Seasonal Archaeology: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Moat

Throughout the three lockdowns, ever since the 23rd March 2020, I have been photographing the late medieval moat at Timperley Old Hall, Altrincham, Greater Manchester. I have written about this site on a couple of occasions, ironically in February 2020 just at the COVID-19 crisis was starting to develop. Little did I know then that we would be spending much of the following twelve months in lock down, and at a 2m distance from our colleges, friends, and family. This moated site is one of over 6000 such monuments known in England. Most of these are thought to have been dug between the 12th and 15th centuries and there are around 63 such sites known in Greater Manchester, with a possible further 22 moats. Timperley Old Hall moat is one of just a handful known in Trafford, and the only one that regularly retains water. It’s fed by a leat from Timperley Brook which runs to the south and across Altrincham golf course which now occupies the grounds of the old hall and the drained are of Hale Moss.

Timperley Old Hall moat, April to June 2020.

The South Trafford Archaeological Group’s display centre and headquarters sits on the edge of the moat, so in my weekly visits to check on the building between March 20220 and March 2021 I’ve had the opportunity to follow the moat through four seasons. The South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG) has been exploring the moat since 1983, when the group first visited the site. By 1987, STAG had built its own display centre by the moat on land leased from Trafford Council, and using a prefabricated building donated to the group.

The group have explored the moat platform in two phases. The first series of excavations, from 1989 to 1999, investigated the moated platform. This work uncovered Neolithic and Bronze Age flints deposited at a time when the southern arm of the moat was part of the meandering course of Timperley Brook. It also uncovered late Saxon activity in the form of a hearth and a scatter of post holes. The major focus of the first series of digs was, however, the late medieval hall, established on the site when the moat was dug in the 13th century. This hall was rebuilt and expanded until a new hall (ironically now known today as the Old Hall) was built to the north of the site in the mid-18th century. The medieval hall was demolished around 1800 and the site converted into a wall kitchen garden for the new residence. The second phase of digs, running between 2008 and 2012, were funded with a Heritage Lottery grant. This research explored the western wing of the hall but the main aim was to turn the moated site into a public amenity. This secluded, quiet, garden has proved a haven of peace and tranquillity during the pandemic, tended by STAG members and enjoyed, when possible, by local residents and golfers.

In this blog I’m sharing just twelve of the images I have taken over the last year, one for each month. From the start of lock down and my visits to STAG headquarters I decided to take pictures from recurring key points around the moated platform. These pictures are from the south-eastern corner, looking along the southern moat arm towards the west and distant Altrincham. Other views were taken of the moated platform and walled garden, but these twelve images capture the seasons and habitat of the moat, in this quiet corner of Trafford. You can orientate yourself in each image by following the large overhanging branch at the top of photographs.

Timperley Old Hall moat in July, August and September 2020.

The first three images, all in portrait style, cover April, May, and June, a period when the vegetation and water in the moat were changing rapidly. Before the leaf cover of adjacent beech, birch, and sycamore overshadowed the moat banks and water, irises grow, flourish and flower.

Late summer and early autumn is caught in three landscape images, showing the vegetation at its maturity. One surprise was the way in which the water level rose and fell quickly, with a range of more than half a meter over these months. Summer is the wettest period in Manchester, yet there were times when all bar the southern arm of the moat was dry. This allowed scrub vegetation to encroach and hide the moat. Such variability suggested that the old leat, which trickles into the south-western corner of the moat, is no longer working properly and that much of the seasonal water in the moat is fed by the local water table. This discouraged the birds who occasionally visited the sited from lingering, especially the ducks.

Timperley Old Hall moat in October, November and December 2020.

October to December saw a gradual retreat of vegetation, with the opening of the tree canopy as the leaves turned golden and brown, and then fell. This part of the moat has seen little active management since the STAG excavations finished in 2011, and this time of year reveals several fallen sycamore trees straddling the moat arm.

January to March 2021 saw the landscape frequently frozen and sometimes snow covered, especially in January. This period is the best for tracing the outline of the moat and is the only time of year when the late medieval fishpond in the south-western corner of the moat can be seen as a broader expanse of water. This is also the location of the outlet sluice for the moat, rebuilt as a low concrete spill in the 20th century. The landscape feels at its most open in these months, and the third lockdown also meant that the surrounding golf course was closed, allowing the late medieval leat feeding the moat to be traced as shallow depression from hundreds of meters across the fairways. It becomes obvious at this time of year that the moat sits on a slight rise in the landscape, north of the broo, suggesting that originally there was a small promontory in this part of tthe valley jutting into the historic mossland.

Timperley Old Hall moat in January, February and March 2021.

March is a changeable month, in terms of weather and vegetation growth. It holds the last shreds of winter but also the promise of spring, and a hint of the warmth of summer. Its days can flatter in their mildness and deceive with their frost, prolonging the late winter gloom. It feels like the winter and the lockdown will never end, but there are signs of life in the buds on the birch trees. There is also the hope that the lockdown will lift as spring rises. Soon, hardy archaeologists will be out in the landscape once more, just like the irises poking their heads above the waters of the moat.

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