Ice Age: Carving the Cheesden Valley

Cheesden Valley from Scotland Lane. Knowl Hill sits on the horizon (Image: Parrot of Doom)

History is the act of connecting dots to form patterns over the millennia. The retreat of the last great Ice Age and the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the northern valleys of Heywood 10,000 years later are two dots in time that may seem utterly unconnected, but they have a direct link. While those valleys provide some gorgeous Lancastrian rural scenes of moorland Pennine foothills and wooded slopes, the brooks that run through them were quite literally a driving force in the early development of the textile industries of Heywood.

The valleys of northern Heywood - click to enlarge
Image created with Google Earth.

It was grim up North, 10,000 years ago. The top half of what would someday be Britain was still in the grip of the Devensian, the last of the three great Ice Ages to affect the islands. Great sheets of ice - built up by snow falling at a faster rate than it could melt - covered the land as far south as Wales and the Midlands, and the average temperature was -8 degrees C. A great, singular ice flow crept southeast across the landscape from the Irish Sea towards the Pennines, grinding the land beneath. This glacial advance was partially blocked by the Rossendale Moors, so an ice front was formed running roughly north of what is now Oldham and Rochdale. Although the surface was Arctic-like in its stillness, way down below the ice slowly moved and great forces were at work.

Much of the southern Pennines had already been shaped prior to the end of the Devensian, but when the south-facing slopes of the ice front began to melt about 8,000-10,000 years ago they produced some dramatic changes in the local landscape. A series of huge glacial lakes, stretching across the Irwell Valley, Whitworth Valley, Naden Valley and Wardle. These lakes changed in size, depth and drainage direction as the ice thawed.

(From Walking in the Southern Pennines)

'Lake Irwell' extended as far as Ramsbottom, and its main drainage channel ran down Cheesden Valley into ‘Lake Rochdale’. Glacial meltwater streams can run with high pressure, carrying debris with them that gradually grinds away at valley floors. This process deepened the existing valley, carved gorges, and gouged out the Cheesden Valley between Deeply Vale and Ashworth Valley as we know it today. The modern stream is a comparatively insignificant remnant of this once-powerful waterway.

There are also several, shallow ‘dry’ valleys in the high ground between the Cheesden and Naden brooks, which were also formed by ancient meltwater channels.

The receding Lake Rochdale formed into smaller lakes at Littleborough, Whitworth, Naden and Shuttleworth. The ‘moraine’ marked below these lakes was an accumulation of glacial debris.

(From Rochdale Retrospect).

Although the valley beside the Naden Brook is of similar to the depth to the neighbouring Cheesden Valley, it was not formed by the force of meltwaters, but instead by the stream eroding the underlying rocks that had been weakened and shattered by faulting (geological plates pushing together and forcing swathes of rock upwards).

All this geological activity resulted in a new landscape that was gradually revisited by humans after the retreat of the ice. The centuries passed, the climate warmed, the valleys were shrouded in thick woodland, and the ancient watercourses that had carved them were reduced to brooks. Humans returned, ages of civilisation came and went, and the 18th century saw the arrival of the first textile mills in the valleys, which by then bore the names of Cheesden, Naden, and Ashworth.

Valleys like these were a crucial component of the development of the early cotton industry in southern Lancashire. The proximity of Manchester, where the trade was not restricted by guilds and charters, was one factor. Another was the generally damp atmosphere and consistent temperatures in the district that suited the working of cotton fibre itself (as cotton threads in machines are more likely to break in drier environments). And then there were the glacial valleys with their soft-water streams that could be diverted to drive the waterwheel-powered machinery of the early waterside mills. These were so efficient that there were eventually no less than 15 mills along the length of the Cheesden Brook.

While the quiet streams that meander down these bucolic valleys might now be small enough to almost disappear in dry summers, once upon a time they were big enough to carve the cliff faces, rocky gorges, steep slopes and flat valley floors, leaving an enduring reminder of the earth-moving power of the last great Ice Age. And although the mills have long since gone, small traces of the rich industrial heritage of the valleys can still be found among the undergrowth today.

Looking south along Cheesden Valley towards the Washwheel Mill. (Image: David Dixon)

Waterfall by an old mill site, Naden Brook. (Ashworth Valley Online).

   Related pages   

  • Walter Baldwin, 'The Pleistocene lakes of Rochdale', Transactions of the Rochdale Literary and Scientific Society, 1911, volume 10, pp. 17-21. 
  • Andy Marshall, Cheesden Valley Project, 2005-07. (website)
  • B.Pearson, J.Price, V.Tanner and J.Walker, ‘The Rochdale Borough survey’, Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, volume 1, 1985, p. 103. 
  • Rebe Prestwich Taylor, Rochdale Retrospect, Rochdale Corporation, 1956. 
  • Gladys Sellers, Walking in the South Pennines, Milnthorpe, Cumbria: Cicerone Press 1991, pp. 14-16. 
  • 'Cheesden Valley', Wikipedia.


Lapinbizarre said…
I did an A-level field study on Cheesden Valley, fifty years ago. Thanks for the memory.
Chris Dawson said…
You're welcome. It's a great part of the world, sad to think that one day in the far future most traces of that history will be gone.
Unknown said…
Born in Oldham in 62, lived in Shaw until emmigratting in 74. The old, closed down, Mills always fasinated me as a young lad. I was unaware of these Mills until a life long friend of mine (we were born in the infirmary) who now lives in Bury sent me some photos of the valley a few days ago via FB. I have since researched the history of the area from glacial to industrial to recent activity. Fasinating part of my heritage. Thank you
Dawn Hilton said…
My Great Grandfather was a botanist and naturalist that lectured at Kew and Manchester University about Cheeseden and Asworth Valley. He was the president of Bury Bee keepers and other titles. He planted many species trees of rare plants and found just as many. I think he was part of the botany bay lot. It would be interesting to find out where his collec