Seasonal Archaeology: Castlefield

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The 1825 Merchant’s Warehouse in Castlefield, Manchester, June 2019

The Castlefield canal basin on a blisteringly hot and sunny late June day is a sound-scape of noise. There’s the water gushing between the canal gates at the Dukes 92 lock, the rumble of cars across the stone sets (not cobbles, please, these are all squared), and the hubbub of voices, sometimes raised in delight, from the various bars by the quays. Somewhere in the background there’s the splash of duck diving for food and the clipclop of high heels on the tow path. It’s a busy and noisy scene that echoes the area’s industrial past.

The basin is also an area of contrasting visuals. The sun and blue sky are reflected in the waters of the canal, only disturbed by ducks and the occasional movement of a canal boat. Mellow red brick –built industrial buildings, warehouses and an engineering works now converted into apartments and offices, line the canal side. To the north like some form of theatre backdrop are lattice metalwork and tall brick arches which mark the passage across the basin of five railway lines. Staring up at these viaducts you can see architectural nods to the area’s Roman military past in the form of turrets and crenellations. Standing beneath the tallest of these, the steel viaduct supported by drum columns that once led to the Central Railway Station (now the Manchester Exhibition Centre) you are shrouded in shadow and sounds echo from the stone stets – a cathedral to industrial archaeology and heritage.

The reason I was at Castlefield was to attend a ‘spirit of place summit’ on shaping the future of the Castlefield area. This was organised by the Castlefield Forum, working in conjunction with the National Trust and supported by the Britannia Basin Community Forum, Manchester City Council and the Science & Industry Museum, as part of the Forum’s ‘Spirit of Place’ strategy for Castlefield. Their intention is to develop a strategy which will secure the future and long-term success of Castlefield as an outstanding place in which to live, work, visit, invest, and prosper, as well as one that reflects its rich heritage. The 1972 ‘Deansgate Dig’ and the purchase soon after of the Liverpool Road Railway Station in 1978 began the raising of awareness about the importance of Castlefield in Manchester’s history, and its national and internal role in industrial archaeology and heritage. For further details see my recent article on saving Manchester’s industrial past in volume 111 of the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, pp 99-117. It’s therefore heartening to see a new generation engaging with this important legacy.

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