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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > History > History features > A ditch in time

The ditch marker in Platt Fields Park

The ditch marker in Platt Fields Park

A ditch in time

Ask most Mancunians about the Nico Ditch and they’ll look at you with a blank expression, yet the much forgotten earthwork might well have been one of the main reasons why the city survived the turbulent medieval era.

The Nico or Mickle Ditch ran from Ashton under Lyne to Urmston, passing in a curve through Denton, Reddish, Gorton, Levenshulme, Burnage, Rusholme, Fallowfield, Withington, Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Stretford.

Map of Manchester AD 878 (pink/Saxon, blue/Dane)

Map of Manchester AD 850 (pink/Saxon, blue/Dane)

Quite why it was built isn’t clear. Several theories have been proposed. It may date back to the seventh century and have been dug as a boundary marker between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.

Other sources say it was constructed later, at some point between AD 890 and 910. The period was a troubled time for the region as in the Ninth Century, both Cheshire and Lancashire were invaded by the Danes.

In the battles that followed, the marauding invaders practically destroyed the village of Manchester before being forced back to the south side of the River Mersey and settling in Stockport.

A legendary effort

According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (a document compiled by King Alfred the Great in AD 890 and subsequently added to by anonymous scribes until the twelfth century), the people of Manchester and the surrounding villages decided they needed a permanent defence against their Danish neighbours. As a result, the Nico Ditch was dug.

A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

The Chronicles actually claim that the structure, which was said to be five foot-wide ditch with an accompanying bank on the north side (the invaders being stationed south of Manchester, this would have given the villagers the high ground in case of attack), was completed in one night, each man having a set area to construct.

It seems unlikely - each man would have to dig out the ditch and then built a bank equivalent to his own height, a structure that was around 5m deep from bank top of to ditch bottom, in a few short hours.

It’s not the only problem with the story. Excavations have shown that the bank is of twentieth century origin and that the U-shape of the ditch suggests a territorial boundary – military ditches were usually V-shaped.

Red Ditch?

Still, even without the bank, there was still once a tantalizing piece of Victorian folk lore that suggested there may have been a defensive purpose to it.

A reconstruction of medieval England

Fighting and farming: the life of a medieval Manc

There was a suggestion that Gorton and Reddish were both named after a battle between Saxons and Danes in the area of the Nico Ditch – Gorton coming from 'Gore Ton' and Reddish from 'Red-ditch', references to the massive bloodshed on the site.

Sadly, as Victorian historians Farrer and Brownbill put it, this story was "popular fancy", and it has since been shown that Gorton actually means 'dirty farmstead' and while the latter portion of Reddish’s name refers to the Nico Ditch, the former part actually means 'reedy' rather than 'red'.

Micel, Hnickar, Noecan

Since its construction, the ditch has come to be known by two names, Nico and Mickle; the earliest documented reference to it is in a charter from around 1190 detailing the granting of land in Audenshaw to the monks of the Kersal Cell, where it is called 'Mykelldiche'.

The Nico Ditch (dark earth) in Platt Fields Park

The Nico Ditch (dark earth) in Platt Fields Park

Mickle, or rather micel, was an Anglo Saxon word, meaning 'great or large in size, bulk, or stature' – an understandable description for the huge ditch.

Nico, though, isn’t so easy to explain. While it may simply be a modern corruption of micel, it’s also argued that the name derives from 'Hnickar', a water spirit who was said to seize and drown unwary travellers. However, Hnickar is a character from the Danish tradition and the ditch was, of course, built by Anglo-Saxon Mancunians.

Another possible derivation is that the word comes from 'Noecan' the Anglo-Saxon verb 'to kill' – this makes Nico the 'killing ditch', an apt description if it did have a defensive purpose.

The modern Mickle

The truth of its name and purpose may never be known, but one thing is undeniable – that it was an amazing piece of medieval engineering.

Even today, small parts of the ditch are still visible, though only where the expansion of Victorian and Edwardian Manchester didn’t require it to be filled in or simply ignored - part of it runs underneath Audenshaw reservoir.

Old Hall Lane follows the path of the Nico Ditch

Old Hall Lane follows the path of the Nico Ditch

The most visible piece is a 300-metre stretch which runs through Denton golf course, though it is not the only remaining section – it can also be seen in Melland Road Playing Fields in Levenshulme and in Platt Fields Park (this part is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument), and both Old Hall Lane in Rusholme and Labernum Road in Gorton follows its former course.

It’s not much considering the original ditch was between five and six miles long, but then given the amount of building work that Manchester has seen in the millennium since its construction, that there is anything left at all is impressive.

And what the ditch proves more than anything else is that rather than being unimaginative peasants between the time of Roman Mamucium and the Industrial Revolution, the medieval Mancunians were just as ready to take on an epic challenge as their descendants would be.

last updated: 04/08/2008 at 00:20
created: 01/08/2008

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