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The Great (Small) Wall Of China (Manchester)

Real Roman Relic In Rail-arch Relegation

Written by . Published on December 22nd 2013.

The Great (Small) Wall Of China (Manchester)


THIS poor neglected lump of Castlefield masonry fenced in under a railway arch is old. 

In fact it’s as old as it gets in Manchester. It dates from around 200 AD and is thus around a thousand years older than any other masonry in the city. 

It gives us that link with the ancient past of Manchester. It marks the alpha point of this famous city. 

It’s a real survivor too, Roman, and one of six scheduled ancient monuments in Manchester. Not that you'd guess. This reminder of our distant past is covered in detritus, walled in, fenced off, and utterly neglected.

It's used to taking the hits though. It's survived the abandonment of the fort when the Romans left, the pillaging of the site for building materials for centuries, and it survived the Industrial Revolution. 

An Industrial Revolution that ran two canals through the old Roman fort site, three railway systems and covered the area with houses, workshops and factories.

In particular it survived the construction of the viaduct that carries the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway over where the fragment lies. 

Now it lies lost and inaccessible closed off from the curious visitor on a private site in Castlefield. Recently this had its gates opened as electrification of the rail lines takes place.

Confidential sneaked into what is still a private area to snap the Roman relic. Call it an act of benign trepass.

Roman WallRoman Wall

Manchester starts with the Romans.

No record has been found of buildings related to the Setantii branch of the local Brigantes tribe that occupied this area so it must have been the cohorts of XXth Valeria Victrix legion, under General Agricola, who spotted Manchester's potential in 79 AD.

In particular they recognised the strategic value of the rounded bluff over the confluence of the Rivers Irwell and Medlock and named it Mamucium or 'breast shaped hill'.

Our fragment of wall lies on the left hand, eastern wall, of the fort in this conjectural imageOur fragment of wall lies on the left hand, eastern wall, of the fort in this conjectural image

The Romans stayed for over three centuries. Their fort was garrisoned, at its peak, by an 800 strong mixed force of infantry and cavalry. This was an auxiliary regiment, not native Romans, but recruits or conscripts from the other provinces.

Primarily the place was military in character but as often happened outside Roman forts a civilian settlement grew which accommodated the unofficial wives of the soldiers and attracted artisans and craftsmen, who set up furnaces and workshops.

During excavations in the seventies a Christian 'magic square' dating from 175 AD was found. This coded inscription spells the word Paternoster, the opening words of the Lord's Prayer in Latin. It’s the oldest evidence of Christianity in the country.

The Romans chose their site well and Manchester became a transport hub.

Seven roads met at the fort, more than at any other site in the North. Future movements of people and resources would, for convenience sake, move along these routes and come directly through Manchester.

Many of the main routes into the city still follow Roman lines – the roads met where Beetham Tower now stands which explains why it’s always dead ahead on so many key arteries into the city.

Roman authority officially abandoned Britain in 410 AD and eventually the Saxons moved in. The Latin word 'castrum' meaning fort was twisted into the 'chester' element of the name.

The Saxons moved the settlement northwords. They needed a more easily defensible place so they chose the area around the present-day Cathedral, on the sandstone lump above the confluence of the River Irk and River Irwell, where Chetham’s School of Music and Library now sit.

The Saxons also feared the supernatural.

The old Roman fortresses and settlements looked like the work of giants to them, impossibly clever and complex.

One of the great poems of English and one of the language's earliest is The Ruin reproduced below, which reflects what the Saxons thought of the remnants of Imperial Rome’s power and authority they kept encountering.

That fragment of Mamucium that remains under the railway arch has potency.

The reconstruction of Roman fort gates, ditches and walls elsewhere in Castlefield are great fun and valuable in showing off our history, but they are reconstructions. (The recent display boards, by the way, giving a very clear description of Roman Manchester, are very welcome.)

So despite its apparent modesty, this scruffy, hoary old fragment is the real deal, laid down by Roman era hands. 

It gives us that link with the ancient past of Manchester. 

It marks the alpha node of this famous city. 

And it does this silently and alone, a fort wall imprisoned and hidden behind it's own cheap, recent fortifications.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

The Ruin (ninth century Anglo-Saxon poetry fragment)

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.
Still the masonry endures in winds cut down
persisted on__________________
fiercely sharpened________ _________
______________ she shone_________
_____________g skill ancient work_________
_____________g of crusts of mud turned away
spirit mo________yne put together keen-counselled
a quick design in rings, a most intelligent one bound
the wall with wire brace wondrously together.
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;

Roman WallRoman Wall

Roman WallRoman Wall

The sandstone face here once lay over the River Medlock, the Roman Fort lay above itThe sandstone face here stands over the River Medlock (now flowing in a tunnel under the adjacent Bridgewater Canal) the Roman Fort lay above it

Part of the reconstructed west wall and ditch if MamuciumPart of the reconstructed west wall and ditch of Mamucium

One of the excellent display boards in CastlefieldOne of the excellent display boards in Castlefield

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20 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousFebruary 11th 2012.

Simply, incredible.

Not that I'm doubting your integrity JS, but which organisation has authenticated it as a genuine Roman artefact? Why is there no interpretation board or proper public access?

Jonathan SchofieldFebruary 11th 2012.

Well Anon, we could take Roger Wilson's classic, A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain book. 'Fragment of east fort wall of Mamucium. Under a blocked railway arch in a timber yard at the end of Collier Street, off Liverpool Road.'

And to cap off the evidence it's a scheduled ancient monument on the English Heritage list.

The timber yard has now been cleared but the area remains private. Maybe there should be open days to view the evocative lump.

AnonymousFebruary 12th 2012.

thanks for the response JS.

I will look for that book. I am a keen albeit amateur fisher and have been trying to find 'Fly Fishing' by Hartley, J. R. without success so far. Will get down to the library next week and see what I can turn up.

..... but seriously, I take an interest in this sort of thing but have never heard of this hallowed lump.

Assuming this is not some sort of ultra subversive spoof, I am astounded. Truly affirms the value of this site. Who else would cover this sort of thing?

Is there not a case for this arch to be be glassed off, some tasteful lighting, a walkway and some subtle signage saying something like "Genesis Mancunia" hanging above said masonry?

AnonymousFebruary 12th 2012.

Just to be clear I am genuinely astonished that such an important and ancient artefact could be ensconced within palisade fencing, construction detritus and general shite.

Following this week's coverage of the proposals for the Twisted Wheel, the general disregard for the Granada campus and the obliteration of so much of our industrial history over a very long period of time, doesn't this just perfectly illustrate the complacent and apathetic attitude towards the city's heritage?

1 Response: Reply To This...
Calum McGFebruary 24th 2012.

Are you a member of the Castlefield Forum? If not, we need passionate people like you to come and help us improve the area. I hope you'll join us! And yes, the relic is genuine and it would be awesome to do something about it. Ali.

user1770February 14th 2012.

Great article, and surely the only way I'd have known what is (literally) right under my nose which is, as suggested above, just ridiculous. I despair at our council's apathy every day.

Carol MFebruary 15th 2012.

Thanks for raising this Jonathan, maybe one day it will get the public recognition it deserves!

MagicDanFebruary 15th 2012.

Wow, this is great. I wish we had access.

I wonder if it is worth speaking to the fellows who run walking tours around Manchester. They seem to be able to negotiate there way into private property. I'm sure they could theme a tour around it.

Seems a shame to let this go to waste.

Tim AgricolaFebruary 15th 2012.

What like that Jonathan Schofield who wrote this piece: http://www.jonathanschofieldtours.com?

Howard BamforthFebruary 15th 2012.

Let's have a new Roman Manchester Tour very soon Jonathan? Where would we be without your knowledge and wisdom?

JD68February 15th 2012.

I have visited and photographed this Roman relic years ago. Even a decade ago it was covered in litter and stuff left behind by a tramp who had made the arch his home. I had read about it in an old book about the Castlefield area. Off the top of my head I think it's arch 27 but it was years ago.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
CobbydalerFebruary 17th 2012.

Arch 95

CobbydalerFebruary 17th 2012.

It's arch 95

The Manchester ManFebruary 17th 2012.

Visited some Roman remains under a privately owned arch in Castlefield with primary school back in the mid 80s, which I remember looking different to the above. Do any other arches contain Roman wall fragments, or has a quarter of a century blurred the memory of a young boy? Great to see it though - no one else over the years has ever known what I was talking about.

Jonathan SchofieldFebruary 17th 2012.

I've been trying to trace who owns the land and steps are afoot to establish this. Meanwhile we've had this interesting information.

It is a criminal offence to: Destroy or damage a scheduled monument; Do any "works" which would demolish, damage, remove, repair, add or alter it (including agriculture, forestry, flooding and tipping) without previous permission from the Secretary of State or devolved equivalent, given through formal written "Scheduled Monument Consent"; Use a metal detector without prior consent; Remove any historic or archaeological object from the site without prior consent.

Scheduled Ancient Monument Consent is not a matter dealt with by local government but by English Heritage.

Our Roman fragment clearly is suffering from 'tipping' if nothing else, although that may be peripheral.

AnonymousFebruary 24th 2012.


Tim AgricolaFebruary 24th 2012.


David KeenanFebruary 28th 2012.

I remember (dimly) visiting the arch with my dear old dad during the 1970's excavations referred to in the article. The arch was open on specific dates as was the excavation site. Even though I was only a nipper then I remember standing in the dark arch looking at the stone and feeling a real connection with Manchester of old. Can't pressure be put on somebody to open it up, after all as the article states it's the oldest surviving fragment of building in Manchester!!

EditorialFebruary 28th 2012.

We've discover that the site is owned by Transport for Greater Manchester. So now we need a plan.

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