The main chamber of West Mine at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, mainly worked in the nineteenth century and now cleared of spoils by the Derbyshire Caving Club
By John Prag
First came an old wooden shovel, apparently ritually broken and buried by the copper miners of Cheshire around 1500 BC, a pot of coins hidden by a poor Roman in the fourth century AD, and the legend of a sleeping king waiting to save England in the last battle of the world. Then came four or five thousand species of invertebrates, two species of bramble hitherto unknown to batologists (the term for bramble specialists, I learned), eight miles of hollows, shafts and tunnels cut by miners over four millennia, and England’s first commuter dormitory. Being Keeper of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum was never dull in the three and a half decades that I held the post (and now another ten as emeritus), but this was a heady mix by any standard, and resulted in a multi-disciplinary project that occupied me for twenty years.
The Alderley Edge shovel, dating from the Early/Middle Bronze Age, c.1750 BC. Rediscovered by Alan Garner at Alderley Edge County Primary School in 1953.
All of this happened at Alderley Edge, a sandstone ridge rising 180m out of the Cheshire plain a dozen miles south of Manchester. Much of the Edge is now owned by the National Trust and, like many such places, it has become vulnerable to the impact of too many feet. Those first two objects, which reached my desk in 1991 and 1995 respectively, not only confirmed many of the stories about Alderley, they made the Trust reconsider their approach to the Edge.
The upshot was the Alderley Edge Landscape Project (soon known to all its participants as ‘AELP’), a joint venture between the Manchester Museum and the National Trust, whose aim was to provide the Trust with as much information as possible for them to create a forward-looking management plan. The objective was to look at every aspect of the Edge’s story, ‘but the archaeology lies at its heart,’ said the Museum director Tristram Besterman (a Cambridge man), ‘so you’d better take charge. Shall we say a quarter of your time for two years?’ That was in 1996; the final publication has only just happened. It has taken 200% of my time, well into ‘retirement’.Looking over Alderley Edge, showing the erosion at ‘Stormy Point’, an area of prehistoric mining. The village of Alderley Edge with the spire of St Philip’s church lies in the background.
The project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and others, and it grew and it grew. This was before ‘multidisciplinarity’ let alone ‘northern powerhouse’ were the buzzwords that they have since become. Situated in the UK’s largest university (sorry, Oxford), we could call on a wonderful range of enthusiasts not merely on our own campus but from bodies like the Derbyshire Caving Club, who since the 1970s have been clearing the mines and making them safe on behalf of the National Trust, from the three parish councils, and above all from local people. The buzz at meetings of the AELP was always exciting and rarely acrimonious: one of our achievements was bringing together both landowners and academics who had long ceased to speak to each other. Tristram Besterman compared chairing these meetings with herding cats – and considered it the best part of his week. He wrote: ‘The buzz of excitement was palpable when a newly uncovered nugget of information appeared at the table, stimulating an unstoppable flow of knowledge and ideas as it was passed from ethnographer to miner to local historian to geologist to local resident to storyteller to botanist to archaeologist and back again. As with all good research, every discovery raised a dozen new questions, pursued in the field, in the library, record office and laboratory.’The pot containing the hoard of Roman coins (c. 340 BC) immediately after its discovery in 1995.
Many of the approaches and techniques we used were ground-breaking at the time and AELP spawned numerous articles and books and a pioneering educational website. There proved to be so much archaeology that it merited its own publication in 2005, The Archaeology of Alderley Edge. Now the second volume, published in February 2016, covers everything else. The list of chapter-headings reads like an encyclopaedia: the natural world from geology in all its forms to birds, bugs, bees and even spiders and slugs; the mines; social history, conservation; finally a retelling of the legend by the world-renowned (and locally born) author Alan Garner, an Oxford man (Magdalen 1953), like five other contributors, Laurence Cook (St John's 1957); Jean Wearne (née Morton) (St Hilda’s 1953); John Pollard (Brasenose 1955); Clare Pye (née Green) (St Hilda’s 1967); and of course me (Brasenose 1960).
We like to think that no other project or book has covered the entire, complex story of a single village and its landscape in such detail. It is a book for anyone interested in any aspect of the countryside, whether out on the Edge or in the comfort of an armchair.
S. Timberlake, S. and A. J. N. W. Prag (eds). 2005. The Archaeology of Alderley Edge: Survey, Excavation and Experiment in an Ancient Mining Landscape. British Archaeological Reports, British Series 396, and Oxford: John and Erica Hedges.
A.J.N.W. Prag (ed.) The Story of Alderley: Living with the Edge, Manchester: Manchester University Press (ISBN: 978-0-7190-9171-1) is available from bookshops at £50. Readers of Oxford Today can buy the book at a discounted price of £40 (+ p&p): order copies directly from Orders Dept., NBN International, 10 Thornbury Road, Plymouth, Devon, PL6 7PP. Tel: +44 (0)1752 202301 Fax: +44 (0)1752 202333; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or www.nbninternational.com, quoting the discount code OTH717.
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Images © John Prag, Alderley Edge Landscape Project