Latest Archaeotea Podcast: Digging the Moat – Timperley Old Hall

Episode 7 of the Archaeotea Podcast is now available free to download. In this episode I look at the archaeology of Timperley Old Hall moat in Trafford, Greater Manchester and over 20 years of research on the site by the South Trafford Archaeological Group. You can listen to the Fairbottom Bobs podcast here: Archaeotea | Free Listening on SoundCloud or read on.

Timperley Old Hall (centre) during excavation in the mid-1990s.

Introduction

The South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG) is one of Greater Manchester’s longest established archaeology societies, founded in 1979. Over the years they have undertaken dozens of fascinating archaeological projects within the Borough of Trafford and across northern Cheshire. Undoubtedly their flagship project has been the excavation of Timperley Old Hall moat. Beginning in 1989, this lengthy and detailed investigation of a medieval moated platform has transformed our understanding of the history and evolution of this ancient site. It has also made a significant contribution to the growing research into moated sites across Greater Manchester and the wider region.

In the early 1980s the moated site was an overgrown, weed-ridden platform, surrounded by a ruinous wall. The moat was choked with fallen trees and rubbish, which hid the archaeological potential of the site. STAG sought backing from Trafford Council to excavate the platform. Permission was obtained from the council to locate a timber Head Quarters building (a donation by Lankro Chemicals (UK) Ltd of Eccles, opened in 1986) on land next to the moat in exchange for carrying out archaeological excavation and restoration work on the historic site. This first phase of investigation ran from 1989 to 1997 and proved that the moated platform was the site of the original late medieval manor house of Timperley.

After 1997 the site was used for several seasons as a summer training excavation for local schools, whilst the 1500kg of finds (animal bone, glass, pottery, and tile) were being cleaned, sorted, and evaluated, and a report finished.

In 1992, a tree blew down destroying the 18th century bridge that gave access to the site. The Group replaced it with a plank and trestle one, but in 2004 this had to be removed as it had become unsafe. This left the site isolated from the surrounding landscape, the Group, and the public. To solve this access problem STAG applied, successfully, for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to enable them, with the assistance of Trafford Council, to restore the moat and its platform for the benefit of the local community. The grant enabled the Group to install a new bridge, clean and raise the level of the moat, restore the old garden wall, and to create a physik (or herb) garden on the moated platform. But first, another phase of archaeological investigation was undertaken, from 2009 to 2011, to complete the investigation of the old hall.

Nearly 30 years of excavation, survey, and conservation work have revealed a site with a complex history, carefully positioned within the landscape and much older than first thought.

The Beginnings of the Site

The moat lies on a clay ridge, aligned west to east, 1km at its widest and 1.5km long, and rising to 30m above sea level. The former Hale mossland (now in part a golf course) sits against this ridge to the south. Another major landscape feature, Timperley Brook, follows an east to west course along the bottom of the shallow ridge through the former moss, before turning northwards at the end of the end of the ridge. Timperley Old Hall was thus a landscape defined by mossland and water.

The earliest activity on the site goes back to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages (roughly 3500 to 1500 years BC), when the site of the later moat was a shallow, south-facing, clay slope overlooking a small tributary of Timperley Brook. The evidence for this activity is in the form of flint tools, and the debris from their manufacture. The presence of different types of tools from two periods suggests re-use of the site, and not just a single day’s activity. This may represent summer hunting along the ridge to the north of Hale Moss and Timperley Brook.

Arrowed from TOH

The flints included examples of projectile points in addition to knives, scrapers, and boring points, many showing signs of wear and re-tooling. Three pot boilers, stones that had been heated and then dropped into water-filled pits or containers to boil the liquid, were also recovered from the site and probably belong to this early period.

The next period of occupation was revealed when a large hearth, one metre in diameter, was excavated. Charcoal from this bonfire gave a radio-carbon date of 780 to 900 calendar years AD. This suggested that the feature belonged to the Early Medieval period, and therefore pre-dated the construction of the firsthall and its moat.

Further evidence of this phase of activity included a scatter of post holes along the northern bank of the stream and some ditches. A fragment of worked red sandstone, re-used as part of the primary stone foundations of the late medieval hall, was identified as a section of a rotary quern stone. Its style suggested that this is also of Early Medieval date.

This activity, which probably represented land-use associated with a nearby farmstead, was ended by a period of flooding across the south-eastern half of the site. This was represented by a silty-sand deposit up to 30cms thick. Organic matter from the top of this layer, and immediately beneath the first hall levels, was radio-carbon dated to the period 1180-1300 calendar years AD.

The Building of the Hall

Timperley Old Hall and its surrounding moat were built during the 13th century. The earliest documentary evidence for the manor of Timperley occurs in two deeds of land transfer from the period 1211 to 1234. These were witnessed by Walter de Timperlie, whose offspring would go on to live at the hall. The last direct descendants of the Timperley family died in 1402. Over the next two hundred years it passed through the hands of the Chadderton, Radcliff, and Ardernes families.

These families lived at the hall and expanded and rebuilt the original timber structure. In 1584 the Breretons inherited the Timperley Old Hall estate which in 1634 passed to the Merediths. Neither of these two families lived at Timperley Old Hall, which was not their main home. Instead, the property was let, although that did not stop it from being extensive rebuilt in the 17th century.

The moat and its retaining wall were investigated in the 1990s and in the years 2009 to 2011. A 10m section of the northern edge of the southern arm of the moat was excavated revealing three phases of revetment. An initial revetment was formed by a line of small post holes cut into the silt at the edge of the platform. A second more substantial timber revetment lay roughly 2m to the south and was formed by large, closely set, posts. Inserted between the two was a sandstone revetment comprising three courses of blocks, set on a projecting plinth. Behind and to the north of this wall the sloping edge of the medieval platform had been levelled with dumps of animal bone, bricks, cobbles, broken sandstone blocks, late-medieval ridge tiles, roofing flags, glass, and pottery spanning the 14th to the 17th centuries.

Hall excavations in the 1990s

The southern arm of the moat was originally 10.4m wide but by the late 17th century it had been narrowed to 8m. The edge of the western arm of the moat was also examined in the 1990s. The primary moat cut was found to truncate the natural clay, although no stone or wooden revetments were located. Above this a levelling-up layer was found. This was similar to that seen in the southern arm of the moat and was a red/brown clay deposit up to c. 0.8m deep dating from the 17th century. The levelling and dumping activity coincided with the building of the new brick hall and represented a substantial modification of the southern and western sides of the platform during this period.

The water in the moat was kept fresh by being topped up from the nearby Timperley Brook. A leat, or artificial channel, entered the south-eastern corner of the moat (see elsewhere on the is blog). This can be followed eastwards across the golf course for c. 275m as a shallow depression, roughly 6m wide and up to 1m deep. The depression ran parallel to, but north of, a second depression varying from 6m to 16m in width. The projected line of both features ran into the Timperley Brook giving a length of roughly 800m for these landscape features.

The connection of Timperley Brook to the moat via a leat system would ensure a supply of water in times of drought by manipulation of a sluice gate across the main flow of the brook. The existence of this system in the early 16th century is suggested by references in three documents from 1531, 1535, and 1541 to meadows on land owned by the Arderne family along the Timperley Brook.

Access to the hall was across a bridge on the northern side of the moat. This bridge, which was destroyed in a storm in 1994, had twin brick arches and dated from the 18th century. However, these arches rested on sandstone bases, which probably represented a structure of later medieval or 16th century date.

On the moated platform extensive remains of the hall were uncovered. The earliest hall was represented a rectangular clay floor, aligned east-west and roughly 5m wide and roughly 10m long. A western wing survived as two rows of postholes. This first hall, which was T-shaped in plan, lay close to the southern arm of the moat. It had a thatched roof, with glazed ridge tiles, remains of which were found in the mid-17th century demolition layers across the site and in demolition deposits on the edge of the southern arm of the moat.

The demolition layers in the moat and across the platform contained a large quantity of iron-glazed pottery, from the period 1650-1680, showing that the medieval timber hall was completely rebuilt in the mid-17th century.

The southern arm of the moat during excavation

This second, new, hall had stone and brick foundations and in plan had a central hall with a cross-passage, and two cross-wings. The eastern cross-wing contained four rooms on the ground floor divided by a central passageway running west to east. A brick-lined half-cellar lay in one of the northern rooms, and a large burnt clay spread representing the base of a fireplace was found in another. Together these features suggested that this was the service end of the hall where food was stored and prepared. The foundations of the central hall were over the site of the earlier medieval hall, and was roughly 10m long with a cross-passage at its eastern end marking the division with the eastern wing. The foundations of the western cross-wing were stone and brick. The western wall of the wing was found to project over the edge of the original moat line, requiring the moat to be partially filled before the wing could be built.

This rebuilding work was probably undertaken by the Meredith family who inherited the estate in 1634. It is this hall which was described in King’s description of Cheshire, published in 1666, as a newly built brick structure, and “obviously a gentleman’s residence”.

The End of the hall

The decline and fall of the old hall began with the purchase of the Timperley estate by George Johnson, a businessman, around 1754. Johnson lived at his new estate but the old timber and brick hall did not suite his tastes. Instead, he built a new ‘modern and handsome mansion of brick’ in the Georgian style to replace the old hall. A new turnpike road, running from Stockport to Altrincham, curved around the estate to the north adding the park-like setting of the new hall. This new building still survives and lies beyond the moated site to the north.

The estate was inherited by his son Croxton Johnson in 1795, who rebuilt the hall farm, several buildings of which surviving today between the moat and the new hall. Croxton seems to have spent little time at Timperley, being vicar of Wilmslow parish where he was later buried, so the new Timperley Hall was rented to tenants.

It was during Croxton’s time that the old hall was demolished. The hall demolition layers are associated with pottery and coins from the end of the 18th century. A letter from 1809, offering to sell the Timperley estate to the Earl of Stamford, does not mention the old hall in its description of what was on offer, confirming its demolition around this time. The estate was sold the next year, in 1810, to James Wood as “a country residence for the family’s recreation in summer time”. By this date the new hall was surrounded by pleasure grounds, plantations and outbuildings consisting of coach houses, four stables, two shippons (cow barns), an extensive granary, two barns, and a walled garden.

This walled garden was almost certainly on the moated site, which has been converted to a kitchen garden with an orchard and formal paths – a use which survived into the 1960s.

Conclusion

In 1849 the new hall estate was bought by Samuel Brooks, a wealthy Manchester Banker, who already held extensive lands in the surrounding towns of Altrincham, Hale, and Sale. A new farmhouse and dairy was built soon afterwards, between the earlier barns and the north-western edge of the moat. Some of the estate grounds were converted into a private golf course in 1893. Brooks’ son sold the estate in 1920 to a Frederick Tomlinson who in turn sold it to Altrincham Borough Council in 1934 ‘for the benefit and recreation of the People of Altrincham’.

Suggested reconstruction of the old hall after the 17th century rebuild.

Today, the 18-hole golf course and driving range are well-used and the new hall, confusingly re-named the Old Hall, is a place to recover with a drink and some food after a round of golf.

The site of the old hall is hidden behind the barns and the tall trees that have grown up in the last century around the moat. Thus, late winter and early spring is the best time to view the moated earthwork and walled garden that mark the location of Timperley Old Hall. The lack of undergrowth and leaves on the trees reveals the massive nature of the water-filled ditches, whilst the low afternoon sun highlights earthworks running to the east of the moat that mark the line of the leat that still keeps the moat topped up with water.

A new footbridge, installed in 2011, gives access to the kitchen garden, tendered by volunteers from the South Trafford Archaeological Group. Here, the footprint of the hall building is laid out amongst a small orchard, and a herb and phyisck garden, providing a small oasis of calm and quiet.

And if you want to know more about the old hall and its relationship to the other 63 medieval moats within Greater Manchester, then three information boards tell the long history of the site. Or you could pop next door to the STAG headquarters and display centre to help their continuing studies of one of the largest collections of late medieval pottery in the region.

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