Who remembers going down t’Widdle?

Figure 1. Yates’ map of Lancashire, surveyed in about 1780. The old road from Woodhill to Holcombe is indicated in red. Note waterwheel symbol at Woodhill, on later site of ‘Rothwell’s Croft’. Before the Ordnance Survey was formed, early cartography tended to be schematic and fairly inaccurate.

After crossing Bury Bridge into Elton, the early traveller had three possible choices of route – due west, towards Ainsworth and Bolton; north-westwards towards Walshaw and Tottington; or due northwards, towards Holcombe.  This latter route hugged the Irwell briefly, before crossing the Kirklees Brook, and then forking at Woodhill Fold, to bear either left to Brandlesholme, or right to Burrs.

Figure 2. Post-1780 route of Croston’s Road to right; to left is causeway taking Brandlesholme Road over valley of Kirklees Brook, raised in about 1840. Top left can be seen chimney and water tower of Woodhill Mill.

Sometime between 1790 and 1819, Croston’s Road was extended northwards from the Dusty Miller (Point A) to Woodhill Fold (Point D), crossing the Kirklees Brook on a new bridge.  But the gradients and the obvious dog-leg were inconvenient to wheeled traffic, so in about 1840, a massive curving causeway was run across the valley carrying Brandlesholme Road, between the Help me Thro’ (Point B) and Woodhill Mill (Point C).  This now had the effect of reducing the old road to a series of local access trackways, and its final decline had begun.  

Figure 3. 1838 Tithe Plan of Elton Township. Blue line indicates route of the old ‘Widdle’ road; red line shows route of Brandlesholme Road, raised on a high causeway to cross the valley of the Kirklees Brook, in about 1840.

By the 1960s, from where we lived at Woodhill Street, you would follow this ancient routeway, to take a short cut to Bury Bridge, by going ‘down’t Widdle’, in the local  vernacular.  The ‘Widdle’ appears to have been the area around Woodhill House and Rothwell’s Croft, the old bleachworks which was by then a roofless ruin. 

Figure 4. The line of the old road passed from lower left, to middle right, with the later Brandlesholme Road being carried upon a substantial causeway to the right. The industrial building on the left comprises a re-used group of early C19 back-to-back houses, originally known as ‘Hutchinson’s Row’, built to house workers at Woodhill Mill, which is now long-demolished.

It was only decades later that I made the link between the ‘Widdle’, and the 17th century home of the Kay family at ‘The Widdel’ or ‘The Widdall’.  The later derivation of ‘Woodhill’ appears to be incorrect – the original etymology probably related to the ‘Wide Dale’ instead, i.e. the broad valley of the Kirklees Brook hereabouts.

Figure 5. Woodhill House, original home of the Kay family, before demolition in 1974. The central section was of 17th century date, with additions of 19th century date. In it’s last years, the house & grounds were used as a car-breaking yard by a Mrs Brooks. To the right can be seen the Council housing estate on Woodhill Road.

From our house, the routeway followed the front of the Woodhill council estate, before passing Woodhill House, the site of which is now occupied by the offices of Cheetham Hill Construction.  The Kay family had lived here since the 15th century, and the core of the house sadly demolished in 1974 was probably of 17th century date. 

Figure 6. Section of old road between Woodhill Fold and Rothwell’s Croft. To left is remains of garden wall of Woodhill House; to right is site of backfilled millpond. The pathway can still be followed to the right of the metal gates.

On the right, behind Dagnall’s shop, and running parallel to the Kirklees Brook, was the site of a tear-shaped millpond which powered the waterwheel of a Woolen Mill (Point E). After the latter was acquired by the Rothwell family, it was rebuilt as a large bleachworks, and in the 1960s the stone walls and the huge octagonal brick chimney still stood.  Thirty years ago, Bury MBC were considering creating a Country Park here, similar to Burrs, but nothing came of this plan.

Figure 7. Ruins of Rothwell’s Croft before demolition, 1987. Brandlesholme Road is beyond trees middle left; Kirklees Brook runs in a deep channel just to left of image.

The routeway followed the high mill wall on the right, to cross the Kirklees Brook on a footbridge, which had probably replaced an earlier ford.  From this point onwards, the track followed a narrow tongue of land between the river and the canal; and at the head of the canal was a building stood on iron columns (Point F) which carried a cast-iron plate bearing the legend ‘Irwell Forge 1846’, the date when Webb’s Foundry was established.  This plate was last seen on the gable of Fred Dibnah’s house in Bolton.   

Figure 8. Cast-iron plate from canal wharf at Webb’s Foundry, believed to have been sold off from Fred Dibnah’s house in 2018.

Once industry disappeared from the Bury Bridge area, Lower Woodhill Road was downgraded to a footpath, and just north of Bury Bridge, a series of sluice gates can still be seen near to the weir, which extracted water from the Irwell, to top up the canal. This source soon proved inadequate, and the construction of Elton Reservoir and the canal feeder through Elton from Burrs were to follow.

Figure 9. Canal sluice gates visible bottom right, weir and Bury Bridge visible top left. Dry land now forming in river channel middle left, as new river meander generates itself.

You could still walk down t’Widdle from Woodhill Fold to Bury Bridge even after the great flood of Boxing Day 2015 extracted a wide bite out of this pathway.  And if you were able to follow this ancient routeway in January this year, you may well have been the last person to do so, as the second great flood of 9 February cut through this path permanently.