Taking stock

It’s a good time to take stock of the potential avenues for further research based on what I have already seen and thought about.

  • Find out more about the history of the woods. Decisions have been made by people in the past about how the land was to be used, what were they? Why was the course of the River Irk altered just after it passes Lever Bridge? The field on the main road that the river looped into hasn’t been built onto, were there plans to? Does it have something to do with flooding? There was a major flood in Middleton in 1927 (two pics below) and then again in 1971. The main road to Middleton along the woods floods when there’s heavy rain and the river bursts its banks.

The photos above show what happened in June this year, when the Irk burst its banks. On the right is the water level in relation to Lever Bridge, a very high increase on normal conditions.

Potential topics: history of the woods; water-way management; uses and dangers of water near residential areas — good for industry, bad for citizens.

  • The relation of Alkrington Hall (the big ‘heawse’, as Lancashire dialect would have it) to the land is obviously important. There’s a picture in Middleton Library’s archive of rye grown on the slope between the hall and Lever Bridge during the second world war. There are also photos that show a lawn and gardens between the front of the hall and a long ornamental pool — that land is now occupied by newer housing. The placement of that pool, and another one nearby, make more sense to me now. After its heyday, the hall was made into bedsits, and more recently into more desirable residences.

Potential topics: social relations between the local gentry and local residents over time; class differences in relationships to the land.

  • Thanks to Katrina Navickas via Twitter, I have some leads for my experiments with drawing in order to understand the woods and local life: Edwin Waugh’s scrapbooks in Manchester Central Library for his work ‘Roads out of Manchester’ (FF 942.73 R 24 Rowbotham collection) and Edwin Butterworth’s sketches. I will look at this work and try to think about what they were doing when they made drawings/paintings. I also discovered these images of Manchester maps via one of Katrina’s tweets, some of them are coloured in interesting ways. Potential topic: different ways of representing spaces in order to understand them.

Here is a sketch — not to scale! — where I just pulled out places close to Alkrington Woods from Katrina’s map of Britain indicating the green places where various political groupings met to hold meetings or drill for demonstrations. I compared the current map with the National Library of Scotland’s OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 map and learned that there was an area called ‘Mountains of Poverty’ near Unsworth Moss, where radicals met on 1 August 1819 to drill before Peterloo!

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  1. Radicals met on a large green at Unsworth Moss to drill on 1 August 1819 before the Peterloo Massacre
  2. Reform meeting attended by radicals at Cronkey Shaw common on 1 March 1817
  3. Radical meeting at Tandle Hill on 5 April 1801
  4. Hampden Club meeting at White Moss on 20 March 1817, after the march of the Blanketeers to London
  5. Weavers’ trade union meeting on Kersal Moor on 25 May 1808. Also popular with the Chartists decades later.
  6. Chartist drilling in a field near Birchen Bower on 24 April 1839
  7. Boggart Hole Clough (PDF), a battleground in 1896 between local people using it for public meetings and the city council who wanted to stop this practice. Several members of the Independent Labour Party were jailed for defying the ban on meetings, and the council eventually backed down.

Wood St, Middleton is the site of the mill that was attacked by Luddites in 1812. The poet Lord Byron, the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, gave a speech in the House of Lords on the response to the workers’ rebellion:

Are we aware of our obligations to a mob ! It is the mob that labour in your fields, and serve in your houses— that man your navy, and recruit your army—that have enabled you to defy all the world,—and can also defy you, when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair. You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.

  • The Samuel Bamford connection. I’ve mentioned before that I want to think about his relationship to Middleton’s green spaces. Sources: Bamford’s reminiscences, poetry, and letters.
  • Foraging and botany. I’ve collected some wild garlic from the Kitchen Wood and blackberries from other parts of the woods. It would be interesting to find out if that is a practice with a history in this area. I’m interested in local working-class botanists such as those associated with the Manchester School of Botany: Edward Hobson. I remember seeing some archived plant specimens at the University of Manchester; it would be nice to see them again (Reading: Anne Secord, “Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire”, History of Science 32 (1994), 269-315).
  • Natural movement as exercise. I first became aware of this way of exercising via Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes. It is an idea that keeps being discovered, representing a shift away from having to use gyms and expensive machinery in favour of using the whole body as a unit and an emphasis on the ability to move skilfully. The natural environment is a big part of that, but so is the urban space, as shown by people taking up parkour. Alkrington Woods are clearly used by local people as a space for exercise, and there is a long history of working-class people getting a lot out of rambling in the surrounding area, both for pleasure and political reasons (e.g., the mass trespass of Kinder Scout).

What I’m finding interesting is that to focus on a single space can take you in many different research directions in terms of subject, and can also lend itself to different modes of representation —writing, drawing, mapping.


On the Drawings as a Means of Representing Multiple Views

In my last post, I trialled the use of drawings to depict multiple historical views of the same scene. Here, I will note what I think was successful and where the method presents problems.

This was the first drawing I did, of a curve in the path beside the river and a slope to the right. In black ink is the late 1970s view, in which the slope is covered with lots of long grass and there is a largeish tree just behind it. There are also trees to the left and the line of sight to Middleton is clear enough that a few buildings can be seen.


The green ink shows what the scene looks like now, with large trees near the curve having blocked the light so that the path is now in shadow instead of in sunlight, which allowed grass to grow there in the past. The slope is no longer covered in long grass but is bare in the patches between the young trees that have taken over this area. Nor is the view to Middleton clear, being obscured by the large trees.

I enjoyed doing the black ink part, but hit problems with the green. The large amount of shade was a key change but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without flooding most of the page with green ink. Superimposing one view over another meant that my negative space, the areas around the marks on the page, had disappeared. I could not draw in green and expect the areas in white around the green ink to make sense of the shapes I drew, because the page was already covered in black marks. Here is the image with just the black, in which the composition of the 1970s view is much clearer because of this negative space.


Perhaps the green is too weak in comparison to the weight of the black, but I think the problems go beyond that and are really about composition. It might be better to pick out only the key features and have a much more stylized drawing, one that is less attached to the naturalism of the scene. In order to think about the white spaces that both views need, I might have to do several versions so that I can see where problems arise and leave room for what I need in the second drawing. A true superimposition might not be possible in a way that makes sense to the eye.

Another problem is the fact that the second drawing records the additions but does not remove things that used to be there but which no longer are. In this drawing, the example is the grass in black in the foreground. While this composite represents the multiple images I now have in my head, knowing both past and present views of the scene, this drawing (at least) does not convey the bareness of the path now, only the presence of the grass that used to be there. Another medium might solve this problem. Or there might be some techie solution, with one drawing fading out as the other comes to the fore, and the reversal of this movement? There must be some way to convey this sense with drawing, however.

For the second, I tried a different approach: copying in black ink a section from the OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 from the National Library of Scotland Map Images resource, then using watercolour to indicate the changes I wanted to highlight – the alteration of the river’s course and the growth of trees and shrubs, especially just behind the houses.


Watercolour is not my preferred medium, but its translucent properties might be an asset in solving the problem noted above — the difficulty of overlapping shapes from different periods and keeping them both visible. The map on the National Library of Scotland site was great because I could fade in and out between the old map and a photo of the current scene, making it possible to see exactly where the river’s course had changed and where new trees were.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 18_56_58

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

I enjoyed sketching using the late-19th century map as a model; it has a charm in the quality of its lines. If I wanted to try this again then I’d have to get some waterproof black ink, as mine bled when paint went over it.

For the third drawing, I returned to a view from the ground, combining black ink representing the old view and coloured pencil crayons for the new vegetation. This is better than the black and green ink, I think. Similar but closer to what I wanted. The black is really weaker than it should be because I washed the green out of my fountain pen nib and the water diluted the black ink. I also used another pen with a thicker nib for a bit more depth in places.



Past and Present

As a way of understanding the changes to the landscape of the woods, I’ve found the old photos archived in Middleton Library very useful. Comparing views of the land in photos from the 1950s and ’70s allows me to answer questions I had regarding how old certain wooded areas were. For example, the area in the picture below seemed old to me when I walked though it. Bearing in mind that I know next to nothing about dating trees and areas like this based on the growth and characteristics of the flora, my ideas were conditioned totally by a subjective feeling of walking through a shady, prickly patch populated by bent over, thorny trees and shrubs.

It turns out that this patch of ground — in the middle, where the wet patch is between the trees and the houses — was completely clear before the 1960s.


This is what I meant in the initial post by the ‘romantic nonsense’ my head is stuffed with, and which this research is stripping away. I’d rather have knowledge about how the land has changed over time than a fantasy based on uninformed ideas about the natural world.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the River Irk’s course was changed at some point after this photo was taken in the late 1950s. See the small boy running across the field in the foreground!

I took my own photo from approximately the same vantage point, just in front of Alkrington Hall.

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The following photos, from the late 1970s on the left and now on the right, show how the appearance of trees has totally changed the aspect when walking from the lodges and along the river towards the town centre.

These ones taken from the field along the main road show how major buildings in Middleton are now obscured from view. Fencing post have also been taken down and paths are less obvious.

I feel disorientated by these pictures from only a few decades ago, because they present the land to me in a way that I do not experience now. When finding the spots from which the old photos were taken, I have to orient myself according to buildings that are still there — like Warwick Mill — but which are no longer visible from that vantage point due to the growth of trees.

I find it difficult to represent these changes using pictures or to describe them using words. Both seem to fall short of the actual experience of walking that path to the town centre: not only today, which I did as I walked from home to the library and back again, but also the knowledge I have of the terrain in my head, built up over some 18 months of walking. (Something I like about this patch of land is the variety: of terrain, altitude, paths that intersect. It gives a sense of infinite variety, that you could take any number of routes through the land based on whim and, as is often the case for me, the need to escape aggressive dogs. This creates a very flexible  sense of the land, as I’ve approached areas from multiple directions and know where things are in relation to each other.)

I need a human perspective based on the knowledge I have and the imagination I am compelled to use in juggling the terrain as it is now with what the photographic record tells me it used to be. Therefore, I’m trialling drawing as a way of showing multiple images that now coexist in my head. Stylistically, they are both sort of ‘mappy’ sketches, pointing out changes to perspectives and shapes in the landscape (as in the river boundary change), but also hopefully skilful enough to work as drawings in which, say, trees can be identified as such.

I don’t think these drawings are totally successful; I’ll explain why and why I made certain decisions in my next post. The method has potential, though.

Reflections on my current research methods

It strikes me that what I’m trying to do here is very different to what I’d do if I was trying to write a cultural history of this land as an academic for an academic audience. I definitely am not suggesting that academics would not do similar things as a way of understanding what they were trying to do, or that they wouldn’t experiment with ways of presenting their ideas. I have been influenced in starting this project by Katrina Navickas’s work on ‘protest and the politics of space and place‘ in her website of the same name, which also takes the form of an academic monograph. This post represents the routes protesters took into the centre of Manchester on the day of the Peterloo Massacre, and maps the residences of victims. As we learned at this year’s Chartism day conference, she is currently creating films in which protest marches through the centre are shown with digitized images of buildings and crowds. It was well received by the audience and the atmosphere was energized (in the final panel, as well) by a novel way of representing things we thought we already knew. The innovation stimulated others to think about the subject and was therefore very helpful in promoting the healthiness of the field as a whole. I will be looking more closely at her use of digital techniques to see what tools are available to me.

So, these things are definitely done, I just can’t imagine doing them myself as an early-career academic, concerned to build up a roster of research ‘outputs’ in ‘esteemed journals’ in time for the next REF cycle (apologies to readers who don’t know what this means, but I won’t explain this; I’d rather not know myself). I would be too worried about ‘wasting time’ on experiments and potentially non-productive labour, even though I think such an approach might be the only way (for me, at least) to keep sane and to keep the intellectual and creative spirits alive in a system that I experienced as destructive and couldn’t accept.

As it is, I have complete freedom in this forum to represent my ideas in any medium that feels appropriate. In that way, I feel like I have returned to a more well-rounded version of myself, before academic specialization encouraged me to develop one aspect of my personality and abilities, and I inevitably left others behind in that time-consuming project. Now it feels like it’s time to return to activities I’ve left behind and explore them.

Drawing, as above, is one such activity. I don’t do it now with the ease and confidence that I had as a kid, but that might return if I keep it up. If I use both written and visual media, it will be hard if not impossible to assert a distinction between intellectual and visual-art forms of creativity. Such a division feels false to me.

Another important part of this research is walking, both through the woods for pleasure and through them on the way to Middleton Library to access the archive materials. As in my previous post on this subject, I used a sports app to track my route, which can be viewed here. (The return leg is choppier as I stopped to take photos for this post and, at one point, scramble up a slope to escape a threatening dog.) Walking is a crucial part of this research, as I take certain routes to collect photographic evidence, and take those routes repeatedly, as I have to compare impressionistic memories with the exact contours of the landscape that photos in the archive tell me either were there (before land management) or that are still there but which are now obscured by the recent growth of trees. As I walked to the library, I anticipated the batch of photos that I intended to look at today and kept an eye out for features I’d have to think more carefully about. On the return leg, I planned the structure of this post and confirmed or rejected suspicions about potential changes to the landscape that the latest research had suggested.

This approach need not take me away from theoretical considerations, either. In thinking about walking I was reminded of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, and how central walking has been to the work flows and health of writers and thinkers. I also suspect that returning to the writings of John Berger might help me to understand what I’m trying to do with using drawing as a way of representing my ideas. Drawing forces you to really observe the object of study, and would therefore teach me a lot about the things I focus on.

In short, I think that this project and the approach I’m taking has potential, and could lead me in many different directions, which is exciting.

A Brief Survey of the Woods

While in Touchstones – Rochdale’s Art and Heritage Centre – I found a Master’s thesis by Peter Hill called The Ecology and History of Rochdale’s Woodlands (1988). It has a section on Alkrington Woods, with an analysis of its terrain and lists of flora and fauna. A great find!

Here is the map he provides (p. 280), with letters to indicate the areas he describes:

Hill's map

The section on the woods contains a lot of interesting detail, such as evidence of ‘major sand extraction to the west of the site during the 1970s’ (p. 281), which I don’t know anything about. Old maps show lots of sand pits in this area.

sand pits

OS Six Inch, 1888-1913.Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Of immediate interest for me is what we can learn about the woods’ more distant past, about 200 years ago, and the most relevant areas for this are the Kitchen Wood and the area labelled C by Hill.

The name Kitchen Wood suggests some domestic relation to a nearby house or houses: perhaps Alkrington Hall at the top of the hill? The hall was built in 1736, according to Hill, ‘on the site of a previous one bought by the Lever family in 1630’ (p. 285).

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The Kitchen Wood is to the left of the hall and area C is to the right.

The Kitchen Wood is on a slope, and Hill refers in his ‘historical findings’ section to ‘planted trees about 200 years old were recorded’ as being at the base of the slope (p. 285). He also found ‘a half-brick and a broken roof-tile […] as a hint of past soil disturbance and alternative land use in this area’ (p. 281).

I found slightly more substantial ruins:

On the other side of the hall is the ‘bird sanctuary’, which is adjacent to section C on Hill’s map. Hill thinks that:

If the Alkrington area has any woodland fragments more than 200 years old, then area C is the most likely to come into this category. The existence of a framework of sessile oak trees and some very old stumps suggest that the planting of beech about 200 years ago may well have been into existing oak woodland. (p. 284)

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The bird sanctuary and much of area C obviously saw extensive planting between, say 1750 and 1850, improving the amenity of the ‘new’ hall. There is no evidence for ancient woodland status but I think it is quite likely that some of the earlier planting was into or onto an existing woodland site. (pp. 285-86)

He identifies:

fine, straight-trunked beeches and sessile oaks of considerable age. A sessile oak with a girth of 111″ [2.82m] must be a contender for the oldest living oak in the area, whilst a beech is 156″ [3.96m] in girth, although it divides into three trunks a metre of so from the ground, which inflates the measurement somewhat. (p. 283)

I think that the tree on the left might be the oak and the one on the right is the beech:


I measured the oak to be 3.95m and the beech as 4.8m – Can it be possible that they both grew about 1m in girth over nearly 40 years? According to britishhardwood.co.uk, the Sessile Oak grows more quickly than the English Oak.

I will measure them again after consulting the field-work section of the thesis. It was a bit of a struggle to hold the tape myself and I don’t know whether measuring about 1m from the ground is an acceptable methodology, probably it’s at chest height or something.

Hill notes the presence of stumps that haven’t sprouted as evidence that ‘the area was grazed about eighty years ago’ (p. 283), which would be around 1900. I’m not sure which stumps are the ones he saw and which are more recent additions; the land is managed, as you can see below:

The stump on the left (beech?) had a girth of 3.05m.

In the centre of area C and on the eastern side of the main path, beech gives way to birch in accompanying oak. There are many multi-trunk birches which appear to have arisen from earlier fellings. (p. 284)

This is characteristic of this area:

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Pretty much the whole of C occupies the most elevated part of the woods and there are several trails in this part: you can skirt round it or take a path that takes you a bit more into the centre. But not by far, as you can see below:

routes through c

I used an app called Sports Tracker to record my route, which was up the hill to the edge of C (where the large, 3-trunked tree is), round the outskirts of C and back to the 3-trunked tree, shortly after which I took the fork that led me closer to the centre of this area, before I rejoined the path along the top and then descended to the path along Boardman Brook. If you click on this link and drag the cursor along the graphs (after selecting ‘show’ graphs), the whole route can be replayed – easier than describing!

The 3-trunked tree is at 0.27 miles and the oak is about 1 mile into the route. The slightly more inward path through C is at about 1.25 miles.

Also from Hill’s thesis:

Parts of area C have some very pronounced ridges and ditches which appear to be quite old. They may be an important factor in the early history of the wood, but no reference to them has been found in the literature. (p. 285)

Here are some probable examples:

It’s interesting to consider what Hill might have meant by ‘literature’ and what other sources we might think of as legitimate literature recording the history of the woods. In other words, are there any local accounts in Ben Brierly’s stories or Bamford’s recollections? I’ll recheck the thesis to see what his sources were and have a think about other possible ones.

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.

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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!