Altrincham’s Forgotten Castle: Watch Hill

The motte at Watch Hill, 2008.

Watch Hill castle is one of the oldest and most important archaeological sites in Trafford, being first protected as a scheduled monument in February 1978. It also has the honour of being the first archaeological site entered on the Greater Manchester Sites and Monuments Record, now the Greater Manchester Historic Environment Record, when this was created in 1981 (GMHER reference 1/1/0). Yet, it is a site that is overlooked and bypassed, literally, by the busy needs of the 21st century. Even in times of COVID lockdown, the rumble of traffic passing along the M56 to the south and the A56 to the west, envelope this modest late medieval earthwork in the Bowdon area of Altrincham. The noise and pollution of the early 21st century also muffle the sounds of the birds nesting in the trees that cover the site and drown out the splashing of the River Bollin which flows past the castle site.

The location of the castle (SJ 7479 8598) by the river and the A56 road gives away the site’s strategic importance. It guarded the river crossing of the road from Chester to Manchester and entry into the barony of Massey and the old manor of Bowdon. The castle occupied a strong, naturally defended, site forming a triangular promontory, with the River Bollin to the south and the deep ravine of the Eyebrook to the north.

As a motte and bailey castle, Watch Hill is one of just a handful of castle sites within Greater Manchester. However, over 600 mottes or motte-and-bailey castles are known from England. Such structures consisted of an earthen mound, the motte, which was surmounted by a wooden tower. Although many were occupied briefly, such castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Today, the motte at Watch Hill still stands 6m high and is 40m wide at its base, tapering to 17m in width at its top; the surrounding ditch is 5m wide. In 1976 a limited excavation took place on the motte summit and evidence for post holes belonging to a timber tower and a possible hearth were found. However, there were no datable finds. The construction of the motte was also investigated. It was shown to be made of a dump of red-brown clay with pebbles of varying sizes, overlying yellow clay containing pebbles and small sandstone fragments. This buried the original ground surface which was visible as a black line some 2m below the top of the mound. Thus, the builders made use of the natural topography by simply digging a ditch to cut off the end of the promontory and depositing the ditch spoil to create a raised mound 2m higher than the adjacent land surface.

A post-pit form a timber tower excavated at Watch Hill in 1976.

At Watch Hill the bailey to the east occupies a triangular area 80m long on its eastern side and 60m on the north and south sides. Originally it would have had an earthen bank surmounted by a wooden palisade, and probably a defended gateway providing access. Unlike the northern and southern sides where the land drops away steeply to the ravine of the Eyebrook and Bollin river respectively, the eastern side of the bailey would have needed a ditch as this was the most vulnerable approach to the castle. An earthwork survey of the motte and bailey by archaeology students from the University of Manchester with the help of the South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG) in 1997 (Browsings No. 67) showed the motte and its ditch in relation to the site of the bailey. The bailey ditch was not visible in the survey although the survey reported remains of a bank along the northern and southern sides of the bailey enclosure. Unfortunately, the eastern bailey ditch and any associated rampart were not encountered when a trench was dug across their line in 1976. STAG noted that it had been partially backfilled in March 1980 (Browsing No. 2) and the bailey was not protected until 1996 when the scheduled area was extended to include it. However, in 2005 geophysical survey by STAG over the eastern edge of the bailey revealed the presence of the north-south ditch line. More recently, open-access LIDAR data released in 2019 for the Trafford area shows the presence of the ditch roughly c. 4m wide and 1m deep, terminating on the northern and southern edges of the promontory.

There is no documentary evidence that directly mentions Watch Hill in the late medieval period. However, a ‘Castle Hill Close’ is recorded in documents from 1649, whilst in 1838 the tithe map and apportionment for Bowdon describes the promontory site as ‘Castle Hill’. The name ‘Watch Hill’ does not appear in the documents until after this date. Many earth and timber castles had short lifespans, being erected to meet a particular need and abandoned for more comfortable accommodation when no longer required. Therefore, late medieval documentary evidence for most of these castles tends to be minimal or non-existent. Given the temporary nature of many of these motte and bailey castle sites, it is again not surprising that 1976 excavations produced no dateable artefacts.

A topographical survey of Watch Hill form 1997.

One clue to the castle’s origin was the chance discovery, in the early 19th century, of a coin from a rabbit hole on top of the motte: a silver penny dated to the reign of Henry II (1154-89). This ostensibly supports a construction date during the rebellion of certain barons against Henry II in 1173, including Hamo de Masey. Yet, the two de Masey castles specifically mentioned in 1173, Dunham and Ullerwood, have been identified at other sites elsewhere in the Bollin Valley. Either Watch Hill did not belong to the de Maseys or, far more likely, it was overlooked by the chroniclers of the time, along with a great many other temporary castles from this period.

However, the castle now faces a new threat. Recent research has shown that the River Bollin is likely to flood on a more regular basis by the middle of the 21st century. Within a few years the waters of the river could be eating away at the base of the castle. There is thus an urgent need for further research at Watch Hill to record more fully the motte and bailey before the site is threatened by a changing climate.

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