Friday, 10 October 2014

The Mystery of Broadclough Dykes

Was Bacup a Viking Stronghold?

The enigmatic Battle of Brunanburh, (937 AD) fought between Athelstan's rampaging Saxons and the leader of the Irish Vikings, Olaf - was one of, if not the biggest battle ever fought on British soil.  The Vikings, we know, had 615 ships amounting to as many as 30,000 men!  Clearly, the battle must have been like two opposing football stadiums attacking each other.  What we do know is that the Vikings ralled support from the Scots and Strathclyde Britons, making a massive coalition - and that they landed and that they sailed up a river before doing battle.  What we don't know, with any certainty - is if this landing took place on the east or west coasts.  Surely from Ireland a west coast approach would be logical, but in rallying the Scots, did Olaf cut through Northern Scotland and assemble his forces on the North Sea?  We will never know - and one of the most infuriating puzzles of British history concerns the location of the battlefield itself.  A mass slaugher with thousands of men involved, lasting a full day - but noboby knows where it took place.  In the 19th century, this hillside in Bacup. Lancashire, was firmly linked with the battle, the River Brun lying in nearby Burnley.  The massive earthworks here, above the hamlet of Broadclough - has been a source of fascination for centuries.

We are talking about manpower on a grand scale here.  A mile out of Bacup on the road to Burnley - a track on the left leads up to this gigantic entrenchment - 6oo yards long (1800 feet) with a trench at least 54 deep at the bottom.  This aerial photograph shows it superbly.  The industrial revolution takes such pride of place in Lancashire history that the ancient relics often get overlooked.  I'm pretty sure that, was this site south of Birmingham, it would have been fully excavated and explored.

The Broadclough Dykes were first written about in detail in Thomas Newbigging's classic: 'History of the Forest of Rossendale.'  (1868)  

Newbigging's book has pride of place in my bookcase.  I was brought up with it in a way - and its frontispiece never fails to impress - showing the first woollen mill ever built in this industrial valley: Hareholme Mill - with a facing engraving of Wolfenden Booth - an ancient part of the forest.

This is the chapter where Mr Newbigging, who lived at the old coaching house off Todmorden Road in Bacup - shows his appreciation of the Dykes, and proposes them as  a site for Brunanburh. 

Dykes House Farm - off Burnley Road at Broadclough, Bacup - was derelict for many years.  I heard rumours that nearby mine workings had caused the entire foundations to slip - with a massive crack appearing down the building.  Now it has been lovingly restored - and what a place to live.

On the way up the the farm and the Dykes, we pass the remains of the old Broadclough colliery - which was re-opened as a drift mine by the National Coal Board in the 1950s and closed in the late 60s.  This is the weighing house - now used for farm storage.

This is where I live - and I feel quite lucky.  The hamlet of Broadclough is in the trees - and here we see the weighing house as we look east over Old Meadows, site of another major coal seam.

On the right as we head up to the Dykes, the beautiful weavers' cottages of Step Row mark the position where the ancient road to Burnley used to turn at 90 degrees through a farm yard at the old Roe Buck Inn - and ascend steeply up onto the moor.

From a higher position - Step Row is beautiful indeed - as is the view over Old Meadows to the east.  It's a wonderful part of Lancashire.

Dykes House Farm, looking over Old Meadows.  The ponds on the right were constructed in the 1990s to filter iron oxide - locally known as 'carr water' from the River Irwell - which had been stained orange by the mining operations nearby.  We will visit the Old Meadows area later.  Fish haven't yet crept back into the upper reaches of the Irwell - bu the water is now crystal clear.

This is one of my favourite situations in Lancashire.  I am stood on the massive rampart of Broadclough Dykes, looking over Dykes House Farm to Old Meadows - with Hogshead Law Hill on the right.

Behind the farm - a line of trees marks the entrance to this fabulous place.  Even from here - the scale of the entrenchment is really impressive.  Just think of the number of men who must have been at work here - with nothing more than basic shovels.  The mind boggles!

Looking at Broadclough Dykes from the morth entrance.  The sloping banking to the left is actually a continuation of the hillside on the right - so the soil has not been dug out and used to make the rampart - as the shale beds are still all in place.  Thomas Newbigging suggests the enormous amount of soil, shale and clay was actually transported out of the trench as it was dug and scattered over the fields near to the main road.  The loose nature of the soil in these fields (it's impossible to dig a hole without soil caving in) suggests he might well be right.  Imagine thousands of men here toiling in wild conditions ....

Looking back out of the northern entrance - with the full width of the trench seen.  If the Vikings did land on the west - as Newbigging suggests - they will have been expecting a Saxon approach from the east or south.  The area was probably much more extensively wooded so lookouts on the hills above the Dykes wil lhave kept watch to the west - where it is possible to see for miles towards Blackburn  - while the east has limited views in terms of distance .....

If Olaf the Viking did travel through Scotland to the North Sea and sail up the Humber - we have a very different possibility.  Could this be a Saxon defence, built to keep watch for approaching Vikings from the east? Yet the structure of it fits with Danish defences - and it's a great puzzle.  Here you can see the depth of the excavation by looking at the height of the banking on the right.  Silt and leaf-fall - as well as erosion of the banking - will have greatly reduced the depth over the centuries.

Looking south-east across the trench to the rampart, and over the town of Bacup.  Any approaching army would first be seen three miles away.  In the 1970s, the Bacup Natural History Society carried out a few small digs, but found nothing conclusive.  The Dykes clearly need putting to bed with a full scale investigation such as Leslie Alcock carried out at Cadbury Castle.

The pathway oout of the Dykes to the west.  Is it possible this was the main entrance for the workforce - who must have been toiling for months on this earthwork?

A soldier's eye view to the east - looking into the trench.  A wooden stockade may well have spanned the rampart making it impregnable from the east - but a charging army would have has a dwonhill advantage from the positio of the camera.  Therefore it is highly likely that the hillside above the Dykes (behind the camera) was thickly wooded and overgrown - with its own natural defences.

Looking north across the entire width of the trench and showing a good view of the rampart on the right.

Looking south showing the full width of the trench.  The rampart is less pronounced in the southern section.

The rampart of Broadclough Dykes is remarkably well preserved, and the greatest threat to it is actually the constant digging by rabbits.

Looking at the hillside on the left and the rampart on the right - you can get some idea of the vast undertaking required to make this defence.  Clearly, something dramatic was expected around what is now Bacup - all those years ago.  Even modern diggers would take days to excavate such a huge ditch.

This area to the south of the Dykes has always puzzled me.  All of a sudden the trench stops - to be replaced by the natural slope - then carries on towards Setting Barn Farm, with the rampart once again clearly seen in the trees.  The ground on the slope is, however, disturbed and uneven.  Was this where the soil was accumulated before being transported by cart down the hill?  Was it heaped up here, just off centre - as men were digging from each end?  If so, why was it not continued afterwards?    Could this area have been a settlement - with the Dykes either side - where those who supervised the proceedings actually lived - surrounded presumably by a stockade?  Or was the Dyke simply abandoned and never used?  Did the Viking army - if indeed it was them - receive news that the Saxons had shifted their position?  Will we ever know?

This is where the Dykes temporarily end - at the south side - looking north along the rampart back to Dykes House Farm.

The Dykes from above.  Yes - it would be easy to charge down this hillside and massacre those in the trench, but not if these slopes were thick with vegetation a thousand years ago,

There are signs of history everywhere in the Irwell Valley - just north of Bacup town centre.  Here, this stone pier on the bank of the Irwell used to support an iron trellis bridge that spanned the road and allowed tubs of coal from two collieries - either side of the road - to be brought into the coal staithe.

The Old meadows Colliery was situated here - on the east side of Burnley Road (opposite the Dykes). The remains of the lamp room have now been converted into a dwelling - while this track marks the position of the old chain haulage system.

Looking down the line of the old chain haulage system.

The exact position in the 1960s, not long before Old Meadows closed.  Note the fencing made from old lengths of chain.  It was tough work in this pit - and conditions tested even the hardest miners.

Looking across from Old Meadows to Broadclough Dykes.

Three periods of Bacup history:  in the foreground, the lamp room of Old Meadows Colliery - now a house - with the chimney of Broadclough woollen mill (originally 18th century) in the background. The Dykes dominate the landscape as a major slice of ancient history.

The superb stone arch spanning the old bridleway near Old Meadows Colliery.  Its exact function is unknown.

A wonderful Broadclough panorama: with Whittaker Clough on the right - the remains of Broadclough Colliery at centre and the Dykes, as ever, dominating the hillside.

Heading up the old road to Deerplay on a section known as the 'Kirk Gate' - which led over to Newchurch via the moors.    This was formerly the main highway to Burnley from Bacup.

Just off the old Deerplay Road is this interesting earthwork - a feature that has never been fully investigated and which lies more or less on the same contour as the Broadclough Dykes - about half a mile to the north.

Again it's a huge and no doubt very ancient feature - and common sense would seem to point at it being contempoary with the Dykes.  Was the original plan to fortify the whole of this side of the valley?

Walking the perimeter of the feature showing the massive banking on the left.

Looking up at the very obvious earthwork.

At the north-east corner of the earthwork is this obvious raised causeway with a ditch to the west.

Another intriguing view into the earthwork off the Deerplay Old Road.

More or less a replica of the Dykes - on a slightly smaller scale.

The Irwell valley north of Bacup repays the intrepid explorer with dazzling views, great history - and a sense of loneliness that you won't find in the nearby national parks.  Go and see it for yourself.


  1. Great post! I live in Broadclough and have spent a lot of time walking with the dogs around this area. I think the whole of this side of the hill is full of similar Earthworks - it's just the ones known as Broadclough Dyke are the most notable. From Dog Pits Lane / Old Meadows Road you can see how it seems to run all the way around the hill towards Bacup - I'm curious about whether this is really a hill fort. On the top of the hill there are other structures that need reviewing in context such as Long Dike etc

    1. Thanks for that - we will have to meet up now that I am actively back into the history (after a break finishing my book) - I am always up in the Dykes area round about - may bump into you one day! Stephen :)

  2. It makes no sense that the Viking army would toil to such an extent in order to create from scratch a defensive stronghold in the middle of nowhere during an offensive invasion. We also know from the contemporary accounts that Athelstan chose the battleground using the traditional method of placing hazel rods in the ground and the Vikings willingly accepted his invitation. If they’d just gone to the kind of lengths needed to engineer a massive earthwork such as Broadclough only to abandon it at Athelstan’s whim, then no wonder they got such a battering the dozey sods, not only dumb but knackered too

    1. I think the Dykes are much older. They are the most prominent feature in the landscape when stood on Tooter Hill - where a Neolithic village was. There are features throughout the hill and not just on the short stretch known as Broadclough Dykes. I've also found huge stones on the top of the hill behind the dykes which have been piled up in the corner on a field and which could have been standing stones/circle.