Castle hunting in Manchester

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9 April 2016

Despite my misgivings about flying on small planes it wasn’t too bad once we were in the air. In fact we had seats right next to the engine nascelle on the port side of the plane so Commando was able to admire his handwork throughout the flight. Thankfully the little door that opens to let the landing gear out, also built by Commando, did open and we landead safely. By the time we’d walked to the train station, caught a train and got to our hotel it was late afternoon. A bit of unpacking, some freshening up and a refamiliaristional walk around Deansgate was about as much as we had time for before we had to find somewhere to eat. At least it wasn’t raining and Commando’s ankle was feeling pretty good. It looked as if the marathon might be on after all, even if a PB was a bit of a stretch.

This morning was make or break time. After breakfast he was going out for a short run. If the ankle held up the marathon was on. Obviously I wasn’t going to sit around the hotel twiddling my thumbs and worrying so I went out for a walk. There was something nearby I wanted to see. When I’d been looking at maps working out a walking route for the on/off marathon, should I need one, I’d spotted a castle! Who knew there was a castle right in the middle of Manchester? It was only a mile and a half from the hotel too. All I had to do was find it.

So, with map in hand, I walked along Medlock Street towards the railway arches. My first visit to Manchester was for a marathon too. Well, it was  if you don’t count the debacle when I flew in from Morrocco, my luggage was lost, I attened a posh awards event in a borrowed dress and flip flops and then flew back out again. During the last Manchester Marathon I met a friend who lives locally and she took me on a walk through beautiful parks by the River Mersey, completely blowing my theory that the place was an industrial wasteland. This time I was on my own and in an area that fit my original vision far better. Everywhere I looked there were railway arches, interesting old brick buildings that might once have been factories and trains running along low viaducts.

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On the other side of the railway I came to a busy crossing and stopped to get my bearings. I recognised the Beetham Tower, home of Manchester Hilton, a tall icicle of glittering glass in the midst of all the red brick and the tallest building in Manchester. It would be my landmark. This was where the awards event was held and the embarrassing memory of holding up a strapless dress that was way too big whilst trying to hide the flip flops and the fact I had no make up on came flooding back. Just as I was about to check the map again I saw a sign that told me I might not need to bother. Below the hotel, on the top of a brick arch, was a sign saying Castlefield. Obviously I was heading in the right direction.

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At the other end of the road I came to a canal bridge and a handy sign post. Slightly puzzled to see one arm pointing to ‘home’ given that the sign writer couldn’t possibly have known where my home was, I focused on the opposite arm saying Roman Garden. Behind it was an information board headed Castlefield. It seemed I’d found what I was looking for. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I strolled down the slope beside yet more railway arches admiring the show of daffodils ahead.

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Perhaps I should have stopped to read the board more carefully before heading off towards the canal. In my defence, the castle ruins on the map had been very close to a canal and the castle I’d read about was actually the ruin of a Roman fort called Mamucium or Mancunium which gave Manchester its name. The signpost and the information board had led me astray though. At the bottom of the slope I came to a dead end. A small side arm to the canal, filled with a green barge blocked my way.

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Across the water there were more barges and a path that seemed to go the way I was headed. The problem was I couldn’t see a way down to it from the road and there was no way across the water. Frustrated, I took some photos of the barges and daffodils, said hello to a couple of Canada geese relaxing on the bank and turned back. Beneath the bottom railway arch was a rather messy gathering of tents. Homeless people were obviously living there and it seemed wise to make a quick exit before I woke them.

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At the top of the slope again I read the information board properly and discovered that what I’d actually found was Pioneer Quay, once a large coal wharf. Why couldn’t they have put that on the signpost? Later I found out the side arm of the canal had once been another part of the canal network and there are still remains of it underground. Of course none of this was particularly helpful when I was looking for a castle.

Time to look at the map then. It told me I needed to walk along the next side street. Bridgewater Street was a narrow, dark affair behind a car park and what looked like shops. When I finally emerged into the light I could see something that looked like a park. The castle wasn’t quite what I was expecting. In fact, calling it a castle was most definitely overselling but, then again, I am rather spoilt in that department. There were some ruins, about a brick or two high but, with no real idea of what the place might have looked like, they didn’t tell me much. At the far end of the park there was something more castle like but, even from a distance, I could tell it was a modern replica. Still, this was the birthplace of Manchester so I had to explore further.

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Before I did though I stopped to look more closely at a nearby litter bin. It had a curious honeycomb panel around it and a bee symbol. What was that all about?  Later googling told me the worker bee is a symbol of the city. Apparently they were added to the city coat of arms during the industrial revolution to represent the hard working Mancunians in their hive of industrial activity. I quite liked them.

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The castle ruins may have been slightly disappointing but, when I read about them later, I realised it was a wonder they survived at all. The fort was built in several phases, beginning in around 79 AD under Julius Agricola to defend a crossing over the River Medlock, the road between Deva Victrix (Chester) and Eboracum (York) and another road between Manchester and Bremetennacum (Ribchester). It also overlooked the road to Coccium (Wigan). This first phase was built from turf. In around 140, it was demolished but, twenty years later, a larger fort was built of turf and timber. In around 200, stone gatehouses were added and the walls were faced in stone.

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A civilian settlement grew up around the fort, a mass of sheds and furnaces, the first industrial estate in Manchester. By the middle of the third century it had been more or less abandoned though and, as is the way, stone was rapidly carted off to be used elsewhere. A small garrison remained until the early fourth century. When it too was abandoned, after the Romans withdrew from Britain in around 410, the area was used for agriculture and lay in ruins until the industrial revolution when it was levelled to make way for industrial developments including  many mills, the Rochdale Canal and the Great Northern Railway.

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Feeling slightly hard done by in the castle department I walked around the edge of the park, heading in the direction of the replica gate. Then something captured my attention. I do love quirky public art and this wonderfully off the wall tableau of sheep put the smile back on my face. Better still, when I got closer, I could see a handy inscription on the base so I wouldn’t have to waste time googling ‘sheep Castlefields Manchester.’ The smile inducing piece seems to be mainly made from stone, a little like an ancient wall and the sheep have such haughty expressions I couldn’t help but love them.

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It seems I wasn’t the only one drawn to the late Ted Roocroft’s work either. Apparently the thing is a magnet for children who love to climb all over it. Sadly, this has left it prone to damage. Until the pig farmer turned artist died, in 1993, he had been regularly popping along to repair it. Thankfully the job has now been taken over by two of his friends and pupils. It would be a terrible shame to lose it.

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Reconstructions of historic buildings always look a little too Disney for my liking, but, the closer I got to this one, the more I liked it. Research tells me it was built in the 1980’s after the nearby railway complex, having declined as a means of transporting goods, was sold to a conservation group for £1. At the time creating an Urban Heritage Park was a revolutionary idea and Castlefields was the first of its kind in Britain.

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Of course, it’s hard to say how true a representation the gateway is but I liked the use of mottled stone and the Latin inscriptions. It did, at least, give an idea of what might have been here, which was helpful. All in all I’d say they did a great job, given how little was left of the original.

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Once I’d walked through the arch I climbed the steps and got a great view over the battlements. There was a small barred door and I couldn’t help wondering what was inside, curiosity is my middle name after all. Even so, no matter how well they’d tried to disguise the modern wooden door, it couldn’t quite hold the fascination of the real thing.

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Feeling I had seen all there was to see my thoughts turned to Commando and his run. It was time to be heading back to find out how his dodgy ankle had held up and the verdict for the marathon. By this time I was behind the fort and I had an idea I’d be able to get back to the hotel, or at least near it, via the canal if I could find it. All the signs I’d seen pointed to it being around here somewhere so, using gut instinct, I headed off to my right.

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Within seconds I’d discovered more old walls, or at least parts of them. Luckily there was a sign to tell me this was the western wall and a Roman granary. It seems the walls were part of the enlargement of the original fort and the granary was used to store grain to feed the troops. There was another modern reconstruction behind the ruins with more steps leading to the battlements. Rather than climb them I thought I’d go around the back and have a look from the other side. This turned out to be a good move.

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When I finished taking my photo I turned around and there was the canal, at the bottom of some steps. It looked like a kind of arena with a row of tented awnings. Later I discovered this was the Castlefield Bowl, an area used for outdoor events and concerts. Half way down the steps my phone rang. It was Commando.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Castlefields, by the canal, or at least one of them. Where are you?”
“Back at the hotel. I’m just about to have a shower.”
“How did the run go? Is your ankle ok?”
“It feels fine. Not quite normal but I think the marathon is on.”
“Great news. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I think, if I follow the canal, it should take me back, at least more or less. If I don’t get lost of course.”
“Don’t rush. Enjoy your walk.”

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

8 thoughts on “Castle hunting in Manchester”

  1. Who’d have thought Manchester had such pretty bits in it? Even though the ‘chester’ is a big clue, I’d never really thought about a Roman settlement there, but it must have been huge.

    I hope the marathon went alright.

    1. The castle was a bit of a surprise for me too. Well worth a visit if you get the chance though. As for the marathon, things didn’t go quite how we expected.

  2. This post was even more interesting than usual since my family came from Ribchester in the 1500s. As far as I know there are still some of us there.
    I think the did a pretty fair job on recreating the gateway. It looks massive.
    I’ve done a lot of building with stone but I never tried sheep. I like them!

    1. I’m glad to have give you a little insight into the home of your ancestors, or at least near it. It’s an interesting area I wish I’d had more chance to explore. The sheep really made the day for me.

  3. I think I’d have wanted to have taken those sheep home with him, aren’t they beautiful.
    Love the sunny daffodils, a real splash of Spring colour.
    Lots of info about the history of Manchester, thanks for sharing.
    Lisa x

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