I was recently asked to write a preface for a new landscape study of the south Manchester suburb of Bowdon. Since Bowdon was the place of my childhood and education I naturally said yes. The volume, when it appears, will be a multi-disciplinary work on the geology, archaeology and historical development of the area by one of the local history societies. Such detailed local investigations are one of the foundations of both archaeological and historical studies in Britain. As is the case here, such projects often bring together both volunteers and professionals steeped in an appreciation of the local area. Indeed this volume falls within the landscape research approach formulated by the great mid-20th century historian W G Hoskins.
Every landscape of course has a past, especially those of one’s childhood. As my parents lived close by in Hale until very recently, I have been a regular traveller through this landscape for over four decades, on foot, bike, tram, and car. I am old enough to remember when Bowdon was administratively in Cheshire, not the Trafford area of Greater Manchester. Its large detached Victorian villas, a symbol of Manchester’s textile wealth, and the roads winding up to the large parish church on the hill seem little altered, behind their high stone walls and hedges, from my youth. Yet clearly this is not the case, as shown by the side roads lined with large four-wheel-drive vehicles.
I have been fortunate enough to be involved in several archaeological projects around Bowdon and I know it as an intriguing and teasing landscape, at least archaeologically. As a post-graduate student in archaeology at Manchester University in the mid- to late-1980s I spent several years studying the late prehistoric and Romano-British landscape of the Mersey Basin. At the time the low ridge that runs along the northern side of the River Bollin from Wilmslow, and which ends in the hill at Bowdon, seemed like a good landscape for early settlement. Rumours circulated of a lost Roman coin hoard somewhere near Moss Farm, and a medieval castle on the northern side of the Bollin. The latter, a small motte, was excavated in the early 1980s. Yet, as the area was mostly covered in Victorian and 20th century housing it seemed unlikely we would find out much more about this landscape’s earlier past. Then, in 1989 excavations on the medieval moated hall site at Timperley Old Hall, at the northern foot of the hill, produced evidence for later prehistoric and middle to late Saxon activity. The medieval parish church is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and around 1860 the remains of a Viking-period cross shaft and a late Saxon grave marker were found during the rebuilding of the parish church. Both fragments are on display in the church, not that I had ever noticed them as child.
However, the gravemaker has only recently been identified as such (Bailey R, 2010, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Volume IX. Cheshire and Lancashire. The British Academy). It appears to have been of the round-headed slab-type with a carved cross at the top. This is similar in style to examples from Norham and Woodhorn in Northumberland and may be as late as the 11th century. However, it’s not as elaborate as the recent discovery of a gravecross from Wilmlsow (see right). In the 1990s, as a project officer for the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit, I was lucky enough to be involved in several projects that encompassed Bowdon. Through the research for a book on the archaeology of Trafford during the years 1995 to 1997, I was able to re-acquaint myself with this childhood landscape which turned out to be an estate centre in the late Saxon period. The identification of the grave maker is a recent discovery, though I did know about the uncovering of a coin of King Edmund found whilst grave digging in 1853, but subsequently lost.
I was also involved in a survey of the historic buildings of the old market place in Altrincham in the late 1990s with the South Trafford Archaeological Group. Altrincham had been carved out of the neighbouring manors of Bowdon, Dunham, and Hale, to create a medieval market borough in 1290 by the de Masci family. The angular boundaries of the southern part of the borough chopped off the top of the old manor of Bowdon. The medieval market place sits on a small plateau of land on the northern side of the Bowdon Hill, or the Downs as it is known locally. The Roman road that formed the western boundary of the Medieval manor was diverted north-eastwards so that it ran through the new market centre. Or perhaps it had already wandered across the landscape to a Saxon settlement close to this area; we shall probably never know for certain.
In the subsequent 20 years, firstly at director of the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit and since 2009 as Head of Archaeology at Salford University, my work has seldom given me an excuse to revisit the archaeology of the Bowdon area. It was not at the forefront of industrialisation, though the villa residences do reflect the wealth of industrial Manchester and are an early example of a suburban landscape made accessible by train.
The news that one of the stone fragments in the church can now be interpreted as a late Saxon gravemaker is thus a reminder that those areas that we might think we are most familiar with are always worthy of a second look. Interestingly, Bailey’s volume completely ignores the 1974 creation of Greater Manchester and places Bowdon firmly in ancient Cheshire. A reminder that places are always evolving and changing, or at least our interpretation of them are.