Smithills Hall, Bolton

Smithills Medieval Great Hall

In 1335 William de Radcliffe acquired the manor of  Smithills. During the early years there would only have been the medieval Great Hall on the site, which  still exists there today. It is a large rectangular stone building and in here the family and servants would take their meals and sleep. The Radcliffes were a powerful Lancashire family, with members acting as Sheriffs, Justices of the Peace and ‘Knights of the Shire’ throughout the 1400s. Their ancestral home was in the old centre of Radcliffe near Bury, and can still be seen at the ruins of  Radcliffe Tower.

Johanna Radcliffe was the last of the  Radcliffe family to own the hall and she married into the Bartons, bringing their family to Smithills. Her grandson Andrew Barton significantly  remodeled the hall when he came into his inheritance and his father’s successful woolen business. Today we can see one of the real gems he had constructed- the large withdrawing room. It features oak wood paneling containing small carved portraits of the Barton family, all facing their spouses. Visitors today can see Andrew Barton and his wife Agnes in the carvings. He can be recognised by his large forked beard while she has a flower and a linked hearts design beneath her portrait. Andrew also had carvings of his initials ‘AB’ and a ‘rebus’ put into the paneling. This is a pun on his name and shows  a piece of timber (a ‘bar’) across a barrel (called in the Tudor times a ‘tun’), so Bar-tun or Barton. As leading dignitaries of the area Andrew and Agnes both had  carved misericords seats at Bolton Parish Church and these can still be seen (for more on this click here).

Smithills Hall Tudor East wing

Their son Robert inherited the estate and he is remembered for his role in a dramatic piece of local history and folklore. In 1554  Queen Mary Tudor’s reign had led to an upswing in religious persecution. A preacher, Reverent George Marsh, was active in the area and some considered his views heretical. Robert as a JP was ordered to have Marsh arrested and brought to Smithills. He questioned Marsh before sending him over to the Earl of Derby who was the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire. It is claimed that when Marsh was being led out from being questioned by Robert, he stamped his foot leaving a footprint in the stone floor. Local folklore has it that a footprint shape can still be seen today at the entrance to the Withdrawing Room. The first written record  of this account was in 1787, more than 200 years after it supposedly happened. Marsh was sent to stand trial at Chester. It didn’t end well for him as he paid the ultimate price for his beliefs, one of many people during the religiously turbulent Tudor period.

When the male Barton line was no more Smithills  passed by marriage to the Belasye family from Thirsk. They did not spend much time there, so the hall was let out to tenants and entered a general decline. The medieval Great Hall was used as a brewery and many of the other room were used for weaving. Finally in 1723 the hall was sold again and bought by Joseph Byrom, a Manchester Merchant.

The Byron’s home was Kersal Cell in Salford, a  building which still stands today. Joseph took the neglected hall at Smithills and built an extension to the west wing. The hall stayed with the Byrons for a couple of generations, and the last one to own it was Eleanor Byron. She preferred to live at Kersal Cell and so  let it out to tenants. Once again parts were used for weaving, including the Great Hall and Josephs’s extension became a farmhouse. Eleanor sold it in 1801 to a father and son of the  Ainsworth family who were  wealthy Haliwell bleachers.

Following the 1832 reform act (as commemorated at the Parbold Bottle monument ) towns that had no representation in Parliament got MPs for the first time. Peter Ainsworth was elected as a liberal MP for Bolton. Under his ownership, Smithills once again underwent a period of construction and the Victorian extension we can see today – a dining room, library and guest bedrooms, belong to this time. Mock timbers added to the buildings  to make them look of a similar age to earlier parts.

Smithills Hall Victorian additions

In 1870 Richard Henry Ainsworth inherited, known locally as the Colonel.  His cousin Annabel, a frequent visitor to the hall, described him as “good, solid, Lancashire Squire… an English gentleman of the old school”. In 1896 the good squire tried to prevent public access to the local moorlands as he wanted to use the land for his grouse, partridge and pheasant shoots. A number of ‘mass trespasses’ took place- one had 10,000 locals turn up. But it was to no avail, as a Justice of the Peace the Colonel knew the law and made sure that many of the leaders were prosecuted. The moors remained closed to the locals for many years to come.

His wife Isabella was known for her evangelical faith. She ran a bible class for women and a Sunday school for local children. The Ainsworths also employed a chaplain who cousin Annabel said practically ruled the house, dismissing servants he took a dislike too. Annabel hated him and in her memoirs noted that he had an enormous hold on the Colonel and his wife. The Smithills Chapel services were only full when the pair were in residence – few members of staff or tenants attended when they were away.

On the Colonel’s death at age 87 the estate passed to his nephew Nigel Victor Combe, who took the Ainsworth name. At first Nigel continued the restoration of the hall, but by the 1920s he was falling on hard times as his shares in the bleaching business were returning little revenue. In 1931 he decided to close Smithills and  the contents of the house were sold at public auction. Soon after Bolton Corporation bought the hall and many people petitioned for it to become a museum, but this did not happen until 1963. The older part was used as a museum and the newer Victorian section was converted first to a retirement home and then later to a day care centre.

Smithills Hall entrance

In the 1990s Bolton Council did extensive restoration both inside and out and for the first time opened up the Victorian part of the house for all to see.  Visitors today can enjoy all of the house including the highlights of the Great Medieval Hall of the Radcliffe family and the Barton’s stunning Tudor paneled Withdrawing Room.  The Colonel and Mrs Ainsworth’s Victorian rooms are also well worth seeing,  the latter decorated in the style of William Morris and his Arts and Craft style associates.

Today the estate, gardens and hall are all open to visitors, and are free to visit. What once was the preserve of rich and privileged families, is now available for everyone to enjoy.

Access and Opening Times

Free admission to the hall and grounds. There is an excellent café within the hall.

Wednesday 10-4pm, Thursday 10-4pm, Friday 10-4pm and Sunday 12-4pm

Smithills Hall website: click here

The estate : The  Woodland Trust has bought over a thousand acres of the Smithills estate with plans to buy more in the future. There are many walks on the estate, and you can enjoy the moors that were once barred to the locals.

Smithills Estate and Woodland Trust website: click here

Nearby, just a drive away Doffcocker Cross


Smithills Hall, W.D Billington and M.S. Howe (2010) Haliwell Local History Society

Your Guide to Smithills Hall, (undated booklet- currently available from the Hall shop) Bolton Museum and Archive Service

A Short History of Smithills Hall and its Families, (2015) Marie Mitchell (updated by David Williams), Friends of Smithills Hall booklet

The Ainsworths of Halliwell, W.D. Billington (2008), Halliwell History Society

Smithills Hall Museum Guidebook, (undated booklet, out of print) Bolton Museums and Art Gallery, Bolton Metro

On site interpretation boards at Smithills Hall









Posted in Historic Houses,, Medieval Lancashire, Stuart Lancashire, Tudor Lancashire, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Claughton Viking Burial, near Garstang

Sandhole Wood

In 1822 a group of workers building a new road near Claughton Hall cut through a sandy mound in the area now known as Sandhole Wood. By doing so they discovered a Viking burial mound (or ‘hlaew’) and uncovered its grave goods a few feet below the surface.

Whether the site contained one or two individuals is not clear, but looking at the contents can give us some idea of who might have been buried there. A baked clay pot of cremated ashes was broken by the workmen at the time of the discovery, and both content and pot are now lost. No bones were discovered, and if there had once been some they would have been destroyed by the acidic sandy soil long ago. The artefacts can be split into two groups along fairly traditional interpretation lines- one set consists of jewellery usually associated with women and the other group are weapons usually associated with men.

Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston where the  Claughton Viking artefacts are on display

The jewellery consists of a pair of ‘tortoise style’ brooches, a smaller silver brooch and two beads. These have all been preserved and are on permanent display at the Harris Museum in Preston. A tortoise brooch consists of two shells- a lower gilt bronze one lies beneath an upper perforated one. The lower one would catch the light while the upper one has a decorative animal-like patterns. They were worn in pairs to hold a Viking woman’s pinafore style garment in place. Intriguingly, the tortoise  brooches had been put together to form a box and inside were found a red and blue bead, as well as a molar tooth. The tooth could have survived the acidic conditions as there are reports that the twin brooches were in some form of container, probably made of wood and lined with fabric. The silver brooch was a re-used piece of jewellery from a sword belt, originating from the Carolingian empire of west Europe.

The male artefacts consisted of four Viking iron weapons: a spearhead,  an axe head, a hammer head and a sword. Contemporary drawings  were made of these soon after the discovery and these still survive, but unfortunately the weapons have been lost. Intriguingly there was also a Bronze Age stone axe hammer head amongst the collection.

Lodge Road heading South with Sandhole Wood on the right

So what are we to make of this ? Firstly let’s look at the Bronze Age axe hammer head and cremated ashes in a pot. Cremations are common in the Bronze Age burial mounds, but rare in the Viking times. These finds have led some to think that this was a prehistoric burial that was later re-used by the Vikings. This interpretation is plausible, but historians note that it does not look like a Bronze Age site and axe hammers were rarely found in prehistoric graves. More likely that the axe hammer had been discovered by a Viking  and perhaps kept as a symbol of Thor, the hammer wielding sky god.  A second  rougher Bronze Age  stone axe was found in 1899 half a mile to the north which shows there was prehistoric activity within the area. Further evidence that this cremation urn was Viking is that  another burial site at Inskip five miles away  also had a pot of ashes  and a Viking sword.

If it was a double burial of a Viking man and woman that would account for the male and female artefacts, but  not for the fact that only one cremation pot was found. There are female burials with weapons, so it could have been a solitary woman, or it could have been a solitary man with keepsakes of a woman- perhaps his wife.

Site of Claughton Viking burial- somewhere around here…

Viking hlaews are rare in England and there are only 50-60 known ones. They often mark territorial boundaries. Accordingly this important site became a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1999. The site is in Sandhole Wood (which is private), but the original road that led to its discovery is a public highway and goes right by where the mound once was. The Historic England website map shows the site is right by the wooden fence and so curious visitors can go and have a look without trespassing. The website estimates that the original mound measured 17 metres East to West by 13 metres North to South, but was not very tall and so probably thought to be insignificant when the road was made. Historic England also  state that a  wide but very shallow  ditch survives as an earthwork around part of the monument, but the site has been damaged by road construction, sand quarrying and tree root damage.  For a full description of where to look, see the Access section below. We couldn’t see much evidence on our visit- but it was late spring and the wood was heavily shaded by the tree canopy and covered in bluebells- although it’s still well worth a look.

The brooches are on permanent display in the Discover Preston Gallery at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. See below for details of opening times.


Visiting the Claughton Hlaew site: The site is on private land, but can be viewed from the road. Park at Claughton Memorial Hall or on the road just next to it. Proceed to the junction and head southwards down Lodge Road and keep going until you reach the part with trees on either side. Sandhole Wood is on your right. Head down to where the wood nearly stops on your right hand side.  Take a copy of the Historic England map with you (see here -note that the webpage allows you to print out a better quality map as a pdf file). From the map it looks like the road would have gone through the mound and you can see the area of the site should be on your right (interestingly the Historic England webpage says that the fence posts are excluded from the scheduling, implying that they run through the remnants of the hlaew) . If you walk as far south as the emergency access road to the M6 motorway, you’ve gone too far- but only just. There is some local traffic on Lodge  Road- expect a vehicle every couple of minutes or so, but you can step into the verge easily as it passes.

Grid Reference for OS maps or A-Z map books: 513 424

Visiting the Harris Museum and Art Gallery: to view the brooches in the Discover Preston Gallery : Opening Times: Open every day and entry is free (see here )


Vikings in North West England: The Artifacts, B.J.N. Edwards (1998), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster

Viking Treasure from the North West: The Cuerdale Hoard in its Context, selected papers from The Vikings of the Irish Sea conference, Liverpool 18-20 May 1990, edited by James Graham-Campbell (1992), National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

The Claughton Viking Burial, B.J.N. Edwards (1969), Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire Volume 121

The History of the Wyre, Michelle Harris and Brian Hughes (2009) Harris & Hughes

Walks around Historic Bleasdale, John Dixon and Jaana Jarvinen (1998) , Carnegie Press

The Story of Preston, edited by Jennifer Holden (undated booklet publication), Harris Museum and Art Gallery


Historic England


Posted in Saxon and Viking Lancashire, Saxon and Viking Landscape Feature | Tagged ,

Furness Viking Hoard

The Dock Museum
Home of the Furness Hoard

In 2011 in a field near  the village of Stainton with Adgarley a metal detectorist unearthed a hidden Viking hoard of coins and hack silver.  Most of the coins had been minted by the  Anglo-Saxons but there were also Viking ones and even two Arabic Dirhams. The coins dated to the 940s-50s making this burial later than the ones at Silverdale (see here) and Cuerdale in Lancashire.

The discovery was found near a large glacial erratic stone, presumably used as  a marker so that it could be recovered at a later date. It’s been estimated that the hoard would have been able to buy 50 sheep of the Herdwick variety (Herdwick is Norse for ‘sheep pasture’). This distinctive breed has a white face and legs, blue grey coat and can survive unattended on the mountainside in all weathers- a truly Norse sheep !

What of the coins themselves ? The bulk are from the time of King Eadred (946-55) . The  others are either a little earlier (the reigns of Edward the Elder and Athelstan) and a few a little later (the reigns of Edmund and Eadwig). Analysis of the dates they were minted suggests that they were buried between 955-57. Of particular interest are the Viking coins- these show various motifs including a sword, cross, raven and a flower. The Arabic Dirhams have been dated to 906 AD and are so some of the earliest coins from the hoard.

Lead weights found with the assemblage would have been used to measure out silver and so work out its value.  Silver ingots were part of the bullion and many of the items show test marks where they have been cut to check their quality.

The historical background of the time sets the scene as to what was happening when the hoard was  buried. This area of  Lancashire North of the Sands was part of Northumbria and at the time much of the region would have been ruled from York. England had been united as a country for the first time by King Athelstan, a Wessex Saxon and the grandson of Alfred the Great.  It seems likely that  the Viking Eric Bloodaxe ruled Northumbria as a sub-king to Athelstan. This arrangement seems to have come about as Athelstan had been friends with Eric’s father the king of Western Norway, Harald Finehair. Northumbria was effectively a buffer zone between the Saxons, Scots and Irish. After Athelstan’s death in 939 Northumbria was annexed by Olaf Guthrithsson, the ruler of Viking Dublin. This is a confused period, with Athelstan’s Saxon successors Eadred and Edmund also staking a claim to the region. Subsequently, Eric Bloodaxe was back in charge for two more periods but ruling in his own right and not as a sub-king. The first period was  947-8 and the second was 952-4. He was finally killed in battle at Stainmore in 954, which was just before the  Furness Hoard was buried. Clearly this was a turbulent time with English Saxons, Irish based Vikings and Scottish kings all wanting to control the area.

After the discovery archaeologists revisited the site to see if there was anything more of interest. Nothing from the Viking and Anglo-Saxon times remained to be found although the nearby settlement of Stainton would have existed at that time.  They were able to make out traces of three Iron Age huts and an enclosure bank around them. They also noted that in the late 1800s to earlier 1900s the antiquarian Dobson had found Neolithic and Bronze Age axes, as well as saddle querns, just a little way south from the find spot. Clearly this was a thriving area throughout the prehistoric period. Unfortunately most of the site has been destroyed by quarrying- yet another example of modern human activity from the industrial revolution onwards obliterating our ancient heritage.

Today the Furness Hoard has a permanent home at The Dock Museum at Barrow. All the coins and other artefacts are well displayed and can viewed close up.  On one wall is a large picture showing the field and the glacial erratic where they were found, so the visitor can get a good impression of the site. Other finds from the  Viking period are also on show. It is well worth the visit to see this impressive museum which covers the history of the area from the Prehistoric right up to Barrow in the Blitz and beyond.


The Dock Museum in Barrow is open Wednesday to Sunday 11.00-4.00 pm.                 Admission is free. Parking at the museum is also free.

The museum is superb and also has an excellent café.

Website: or click here

Nearby, just a short drive away Dalton Castle


50 Find from Cumbria: Objects From the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Dot Broughton (2016), Amberley Publishing

Furness Hoard Findspot , Cumbria Archaeological Excavation, Greenlane Archaeology Ltd (for Portable Antiquities Scheme and The Dock Museum) (2012) pdf

Greenlane Archaeology Website

On Site Interpretation boards from The Dock Museum, Barrow

Know Your Sheep, Jack Byard (2008), Old Pond Publishing

Posted in Saxon and Viking Lancashire, Saxon and Viking Landscape Feature | Tagged ,

Dalton Castle, Dalton in Furness

Dalton Castle

Dalton Castle is a 14th century Pele tower and was owned by the abbot of Furness Abbey. From here he would administer the law in the region of the Lordship of Furness, Lancashire North of the Sands. There would have been an earlier timber framed building on the site which also contained a gaol and courtroom, but continual raids by the Scots in the early 1300s meant that it was a target of burning. Setting fire to property, robbery and the taking of prisoners were the main aims of the Scottish raiders in these lawless times. Despite abbot John of Cockerham paying money to Robert the Bruce in 1322, plunder and burning went ahead. The reason for such open hostilities was that during this century  England and Scotland were either at war, or maintaining an uneasy peace which did not stop raiding from either side. This lead to the building of  fortified Pele towers throughout the region, even as far down as Radcliffe Tower and Turton Tower in south Lancashire.

By  1327 the monks of Furness had a Pele tower constructed on nearby Piel island, which they would use for refuge during Scottish  attacks. It’s thought that Dalton Castle was constructed at the same time, as it shares many similar features (such as the window design). Dalton Castle was not for refuge  as such, but was clearly an important building that needed its contents preserving so that justice could be dispensed.

The original stone tower was built with limestone and red sandstone edgings. For security it had a single entrance on the ground floor leading to a guard room. From there a spiral staircase  was built into the west wall for added protection. The stairs led up to three more floors, the top one of which was the abbot’s courtroom. This had large traceried windows to let in a lot of light, but the lower floors would only have had defensive arrow slits for illumination. At the very top of the  tower was a parapet  with arrow loops. Below the ground floor was the dungeon which was accessed by a removable ladder through a floor grate.

During the 133os the abbot’s power grew, meaning that he could preside over a larger range of criminal cases. These  included those involving bloodshed and he also held the right to appoint a coroner. He would hold an Abbots Court every three weeks that dealt with debt and trespass crimes, and a Full Court Baron session twice a year that could resolve local disputes.

Red sandstone contrasting with surrounding limestone

In 1537 the last abbot Roger Pele surrendered the ownership of Furness Abbey to Henry VIII’s agents at Whalley Abbey. Despite his taking part in the Pilgrmage of Grace (the northern protest against the dissolution of the monasteries) he was allowed to stay on as the Rector of Dalton. In the same settlement some of the recently unemployed Furness Abbey monks received a pension. Eight years later Henry VIII wrote to his royal officers in Furness enquiring about the condition of Dalton Castle. He knew that it was “now in great Ruyn and Decay to our hurte and losse”. He suggested that repairs could be carried out using “what store of stone, leade, timber and other stuffe we have within or about our late monastery there.” This was duly done.

Just over a hundred years later Charles II was looking to reward those who had helped restore him to the throne after the rule of Oliver Cromwell. One of those was General George Monk who was given the Lordship of Furness and the Manor of Dalton, and with it ownership of Dalton Castle. The king also made him the  Duke of Albemarle. From here on the Pele tower remained in the hands of local powerful aristocratic families.  From the Albmarle family it later passed to the Montagu family  and from them to the Buccleuchs who owned it until 1965.

Over the years it has been modified numerous times, with stables being added on the ground floor at one point and some of the upper floors removed. It has also been a masonic temple (the Baldwin Lodge) in the Victorian era and an armoury for the Dalton Battalion of Rifle Volunteers. Throughout much of its existence though, it remained a court up until the early 20th century. In 1965 it was given by the Eighth Duke of Buccleuth to the National Trust, who are the current owners.

On visiting today, much of the original fabric of the building can be seen and it is in a very good condtion. On the ground floor is a museum room with lots of curious locally collected items. These include a stone head from Furness Abbey and a rare  Iron Age carved head.  The building is also home to the Henry Kellet Geology Collection and there are temporary exhibitions in the large room on the first floor. Many of the original features can still be seen, including  a look down into the underground dungeon.

Outside the tower today is a small plaque set in the ground. This gives the words of a charter that was drawn in 1239 granting the right of the abbot and monks of Furness to hold an annual fair from the 31st October to 2nd November:  “…on the day before and on the day and on the morrow of All Saints day, unless the fair be damaging to neighbouring fairs”.  Around the edge of the tower are grown medieval medicinal herbal plants. A few steps away is the parish church of Dalton, and it’s well worth a look too.


Dalton Castle is in the quiet high street of Dalton and so the outside features can be seen at any time.  To view the interior, it is open on Saturday afternoons 2.00-5.00 pm from the end of March until the end of September. Admission is free. On street parking is available in the high street.

Website: or click here


Dalton Castle Cumbria, National Trust booklet (1996). This is available from Dalton Castle.

On site interpretation boards at Dalton Castle

A History of St. Mary’s Church and Parish Dalton in Furness booklet (2007). Available in the church.


Posted in Castles,, Medieval Lancashire, Medieval Monasteries, | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Platt Hall, Platt Fields Park, Rusholme

Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester

Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester

Raphe Worsley bought the Platt estate in 1625. He’d made his money  supplying yarn to local handloom weavers from Rusholme and selling the cloth they produced in Manchester. His son Charles was a high ranking officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army,  raising a regiment in Manchester and later taking command of Cromwell’s own regiment. In 1655 Cromwell reorganized the country into ten districts, each with it’s own Vice Regent in charge. Charles became the  Vice Regent for Lancashire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. The next year he had 100 alehouses closed down  in Blackburn and is recorded as saying ‘we are catching up all lose and vile persons’. He died that same year aged 34 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Around a hundred years later Deborah Worsley inherited the estate and married John Lees, a wealthy textile merchant.  John took her family name of Carill-Worsley and his son Thomas (from a previous marriage) was named as heir to the estate. The original timber frame  Platt Hall was dismantled and a new brick hall was constructed in 1762-4 and is the one we see today.


Platt Hall South side

It was designed by the famous York architect John Carr who also created the spectacular Lytham Hall. The new Platt Hall was a three story building with rows of  what we now refer to as Georgian sash windows, all symmetrically laid out either side of the central grand entrance. His plans  were modified by Timothy Lightoler, a former Lancashire wood carver and carpenter. The front of the house would look out onto formal gardens and beyond that was a classic parkland view: the wide stream of  Platt Brook flowing  by, cattle grazing in the distance  and a Ha Ha ditch to stop them straying into the house gardens.  Behind the hall a wooded area was created that included walks, mazes and open glades.

For the interior, Lightoler designed a circuit of interconnecting rooms for guests to move through on what is  called a ‘parlour floor’. Starting in the common parlour, they would proceed to the grand dining room, then to the drawing room and bed chamber. Here they would dance, eat, play cards, listen to music, and discuss the furnishings and ornaments.

Platt Hall North side

Platt Hall North side

Today the  dining room still survives and has been restored along with the central room on the first story. The grand staircase with its large Venetian window is another remnant from the time. Much of the original stucco plasterwork can still be seen and the wall colour scheme  of grey, green and blue from John and Deborah’s time has been  restored. Thomas inherited the estate in 1799 and many years later his clothes trunk was reacquired by the hall. This contained several of his everyday suits, coats, waist coasts and a pair of his shoes that still bear his name ‘Mr Worsley’. All are now on display, giving us a sense of what the gentry wore on a daily basis.

At the start of the 2oth century the family were looking to dispose of the estate and house. It was sold to a builder who intended to knock down the hall and use its bricks to build hundreds of  houses over all of the estate. This would also entail  cutting down  the large mature trees of the parklands. William Royle of Rusholme stepped forward to stop this happening, saying the parkland was a green lung of the city and that it should be bought by Manchester Council for all of the public to use. He worked tirelessly,  organizing a campaign group, producing leaflets and writing  letters to the local paper.

Platt Fields

Platt Fields

The strategy worked and in 1907 the council bought the estate for £59,000 with the intention of turning it into a public park. Unemployed labourers were brought in to landscape it, create  flower beds and a boating lake. They also constructed a bowling green and tennis courts. William Royle’s work was  commemorated in the 1920s by the creation of a  large  seat near one the the Wilmslow Road entrances, dedicated to him.

In the first world war the army used the park to recruit soldiers. There they would parade and also practice digging trenches. Returning injured men would learn to walk again on their artificial limbs in the Grangethorpe Fields area. In the second world war bombs fell on Rusholme and in response long double air raid shelters were dug running along the lime avenue from Platt Lane. They were made of concrete and had mounds of earth put on top to reinforce them. Barage balloons were moored in the park and anti aircraft guns set up, manned by the Home Guard. A steel structure known as ‘Bailey Bridge’ was built for soldiers to practice taking control of bridges.

The role of the hall changed over the years in Platt Fields Park. It had been originally reopened as a café in 1910, and became an art gallery in 1925 featuring 18th century furniture and costumes. In 1947 it became the Gallery of English Costume having recently acquired the enormous Cunnington Collection of Victorian dresses.


Platt Fields Park Site Manager’s House

The park was still thriving in the 1970s with over 50 garden maintenance staff and a manager living onsite with his family.  During the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s it began to struggle. Due to extensive job cuts only a  few maintenance staff remained  and these were shared between other parks. It was left unlocked at night and became subject to vandalism and general neglect. In 1997  the Friends of the Park group set about trying to tackle the problems. Working with the council, volunteers came in to do programmes of  improvement including  bulb planting and bird box making.   Construction projects included new playgrounds and a  sports zone with basket ball courts, a skate park and a BMX track. It still has many tranquil parts, such as the Shakespearean Garden (see the Nico Ditch post here), wide open grassed areas, mature trees and remnants of an old orchard. Large events began to take place, including the Manchester Mela. In 2010 the park celebrated its centenary and is back on track as a people’s park once again.

Platt Hall is now run by the  Manchester Art Gallery group as the Gallery of Costume. It  has 23,000 items in its collection and in 2006 was designated of National Importance by Department for Culture Media and Sport. Television and theater costume designers use its extensive collection for research.  In 2009 a million pounds of building work was carried out by Manchester City Council to create a lecture theatre, workshop space and temporary exhibition gallery. You can visit Platt Hall today and enjoy both its historical features and its costume collection – all for free.

Opening times for Platt Hall and Gallery of Costume

Thursday and Friday 1-5pm
Saturday and Sunday 10am – 5pm

Platt Hall website see here

Access for Platt Fields park

Open access site in daylight hours

Friends of Platt Fields see  here 

Nearby, just a few minutes walk on foot the Dark Age mysterious Nico Ditch


Fabric of Society: A century of People and their Clothes 1770-1870, Jane Tozier and Sarah Levitt revised edtion 2010 Manchester Art Gallery and Manchester City Council (available from Platt Hall Gallery of Costume)

A Centenary Celebration of Platt Fields Park Manchester 1910-2010, Jonathan Schofield (editor), Browns CTP Oldham and Heritage Lottry Fund (available from Platt Hall Gallery of Costume) (accessed 27/12/16) (accessed 27/12/16)

Posted in Georgian Lancashire, Historic Houses, | Tagged , ,

St Walburge’s Church, Maudlands, Preston


St Walburge’s Church Preston

By the late 1840s many of Preston’s churches had become very overcrowded, so a decision was made to found a new one dedicated to                        St Walburge. It was designed by the architect Joseph Hansom, the famous designer of the original two wheeled horse drawn Hansom Cab. A huge fundraising push took place, where it was said that even the poorest gave a penny a week. Building began in 1840 and  the church was opened four years later. The famous spire was added in 1867 and at 309 feet it is thought to be the tallest of any parish church in England (only a handful of cathedrals have a larger one). The colour of the spire  contrasts to that of  the main body of the church because it’s made of a different stone- a limestone full of fossils.


St Walburge’s Rose Window

In 1873  the far end of the church was extended and a curved aspe was created. Today the volunteer guides will tell you that during the building work bodies were found that dated back to the former use of the site. The Medieval leper hospital of  St Mary Magdalene once stood here and for the full history of this lost building see the blog post here.  St Walburge’s has been restored over the years and on one occasion, the statues of the saints were put back in the wrong order on their roof plinths, and their names painted over. All their identities  have still not been sorted out- but it’s hoped they will be during the current restoration. Intriguingly, the statue of King David  has been cut down the middle, with one half of  the king on one side of the church and the other half on the opposite side. Each half of King David looks across the aisle at its missing part.

One of the most interesting pieces in the church is the war memorial. The oak crucifix at its centre is from Medieval Germany, dating sometime around the 1300s. It was salvaged from a French abbey that had been destroyed in the First World War. From there it went to Belgium, until finally ending up at St Walburge’s. For more on this fascinating memorial see World War 1 Cemeteries website here .


View from the tower looking toward Preston Docks

The interior of the church is stunning, and before you visit, why not have a look at the 360 degree tour on the church’s own website here. If you are going to visit, then on many Saturdays the church tower is open. The views over Preston and beyond are fantastic and you may see or hear the resident Peregrine falcons which live in the tower.

The future of the church was in doubt in recent years, but has now been assured after the Bishop of Lancaster has declared that it is a ‘shrine’ for pilgrimage. The running of the shrine has been entrusted to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a Catholic missionary society. All visitors are welcome.


The church is open every day. On Saturdays their are also guided tours and the steps up the tower and steeple are often open then.

To see more about the Lost Leper Hospital of St Mary Magdgalene which used to be on this site, click here

Nearby, just a short walk away the Site of the Preston’s Medieval Friary


St Walburge website see here


Look at St Walburge’s Church, (1989) Preston Bessacarr Prints. Booklet currently in print and available when you visit the church.

The Spire Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest website –

Historic England list website (accessed 12/12/16)

This blog post also makes use of on site interpretation at St Walburge’s Church, and conversations with the church’s volunteer guides.



Posted in Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Nico Ditch, Platt Fields Park, Manchester


Nico Ditch Plaque

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.


Nico Ditch in Platt Fields Park

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.

dscn1033Historians 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.


Nico Ditch runs by the Shakespeare Garden

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.


Nico Ditch runs by Cathedral Arch

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.


Nico Ditch at Platt Chapel

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.



Platt Chapel

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.


Friends of Platt Fields ( 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 accessed 8/12/16






Posted in Saxon and Viking Lancashire, Saxon and Viking Landscape Feature | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Radcliffe Tower, Radcliffe near Bury


Radcliffe Tower

After the Norman Conquest of England, Nicholas FitzGilbert de Tabois was given confiscated Saxon manor land in the present day Radcliffe area. He took the name ‘de Radclyffe’  (which means            of Radcliffe) and his descendants continued to live in the area for hundreds of years. They built a manorial house with a church alongside it on this naturally defendable site, which is protected on three sides by the River Irwell. The ‘red cliff’ on one side of the river gives Radcliffe its name.

The earliest record of a fortified Pele tower is from 1358. It is probably this ruined structure that remains today, but why was it built ? The 13oos was a time of on going war between England and Scotland. The Radcliffe family were participants, as Richard de Radcliffe fought with Edward I and his son Edward II in the Scottish Wars. In between these battles were devastating raids by both side into each other’s territory. This led to Pele Towers being constructed mainly in present day Cumbria and North Lancashire. Scottish raids could reach as far as South Lancashire, where Radcliffe is today, and so defendable manorial homes were an option for a wealthy family.

After the wars were over there followed two centuries  of unrest where the inhabitants of the North were at the mercy of families acting as armed bands of thugs, namely the Border Reivers. Again, an attack this far south was not as likely as it was for those living close to the border, but South Lancashire was still within striking range.

As a typical Pele tower, Radcliffe Tower was three stories high. Storage would be on the ground floor in a strong  stone vaulted room, and accommodation would be above.  A Pele was built to repel attackers and Radcliffe Tower incorporated the following : massively thick walls, some 1.5 metres wide; huge draw bars that could be pulled across the backs of the doors to stop them being forced open; narrow ground floor windows to prevent entry, and restricted access to the first floor (in the form of a removable ladder or stairs). This latter measure meant that if attackers  broke into the ground floor they could not easily get to the rooms above.


The footprint of the Medieval Great Hall

Radcliffe Tower would have been connected to a Medieval Great Hall, which would butt up directly against it. The Great Hall would be a timber frame building, consisting of a huge open room. At one end would be a large table where the family ate. At the other end would typically be doors leading to a buttery, pantry and kitchen. These would be blocked off from view by a large moveable wooden screen (an example of which can be seen at Rufford Old Hall).  The footprint of the Great Hall has been laid out in the grass on the site today, so you can get a feel for its size. For an idea of what both the outside and the inside would have look like, visit nearby  Smithills Hall at Bolton (see here).        It was built in the same era  and its Great Hall still survives to this day. It was also owned by the de Radcliffe family.

Smithills Medieval Great Hall, in Bolton

Smithills Medieval Great Hall, in Bolton

On 15th August  1403 King Henry IV gave James de Radcliffe a ‘licence to crenellate’ which meant permission to fortify his house. James had fought in the Battle of Shrewsbury and this could have been his reward for doing so. Seeing how he already had a Pele Tower, this was probably a permission for further fortified building work. Indeed the licence was for a new Great Hall with  two thick walled stone wings, all enclosed by an outer wall. It appears that the second stone wing was never built, but the hall and tower were probably remodelled at this time.

In 1517 the manor of Radcliffe passed to a more distant branch of the family, that of Robert Radcliffe Lord Fitzwalter who later became the Earl of Sussex. His descendants sold Radcliffe Manor in 1561 to the local Assheton family who lived at Middleton Hall (near Rochdale). The Asshetons did not move in, but leased the hall and its lands to tenant farmers. In 1765 the Earl of Wilton from Heaton Hall near Prestwich took ownership and it would remain with the Wilton family until the 1950s. Again it continued to be let to tenants and not occupied by the family themselves. By  the early 1800s much of its former grandeur was gone and people only continued to live in the small west wing. The Great Hall was converted to a barn and the Pele tower began to be used as farm buildings. This saw  the huge ground floor fireplaces being knocked through on the south and east walls, probably to give access to either farm carts or animals.

South wall of Radcliffe Tower, showing one of the huge fireplaces

South wall of Radcliffe Tower, showing one of the huge fireplaces

By 1840 the Great Hall and west wing had been demolished as both were in a poor state of repair. Some of the stone from their foundations was used to make cottages close by.  A new farmhouse was built to the north of where the Great Hall had stood. The Pele tower was spared, but it continued to be used as a farm building.

Throughout the twentieth century the site around the tower saw huge change. Although the tower was scheduled in 1925, the land around it was not protected and in the 1940s gravel quarrying began to the south of the tower.  By the 1960s  the farmhouse and cottages  had been demolished.  Starting in the 1970s the quarry was used as a landfill, with huge trucks rumbling right past Radcliffe Tower. It was in a very sorry state, being protected only by a fence around it.

Gradually, the fortunes of the tower begun to turn and in 1988 Bury Council took over ownership. Conservation and stabilization of the structure followed- which included blocking the fireplace arches and two windows. The scheduling of the monument was extended to include the land that the Great Hall had stood on. By 2007 the landfill was gone, and Bury Council acquired the land surrounding the tower.


East wall of Radcliffe tower with another fireplace blocked up

From 2012 there  followed a series of archaeological excavations. Many of these involved the local community, as well as Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford. In 2013 the Heritage Lottey Fund gave £267,000 to the Radcliffe Heritage Project to investigate the site and publicise their finds. Not only were the tower and hall site investigated, but also the later farm and cottages that were built nearby.  Finds revealed that the Great Hall would have had a floor made from glazed tiles. Green ridge roof tiles were also discovered, which would have topped the thatch of the hall. Pottery included 15th century Cistercian ware which is  made of a red clay with a brown iron glaze. This included drinking pots, some with one handle and some with two, as well as storage jars.

The diagonal roof line shows where the Great Hall would have met the tower. Note also the finer brickwork which would have had plaster on it for the inside of the hall

The diagonal roof line shows where the Great Hall would have met the tower. Note also the finer brickwork which would have had plaster on it for the inside of the hall

Today the medieval fabric of the tower has been professionally conserved and restored, and the area around it landscaped. Interpretation notices tell you all about the history of the site. If you examine the ground in front of the large doorway, you can see where the Great Hall would have butted up against Radcliffe Tower, as the archaeologists have helpfully left its footprint in the grass.  If you look at the photograph on the left (click to enlarge it)- the diagonal roof line of the hall can be seen, and smaller irregular stonework of the interior wall which would have been plastered can also be made out. The three blocked large fireplaces are very obvious on three of the sides of the tower, created when the bottom floor was converted from a storage room to a kitchen.

Today Radcliffe  Tower has been incorporated into Close Park which also has a heritage trail. An excellent website has been set up (the Radcliffe Manor Website- see link below) to give lots of details and pictures of the site and you can view the trail and more history by visiting it. The Tower and Park are supported by two groups: Friends of Radcliffe Manor and Friends of Close Park, and their links are also given below. It’s a remarkable journey the tower has been on, and it is now a fantastic heritage destination for Radcliffe and the whole of the Lancashire region.


This site is free to visit and  is open access through Close Park or St Mary’s Church in daylight hours. These are the only gates that are unlocked- there is a large fence around the perimeter of the site and there is no access through any of the other gates.

Just a short drive away Bury Castle ruins


Radcliffe Manor Website click here

Friends of Radcliffe Manor group click here

Friends of Close Park group click here

Bury Archaelogy dug the site in the 1970s, keeping alive interest in the tower. See their website here


Radcliffe Manor: A Medieval Tower in Context, Greater Manchester’s Past Revealed: 16, Mike Nevell, Vicky Nash and Sarah Cattell, (2016) CfAA, Salford University

Radcliffe Tower: An Introduction to the Scheduled Monument, Peter Arrowsmith, (1995), Bury MBC (with the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit)




Posted in Historic Houses,, Medieval Lancashire, Tudor Lancashire | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Jubilee Tower, Quernmore, near Lancaster


Jubilee Tower near Quernmore

James Harrison was a wealthy Liverpool shipbuilder who lived in Hare Appletree, near Quernmore. To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, he did two things. In a  fit of patriotism  he lit a beacon on nearby Clougha Pike on the date of the Jubilee, making a precarious assent in his pony and trap. His second deed was rather more enduring- he commissioned a local mason to build a folly view tower. The mason was called Gifford and he  had also worked on nearby Quernmore church and chapel. His work endures to today, and the tower is well worth a visit.

For almost a century the tower remained in private hands, but in 1973 it was donated by a Mr Adam Leigh also of Hare Appletree to Lancashire County Council. The council set about building a large car park across from it, and in the course of doing so the enigmatic Quernmore Dark Age burial was discovered (see here). The remains of the burial can be viewed today in Lancaster City Museum.

Over the next few years the tower stonework was repointed, the handrail on the stairs fixed and the platform itself restored into good order by the council. It remains a popular place for both walkers and drivers today, with its spectacular vistas in all directions.


Ordnance Survey Bench Mark

On visiting the folly we see a square block shaped building with castle like crenellations on the roof. It does not appear to have an inside to it as there are no windows or doors visible. Perhaps interior rooms would have weakened the structure, so we are looking at what is probably solid stone blocks, all the way through.

On the side facing the road, low down you can see a small metal plaque with OS BM 10825. This stands for Ordnance Survey Bench Mark which was used to measure height above sea level. This was part of the national system to record and measure the height of the land throughout Britain.  The one here is classed as a ‘flush bracket’ and 10825 is its unique identification number. The tower stands at 950 feet above sea level.

Just before you climb the steps to the top, look up and see the stone plaque carved into the structure. It says “This tower was erected by James Harrison of Hare Appletree in commemoration of the Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Victoria ANNO DOMINI 1887”.  


Moorland, Farmland and Coast with Mountains beyond

This was built to be a viewing tower, and so here is some of what can be seen: Face out to sea and look at the great views of Lancaster close by, with Heysham and its power station beyond. To your right, looking north on a clear day shows the Lake District and it’s southern mountains. Behind you is Hare Appletree Fell and a path up to Clougha Pike. The road to your left will take you to the Trough of Bowland, a fantastic drive through this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This is a well built platform, and in its over a hundred years of existence must have withstood some extremes of weather in this exposed spot. Snow, hail, wind and rain have all driven against it, but at over a hundred and twenty years old it’s still looking in good shape.


The tower and car park are open all year round. Look out for the plaque in the car park for the Quernmore burial (read more about that here). The easiest way to reach the car park is to follow Wyresdale Road from Williamson Park in Lancaster which will take you straight there.  If you are coming from another direction then the postcode for the monument on the Visit Lancashire website is LA2 9HJ- but navigate with a road map as well ! The tower is also marked on Google Maps.


Ivory Towers and Dressed Stones Vol 1: Lancashire, Jim Jarratt (1994), Cicerone Press

Lancashire’s Fair Face, Jessica Lofthouse (1976), Robert Hale and Company: London (accessed 25/10/16) (accessed 25/10/16)


Posted in Monuments, Victorian Lancashire | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Quernmore Dark Age Burial, near Lancaster


The plaque marking the burial discovery

A link to the Lancashire Dark Ages was revealed when a car park was being constructed  for the Jubilee Tower near Quernmore. In 1973 a local man, James Marshall was walking his dog near the folly, when his attention was caught by a wooden object sticking out of the soil. A mechanical digger had been involved in cutting a drain for the new car park, and in the process of removing the peat had revealed what looked like a canoe. Staff from Lancaster City Museum were called to the site, and they discovered that there were actually two of these boat shaped objects. The first was largely intact, but the second had been severely damaged by the machine. All was not lost though, as the second one could in large part be reassembled.


Looking from Jubilee Tower to the car park where the burial was discovered

The team kept the wooden objects and their mysterious contents from degrading by using wet newspaper and polythene sheets- without this quick intervention the wood would have dried out and spilt, perhaps even disintegrated on being exposed to the surrounding air. Upon examination the two boat like objects turned out to be the top and bottom parts of an oak coffin originally pegged together, with each half  shaped like a dug out canoe. The upper half had been damaged first by plant roots and then shattered by the digger.


Close up of plaque giving a sketch and brief history of the find (click to enlarge)

Inside the coffin were two pieces of woolen cloth. They had been originally been one large sheet in the shape of a square, but a corner had been cut off. The cloth was a 5 foot  burial shroud that contained the remains of a body- not the skeleton, it had long since disintegrated into the acidic soil. All that was left was the deceased’s  hair along with their finger and toe nails. These are all made of keratin, which are more durable than bone in peatlands. The shroud is the largest piece of fabric that has been discovered  from this era. The body had been lain diagonally across it, so that it could be enclosed from head to foot. Unfortunately the feet were not covered as the sheet was not large enough. This led the people who prepared the corpse to cut off a triangular portion of the cloth from one side, which they wrapped separately around the feet.

The radiocarbon date from the wood put it at 1340 years before the present (with an error factor of plus or minus 110 years), so the burial occurred some time around the 600- 700 AD mark.  This placed it firmly in the Dark Ages for Lancashire- which to the historian really are dark as little is known about the region at that time.  Interestingly, some similar burials of oak boat shaped coffins, again in two parts and pegged together have been found in the North Pennines. These were discovered at Wydon Eals Farm in Featherstone and  a little further north at the old churchyard at Haltwhistle. The radiocarbon date of the finds at Featherstone is similar to our one at Quernmore, so we are clearly looking at a style of burial from the early Saxon era.


Similar boat shaped coffins found in the North Pennines

What is the significance of the shape of the coffins in these burials ? When they were first found, they were recorded as ‘boat burials’. Clearly they look like dug out canoes, but whether this has a ritual significance or is just a common wood working technique of the time, is not known.  The carefully prepared coffin was slotted into a place in the clay that underlay the 18 inches of peat above. The setting was and is still now a very dramatic one, with views of the Irish Sea,  the Cumbrian mountains and the Bowland fells.

Today the remains of the coffin are on display at Lancaster City Museum, having been donated by Lady Sefton on whose land it was discovered. It goes without saying that the museum is superb, and always worth a visit.  It’s also worth going to the Quernmore site where you can view the plaque and enjoy the amazing scenery from the top of the Jubilee Tower.


The car park for Jubilee Tower contains the plaque for the Quernmore Burial.  The easiest way to reach the car park is to follow Wyresdale Road from Williamson Park in Lancaster which will take you straight there.  If you are coming from another direction then the postcode for the monument on the Visit Lancashire website is LA2 9HJ- but navigate with a road map as well ! The tower is also marked on Google Maps.

Just across the road…. Jubilee Tower See the full blog post on Jubilee Tower by clicking here


The Quernmore Burial Mystery, Dr A.J. White (2001) Lancaster City Museums

Museum Notes 1) The Quernmore Boat Burial, A.J. White (retrieved 22/10/16)

Historic England Pastscape website Monument No. 42869 (retrieved 22/10/16)

North Pennines Virtual Museum website (retrieved 22/10/16)







Posted in Saxon & Viking Age Sculpture,, Saxon and Viking Lancashire | Tagged , | 1 Comment