Saxon remains in Halliwell

There are some. One of the methods people use to understand the ages of places is to analyse the place-names. Certain words come from different historical periods and the word ‘Bolton’ suggests a Saxon origin. The ‘ton’ suffix is Saxon for a town although probably nowadays we would call their towns, villages. The Saxons were great farmers and their domestic style was to live in small, dispersed, agricultural hamlets (literally ‘little homes’). In Lancashire these became known as ‘folds’. This word has survived as many local place-names and it is also the current fate of many family run hill farms. There is confusion among historians over whether the Saxons invaded Britain or were invited over as mercenaries. We will probably never know.

There might be more tangible Saxon remnants, rather than just the names of places, to be found around and about. These early farmers opened up the heavier clay sods in Britain to the plough and they cleared a great deal of the original forest. The Neolithic tribes had cleared trees from the hilltops to graze their herds of cattle but had mainly left the valleys as densely wooded dangerous places, lair to wolves, bears and eagles. Years later the Saxon pioneer farmers followed the river valleys upward, clearing forest and establishing farm settlements. They often made hedge banks to enclose small fields where the fieldstones were piled into lineal heaps with a ditch dug on the outside and the soil heaped over the rubble. Young trees were dug out and brought from the woodlands and planted on top of these new banks and trained into dense hedges. Often hurdles, constructed of greenwood, were used as temporary enclosures. In Bolton’s damp climate it is not surprising that some of these would take root and transform into other hedging.

It’s almost impossible that there any Saxon hedges left in Halliwell today but there is a way to verify the age of what remains. Hooper’s Law suggests that in a thirty metre length of hedge each different species of tree found there will represent a century of age. A hedge with six native species (say Hawthorn, Elder, Holly, Ash, Oak and Alder) is probably six hundred years old. We would need twelve or more species to get back to the Saxon era. Are there any hedges in Halliwell as old as this? Critics of (Max) Hooper’s Law say that it only applies to Cambridgeshire where the don did his research. He found Saxon hedges. Keen walkers could take a look at the field in a straight line below the eastern boundary wall of Holden’s Plantation. Surface water follows the course of a regular depression in the ground and this is probably the remains of a ditch from an ancient hedge bank. There are other clues in this particular field as well.

Some fields kept their outlines for. many centuries and there is evidence of what is known to archaeologists as a Great Enclosure in Moss Bank Park. The 6′ Ordnance Survey of 1845 quite clearly shows the characteristic outline of rounded hedge bank centred on Lightbounds. The only part that remains a hundred and fifty five years later is the section of outgrown hedge bank below what used to be the park’s plant nursery. Archaeologists believe a Great Enclosure would have protected the cattle from wild animals and rustlers. Possibly it was divided up and cultivated in the summer with sheep being folded there throughout the winter. The farm hamlet would have been nearby, on the outside of this massive field, possibly where Hollin Hey Farm is now. (Hey is a very old name for a hedge, incidentally, and hollin is Lancashire for holly). There is a Great Enclosure which has been excavated at Yeavering in Northumberland, and it’s been dated to around 600 AD. The mix of farm animals in those days was very similar to the mix of farm animals now. To our eyes they’d seem a flea-bitten lot but they had a lot more value then than they do now and we would probably describe a Saxon horse as an arthritic pony. They grew plenty of barley, for beer, and beans and flax.

Staying in Moss Bank Park there’s possibly other Saxon traces. The name ‘Halliwell’ comes from ‘Holle Well’ or Holy Well. This is over near Barrow Bridge Road and would probably have been used even back then. A few hundred years later, after the Crusades, it became a site of pilgrimage and the water was ascribed curative properties. Now it’s lost. Around 1740 Peter Ainsworth, founder of the bleaching dynasty, leased or bought the land from Captain Dewhurst to establish a new works. Ainsworth’s eldest daughter, Mary, who was three, fell into the well and was drowned and the man had it filled in. A hundred years later another Ainsworth built a tunnel and new outlet for the well as he was diverting the Dean Brook, and this has survived to the present day. There’s a picture of it in the book ‘Halliwell On Postcards’.

There is a tale that several years ago the late Derek Billington persuaded a Cub Scout to scramble down the tunnel with a torch and a ball of string to establish where the wellspring actually was. His conclusion was that it was quite close to the position as shown on the old Ordnance Survey maps. Last year some pot-holers followed the firebrick-lined tunnel but reckoned its direction was more northerly, i.e. towards Victoria Lake. I’ve marked the ancient position of the Holy Well, according to the old maps, with a black painted wooden peg; it’s just on the inside of the pavement opposite Croft Cottage. There is a willow tree beside it which is a good sign. A competent dowser would find the old site of the well straight away, maybe there is Saxon masonry lining the lower courses which has been protected by the backfill.

The Victorian well outlet looks very much like a chunky fireplace and is surrounded by a four-sided stone enclosure with one of the walls forming the bankside to Dean Brook. Access is quite difficult and the new houses at Whitster’s Hollow come right up against it. There is a vigorous stream of clear warm water coming through it and one or two caddis larvae living on the pebble substrate. The firebrick-lined tunnel sets off at a compass heading of 262 degrees but according to the pot-holers it doesn’t follow a straight course. The pot-holers didn’t mark their estimated position of the original well on the ground above.

In the Saxon era, the river would teem with fish such as salmon, brown trout, lamprey, eel, minnow, miller’s thumb and stickleback, sturgeon would probably have risen in the River Tonge where there would also be shoals of Bream. Captain Dewhurst, in his published diary of 1785, mentions being given a present of a large carp, from Peter Ainsworth, and the fish in the river must have mainly gone before his time. (The only other fish mentioned in his diary are two red herrings!) Ainsworth’s carp will have been farmed and taken from the Moss Bank Fishpond, which is now known as the duck pond. This bedraggled structure is overwhelmed by rhododendrons and sycamore. While the Bolton Conservation Volunteers struggle to remove these exotic shrubs from Raveden Dene they are still getting planted in the park. (By the car park) Oddly enough, there’s still brown trout in the Dean Mills Reservoir high on the moors but the skills needed to farm carp have mostly been lost. There’s a few tenacious stickleback still in the brook.

By David Aspinall