Thursday, 2 August 2012

34 Mill Street and the castle that wasn't

Macclesfield once had a castle. Well, not a castle exactly, but a fortified manor house of the type the English are fond of calling a castle as it had crenelations, towers and was made of big stones. Macclesfield Castle has become an almost mythical structure, almost completely lost to the ravages of time and the relentless march of development through the ages. Bits of it sit forlornly in the courtyard of the new town hall with weeds growing at their base and moss and algae gradually covering them. You can glimpse them if you squeeze between the lift and a rack of pamphlets put across the window. They're open to the elements, slowly decaying as the memory of their former glory fades from the collective consciousness of the townsfolk. They symbolise the way the town's pre-industrial heritage has been treated over the years; reduced to a half-remembered curiosity that briefly piques the interest in those passing by. At least they're not stuck in a kid's playground as some of our other antiquities are.

The south wall of 34 Mill Street as revealed when the render was removed.

So when I was walking down Mill Street and noticed a stone wall had been revealed on the side of the old Rose's Shoe Shop and the small road leading to Brian Ollier's studio I got pretty excited. Was this part of the castle? Some of the stonework was obviously old and the rest was an intriguing hotch-potch of materials and building phases. Also, my wife Ann-Marie had spotted a larger stone within the wall at the end closer to Mill Street which appeared to have numerals inscribed on it. The week previously during the Barnaby Festival we had been on a walk guided by local historian Matthew Hyde and during the course of our perambulations discovered that part of the curtain wall of the castle is still standing, something I was unaware of even though I'd walked past it hundreds of times.

An extant section of the castle's curtain wall, as pointed out by Matthew Hyde.
How many of the townsfolk know this is here?

I then sent an email out to some family and friends suggesting they contact the local authority to press for the preservation of the wall. Nigel Lea then copied several councillors and the Macclesfield Express in on the email, and things started happening. I received statements of support from several councillors, David Rutley the MP (whom I had copied in on the original email) and was also contacted by Andrew Ramshall, Senior Conservation Officer at Cheshire East.

All this activity culminated with Andrew Ramshall kindly agreeing to meet anyone interested at the site and talk it through, and I'm pleased to say quite a few people gave their time and attended. Archaeologists had decided the wall represented part of a 16th century building that has undergone several phases of alteration and repair. There were several reasons for reaching this conclusion: a map exists showing the layout of the remaining stone walls and 34 Mill Street has been interpreted as not matching any of these, the stonework was not defensive in nature and there was a consensus (not shared by myself and others) that the date stone marks were natural and we were misinterpreting them, seeing numerals that weren't there.

The Macclesfield Express featured an article on the site, written with its usual enthusiasm for a story regardless of the facts and featuring a picture of Andrew and a chap called Ian Dale (who has had nothing to do with the whole thing as far as I'm aware) next to the stone. A follow-up article a couple of weeks later finally mentioned the fact it was a 16th century building not the castle.

So it was decided to record the building to the best of our ability and the council will let it be re-rendered over in order to conserve the stonework, which would degrade rapidly when exposed to the elements (the sad fate for the stones in the courtyard; they are made of the same or similar stone). The 'date stone' would be left uncovered or rendered over, depending on what the powers that be decided. English Heritage is still assessing the evidence at the time of writing. This is a shame in a way, as I've had many conversations with people at the site who have been intrigued to see the wall and have enjoyed speculating about it's relevance to the castle. It costs to conserve and preserve and there is neither the political will or resource to allow us to keep this fantastic old building on show, which is rather depressing (if the builders apply the render with the lack of care they took the old render off then how much damage will be done anyway? How removable will the new render be?).

Is this a date stone I see before me? It depends who you ask, and I think it is and not me
doing the equivalent of seeing Jesus on a piece of toast (there is a name for this: pareidola, a real hazard for ichnologists). To me the question is: Is it authentic? If it is, was it anything to do with the castle?

So what's happened since? Well, the story certainly got people talking and there has been discussion of a heritage trail and other projects designed to bring the town's pre-industrial heritage to the fore, and this could inform debate about the development of the town centre. I sincerely hope this can happen, and will cover how this could work in a future post.

In the meantime, I have been recording the wall using photography and photogrammetry. I couldn't get access via the opticians (only two of the windows actually open), and going up a ladder proved impractical so I took a pair of steps and did my best. I'm still processing the results and will post them as they become available.

These past few weeks have demonstrated there is a real appetite for Macclesfield's history before the industrial revolution changed the face of the town, as it did the rest of the country and the lives of our ancestors that lived through those changes. It's time to bring this rich history to the people of the town, to visitors and indeed, further afield.

Does it matter if it's not the castle? Not a bit. What's interesting is what it actually is, and that is a piece of 16th century architecture still on one of the town's medieval streets. What if the date stone turns out not to be genuine? All that matters is we find out what it is, that in itself is exciting.

However . . .  I still am unsure about the relationship of 34 Mill Street to the castle, as it was standing when the castle was and there will be a relationship between the two. As for the date stone, watch this space; I'll be talking about that. In fact, I intend to post on many of the points discussed in this post.

This should be an interesting journey.


  1. I think my own photo of this stone on the Flickr Macclesfield Group site (under the name Spinningstillsdad) shows the "date" a little more clearly. To my mind it clearly is a date, but I think the third digit is "5". In the comments below my photo, I also mentioned a reference to this stone in Earles's "Streets and Houses of Old Macclesfield" of 1915 (not 1890 as I stated there), so it has been noted and commented on nearly 100 years ago. Earles thought the date was 1400, but I lean to 1450 or 1456.

    David Atkinson.

  2. Thanks for the comment David. There have been a number of guesses at the date, and originally my thoughts were 1460, however some reckon 1400 and some like yourself 1450.

    I'll be covering this subject in my next post.