A Cultural History of Alkrington Woods: A Proposal

One of the projects that I want to record with this blog is a kind of cultural history of Alkrington Woods, in Middleton, Manchester. I’ve been aware of it all my life, having grown up in Rhodes, though I only started going into the woods last year on a regular basis. We had a terminal illness and death in my family over the winter of 2014/15 which was difficult to deal with. Beginning to walk regularly in the woods after this period ended with my Mum somehow lessened, for both of us I think, some of the pressure we felt. Perhaps it was the exercise or just being out of the house that helped, but we also took pleasure from seeing the land blossom as spring advanced, becoming more lush and a home for new animals; besides being a space for leisure, the woods are also a nature reserve.

Middleton was also the birthplace of Sam Bamford, one of the more famous local participants in the protest meeting in Manchester of 16 August 1819, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. In his book Walks in South Lancashire, we find a passage describing a curiously mixed landscape:

From the top of one of the moor-edges, Old Birkle, for instance, on a clear day, with the wind from the south west, we may perceive that the spaces betwixt the large towns of Bury, Bolton, Manchester, Stockport, Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Middleton, and Heywood, are dotted with villages, and groups of dwellings, and white detached houses, and manufactories, presenting an appearance somewhat like that of a vast city scattered amongst meads and pastures, and belts of woodland; over which, at times, volumes of black furnace clouds go trailing their long wreaths on the wind.

The ‘vast city’ is not collected in a mass but ‘scattered’ and intermingled with more rural patches that we know meant something to Bamford as he wrote plenty of poetry celebrating the natural world. The land that I’m interested in comprises not only the woods but the River Irk, which runs through the woods from the direction of Royton, Oldham and carries on to the city centre of Manchester, where it joins with the River Irwell near Victoria Station. Another waterway, Broadman Brook, joins the Irk in the woods. Since industry used the river in the nineteenth century, altering its course in the process, the remnants of that industry – rusted pipes and sluice gates – are also visible.

Below is a map of the area from the National Library of Scotland Map Images resource: OS Six Inch, 1888-1913.

First AW mapReproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The area shaded and labelled Alkrington Park has since been built over with housing. The blocks labelled ‘reservoirs’ were used by industry such as the bleach works across the road. I’ve shaded in blue the ones that remain. (The National Library of Scotland Map Images allows you to overlay a modern map so you can easily see the changes over time, but I can’t show the image without infringing Bing’s copyright.) The ‘lodges’, as we call them now, are now used for fishing and are home to several types of waterfowl. They do show the scars of industry, however, such as this rusted sluice between two lodges, which is marked by a red dot in the map above.

2016-07-06 13.03.13

Over time, I began to accrue what are no doubt overly romantic notions about Bamford walking on the same ground that was becoming more meaningful to me, and decided to find out more about its history. So the task as I see it is to learn more about the land’s history, which takes in natural history, in terms of the plants and animals the woods and lodges support; its industrial history, as the place was shaped by this activity; and the cultural history of how people have used and responded to the place over the years. One of the reasons that I found academia a bit chafing is that I’m not a specialist by nature, and love the learning curve of negotiating a new body of knowledge. So this is perfect for me!

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