What buildings tell me about where I live

All over Britain, there are interesting buildings with a story to tell. Some may appear unassuming at first sight, others seem to make statements about their importance and almost shout it from the rooftops. Let me take you on a stroll through the village where I live.

© Carol Taylor Bruce - The Cage, Lyme Park, Disley

Over 1,000 feet high on the foothills of the western Pennines in Lyme Park, Cheshire, stands a gaunt square tower, known as The Cage. Built in the 16th century to follow the hunt, it had a classical make-over in the 18th century, and later became an overnight prison for poachers. In Edwardian times, teas were provided for visitors to view distant Liverpool docks and the Welsh Hills for 1 penny a time. It was lived in by keepers as late as the 1920s.

Seen from miles around in every direction, the Cage tells us that the Leghs who built it had been great landowners. Things we can find out further are that the land had previously been part of the King’s hunting forest of Macclesfield, and that the estate was self-sufficient with a fine herd of deer, since it had been enclosed in the 13th century. The land was given to a branch of the Legh family by the Black Prince in return for battle honours in 1346, when the Royal Standard was recovered together with the arm of the Frenchman who had seized it! In 1947, the estate was made over to the National Trust.

Farming communities and early settlements

The nearby village of Disley, formerly known as Dystelegh, grew up around an early hill-top settlement, so remote and heavily wooded that it escaped mention in William the Conqueror’s Domesday book, an attempt to account for every building, land holding and farm animal in his kingdom.

Evidence of early halls, manors and farms still remain. Disley Old Hall probably goes back to Anglo-Saxon times but still has substantial farm buildings. Re-distribution of land took place under the Normans, and Stanley Hall further down the valley was the centre of one such settlement. Lyme Hall dates from the late 16th century but there was probably an early wooden hunting lodge on the present site in the 14th century.

The parish church of St Mary, replacing an earlier chantry chapel, stands magnificently on a hill overlooking the village. Built in 1510, it has just celebrated 500 years of Christian worship.

Industrial revolution and new manufacturing

Self-sufficient agricultural settlements continued for centuries, until the upheaval of the industrial revolution. As well as earning a living by farming, people had taken on weaving of thread in their cottages. First satisfying local demand, they later supplied merchants who paid them for woven cloth. Muslin Row, five cottages at Higher Disley, would be part of such enterprises. Waterside Mill, an 18th-century cotton mill on the banks of the river Goyt where many workers would be recruited to the new manufacturing, is not there anymore - a modern paper mill now stands on the site, continuing to provide local employment.

Canal building and bridge construction tell us something of the new means of transport for goods via waterways. Three bridges dating back over 200 years span the Peak Forest Canal opened on May Day 1800, all built of local grit stone.

The most prominent building in the centre of Disley village, The Ram’s Head, has been an important hostelry for centuries. Viscount Torrington, writing in the mid-18th century, thought it the finest inn in all England. It had large stables where horses were changed on the stage-coach route between Manchester and Buxton. Before the turnpike road was built, later known as the A6 between London and Carlisle, Disley was already an important staging post. Later, when the railway came to Disley in 1857, as a result of the Legh family’s investment and by allowing the track to run through Lyme estate, the hotel was a favourite destination for day-trippers from nearby towns.

Rail commuting and growth of educated middle-classes

The later part of the 19th century saw much new building in Disley, from rows of Victorian terrace houses to semi-detached and much larger stone villas. This was the start of commuting as we know it, when people used the new and frequent rail service to work in Manchester or Stockport, as indeed they still do, and a new professional middle-class grew up. National population increased rapidly around this time. 

Buildings for education

Although there had been previous schools in the village, 1825 was a significant date when the National Day and Sunday School was built, paid for by Thomas Legh Esq of Lyme Hall. This handsome Georgian Gothick building is now the doctors’ surgery together with the parish rooms. The present red-brick county primary school celebrated its centenary this year. Many similar school buildings were built around the country in the early 20th century. A former pupil who later became the local historian, Miss Marjorie Hobson, recalled how poorly equipped with reading material the school was during the war years 1914-18, and pupils were encouraged to bring books from home, if they had any, forming the basis for a school library.

Village microcosm reflecting national building trends

Walking through Disley is a journey through centuries of human civilisation. People and events as well as social, economic and technical change have shaped village and landscape. While some buildings have withstood the change of time, some managed to survive by continually adapting to modern life. Some buildings reflect purposes specific to a certain era. Some were demolished when new uses couldn't be found so the old was swept away. I am sure you will find many examples in your neighbourhood too. We are lucky that so much of interest still remains, and we can ‘read’ the past through the built environment. Enquire at your local library or history society, or from county records if you wish to know more, and keep looking and imagining the past.