On Saturday 10 June we visited a very unusual site which has evidence of human activity going back thousands of years. On this site, on a well drained ridge but with many springs in the locality, stands Toad Hall the home of the author Alan Garner and his wife Griselda – who very warmly welcomed us. It is a late medieval house and connected to it by a modern link is “The Old Medicine House” which was rescued by Alan and Griselda from dereliction, and brought from Ryans Hill, 18 miles away on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border, and re-erected as an extension to their home which with the growth of their family was proving too small.
Toad Hall was divided into two cottages when Alan Garner bought one of them in 1957 but eventually he was able to buy the other one and reunite the whole of the house. By the late 1960’s it was becoming obvious how historically important the house was – which is why, when they came to extend it, they wished to do so sympathetically and authentically – and ended up with an ostensibly mid-sixteenth century house as their extension! This house, which is timber framed was in use for approximately 100 years in the late 19th– early 20th century as a factory for patent medicines, hence the name. There have been many finds of seeds from medicinal herbs within the house.
The Old Medicine House has furnished a number of apotropaic symbols and items (items intended to ward off evil). Firstly in the gables there are quatrefoil designs thought to represent four-leaf clovers which were supposed to have a protective function. Then upstairs in the wood work of the house was found a witch bottle which had contained urine – and also two odd shoes. These are classic objects which were used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Griselda, who showed us around the house and who gave us a really informative talk to start with, showed us markings on the beams at the four corners of the bedrooms, which are possible apotropaic symbols. Some seemed to look like inverted Ms and Griselda wondered if they were there to invoke the Virgin Mary’s protection. There were also carpenters’ marks.
Along with Griselda were two archaeologists,Tim and Dawn, who showed us a small proportion of the many archaeological items found on the site – finds from the Mesolithic almost to the present day. There was an alabaster ampulla from Walsingham which would originally have held holy water and which was found in a field – possibly to enhance the fertility of the field. There was a seal of the Lady Hawise of Goostrey (the neighbouring village) which was also a stray find. Another interesting find was Civil War saker cannon which had been detonated too soon and exploded. There is also what appears to be an Iron Age stone head.
The buildings stand on a ridge – but they are not alone. The ridge contains a Bronze Age linear cemetery consisting of bowl barrows. Indeed one appears to be under the kitchen of Toad Hall, and seems to have had an intrusive Anglo-Saxon burial within it. Some of these barrows have been excavated and found to contain cremated bones which, because they were burnt, have not dissolved like so much else in the acidic soils. Jet objects have also been found. Dawn is currently trying to go through the cremated bone, of which there is a large amount. The work that is being done there is truly inspiring and we learnt so much and that there is so much more to discover. We finished off the visit with lovely cakes and coffee and tea. It is a great place to go to in a beautiful location below the iconic space telescope at Jodrell Bank and is a truly multi period site with a wonderful welcome.
More details can be found at the Blackden Trust website https://www.theblackdentrust.org.uk/
Text by Jeanette Dobson. Photos by Bill Shannon