Back to Normal? Local Archaeology in Trafford Post-COVID

My garden in Sale, Trafford, a mere pocket handkerchief, is full of yellow, white and purple splashes – the snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils that promise spring. The Timperley moated platform and its garden by the headquarters of my local archaeology society, in nearby Altrincham, is also showing the same signs of new growth and rebirth. COVID has disrupted the plans of all local archaeology groups, my local one, the South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG), included. STAG may not have got to survey the WW2 air raid shelter in south Manchester nor had a visit to a medieval bloomery site in Nether Alderley as hoped for in the autumn of 2021, but it has seen a rebirth of sorts: STAG has been digging for the first time since August 2019!

Onion Farmhouse during renovation work in the 1990s.

This digging opportunity came up in February 2022 courtesy of an old friend of STAG, Paul Beckman, who owns Onion Farmhouse in Warburton. This is an ancient farm complex lying on the western side of Warburton Lane at the hamlet of Moss Brow which STAG has investigated on a number of occasions since the 1990s. Survey work in the mid-1990s showed that the earliest phase is a cruck farmhouse. This structure has at least two bays although only part of one cruck-truss survives in the housebody. This was extended in the late 16th century or early 17th century by the addition of a two-storey, sandstone, northern bay separated from a newly inserted stone inglenook fireplace by a cross-passage. The farmhouse was rebuilt in brick during the 18th century when the second storey was added and most of the timber-framing removed. In the 19th century two buttresses were added to the western elevation to stop this wall from collapsing. Inside survives a mid-16th century wall painting referencing the legend of St Werburgh. The wall painting was restored by experts from the Courtauld Institute in the 1990s.

Recording work at the Onion Farm Cottage excavations in 1999

In 1999 STAG explored the site of the demolished Onion Farm Cottage immediately south of the farmhouse. Investigations revealed a complex building-history beginning with a two-roomed cruck-framed cottage with the walls and trusses resting on a sandstone plinth two courses deep. The cottage appears to have been built with an inglenook fireplace against the northern gable and an adjacent gable entrance. Finds from the inglenook’s brick-lined hearth included some 17th century clay pipes and Midland Purple Ware pottery. Further pottery excavated from a rubbish pit by the original northern gable and behind the inglenook fireplace dated to the late 16th or early 17th century.

In 2002 the group returned to explored a well in the farmyard and more recently, STAG have recorded some of the 16th and 17th century graffiti around the inglenook fireplace in the farmhouse.

The current work was in the field south of the farmhouse. Five STAG members braved a howling gale on the first weekend and bright sunshine on the second weekend, to dig a trench 5m by 4m between the western side of the cottage and the eastern side of a surviving late 19th-century pigsty. Here we located the brick foundations of a small outbuilding, perhaps a lean-to accessed from the cottage. Its date was unclear but the pottery finds suggested an 18th or early 19th century date for the structure, which seems to have been demolished by the mid-19th century. It was only a short dig, but this trench is one of more than 30 dug around Warburton by the Group since the mid-1990s, helping to confirm the village’s late medieval origins, and indicating that the daughter hamlet of Moss Brow is probably 15th or 16th century in origin.

The opportunity to record the archaeology of Warburton is one the Group began in the 1990s is keen to continue. And any site with access to freshly baked goods, two types of biscuits, and hot drinks, all provided by the landowners, has to be a place to return to for further fieldwork!

The STAG excavations at Onion Farm Cottage, 2022.

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