An Interview with Dr Charlotte Starkey, Historian and researcher

It is fantastic to have the opportunity to talk to our friend and local historian, Dr Charlotte Starkey about the History of Carrington Moss and the (lack of) Archaeological Studies that have been carried out on this wonderfully, rich and diverse landscape.  Charlotte talks about everything, from our local Medieval history, to the current day, from the heavily industrialised North West quadrant of the Moss, to the nature-rich peat-moss that we all know and love.

FOCM:  So Charlotte, I know you have recently updated your page on our website with some information about the history of Carrington Moss.  Can you summarise briefly and we’ll include a link to your page so people can find out more?

Charlotte:  The area is rich in Medieval History.  Yes please do take a look at the latest page on the website here for my detailed reflexions on the Medieval period.  In these latest musings, I’ve focussed on the first part of the talk I have given to a number of groups about the Medieval Carrington story and there is more to come.  I really want to share this history, largely ignored in many circles, in order to give context to discussions about the Moss and its function.

Windmill Inn, Carrington (Courtesty of David Dixon 2011)

Carrington Hall, the seat of the Carrington family (those descended from Adam de Carinton), was sited to the north of Carrington Moss, almost opposite the Carrington Lane/Ackers Lane junction, west of ‘the Mile Road’.  Further along, just beyond the Windmill Inn (pictured left, courtesy of David Dixon, 2011), is the site of what was the old mill.  Part of the last of the buildings is still there, very dilapidated (you can tell the lack of respect for the history of this area; the rear of the remains of the mill which channelled the tailrace back to the River Mersey is covered with a film of oil with the pungent odour of crude oil and is quite dangerous).  The actual mill pond was a significant structure in its heyday, but it was in-filled and lost when the highways department (Ministry of Transport) and local government re-routed the old lane directly across the mill pond to straighten the road for heavy goods vehicles.

It is possible that Carrington Lane or its equivalent was a route for the Romans to Wilderspool and one cannot rule out the possibility of archaeological remains along the navigable River Mersey. 

Interestingly, a Manchester painter (Thomas Barritt, 1743-1820), who was also an antiquarian, described what he named as a sword once belonging to the Black Prince.  Not that the sword came from Carrington but it reminds us that the Caryngton men-at-arms were heavily involved in the Hundred Years War (and note that the spelling of the ‘modern’ Carrington surname changes as we move through the archives).  J. P. Earwaker dismissed Barritt’s curved scimitar sword because he found that the scabbard on the Black Prince’s effigy at Canterbury was straight; but that does not preclude the possibility that Edward had more than one sword and it would be quite unusual for just one sword to have lasted his many battles in the Hundred Years War.   

Sad to say, much of the named artefacts of the Caryngtons, in wills and other documents from the medieval period, have not survived, or at least have not been discovered, in this area.  One has to remember that, when the Booths took over Carrington circa 1600, they systematically appear to have wiped the Caryngton name ‘off the map’, as Sir Peter Leycester suggested in his history of the Bucklow Hundred written in the mid-seventeenth century.  

One piece of the Carrington dynasty is the portion of their medieval chapel dedicated to St Nicholas in Bowdon Church and the ‘Carrington Knight’ in St John’s Collegiate Church in Chester which has been mutilated at some point in the distant past.  Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of seafarers and numerous members of the Caryngtons sailed regularly to Normandy, La Rochelle and Bordeaux from Calais, Portsmouth, Southampton and possibly Chester, which was a very busy commercial port in the Middle Ages.  

FOCM:  Fascinating, so, have there been any recent archaeology studies of Carrington Moss, do you know?

Charlotte:  One study, mainly a geological survey, was carried out under the auspices of Lancaster University in 1995. The results can be found in a book by David Hall, C. E. Wells and Elizabeth Huckerdy, called the Wetlands of Greater Manchester (there is a copy in Manchester Central Library Special Collections).  Though geology was their main emphasis, they mentioned the problems of conducting archaeological studies on the Moss stating that the Moss was very ‘busy’, referring to the amount of urban waste which was thrown on the Moss by Manchester Corporation.  They themselves did not carry out a detailed archaeological survey.

FOCM: The history of the Moss is so interesting. When did Manchester Corporation start to use the site?

Charlotte: In 1886, when the Stamfords of Dunham Massey, then owners of the Moss, faced increasing financial concerns, they sold the Moss to Manchester Corporation’s Cleansing Department.  This was also the time when the landowners of England were coming under increasing pressure from the newly formed local councils to release land for other uses.  Initially, the agreement was that only ‘night soil’ (human waste) would be thrown on the Moss to be used as fertiliser for the newly laid out agricultural fields, organised in a series of square and rectangular patterns along the routes which you can still walk today: Birch Road, Woodcote Road, Ashton Road, North Road and so on.  This was in the central area where Manchester United has its training ground.  By calling these tracks ‘Roads’ Manchester Corporation tried to recreate the Moss as an extension of its ‘urbanisation’ into north-east Cheshire but, before then, most of these ‘roads’ did not exist except as tracks, and certainly not in the regimented manner in which the Corporation set them out for the light railway system they introduced to disperse the ‘night soil’.  Moss Lane is a very old track into the Moss.

FOCM:  But they didn’t just stick to human waste, did they?

Charlotte:  No, the City soon began to dump its refuse on the Moss, which is why you can find lots of oyster shells, glass bottles, pots, shards and many other things, even on the surface of the Moss.  This was not the agreement with the Stamfords, who objected, but by then it was too late.  They had sold the Moss for £38,000, which was £13,000 more than their own estimates (though they didn’t tell the Corporation that).  From that point onwards the Corporation regarded the Moss as their own and it was a significant move because that also meant that Manchester had gained a major foothold into north-east Cheshire, a fact which is quite obvious today with the spread of their airport. 

FOCM:  Oh those canny Stamfords!   Some of the farms are still there today.

Charlotte:  Yes, the farms are the result of intensive draining from the Corporation’s efforts to increase the agricultural benefits of the Moss.  At first, a great success (it was actually listed as ‘Park’ with days out for visitors to view the nurseries etc.).  It grew flowers and vegetables for the increasing populations of Manchester and peat was used for the stabling of all the Corporation’s horses.  At one point, before all this, a commercial company had extracted peat from the Moss much earlier in the nineteenth century.  Civic dignitaries would visit the Moss on specified weekends dressed in their finery, travelling, much to the amusement of the locals, on gleaming steamboats that on working weekdays towed behind them to the Moss barge-loads of manure, stinking to high heaven.  The Corporation took great pride in their new-found greenspace.

FOCM:  So what happened next?

Charlotte:  With the dumping of urban waste, which began relatively quickly (1900s),the Moss fell into disuse apart from the work on the few remaining tenancies (all the smaller tenancies were ousted when Manchester bought the Moss).  One has to remember the traumatic impact of two World Wars as well.  That put paid to the efforts to keep the Moss a ‘pleasant prospect’ and, like much of the surrounding land around the River Mersey, from here southwards to Northenden, the Moss became a vast municipal tip.  It’s not so long ago they were still burning methane off the urban tip that skirted the River Mersey from the A56 towards Urmston Meadows.  This problem was made worse when, in 1947, under government auspices, a petrochemical industry was introduced along Carrington Lane (Petrocarbon to 1955ish; Shell up to 2014; Lyondellbasell now).

FOCM:  Did those companies bring benefits to the Moss?

Charlotte:  No, they introduced serious contamination to the North-Western quadrant of the Moss: whilst discovering the method for fractionating crude oil, they introduced polymers, polycarbons, methane, cyanide, nitrogen dioxide, adding to the cocktail of zinc, chrome and other hard metals, asbestos etc, already introduced by Manchester Corporation with the gas works and other industries.  In fact, a recent commercially sponsored ‘dig’ on the north-eastern sector of the Moss listed ‘plastic’ among the subsoil as an archaeological find!  Modern plastic sheeting was actually ‘invented’ here, with Petrocarbon, the very first petrochemical company specifically established to create an alternative to rubber for industrial and commercial use in 1947.  This was, of course, emulated across the world once the chemists at Petrocarbon left, were poached or enticed by more lucrative salaries abroad.  We all know the disastrous consequences the world now faces with plastic pollution.  Spoil from the earlier gas works and coking plants, the Irlam Steel works etc, all added to serious hazardous materials on that sector of the Moss, and these are still major problems.  There is a curious converse parallel here for the Moss to locations where mining destroyed landscapes in England and Wales.  Coal mining led to the release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when burnt.  The industrial revolution of Manchester and the world was built on that energy source.  On the Moss, there was, and still is the residue of, a substantial body of peat in which carbon dioxide has been locked (as in all peat bogs) naturally.  Yet, industrialists and politicians at a local and national level encouraged the importation of a major pollutant, oil, onto the pristine natural site of the peat bog.  That insult to a natural carbon sink began a process of degradation of the Moss as a carbon-capture source whilst polluting the subsurface of the Moss.  In every sense Manchester’s industrial past is marked by dreadful pollution of the natural world, a tradition which is continued in attempts to degrade Carrington Moss still further.

FOCM:  The tragedy of “progress”, is there any of the original peat moss left?

Charlotte:  This is a key heritage asset for the North West Region.  It is one of the last remaining peat bogs from the last Ice Age, along with Chat Moss, and it is (a) land designated as Green Belt; (b) a carbon-capture sink, like all peat bogs; (c) a source of great joy and wellbeing to many walkers, cyclists, and horse-riders (the horses bringing the equestrian tradition of the Medieval age that continues right into the present day).  It has designated sites of special scientific interest and biodiversity.  By Moss Lane there is still evidence of the original Moss, as well as at Birch Moss Covert.  When the Carrington Spur was constructed, 50,000 tons of peat had to be removed before the land could be considered safe for heavy traffic.  One can understand, therefore, that, outside the heavily industrialised sector, there are vast quantities of peat beneath the agricultural surfaces elsewhere.  You can see this in the coloured water of the drainage, that deep red-brown colour of peat leaching from the land, taking carbon-dioxide with it.

FOCM:  So we should retain, preserve and restore as much as we can of the peat moss, it is so valuable in the current battle against climate change?

Charlotte:  The great threat now comes from Trafford Council’s plan to construct 4 major roads and build a huge housing estate on the Moss, in spite of numerous studies, old and new.  The Manchester and District Regional Planning Proposals, 1945, for example, produced by Rowland Nicholas (Jarrold & Sons, 1945, see p. 11).  Nicholas (a Surveyor and Chief Engineer to the Manchester and District Regional Planning Committee) specifically stated that the Moss was unsuitable for housing; and this came from a man who had revolutionary visions of change to Manchester that never materialised.  The most telling evidence of all, of course, is the fact that, for over twelve thousand years no one built upon it; and the supposed genius of modern construction and engineering techniques are never going to improve on what nature has built on the Moss over many millions of years.  If these plans go ahead, they would not only destroy the Moss and create an unhealthy urban mess; they would create a major source of additional pollution, destroy a key carbon capture area, and lead to massive flooding.  As a peat bog, it retains vast quantities of excess water which otherwise would have nowhere to go.  The building of any major roads here will generate a huge number of additional traffic journeys, including countless numbers of cars coming into the area from outside Trafford, saturating the roads beyond, thus leading to even more road building in more green belt areas around and beyond Sinderland.  Home builders’ bodies also consistently warn against building on Peat Bogs.

Equally important is the World Health Organisation’s warning of the links between climate change and abuse of the natural world on the one hand, and the spread of infectious diseases in the modern world, on the other. In the light of the concerns for our climate, and because of the mounting evidence that abuse of the natural landscape and the creatures on it is not unconnected to the fact that we have a major pandemic threat with us this very moment, it is astonishing that the political will to listen to the science and respect the natural world seems as far away as ever in Trafford and Greater Manchester Combined Authority.  It is hugely worrying, particularly when we know that the Covid-19 threat has basically brought every country in the world to a standstill and crippled the world economy.  Where is the sense in building new roads across a peat bog which will mean the destruction of one of nature’s climate and flood control mechanisms, a resource of huge biodiversity, which helps to sustain the health of the planet and the people and animals on it, in the light of the science of climate catastrophe and human disease?

Ominously an article in New Scientist of 15th October 2019, using a predictive model that had proved successful in forewarning of every past pandemic when applied retrospectively, warned precisely of the link between human disease and climate change at the very moment the Covid-19 pandemic was establishing itself without much of the western world having a clue  (New Scientist, 15th October 2019, “How Deadly Disease Outbreaks could worsen as the climate changes”).  We all know what happened just about the time of the publication of this article and the consequences across the world even as we discuss these issues this very minute: in reality coronavirus was already afoot by early Autumn 2019.  The same subject was examined extensively in a powerful study by the World Health Organisation in 2018: Climate Change and Human Health (World Health Organisation, Feb. 2018).  

When Charles Dickens spoke to the Manchester Athenaeum in 1843, he praised its members for enabling study and reading to take place amidst the business of the industrial world because reflection and thought encouraged self-respect, self-confidence and respect for all around oneself.  Some of these qualities are desperately needed in the world of the Manchester Planners today as they try to steam ahead with the destruction of all that is important and beautiful around them in places such as Carrington Moss.

FOCM:  That would certainly be a tragedy for our Moss, should we be asking for more archaeological studies to be carried out?

Charlotte:  The evidence of archaeology in the Moss has hardly been touched by specialist archaeologists.  Part of the problem is that, as a subject, archaeology was still in the early stages of development in universities, such as the University of Manchester, which was in the process of being formed as the Moss was being developed.  Modern archaeological work is a relatively new science and has recently developed fantastic resources with the growth of technology in geophysics, lidar and ground-penetrating radar.  There had been a strong, long-established antiquarian tradition in the region with fascinating results which, however, did not include the Moss.  Though The Manchester Guardian carried numerous naturalist studies mentioning the Moss in the nineteenth century, no one mentioned the archaeology.  Archaeological interest in peat bogs, however, had grown from the mid-eighteenth century when a peat bog body was found in Lincolnshire.  Since then increasing numbers of such bodies have been found across the world.  The most famous local examples, of course, are Lindow Man from Lindow Moss, near Wilmslow (1984 / British Museum), and Worsley Man (1953), on a Salford Peat Bog.  Leather shoes have been found at Chat Moss, but, sadly, whatever is buried underneath Carrington has suffered the fate of the surface of the Moss in large sections where industrial and other waste has dominated the environment.

The Moss, however, is much, much more than the industrialised quadrant and has hardly been excavated.  Much will have been destroyed and usually an archaeological dig only happens when there is good evidence of a specific archaeological/historical reason or if, as happens with planning regulations, a survey is conducted.  Funding is always an issue but some of these commercial studies are not detailed and they look mainly for expected agrarian use in field contours.  In the case of Carrington Moss, they do not consider (perhaps do not even know) that this was a hive of activity in the Middle Ages focused upon Caryngton Hall, Carrington Lane, the equestrian tradition for which it was known in the Middle Ages, and the widely travelled experiences of the Caryngton family, not simply abroad to Normandy, Aquitaine and Navarre, but also within the British Isles during the wars with Wales and Scotland, and in tending their estates further afield in the Longdendale Valley, the Forest of Wyrehale (Wirral) and Marcher lands.  I believe the site of Carrington Hall, and parts of the area where the old mill existed along the Lanewould be useful points with which to begin.  That whole section north of Carrington Lane was a key transport route in the Middle Ages and, of course, it was connected to other routes by the River Mersey.  Two dug-out canoes (c.AD/CE 1030-1245 radio-carbon dating) were discovered along local river banks when the ditch for the Ship Canal was excavated.

FOCM. So, it would be exciting to carry out a new archaeological study.  Perhaps we can persuade our friends at South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG) to start the ball rolling!

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