Landscape Longevity and the Continuing Mystery of Nico Ditch – Manchester’s First Great Ditch

Nico Ditch

The course of Nico Ditch through south Manchester

Artificial boundaries and markers can last centuries, indeed millennia in the landscape. Some of the most prominent examples in Britain are late prehistoric and Roman routeways and early medieval boundaries such as Offa’s and Watt’s dykes. Even in a heavily urbanised area such as the Manchester city region the continuity of landscape boundaries, both natural and artificial, was very high. One of the longest-lived boundaries in this area is a feature known as Nico Ditch, a large earthwork lying between the River Mersey to the south and the River Medlock to the north, comprising a ditch and possibly a bank that runs for roughly 12km from Ashton Moss in Tameside in the east (SJ 920 986) to Hough Moss in Manchester in the west (SJ 828 941), and studied fitfully by scholars since the late 19th century.

The best-preserved sections, on Denton golf course and in Platt Fields are protected as scheduled ancient monuments. Although most of its length has now been built over its antiquity is indicated by the two main ways in which it dominated the landscape of the middle reaches of the Mersey Basin; firstly, for much of its length it was used as a manor or parish boundary for over 800 years (it is first recorded around 1200 in land deeds); secondly, along its entire length the field patterns to the north and south of the monument took their alignment from this landscape feature.

Nico Ditch,

Nico Ditch at Gorton in 2008, surviving as a drainage boundary, a typical sight.

Since 1990 archaeologists have been attempting to establish its original function as redevelopment threats mount, and to this end sections across the course of Nico Ditch have been excavated at six locations: Audenshaw Lodge in Denton (1996), Reddish (1990), Levenshulme (1992), Platt Fields in southern Manchester (1997), Gorton in east Manchester (2008), and Longford Park (2015). The latest section to be threatened is the western end through Ryebanks Fields on the Chorlton/Stretford border and close to where research test pitting for the Dig Greater Manchester project looked at the line in Longford in 2015.

Nico Ditch,Platt Fields 1997

A section through Nico Ditch at Platt Fields, excavated in 1997

The best preserved of these sections is the earthwork investigated at Platt Fields in Manchester early in 1997, which has none of the massive later reworking and drain intrusions within the ditch seen at the excavations in Audenshaw Lodge, Gorton, Levenshulme and Reddish. The dig was thus able to demonstrate clearly that the present form of this monument through Platt Fields is the result of many phases of activity. Such a U-shaped, flared, ditch of roughly the same size, 4m to 4.5m wide and roughly 1.5m deep, can also be seen in the sections cut across Nico Ditch at Levenshulme, Reddish, and Audenshaw Lodge. At Audenshaw Lodge, Levenshulme and Reddish the pattern of activity was similar to that seen at Platt Fields with a primary cut followed by almost complete silting, before a much later series of re-cuts. The work at Longford Park did not locate the line of the ditch at this point, possibly due to landscaping. Frustratingly, no early dating evidence has been found at any of these sites, although the nature and extent of the fills of the primary ditch at Platt Fields indicated that it was of considerable antiquity. No evidence was found for a bank contemporary with this first ditch cut, whilst the existing bank to the north of the ditch was shown to be 20th century in origin.

Three theories have been suggested for the origin of Nico Ditch: territorial marker (as parish boundary or even as Roman centuriation); defensive structure (one tradition states that it was built in a day and night in the mid-9th century to fend off the Vikings); or drainage feature. In light of these excavations it would appear that the balance in evidence is shifting towards the territorial marker as the most likely origin of the monument. Indeed, the morphology of the primary ditch, with its gently sloping sides and flat base, is essentially inconsistent with the V-shaped ditches commonly used in antiquity for military purposes. This still leaves the problem of the archaeological context for this monument. In the absence of secure dating evidence we are forced to rely on historical and typological evidence, which suggests that this monument dates to either the early medieval or late prehistoric periods. If this is so then it falls within a group of roughly 50 such monuments belonging to these periods. Distributed widely throughout the country these earthworks range in size from those which extend for as little as a few hundred metres, to those which are immense, such as Offa’s Dyke on the Welsh border, Wansdyke in Wessex and Wat’s Dyke, again on the Welsh border. Commonly they are considered to have a duel functional, serving both defensive and administrative roles.

Over the last 30 years the problem of the original form and development of the monument has been addressed, and to some extent revealed, through machine-dug sections across Nico Ditch, although the overall length of the monument and the presence or absence of a bank along its full length have still to be established. The most pressing question still to be addressed is an accurate date for its construction. Radio-carbon dating has not been possible due to the disturbed nature of the sections investigated but the technique of optical luminescence dating offers hope that its primary date could yet be determined. Whilst we await an opportunity to test this, we have to be content with the occasional glimpse of this enigmatic monument as it struggles to survive the urban sprawl of 21st century southern Manchester.

6 thoughts on “Landscape Longevity and the Continuing Mystery of Nico Ditch – Manchester’s First Great Ditch

    • Hi Paul

      It was. Indeed, Nico Ditch appears to be a 19th century name, a corruption of ‘Nicker’, which may be from ‘hnickar’ (a kind of water sprite that would drag unwary travellers to a watery doom in the ditch!) or from Mickel. The name ‘Nickerbrook’ appears on the plaque on the wall of the NickerBrook Cottages at Park Grove in Burnage, where the culverted waters of the ditch follow the line f the fence of the football ground beyond.

  1. Dear Mike, As I have time on my hands I’ve gone back to look at your old blogs and I’m suprised that I missed this.

    Earlier this year I noticed what appears to be the remains of a Roman road agger close to Mately Lane in Hyde. I pointed it out to David Ratledge who’s been working with lidar for a long time and he enhanced the processing to show that it most likely is a stretch of agger. Someone will perhaps dig a trench behind the The Rising Moon pub one day to confirm it. The alignment of this stretch of (suspected) road is precisely in line with Ashton Old Road so it looks like it is the Manchester to Melandra road but its actually aimed at the Longdendale Valley. See attached pics and David’s webpage here: http://www.twithr.co.uk/lancs-gm/M711.htm To be fair, Alan Richarson identified this route in “The Romans in the Manchester Area” in 2004 so he got that right. Not sure about his Nico Ditch theory though.

    What is also interesting is that it passes straight through the gap in the Nico Ditch that is now Audenshaw Road; at right angles. Am I reading too much into this but does this tell us the road was there when the ditch was dug up to it to create a gate (or to block it), or is it more likely that the Romans filled it in when they laid their road over it? I’m inclined to think the former i.e. it’s post Roman.. The same question might be asked about the Buxton road crossing the ditch at what was the Midway Pub, Matthews Lane in Levenshulme also at right angles, but the track of the Roman road there might be questioned. Just another reason why Hyde Road isn’t Roman anyway, an oblique angle..

    Regards Neil Buckley

    • Neil; I support your comments regarding the roman road behind the Rising Moon Pub. As a child living on Dewsnap Lane, Dukinfield, in the 1940’s, I walked the area many times between Shepley Bridge at Dukinfield Old Hall and the deep cutting Mottram and I observed many things which suggested that Dewsnap Lane and Yew Tree Lane were part of the roman road system. First of all the route is in direct line with Ashton Old Road, out of Manchester to cross the River Tame at Shepley into Dukinfield Old Hall where local digging came across an ancient stone road. The current Globe Lane used to be called Dewsnap Lane until it was severed by the building of the railway, leaving a much shortened Dewsnap Lane running up to Yew Tree Lane. In the 1940’s Yew tree Lane was still just a simple track particularly above the golf club which had changed very little since ancient times and was paved with large slabs of stone which was referred to as the roman road, by local people. On gaining the crest of the hill on Yew Tree Lane and looking down towards its junction with Early Bank and Matley, we could see what appeared to be markings in the field ahead, suggesting the road had originally continued ahead across the field and directly towards the deep cutting. In the 1940’s there had been very little disturbance of the land east of Cheatham Hill Road other than farming. The old people who took us on our walks spoke of Early Bank also being an ancient road leading to Staley river crossing and Buckton Castle.

  2. Pretty sure there is a “Micker Brook Terrace” on Park Grove in Levenshulme, where the ditch heads west towards Platt Fields

    • It’s Nickerbrook Cottages. The name is on a plaque but it is hard to read. It is on the vertical line of yellow brickwork separating the two semi-detached properties, which are adjacent to the pedestrian tunnel under the railway line.

      The line of the ditch at this point is where the fence is at the back of the football field.

      If you have a Manchester Libraries account and look on their website at the old photographs section, there is a picture of the ditch and the Nicker Brook flowing from it across the road from Park Grove as it emerges from the culvert under Slade Lane. This was taken in 1910 by Manchester Corporation and the ditch is where the culvert was to be extended over the following years to build the eastern part of Slade Lane.

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