NAMING THE DITCH

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

We want to examine what's left of the NICO DITCH, which used to stretch from Gorton on the east side of Manchester to Trafford Park on the west, and, legend has it, was dug by Saxon Mancs in the space of one night, during a particularly dangerous period when the Danes were attacking up the Mersey. We intend to visit the stretch of the ditch in Platt Fields. MEET outside the Toast Rack (Manchester Metropolitan University, Hollings Campus) on the corner of Wilmslow Road and Old Hall Lane, Saturday April 13 at 10.30 am.

The Nico Ditch, also known as Mickle or Great Ditch, is an ancient scar linking unlikely and disconnected territory in the southern half of Manchester. Its traces run from Gorton in the east, west south west to Fallowfield, where MAP chose to hold its second Action on April 13.

Nico is also the name of the musical grandmother of Goth, and ex-collaborator with the Velvet Underground, who, following her drug habit, landed up in Manchester for several years from 1979 on, until her death in 1998 in Ibiza. Most of the time she was here, she lived in Prestwich, on the north side of the city. We don't know if the German-born sulkstress ever walked the Ditch. One of our number recalls telling her about it once, and she said she had never heard of it. But the coincidence is an interesting one, and the mystery surrounding the meanings of the name "Nico" in this Manchester setting provides additional purpose for this article.

The MAP group met outside the Toast Rack building. Manchester Metropolitan University Hollings Campus, on Wilmslow Road. The Toast Rack, so called because it looks like one (it's also attached to another building which resembles a fried egg), was designed as a catering college. It's the first of several significant landmarks which stand on the line of the Nico Ditch. We crossed Wilmslow Road and progressed into Platt Fields via the Girls High School, noting a building en route which according to a plaque on its wall had replaced an earlier one destroyed during the blitz after only having stood for one year. Anecdotes were swapped about the possibility of Luftwaffe navigating along leylines en route for their real target, Trafford Park. Entering Platt Fields Park, we walked round the boating lake and back to the other side of the land owned by the Girls High School, marked by a metal fence, a line of trees and the Nico Ditch. A small engraved stone marks the spot. The Ditch is four to five feet deep, is full of dead leaves and stagnant water, and provides a habitat for ducks. We followed it back towards Wilmslow Road, entering the Shakespeare Garden (where all the flowers written about by the supposed Bard are grown in neat beds by the City Council), and examined its far wall, which runs along the Nico line.

Looking towards the main road, we were attracted by the noise of a woman shouting at a dog, and saw her standing near a fragment of masonry: an archway. Exiting the garden, we approached the woman, an elderly Russian lady feeding the birds, tuppence a bag. The arch, we realised, was the old gateway to Chethams Hospital, which had stood adjacent to the Cathedral until it was pulled down during the War and removed to its present site, right next to the Nico. Dr Dee, we also realised, will have walked under it frequently as Warden of the Collegiate Church (see MAP number 2).

Pausing to chat to the old lady for a few minutes, we then rejoined Wilmslow Road at the point where Platt Fields Chapel stands, with its graveyard also running along the ditch, opposite the Toast Rack.

The ditch is said to have formed a defensive line against Danish or Viking raiders attacking up the Mersey and therefore approaching Manchester from the south. If this is correct, the Ditch could date from the ninth century. The story is that it was dug in the space of one night - quite a feat considering the probable length of the ditch, which in the nineteenth century was measured at five miles, 183 yards. The Victorians loved the idea of the ditch being defensive, and quoted stories about a particularly fierce battle being fought "in the vicinity of the Mickle Ditch and Gore Brook", at the Platt Fields end, between 870 and 900 AD. But most of the Saxon fortification of Manchester went on a little later, under Edward the Elder, around 919. By the beginning of the following century, it wouldn't have mattered; the area had been conquered by Canute's norsemen, whose placenames abound.

Other theories are that the ditch formed a medieval manorial boundary in the same way that at its east end, the Nico alignment still marks district boundaries. Most of the Nico Ditch has been eradicated, by farming and building. But it's still possible to walk the Nico alignment east to Gorton, and speculate on some of the meanings the name may contain.

The Toast Rack stands on the junction with Old Hall Lane, which follows the line of the ditch east towards Levenshulme. Progressing along this route you pass Manchester Grammar School playing fields on the left and University halls of residence on the right, followed by middle class houses and gardens. Crossing Birchfields Road, the houses lining either side become smaller, until at Slade Lane, just south of Slade Hall, the route is unmetalled, changing its name to Park Grove. On the right are two sets of mid-nineteenth century houses, one, its name carved in stone, known as Nickerbrook Terrace. Nicker was an alternative way of saying Nico - both terms were slang, to the Victorian historians who loved the idea of the ditch's patriotic role; they thought you should always call it Mickle, or Great. In Scandinavian mythology, a nicker was a waterwraith, half child and half horse, with his hooves reversed. In Victorian England a nicker was also a breaker of windows, a vandal. Children and water are constantly being brought together by the name Nico.

Christa Paffgen changed her name to Nico because in her mind it condensed several meanings. It meant Moon Goddess, for one; better known as Lilith, Eve's predecessor, the first wife Adam ditched, portrayed as a naked woman with the tail of a fish. It's also short for Nicholas, the patron saint of Greece and Russia, and children: St Nick, before becoming associated with red cloaks and reindeer, performed one miracle. He brought back to life two murdered children whose dismembered bodies had been concealed in a brine tub.

Nico is also an androgynous name, as the singer intended it to be. The Greek Saint's name is similar to that of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, the daughter of Styx, the nymph who guarded the river across which all the dead must be ferried. Another Greek nymph, Nicostrata, possessed the gift of prophesy and lived near groves, and was pictured holding a vase from which water flowed, while in her other hand she held shells or leaves. Her hair was the colour of the sea.

Still, this is Levenshulme. Under the railway you go, via an old brickwork tunnel, and the path emerges at Stockport Road, at the point where second hand shops and Irish theme pubs reach critical mass. Cross, avoiding death by traffic, and opposite, at the Midway Pub, Matthews Lane takes up the Nico route. When the terraced housing runs out on the left, and scruffy trees take over, you're getting near the only place on the map where Nico Ditch is marked today. Crossing Mount Road where Matthews Lane ends, you walk straight ahead along the trackway.

The ditch is on the right, six feet deep in places, and carrying running water. On the opposite bank, a low brick wall divides the Nico from a cricket field, while opposite, on your left, you have Mellard Playing Field. There are nine sports grounds on the line of the Nico.

At the end of the trackway you reach a point where the ditch is culverted, and you follow Holmcroft Road until there are no more roads or pathways to follow the line.

Following the line of the Nico on a map, however, you skirt the south side of Debdale Cemetery and end up on Denton Golf Course with Audenshawe Reservoir cutting off any further alignment. But in this area, the Nico line also crosses the old Roman road (now Hyde Road) that lead to the auxiliary fort at Dinting, with a name echoing one of the playing fields whose edge is marked by the Nico Ditch: Melandra.

You've played with the name. You've walked the line. The line between genders, the line that crosses class barriers, the line of water, mud and leaves, of disintegration, death and renewal.


First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 4, June 1996.

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