Hockenhull – Pre-History

This  narrative aims to set Hockenhull and the R.Gowy, in hopefully, a new historical context reaching back thousands of years. By its very nature imagination and artistic latitude are necessary to add to the limited evidence of the past.

When the last ice sheets retreated some 12,000 years ago, our ancestors were migrating into Cheshire. As the climate warmed these hunter-gatherers from all across Europe gradually moved northwards. Arriving in Britain over many hundreds of years, they came by way of the marshy land bridge known as Doggerland; Britain and Europe were connected until it was submerged around 6,500 B.C.

These nomadic people travelled in small groups on foot and along the multitude of rivers flowing across Cheshire. Some used caves on the higher ground where tree cover was more open and easier to clear, some travelled widely setting up temporary camps. Animals such as deer, elk, wild pigs and horses roamed over the open lowland grasslands, scattered with birch, hazel and pine. Many hunters returned to the well-drained, more easily defended slopes of the upland areas. Such conditions existed above the Weaver  valley,  along the sandstone ridge down to Peckforton and the still higher lands of east Cheshire.

Between 9000 and 6000 BC settled farming communities and trading gradually developed. Better soils and access to rivers encouraged small settlements along  and rivers such the  Mersey, Dee, Gowy and Weaver, Rivers provided not only freshwater, food,  but had to be easy to cross otherwise  contact with other settlements would be impeded.  Although trading, became an essential part of life, what really mattered was the beliefs and spiritual life of these people because water was the transition between their world and the after-life.

The Gowy was one of the main rivers early settlers would have  lived close to.  It had extensive marshes with reedbeds and lagoons providing food of all kinds and drier land above with scattered trees to build a shelter.  Many small streams flowed down into the Gowy from the  sandstone ridge  above. The Gowy was likely to have been fordable or, at least, sufficiently easy to bridge.

Hockenhull Platts was such a place and for many centuries became a very important river crossing. It allowed a direct route from the Dee Valley into mid-Cheshire, offered access north to the Mersey, south to the Peckforton Hills and beyond. Today, such an important historic trade route is seen in the unique medieval packhorse bridges crossing the marshes.

Archaeologically, the Gowy valley is virtually untouched compared to other Cheshire river valleys. Yet, physical evidence of its past has been found but it tends to be in private hands rather than in the public domain. Only recently, it came to light that not until 2013 was any archaeological work  conducted  at Hockenhull or the Platts ,and then only because a lake was being excavated and metal-detectorists were called upon to do a survey. That is all, in an area of undoubted historic potential, stretching back into prehistory.

Permission of Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Flint flakes similar to these, dating to around 6,000B.C. were found  in a field close to Hockenhull Hall. Flint is a hard, glassy rock found in nodules or layers in chalk and some forms of limestone. Neither occur in Cheshire so these flint flakes had to  be brought  here. Both worked and unworked flint have been found across the county. Flints were used for cutting and scraping animal flesh and hide, for a range of tools and weapons, such as arrows, spears, axes as well as for domestic implements. A ready supply of flint was essential for hunting such animals as reindeer, boar,  ox, red deer, wild goats, wildfowl, as well as for the business of defence against unfriendly visitors.


The Last Ice Age

Sourcing flint came in a number of ways. As the ice-sheets retreated masses of material was left behind. This unsorted material of rocks of all shapes and sizes, clays, sands and gravels was drained by numerous rivers and streams, was one possible source.  However, flints  would be a real find as only limited sources occurred north of Cheshire; in Antrim, Ireland and the island of Islay, Scotland. The main flint producing areas were in the chalk hills of southern England,  It is likely trading in flint existed between mines in these areas and Cheshire. Another possible supply for Britain as a whole was the Netherlands.  At this time, a mine there produced about 30,000 tons of flint over a period of 600 years and distributed it over hundreds of miles. Might our ancestors have used this flint. How amazing would that be!

Some of the harder rocks such as basalt, schist, limestone and granite were ideal ‘ground stones’ for grinding down other rocks. They were also used in axe heads, jewellry, beads, powdering plants and seeds, and the larger, flatter stones, as dinner-ware.  Another hard rock was obsidian, prized as much as flint. It is a very hard, black glassy rock  and perfect substitute for flint.

In Cheshire around 2,400BC, the long-term move from hunter-gathering to subsistence farming was well established. A drier climate encouraged crop growing in the lowlands such as the Gowy valley. More woodlands were cleared as the population grew and more people left the upland areas to benefit from the deeper, richer soils and more opportunities to trade.

During this period the settlers of Hockenhull benefited from the new skills and technologies from mainland Europe. Metalworking developed using copper and bronze. Copper combined with tin, meant tools and weapons were made with harder and sharper edges. Tin was mined in Cornwall, copper and gold, from Wales and Ireland. In Cheshire, copper was mined at Alderley Edge, Bickerton and Beeston.

The Early Bronze Age had begun. The people of Hockenhull were part of a much wider community in which ideas, skills, technologies and cultures were shared across Britain, Europe and beyond. One might suppose a global community existed in prehistory as it does today.

Main areas of stray prehistoric finds (Langley 1978)

Global or not, archaeological evidence of these people is sparse.  In 2015, a Bronze/Iron Age axe-head (below) found close to the Gowy at Hockenhull was a rare discovery. A very few others, all singly, were found at Tarvin, Utkinton and Tarporley and elsewhere in Cheshire.

With permission: Portable Antiquities Scheme

In 2001, aerial photography located a possible Iron Age settlement, near Brookhouse Farm, in Bruen Stapleford, close to the Gowy and only a short distance from Hockenhull. Excavations unearthed a small group of six structures dating from 1,200BC. As well as five roundhouses within an enclosed fenced area and ditch, pottery, animal bones, some food remains and a vessel for salt  were found. Indeed, other artefacts ranged from pre-Bronze Age through Roman and beyond, so covering some 1000 years of human activity.

After all, in the long cycle of settlement history, it is often the case, of buildings being modified or rebuilt on the same footprint of an earlier structure.  This happened at Brookhouse, it happened at Hockenhull Hall  and many places along the Gowy,  as almost everywhere in Cheshire. To imagine a wandering group of people, thousands of years ago, building a shelter in a place with no name to become a place with a name today it quite something. And yes, many places did lose their identity but not Hockenhull.

Despite few identifiable food remains being found, people at this time were not short of choice. Improvements in farming often meant surpluses of grain, meat, fruit and more. Late Bronze Age/Iron Age families were eating cattle, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, was shellfish, eels, fish of all kinds, apples, soft fruits, using herbs and salt to flavour their food. Such variety was part of the exchange between communities and the rivers were the ideal way to do it.

The Brookhouse excavation was situated close to two streams, both entering the Gowy, only a few hundred metres away. The land was stoney but well-drained, away from the waterlogged soils by the Gowy. It is suggested here, a number of these sites possibly grew up along the same ridge above the Gowy.

Location of Brookhouse Farm

Brookhouse Farm offers an insight into an Iron Age farmstead, perhaps, one of a number found in the area. It is entirely possible one was above the Gowy at Hockenhull. It might well have been where Hockenhull Hall is today. Like Brookhouse, the situation of Hockenhull is in a raised, well-drained position, away from the river’s floodplain, with a view of the river and easy access to a river crossing.

The Gowy most likely had many ‘platt’ ( meanig  plank ) bridges, even a few tree trunks would be enough. Each  farmstead either had its own access to the river or a few farmsteads used the same crossing. The river’s depth and flow determined the number and spacing of these timber crossings and to some degree the location of farmsteads. However, many streams flowed  into the Gowy, but most importantly, none were navigable for these developing farming communities needing to trade.

A Bronze Age farmstead

Over time, some of these crossings gained enough importance to have a succession of timber bridges of various designs, including expertly built Roman ones , and those of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans . Only the  decline of suitable timber were new stone bridges constructed or to replace timber ones. Such a progression of bridges happened at Hockenhull Platts. Here, as at Huxley, Hargrave, Stapleford, Stamford and other crossing places along the Gowy, all were attractive to early settlers. Only one or two of these had a saltway of such historic importance as Hockenhull Platts.

Nor did a river have to be wide and deep as evidenced by finds in the late 19th century. In 1889, an ancient canoe, then two more in 1893 and 1894, were found deep in marshland near Warrington during cutting a new course of the Mersey. These dugout canoes   were made of oak or elm.  All three were about  13 ft long, 2ft 6in wide with a draught of 2ft 3in.  Fire was used to open up the wood by charring the heartwood so allowing it to be scooped out with a stone or metal axe.

Ancient dugout canoes

The report reasoned  ‘there is nothing … to determine the date to which we may refer their origin, nor the race or state of civilisation of their builders.’

Then, in 1911, an Iron Age oak log canoe was found at Baddiley Mere near Nantwich. At Stamford Bridge, another canoe was discovered in the 1930’s. One found in Oakmere lake was found to be of medieval origin despite claims to the contrary. Rare finds but there must have been possibly thousands of canoes of various designs in the meres, marshes  and mudflats of Cheshire. Their shallow draught allowed even minor streams to be navigated . The Gowy, some of its tributaries, pools and marshes were clearly accessible.

Without any written records and hardly any prehistoric finds of artefacts or structures, it has to be a matter of conjecture.  Nevertheless,  throughout recorded history, ,river crossings throughout Cheshire and the country as a whole, have always been a focus in the development of settlements. There is good reason to suppose the same was, generally, true in prehistory.

A final confession

Sometimes the step from what is possible to certainty may just have to accept, in the short term, using what slim evidence there is to build a snapshot of a time and place. Not taken as fact and without dispute, just taking any limited resources when nothing more can be expected. Too often scattered finds are scant evidence to make reasonable insights into the past. Yet, single discoveries can lead to major ones. How often has knowledge progressed by the finds of individuals such as detectorists? In this basic narrative, I have attempted to build a scenario of Hockenhull and its very distant past. It maybe vague and challenged but it is an honest effort to attempt it.

The Gowy valley has not been given enough attention by a wide range of possible interests, especially archaeologists. The Brookhouse Farm excavations showed, because of the laying of a gas pipeline and aerial photography, a settlement of real importance  emerged by chance.

Maybe the author and reader may stumble upon something underfoot of value, enough to open a new window into the past.