Multi-layered Aldford reveals its medieval past

The village of Aldford, near Chester, examined from a landscape historian's perspective, reveals many direct links to its medieval past WORDS BY CRAIG BRYANT MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

Nestled by the River Dee close to busy Chester, Aldford might be described as a well-kept secret, a picturesque estate village relatively untouched by industry and modernisation. That the many 19th century buildings are so well preserved is testament to the lasting importance of the Duke of Westminster’s estate in its locality, but be careful before you get too swept up in its quaint Victorian feel. There is something far more interesting lurking below the surface.

Aldford’s smart sandstone church stands out as the focal point of the village, but the innocuous grass-covered mound behind it gives the clue to its deeper history. The church you see today was built in the fashionable gothic style in the 1860s. However, it stands within the boundaries of an important medieval castle site, the subject of ongoing archaeological research. Aldford’s story began many hundreds of years ago, and in some respects the Victorian rebuild has helped fossilise the village’s medieval heritage.

Close proximity to the church is a defining feature of many castles, which isn’t surprising, as they were very much products of their society. Often the castle and the church stood side by side as the visible focus points of power in the immediate landscape, in which lord and priest controlled most aspects of people’s lives together.

At Aldford though, this relationship of church to castle is particularly interesting. If you walk through the white gates (with footpath signs) beside the church, the field you are now in formed the bailey of the castle, which would once have contained most of the buildings essential to its daily life – kitchens, storerooms, stables, and accommodation. To your left is the motte, a big grass covered mound of earth on which a tower once stood, now well overgrown. This was the most defendable part of the castle, and a network of ditches and banks surrounded the site as part of its fortification.

The ditch around the motte still survives as a deep feature, but opposite the white gates through which you entered, it joins to another ditch which is much more shallow. This encircled the bailey, and if you follow its course around towards the church, you can see that it disappears entirely under the building. Amazingly, the Victorian church was built over the old ditch. It is usual for churches to be rebuilt over successive generations, but here it has actually shifted ground slightly since those distant days when it was founded, possibly as a chapel within the bailey itself.

Whatever they used to fill the castle ditch, it must be pretty strong!Beyond where the motte ditch joins the bailey, on your left, is slightly raised ground. This was probably an encircling outer line of defence for the motte, a bank topped with a timber palisade. In fact, archaeological excavations have recently been undertaken on the other side of the motte in the yard at Woodhouse Farm, to see if they can pick up the remains of this defensive work on that side of the castle. The excavation is being led by Iain Soden, author of Ranulf de Blondeville: The First English Hero. The results have yet to be published.

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The motte still survives well enough to show what an impressive structure it would have been when it was crowned with its tower, standing out in the local landscape. Looking over the motte and across the river, you can see the impressive monument in Eaton Park. It is interesting to reflect on how well these two symbols of power line up from this perspective. Their construction was separated by hundreds of years, but they say a similar thing – the Earl (or Duke) is boss, and here is proof of his wealth and power.

If you follow the footpath down the far field and up the park drive to the iron bridge, you can really see how the castle’s position on a high point in the landscape would have dominated this ancient river crossing.

Nineteenth century antiquarians thought there was a Roman fort at Aldford, no doubt mistaking its castle, but given its position close to this ford on a Roman road, it is not entirely unlikely. The Normans weren’t always original. Very often they re-used Roman and Saxon sites, because a strategically important position did not change - if it had already been taken, they just re-used it. So far there is no archaeological evidence to prove this here, but it is a potential direction for future research.

Returning to Aldford itself, you can see more evidence of its medieval past in the shape of the village. It all centres on three streets – Church Lane, School Lane and Rushmere Lane. These form an elongated triangle, and the gardens of the houses run off at right angles either side. Minus some minor alterations, the plan of these streets dates from the medieval period. It was probably during the 13th century when Aldford was granted a market that the village was laid out on planned lines by the Earls of Chester. Tenants held plots of land in the village in return for services and dues to the lord.

The land now occupied by the village stores, opposite the church, is the old medieval green, on which markets and fairs would have been held.

The economic boom the Earls hoped for in its establishment never entirely took off. Aldford’s character as a small Victorian estate village testifies to this, as it never grew into a large urban borough. Perhaps Chester was just too close by and too big to compete with in medieval times. Whatever the reason, Aldford is still a lovely place to visit today, with a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Aldford The facts

• The village name means ‘the old ford’. The route of the B5130 replaced an earlier Roman road, which crossed the River Dee to the north of the village. The new route and the name date from the medieval era, at which time the Roman ford would have been centuries old.

• Most of the well-preserved buildings are 19th century, but behind the church lie the earthwork remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, sometimes known as ‘Blobb Hill’. This probably dates from the 11th century.

• There is no archaeological evidence for any occupation prior to the Norman conquest, although some experts have suggested there may have been a Royal Hall at Aldford around 924.

• The Domesday Book of 1086, a thorough survey of all William the Conqueror’s assets in England, appears to list Aldford under the entry for nearby Farndon. This gives further indication that there was a settlement here before the Normans arrived, as it describes an estate held by the powerful Saxon Earl Edwin of Mercia.

• After the Conquest, the Earls of Chester controlled this estate, and it was under them that the village began to take the shape we see today. In the 1200s a market and fair was granted to Aldford to stimulate further economic growth.

• There is a medieval gravestone in the churchyard. It is badly eroded, but you can just make out the effigy of a child at prayer. Have a look for it: walk up the churchyard path opposite the village stores, with them behind you and the church in front, it is off to the right.

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012  issue of Cheshire Life 

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