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A research project by volunteer Chloe Trippier into the marks left by people at Elton Reservoir, near Bury, has revealed how the site played a role in the creation of 'Rights of Way'.
Heritage is not just about old buildings, it’s about the things people used to do in the past. Where they lived, how they lived and what they used to get up to in their spare time. And what the people around Elton Reservoir got up to was a revelation to me!
To explain; I deliver occasional lectures to students studying for the MA in Museum and Heritage Interpretation at University of Salford, and I knew they had a fresh take on how to interpret the past. So when I got the opportunity to work with student Chloe Trippier on one of her final projects it seemed a perfect fit to ask her to look at the history of Elton Reservoir.
I knew the locals had used the area for work, rest and play since it was built in 1842, although I hadn’t realised just how much the place was loved. Bury is where Chloe grew up, so it was close to her heart and she knew where to go to find out more. The reservoir was built to supply water for the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal when local mill owners feared the River Irwell could not meet their needs. However, it has been used for boating for more than 100 years.
When I had visited the site before, I’d noticed the initials carved on the stone copings along the whole length of the head wall. There were hundreds of monograms, some dated, some encircled with a heart – obviously a popular courting spot! Chloe took chalk rubbings of most of them, and though faded in places, they build up a picture of a place where people loved to meet, laugh and love. There’s even the name ‘Elvis Presley’, although I’m not absolutely convinced that one is genuine!
There are marks dating back at least to the early 1900s, and though we might consider this graffiti today, the earlier engravings are detailed and show real care. Chloe visited the local libraries and designed questionnaires, she talked to local people and contacted local newspapers to build a picture of just how important the reservoir is and was to the local community. It became obvious that whilst not everyone knows about this hidden gem now, it used to be a regular social destination and hub of excitement.
So much so that when, in 1904, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, who owned the site, tried to stop local people using and enjoying their favourite place by barricading the embankment, they took action. Eight men put their names forward and took down the barriers.
After several court appearances, they finally won their case against the Company and established the principle of Rights of Way, a judgement that is still true today. Known as The Great Trespass, it set the legal precedent and helped the cause of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout nearly 30 years later.
And Chloe’s research didn’t end there. There was a Prisoner of War camp in nearby Radcliffe, where German and Italian prisoners were housed. So many stories to tell about this place, and I’m hoping to work with my colleagues to use all the wonderful information that Chloe has gathered to interpret the site and perhaps we too can make our mark.
Well worth a trip out, if only to see if you can find that Elvis signature!
Judy Jones, heritage advisor for North East and part of Manchester & Pennine
The work carried out by the heritage team is extremely varied, covering all sorts of structures and a wide variety of projects. Not one week is the same and we keep learning all the time, meeting some fascinating people and visiting stunning places along the way. We are hoping that through our blogs we can share some of our passion for the amazing industrial heritage of the inland waterways.