Roman Signal Station or Medieval Moated Defence?

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The Mystery of Peel Moat and its place in The Heatons.

By Phil Page

There can’t be many local golfers who have not, at some time, paused during a round at Heaton Moor Golf Club to look at Peel Moat and wonder exactly what its history holds. It’s an inauspicious piece of ground, surrounded by water and populated by local wildlife. At first glance it has the appearance of a man-made lake, but it’s been there for many years – several hundred in fact.

What we can probably assume about Peel Moat is that it’s some sort of earthwork. The site is a perfect square, its sides facing geometrically N, S, E and W. The outer sides of the moat measure 220ft and the raised inner sides about half that distance, 110ft. On the eastern side of the structure is an oddly shaped entrance but no other structures are visible; the erosion of time and the elements have rounded off the exact precision of the original earthwork.

So what exactly is it? Over the years there have been various theories including a hypothesis that it was created by an act of God during a thunderstorm or earthquake. More logical ideas however, have been put forward too.  One such theory is that it may have been a moated defensive site, similar to many other medieval structures dotted around Lancashire and Cheshire. The general feeling amongst archaeologists though, is that it is too small, has no recorded medieval buildings, and is not fed by a stream or river which would provide additional defensive barriers. It is also not set in a particularly defensible location, given that the area around it is completely flat. There again, the name ‘Peel’ is a Celtic-Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman name for a small fortress or stronghold, so that adds further mystery to the story.

Another theory is that it had associations with local hunting and could have been the site of some kind of lodge or a protected area for wild animals. Wild deer and boar were hunted in the area as far back as Roman times. Another idea is that it was associated with the ‘Nico Ditch’, a Danish-built defensive boundary which ran five miles west of Ashton towards Old Hall Lane in Platt Fields.

The most likely explanation, however, is that Peel Moat was a Roman Signal Station similar to that preserved at Martinhoe in Devon. The construction at Peel Moat is of identical size and would have been big enough to house the 60-80 troops who might have been garrisoned there. It was probably built around AD 79, at the same time as the construction of the Castlefield Roman Fort. No Roman building materials or pottery have ever been found on the site, although remains of stone and brick foundations on the island were in evidence during the late 19th century. However, it could be that the structure was occupied only for a short time as the local tribes would have been easily subdued by the Roman legions.

If the theory is correct, it is probable that Peel Moat was annexed to the Castlefield Fort, which would have sent men and supplies and taken messages from the site. Peel Moat may have been one of a number of signal stations heading south out of the city – possibly in the direction of Chester. The structure also lies between two known Roman roads – Burnage Lane and Manchester Road – with the centre of the moat exactly 2,500ft from each one. Local tradition has it that the site was sacked by Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War and some documentary sources from the time describe the monument as having a square fortified tower.

So, next time you’re strolling around the area, dodging golf balls or just enjoying the smell of ginger nuts drifting across from McVities, take time to pause and soak up the atmosphere of the site. The sound of the steady plod of legionnaires’ boots might still be hanging in the wind which whips across this exposed spot.

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