Remembering Penwortham Marsh

In the Doomsday Book my home town of Penwortham is referred to as Peneverdant. It has been translated by Rev. Thornber as ‘the green hill on the water.’* The name refers to Castle Hill, which stood on Penwortham Marsh, a tidal freshwater marsh frequently flooded by the river Ribble.

The marshland developed after the Ice Age and its water levels changed with the tides and the rise and fall of sea levels. During the Bronze Age there was a wooden lake dwelling evidenced by the remains of a ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’.

It seems likely people inhabited this milder lowland location in winter and, in the summer, when there were lots of midges, moved to the uplands, following the aurochs. (There are echoes of this tradition in the people of Penwortham pasturing their cattle in Brindle, in the foothills of the Pennines, up until the 14th century, when Brindle separated from Penwortham parish).

During the marine transgressions of the second millennium BC, when the weather got colder and wetter, Castle Hill would have been part of the Ribble estuary and quite literally ‘on the water’. In the Romano-British period the sea levels fell again and have remained relatively stable until now.

The vegetation of Penwortham Marsh was likely to have consisted mainly of common saltmarsh grass (pucinellia maritima), with saltmarsh rush (juncus gerardii) and red fescue (festuca rubra), areas of reed (phragmites communis) and reedmace (typha latifolia), and perhaps water crowfoot (ranunculis aquatis), lesser spearwort (rannunculus flamula), and yellow flag iris (pseudacorus).

Breeding birds would have included redshanks, dunlins, oyster catchers, grebes, curlews, shelducks, mallards, lapwings, egrets, herons, and cranes. Over-wintering birds such as pink-footed geese, Bewick’s swans, whooper swans, widgeon, teal, knot, pintails, bar-tailed godwits, black-tailed godwits, sanderlings, and golden plover would also have been seen and their calls heard across the marshland.

This remarkable species-rich habitat remained untouched until the 16th century. Its draining began with land on the south of the marsh at Blashaw close to the medieval boundary ditch. Land north of Castle Hill was also reclaimed at this time. A survey of the Farington estates from 1570 refers to the Corn Marsh of 28 ½ acres and Little Burgess Marsh, which was fenced off with posts and rails. In the 16th century, from Howick to the foot of Castle Hill, a band of marsh was enclosed as ‘large square fields’. Finally, in the 17th century the marsh at Howick closest to the river Ribble was drained.

The newly reclaimed land was used for arable agriculture from the 16th until the 18th century. In 1725 the Corn Marsh was renamed Pasture Marsh showing it was used for grazing instead. The name Cow Gate Marsh is also suggestive of use for pasturage. Other field names include Innes Marsh, Little Marsh, Middle Marsh, New Marsh, and Long Marsh. The small strips that remained as intertidal marshland beside the Ribble were called Out Marsh and Great Marsh.**

The greatest change, in the 1880s, was the movement of the Ribble 500 yards south from its original meander at present-day Watery Lane to bend sharp west then flow in a concrete channel straight out to the estuary. This had the effect of cutting Penwortham Marsh off from Castle Hill, and from Penwortham, making it part of Preston. The marsh was then dug out to form Riversway Dockland.

There is now no sign Penwortham Marsh ever existed. Not even a street name. People who visit the docks are largely unaware they are walking on a former marshland where early Britons dwelled amongst reed, rush, waterfowl, mighty aurochs, and their gods, spirits, and ancestors.

Unlike with other intertidal marshlands beside the Ribble which, following, their draining have been rewetted, such as Hesketh Out Marsh, there is no way that Penwortham Marsh can ever be restored. Its separation from Castle Hill by the river and the digging of the docks has irreversibly destroyed it. Ironically the dock only functioned for 100 years before the Ribble silted up (Belisama’s revenge?***).

Along with climate change, the destruction of Penwortham Marsh and the channelling of the river are now causing flooding upriver at Broadgate. If the Ribble had been left to her old course and the marshland had remained as a buffer zone we would not need to be building higher flood defences.

Drained and dismembered, Penwortham Marsh cannot be put back together again. Yet it can be remembered. Its memories continue to speak from beneath the dock. When we look on those concrete walls, the restless waters brimming with green-blue algae, we can recall the marshland stretching away to Castle Hill, whistling with the calls of birds, and hear the voices of our ancestors.

They speak their warnings of a time when the green hill will once more be on the water again…

*Thornber claims ‘Peneverdant’ is of Brythonic origin from ‘pen, werd, or werid and want, as Caer Werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water’.
**The draining of Penwortham Marsh is recorded with a map in Alan Crosby’s Penwortham in the Past.
***Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble.

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