The village of Watergrove sat nestled beneath a horseshoe ridge of hills on its northern side. It was largely a Victorian creation, but the farms that surrounded it dated from the 1700s. It would have been a wild but picturesque spot, with surrounding sheep-grazed heather and whinberry moorlands. Stone was quarried from the hills and used to build the local farms and houses, coal was mined too. All had to be abandoned in the 1930s when the decision was made to create a large reservoir to supply Rochdale with drinking water. The water authority was insistent that not just the village should disappear, covered by the new lake, but the thirty surrounding farms above the waterline would be knocked down too.
The village was constructed in the 1840s and developed over 20 years, reaching a maximum population of 300. Three mills offered local work and were named Watergrove, Roads and Alder Bank. It also had a Methodist church and a public house named The Orchard, but there was no school, so the children had to walk to nearby Wardle. To get a sense of how the village looked, have a look at this website here.
Watergrove Mill was a main employer of the village. Built in 1841 for weaving woollen cloth, it was expanded ten years later when Mary Clayton took possession. She started to produce cotton goods and employed 40 staff. By 1871, it had expanded to become a large steam-powered factory.
The 1930s was a time of high unemployment and the building of a reservoir proved to be ideal job creation. A compulsory purchase order on the land was granted, and 500 men were employed to create the reservoir.
Roads Mill was on the north west side of the village. When the reservoir was planned, the owners Slater & Co removed as much equipment as they could and relocated it six miles away to Wicken Hall Mill at Lower Ogden. Watergrove Mill was commandeered by the Water Board during construction of the reservoir. The ground floor was used for workshops, an office was located on the first floor and a canteen on the second.
Most of the farms were demolished between 1934 and 1935, and photographic evidence shows that some of these were dynamited. The village buildings were knocked down in the following couple of years and the reservoir was formally opened on 6th April 1938. There are some excellent photographs showing the construction of the reservoir here.
Some of the date stones from the village and surrounded farms have been retained and placed in the Wave Wall on the banks of Watergrove Reservoir. The earliest date is 1646 and is from Higher Wardle Farm. Lower House Farm dates from 1699. There are nine more dates from the 1700s, including the evocatively named Higher Hades, built in 1728, and Lower Hades, built in 1742. Watergrove Mill’s 1881 stone from its larger steam factory days is also there.
The three mills were totally covered by the water. Roads Mill is under the north west arm of the reservoir and Watergrove Mill is near the north bank. In dry weather, when the water supply shrinks, their foundations reappear.
Ramsden Road can still be seen emerging from the north side of the reservoir and if you follow its paved sets (cobbles) you can visit various ruins, some of which have signs outside giving their names. The first to be reached is Littletown Farm which consisted of four properties. These are the farmhouse itself and three cottages, each of which had their own yard and garden. Further up the lane is Steward Barn which looks like it may have been dynamited as nothing remains above ground except the floor, but cellars can be seen beneath. It’s easy to spot as it has a number of one metre high wooden posts alongside it.
Perhaps the most interesting property lies a little further north, just off to the right of Ramsden Road. This is Thimble Hall, which has a ‘stretcher gate wall’ used for drying warp. Look for a well-repaired drystone wall, and running alongside it are thirty upright slabs with slots carved into them. On a personal note, the author was involved in the repairs to this historic wall some twenty-five years ago. There has been a lot of work done over the decades to maintain the dry stone walls of the landscape, and often walling competitions were carried out. There is still active work going on today, for more details see the Drystone Walling Association website here. If you proceed up along the stretcher gate you will reach a building with huge stone roof slabs which would have taken some lifting.
Other ruined farms also remain in the landscape to be discovered by the walker. These include Lower Slack Barn, Alder Bank House, Higher Slack Farmstead and Graypasture. The quarries from which the stone to build both these and the houses in the village can also be seen. However the landscape is far older than these Georgian and Victorian farms. On Hades Hill is a Bronze Age burial site and Medieval field patterns dating from 1000-1300s have been found in the area.
Today a single tenant farmer manages a large flock of sheep on rough improved pasture, dominated by rushes that the sheep don’t eat. The area does appear overgrazed and efforts are being made to regenerate a more diverse landscape. Local rangers have already conducted a successful small scale heather regeneration experiment. The plant life immediately around the reservoir is very diverse, with an abundance of wildflowers in the summer time.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2019. Thanks to Andy, our Rochdale correspondent, for joining me on this walk.
The site is open access and there is a free car park at the reservoir. Sat Nav OL12 9NJ. See United Utilities page here.
Nearby, just a drive away The Co-operative Pioneers, Rochdale Cemetery