Palaeoenvironmental Study

Interpreting the past through the study of the environment

North West England is extremely rich in peat. Many lakes formed at the end of the last Ice Age as the ice melted, and as aquatic plants and animals died, they fell to the bottom, creating sediments. Many of these lakes became overgrown, first with bulrushes, sedges and common reeds, and then with trees like alder and birch. In the very wet conditions, the detritus from these created a large natural ‘compost bin'. Gradually, a wet soil developed and the ground became drier, allowing vegetation to grow. This became higher than the surrounding landscape, forming raised mires or mosses like Farington Moss.

Peat is a natural compost and each deposit contains a unique record of the changing environment in the past. It also contains evidence of human activity, sometimes very dramatic, such as 'Horace the elk' from Poulton-le-Fylde, who lived over 10,000 years ago, and the arrowheads in his leg and ribs show he had been hunted. The peat has been extensively cut for centuries, for domestic fuel, to insulate roofs, as a compost, and in Ireland even to generate electricity! This means often only the oldest peat is left.

Palaeoenvirnmental analysis is a technique for reconstructing the former vegetation. Samples are taken by coring and are also collected from archaeological excavations. The characteristics of the deposits, such as colour, texture, the presence or absence of silt/clay and charcoal, are recorded. In waterlogged conditions, oxygen essential for most forms of life is absent or reduced, thus inhibiting fungal and bacterial decay. Pollen grains survive in these conditions for longer because of their resistant outer coat, whereas more delicate fossils are destroyed, and they are produced in large numbers, dispersed widely by wind, rain, on insects and other animals, and are thus easy to quantify. Data derived from pollen studies can provide an indication of the response of natural vegetation to the climate, environmental change and human impact.

Some mosses are solely dependent on rainwater and are not fed or drained by streams (known as ombrogenous raised mires). These can expand and coalesce with other mires into large mesotopes, an example being Chat Moss, Greater Manchester. The mires may have expanded because the climate became wetter, the trees may have been cleared by cutting or burning, and the soils then became impoverished, impermeable and acidic. Mosses also formed in river valleys and in small basins. Along the Lancashire and Cumbrian coasts, a series of raised mosses formed on the low-lying ground, such as at Martin Mere near Southport, known today as an important bird sanctuary. Many parts of the Pennines are also blanketed by peat deposits, which developed on gentle hill slopes.

Plant macrofossils are perhaps the most important tool used on archaeological sites, as they can be preserved by charring, being waterlogged, and in some cases by mineralisation. These plant remains are important because they are more easily identified to a specific plant, and are not usually dispersed over long distances, unlike pollen grains, making their origins more local.

Fossil plants such as Sphagnum moss are invaluable as proxy climatic and hydrological indicators. Changes in the composition of the flora on a mire can therefore be traced, which can show changes in climate.

For instance, the remains of Rannoch rush (Scheucheria palustris) and Sphagnum cuspidatum in Lancashire mosses indicate when the climate was much wetter than when heather and the mosses Sphagnum sect Acutifolia and Aulocomnium palustre grew. Bands of charcoal are frequently found in prehistoric peat deposits, which may have come from natural fires or be the result of deliberate burning, perhaps as woodland clearance.

 

The Mosses around Leyland

Today, Farington Moss encompasses Leyland Moss, Hoole Moss, Farington Moss, and Longton Moss, and covers an area of c 1100 ha. In addition Penwortham Moss is labelled on a plan of c 1596, but does not appear on the First Edition Ordnance Survey map, published in 1849. This complex of mires lies to the west of Leyland, east of Tarleton Moss in a narrow dip in the boulder clay, which forms a broad arc extending approximately north-east to south-west. To the south, it follows the course of the Carr Brook, which flows into the River Douglas near its mouth with the Ribble.

Leyland Moss, Hoole Moss, Farington Moss, and Longton Moss were probably originally individual ombrogenous raised mires that had formed in hollows or former lake basins. This is indicated by the pollen from aquatic plants and sandy blue clay at the base of the peat. Over time, they may have expanded and coalesced into what is termed a mesotope. It has been suggested that the Farington Moss complex was originally twice as large as it is now, but today, on average only 0.70 m of peat remains, exceptions being under trackways, now standing proud of the landscape, and in an uncut relict at Little Hoole Moss.

We know very little about how people in the past used the mosses. There are very few prehistoric or Roman remains from Farington Moss and it is likely that they formed hunting grounds and sources of fuel. Medieval parish boundaries were marked by dykes and tracks, notably that between Little and Much Hoole and Leyland, which runs through the centre of the mire, showing that ownership was of some significance. For instance, a document from 1230 mentions the rights of common pasture in the wastes of Leyland. These turbary rights often belonged to monastic communities such as those at Penwortham and Whalley. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the mosses produced fuel, brushwood, reeds for thatch, rushes for candles, and pasture. Prior to the eighteenth century, intakes into the moss would have been small and along the margins, in discrete areas such as Golden Hill, Turpin Green and Leyland Moor. The place name Little Hoole Mosshouses is documented in 1296 and may indicate very early enclosure there.

The mosses of Leyland, Farington and Penwortham underwent a cycle of enclosure, exploitation and depletion earlier than in other areas of the north-west of England. Documents held by Lancashire Archives show that enclosure of the mosses increased during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By 1869, the peat in many of the 'moss rooms' had been worked out and so the tenants claimed others, but the landowner, Susan Maria Farington, in a letter refused to award them new rights on the grounds of ancient custom.

The first series of the Ordnance Survey maps indicates part of Hoole Moss was being reclaimed in the 1840s. In the 1990s, however, a small fragment still remained uncultivated. Most of the land at Farington Moss has been used intensively for horticulture but much of the area has now been developed as a part of the (former) Central Lancashire New Town.

 

The Extent of the Mosses around Leyland

Yates' map showing the extent of the mosses in 1876

The First Edition Ordinance Survey map, showing Leyland, Farington and Longton Mosses with the extent of the mosslands in the 1870's and the peat surviving in 1995 superimposed.

 

Farington Moss Pollen Diagram

Click the link below to view a pollen diagram interpreting the past environment of Farington Moss.

The diagram is in PDF format (920kb) and will open in a new window

Walton Moss

Walton Moss (6 inch OS Map extract: 1847) In the north-east, the mosses extended under modern Lostock Hall and Brownedge to the line of the former A6 at Station Road, Bamber Bridge.

The Baxi Heating offices, Brownedge Lane, in 2002

Extension of the works in the 1960s suggested that pockets of peat might survive beneath the factory. Demolition in 2003-4 presented the opportunity to investigate.

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The cleared Baxi site: winter 2004

Brownedge church can be seen to the north, standing on a ridge of glacial deposits - the Brownedge.

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Cutting through the 1960's concrete factory floor

The nineteenth-century foundry waste below the Baxi offices covered a thin layer of peat lying above the glacial clays, all that had survived the activities of medieval and later peat cutters.

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Pickerings Farm, on the corner of Brownedge Lane and Todd Lane North

Renovation revealed a late seventeeth-century timber-framed mossland cottage. Removal of the corrugated iron roof exposed the surviving thatch roof.

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The section through the deposits at Brownedge 2004

The pinkish glacial deposits can be seen below a very thin streak of peat (marked by the trowel). After the original several feet of peat had been cut in the medieval and post-mediveal periods, the site had been used to dump foundry waste. The 1960s factory extension had been erected over this and on top of a plastic sheet. The site is now a housing estate.

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