellings. It’s route is still marked in places today by the modern administrative boundaries between Manchester and Stockport as well as between Manchester and Tameside.
Archaeological excavations have taken place from the 1980s onwards at various points along its line and have shown the ditch to be somewhere between 4 metres wide and up to 2 metres deep. Therefore it was a significant structure- but who were the defenders and who were the aggressors ? There are currently three historical ‘theories’.
Theory 1 – Saxons against Vikings. Local folklore has it that the Nico Ditch was dug in a single night by the Anglo Saxons of Manchester to defend themselves from the Danish Vikings. Each man supposedly had to dig a ditch and build a bank equal to his own height. Such swift construction is highly improbable, but were the local Saxons really defending themselves against the Vikings, and if so when? Some might place this event around 869-70 AD when the Viking Great Army invaded England.
Others place it later in 919 when King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, came to Manchester to refortify its burh. He was actively campaigning against the Vikings in the midlands and the north at this time. A burh is a fortified settlement placed at a strategic point- the walls most likely being made of earth and not stone. His strategy was to build or repair the burhs and use them to dominate the land around. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle which was written at that time tells us: “In late harvest time King Edward went with an army to Thelwall and ordered the stronghold to be made and occupied and manned. And while he stayed there he ordered another army, also from the nation of Mercians, to go to Manchester in Northumbria to improve and man her.” However, historians believe the ditch is older than this, so lets turn to the next two theories…
Theory 2 – Saxons against Saxons. The second idea is that it was constructed by the Northumbrian Saxons against the Mercian Saxons, and was built in the late 700s to early 800s. The traditional territorial divide between these two kingdoms is the River Mersey, but this would also provide a defendable land marker on the Northumbrian side.
Theory 3 – British against Saxons. The third theory is really tantalizing. Dr Mike Nevell (of the University of Salford) in his book Tameside before 1066 discusses the above two ideas, but then adds a third. He believes it could be even older and have been built by the British people of the Kingdom of Rheged, against the newly invading Saxon armies in the 600s. When the Roman soldiers left for good, Romano- British society was shattered and the remaining people banded together under warlords. These people are what historians call the ‘British’. Similar ditches exist around the British Kingdom of Elmet (which had its capital in Leeds). This has the ‘Great Ditch’ in North Derbyshire and ‘Aberford Dykes’ in West Yorkshire, which were both created to defend against the incoming Saxons.
Viewing the Nico Ditch: To see the ditch in Platt Fields Park just follow the park interpretation signs to find it near the boating lake (see the access description below). Although it is partly obscured by the railings, you can follow along with the railings on your left for most of its length. On the way you’ll come across the sunken Shakespearean Gardens which used to be part of the grounds of Ashfields House, now demolished. Here are planted trees and shrubs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Also of interest is the Cathedral Arch, which is made from the remains of several Medieval window arches from Manchester Cathedral. During restoration in the 1800s a series of window arches were removed and placed here and this is the last remaining one. From here follow the line of the fence out onto Wilmslow Road by Platt Chapel. Looking back from this point you can see a really good profile of the Nico Ditch.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
Visiting the Nico Ditch in Platt Fields park today: Throughout the park are interpretation boards that show where the ditch is. A map can be downloaded from the Friends of Platt Fields website here. The park has car parking facilities, or just park on Platt Lane. Once in the park head towards the point between the boating lake and the wall of Manchester High School for Girls (Number 15 on the map) to pick up the ditch at its westerly point and see the stone plaque partially hidden in the trees. You can walk its length all the way down to Platt Chapel on the Wilmslow Road.
As discussed above a section of the ditch also runs through Mellands playing fields, but we have not visited it yet. There is also an impressive section on Denton golf course, but we are unsure how easy this is to access at the moment. A little searching on the web turns up all sorts of photos along its route.
Nearby, just a short walk away Platt Hall and Museum of Costume
Friends of Platt Fields (www.plattfields.org) see here
Tameside Before 1066, Michael Nevell (1992) Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council with The Greater Manchester Archaeology Unit
The Kingdom of Northumbria AD 350-1100 N.J. Higham (1993) Alan Sutton
A Centenary Celebration of Platt Fields Park, Manchester 1910-2010 edited by Johnathan Schofield , Browns CTP Oldham, (available from Platt Hall Manchester Museum of Costume)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated and edited by Michael Swanton (2000) Phoenix Press
Historic England List entry for Nico Ditch in Platt Fields https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1015132 accessed 8/12/16