Thursday, February 07, 2008

Up Spen Dyke without a Paddle

We’ve borrowed the following article from our up-and-coming work-in-progress ‘The History of Blackpool (from the Marton Coracle Builder to Thomas Tyldesley)’ – another book with a long-winded title, but one that does exactly what it says on the cover nonetheless. Hopefully copies of…er…this book (I’m not about to repeat the title because my fingers are going numb) will be available next year…when we’ve finished with it.
Anyhow…amongst the footnotes of the Victoria County History can be found the following record, relating to William de Sellerdale, vicar of Poulton-le-Fylde: “This vicar in 1332 came to an agreement with the prior of Lytham as to the tithe of fish taken on the Warthes north or south of the Milne Pool of Layton.”
As you might already have gathered, the word ‘warthes’ here shouldn’t be regarded as a misspelling of ‘wharfs’ but rather an older name derived from the Norse word ‘vartha’ (as in Warthbreck/Warbreck) meaning ‘guard tower’. (Apologies for the black and white map, but it was drawn up for the book and I can’t be bothered colouring it in at this stage of the game.)

Milne Pool was the name given to the section of Spend Dyke that emptied into the sea at Manchester Square, so it’s reasonable to assume that two Norse towers originally straddled the dyke at this location.
Nowadays, remaining Norse watchtowers are extremely rare, and, even on a worldwide basis, only the occasional ruined lower floor can be found. Archaeologists, however, generally agree that most were constructed from stone blocks and could reach up to five storeys in height.
In order to understand what was so important about the entrance to Spen Dyke that it required constantly manned guard posts to protect it, we need to look a little further inland. The dyke itself originally drained from Marton Mere and was wide enough to sail boats along. As recorded, once again, in the Victoria County History, several fieldnames in the area suggest that the Norse were using the dyke to ply their trade.
For example, ‘Faethewra’, located somewhere in Marton although, unfortunately, the exact site is now lost to posterity, is a Norse word that can be broken down into the components ‘faethe’ meaning ‘cold or melancholy’ and ‘wra’ meaning ‘shipyard or berth’.
Another fieldname that crops up in the same district is the rather more complicated ‘Kettlesholmewathwra’. It’s recorded in documents from the thirteenth century belonging to Whalley Abbey as: “Half a selion in Marton town fields, lying between the land of William de Marton and Amery, son of Simon de Thornton.”
Let’s break the name down into easier-to-handle segments. A ‘kettle’, more or less, was simply a kettle, or, perhaps, more precisely a ‘cauldron’. This more often than not referred to a feature in the landscape, rather than the sort of cauldron used for making stew. ‘Holme’, as we’ve probably mentioned in some previous article or other, was the Norse word for an ‘island’ or ‘bend in a river’. ‘Wath’ meant simply ‘ford’, and ‘Wra’, again, refers to a ‘shipyard’ or ‘berth’.
So, combining all those elements together we have the ‘shipyard by the ford to the island in the cauldron shaped lake or marsh.’
Again, the County History fails to mention exactly where Kettlesholmewathwra was located, but we’re sure that some ingenious landscape detective with more time on their hands than we currently have could work it out.

Norse ships came in two main varieties; the ‘drekar’, or dragon-headed longship, for carrying troops, and the ‘knarr’, an ocean-going cargo vessel that was higher and wider than a longship, with cargo decks at the front and stern and fewer oars. The latter was designed specifically for ease of navigation in narrow channels, such as Spen Dyke.
They were constructed by means of a broad axe rather than a saw, carpenters splitting the oak trunks into long, thin planks. These were fastened together with iron nails, each plank overlapping the next in what’s known as a ‘clinker’ technique. Crossbeams were added to create the deck and seats, and a massive beam was added along the keel in order to support the mast. Because of their unique design, Norse ships could achieve speeds of fourteen knots steered using a single rudder on the 'starboard' (another Norse word referring to the ‘steering board’).
Another name local to Marton documented in the Whalley Abbey records is: “Half an oxgang and two acres with a messuage next to the house of Richard Russel in the east part of Suterdale.”
Suterdale, of course, is now long since gone. The ‘dale’ part of the name, however, is probably self-explanatory, whereas the ‘Suter’ is again a Norse word, on this occasion meaning ‘Tanner’. Tanning was the process by which leather was made more pliable for use in belts, gloves and boots. It involved, as you might expect, the use of tannins, chemical compounds found in certain trees and shrubs, oak bark being the main source in Britain.
Tannins react with the skins, changing their chemical composition. To achieve this, the skins were first soaked in pits filled with water and oak bark. To obtain softer, more elastic leather, the skins were swollen before the process began by being suspended in an infusion of water and animal dung, dog excrement, apparently, being the most effective.
Bearing this in mind, it would be reasonable to assume that, wherever Suterdale was located, it probably wouldn’t be close to, or directly downwind of, of any settlements.
Although none have, as yet, been discovered around Blackpool, the collection of Norse shoes and boots illustrated below was discovered at Coppergate in York. These are typical of the sort of simple but effective footwear preferred by the Norse. The sole was shaped from a single, flat piece of leather and stitched to the upper sections. Once it had worn down through use, it was simply thrown away and replaced with a new one.

A couple more names worth recording before we close this particular article are ‘Redcarr’ in Marton and ‘Lithcarr’, situated somewhere between Marton and Lytham. Both refer in part to a type of heavy clay, although in Northumbria the word ‘carr’ could also mean ‘large stones’. Once again, to the best of our knowledge, both locations are nowadays lost, although their previous existence does add substance to the notion that the Norse were once the dominant race around Blackpool.
So there you go. Keep your eyes peeled for the finished book (working on the assumption that this little snippet hasn’t put you off too much) or write to us in advance and we’ll reserve you a copy because it’s bound to be an instant best seller. (Hey…we're all entitled to our fantasies.)


Bwca said...

oh shoes!!
gorgeous shoes.

and it is so informative over here, thank you.

I will however be regarding brown shoe polish in a whole new way from now on.

Brian Hughes said...


Viking label designs from 'York Scandinavia' with all the latest 'wrap around the shin' accessories; available now at Tommy Balls for only three goats and fifteen flints.

JahTeh said...

After this post, I can honestly say "What bunch of losers".
Even the word verification looks like runes. If there were so many vikings raping and pillaging in the area, why is so little found? Is it like the Roman stones, the peasants just snaffled them for the next generation of hoi polloi palaces?

Brian Hughes said...


There have been a couple of Viking burials found in the district. Not up Spen Dyke, perhaps, but at Inskip and Claughton...which aren't far off. On the whole though, Viking finds are rare around Blackpool because property developers don't like having to down hods for a few 'pointless relics'. Time is money and money is eveything...apparently.