Hands Offa Ditch!

We have submitted an application on behalf of the Friends of Ryebank Fields to have the section of Manchester’s historic Nico Ditch, which runs through Ryebank Fields, listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument by Historic England. Another part of the ditch in Platt Fields Park is already listed as entry number 1015132. As it stands the ditch in Ryebank Fields is already deemed to be a “nationally important but non-scheduled monument” and therefore any works in its vicinity already require consultation, but listing would give it greater protection from the threat of development, as all plans would need the approval of Historic England.

East side path through Nico Ditch from north to south

Nico ditch

The Nico Ditch dates from from the Anglo-Saxon period somewhere between AD 600 and the tenth century. It forms part of an ancient linear frontier or boundary, possibly between Mercia and Northumbria. Another example of its type is Offa’s Dyke, which forms the ancient boundary between England and Wales. Structures akin to Nico Ditch also resonate closely with Roman frontier works such as Hadrian’s Wall. The eastern section of Nico Ditch is thought to have originally stretched from Ashton Moss to Hough Moss (now known as Hough End) with the Western Section continuing as far as Moorside, another area of moss land, in Urmston. Evidence of its existence can still be seen in Audenshaw, Gorton, Reddish, Levenshulme and Platt Fields, however, the section in Ryebank Fields is one of the few parts of the ditch still to remain in the West; much of it having been built over or lost.

East side path through Nico Ditch from south to north

Nico ditch

The word Nico is Anglo-Saxon in origin and may have been derived from Hnickar, a water spirit who seized and drowned unwary travellers. An alternative derivation is that Nico comes from nǽcan, an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning ‘kill’. It is also referred to as both ‘Mykelldiche’ and `Magnum Fossatum’ meaning the ‘great ditch’.

Legend has it that Nico Ditch was completed in a single night by the inhabitants of Manchester, as a protection against Viking invaders. It was said that each man had an allocated area to construct, and was required to dig his section of the ditch and build a bank equal to his own height. According to 19th century folklore, the ditch was the site of a battle between the Saxons and Danes; the battle was supposed to have given the nearby towns of Gorton and Reddish their names, from ‘Gore Town’ and ‘Red-Ditch’ but in reality it is more likely that the names derive from ‘dirty farmstead’ and ‘reedy ditch’ respectively.

Looking west from inside Nico Ditch

Nico ditch

The existence of the Nico Ditch has been acknowledged in the planning proposals put forward by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In the Ryebank Road Development Framework Summary it states:

The existing Nico Ditch running through the centre of the site will be retained and will include improvements to the ecology, biodiversity and landscape, as well as including a 10 metre no build restriction zone.

This assurance, however, is entirely contradicted by the plans within the same document. For instance, there are four layout options shown on pages 6 & 7. Option 4 clearly shows a road going across the ditch; in fact, if the only proposed road access is from the Chorlton side of the site, in all cases a road would have to be built across the ditch to access the northern side of the development. Moreover, in August 2017 MMU had two mature trees and one younger tree felled and the following day a mini digger moved onto the site, apparently to survey a gas pipeline. It appears they have dug holes within approximately 10-20 feet of the ditch. At the time, we contacted Historic England to express our concerns and it would appear that MMU did not engage in any consultations prior to carrying out the work. Since this communication MMU contractors have also been seen hacking back vegetation and erecting sign posts in the vicinity of the ditch.

Another concern is that the land is unstable, due to being used for many years as an unregistered tip and landfill site. Formerly the area was home to a number of clay pits used by a local brick works. Once disused, the pits became flooded and later became a dumping ground. Reports from neighbours state that, as its use was unregulated, all manner of rubbish, such as asbestos and large drums of paint, were deposited there. People even recall a whole tipper truck getting stuck and falling into one of the pits; it was never removed, it was just left to rot. The land was eventually reclaimed in the early ‘70s, under ‘Operation Eyesore,’ by the City Parks Department and subsequently given to MMU as a sports facility. In a report cited in a previous planning appeal by MMU, reference is made to the unsuitability of the land:

All three pitches have become unusable due to the amount of glass, stones, bricks and boulder debris now on and immediately below the surface.

They also had to rotate the use of the sports pitches due to “severe water logging”. The whole area is well-known for flooding which is likely due to Longford Brook running underneath Ryebank Fields and the fact that the ground sits on a deposit of boulder clay which restricts drainage. The course of Longford Brook can be seen plotted on old maps which also show that the area was formerly known as ‘The Isles’ with Black Brook running further to the North and a succession of pools lying to the South. Due to the above, we believe the site will require significant excavation before any developments can commence which is highly likely to affect the stability of the land around and immediately bordering the Nico Ditch.

We feel so lucky to have this fascinating piece of history right here in Chorlton and are determined to ensure that adequate protection is in place to ensure its safe-guarding and preservation for years to come.