The most important medieval site within the city of Salford, besides the historic town, is Ordsall Hall. This timber-framed structure is one of the most surprising survivals in the city’s landscape, hemmed in on three sides by 20th century housing and on a fourth by industrial units. It’s set within a small square patch of green oasis that echoes the moat that used to surround the building. Viewed from Ordsall Lane to the east it looks like many other late Victorian or Edwardian school buildings: a long red brick range highlighted by tall gables and tall windows, in a restrained vernacular revival style. Viewed from the western, housing estate, side and you are faced with the black timbers and white infilling of a late medieval hall.
This latter view is the clue to the importance of the building, though to understand why this is one of the most important timber-framed houses in North West England you need to look inside the structure. Though its water-filled moat has gone and its eastern wing demolished in the late 19th century, the 14th century solar wing, the late medieval Great Hall and a 17th century service wing all survive largely intact.
The current hall was begun in the mid-14th century. This was by the Radclyffes, one of the most powerful families in late medieval Lancashire, who acquired the estate in the 1340s. They continued to occupy the hall until 1662 and during that timed served at succession of monarchs at the royal court, and took part in a number of overseas military campaigns amassing wealth along the way, especially in the 14th century; hence the hall.
There is a long history of archaeological work at Ordsall. Acquired by the city council in 1959, between 1961 and 1966 parts of the moat were excavated for the first time. This revealed lots of late medieval and post-medieval pottery. In 1978-9 the home farm was investigated by Prof Nick Higham of Manchester University. This lay on the western side of the moat and had been rebuilt in brick during the 17th century. During the 1990s the University of Manchester Archaeology Unit (UMAU) undertook a several seasons of work. In 1990, 1991 and 1994 the demolished eastern wing was dug, revealing stone and brick foundations from the late medieval and post-medieval period beneath the massive stone late Victorian foundations of St Cyprian’s church. The surviving fabric of the East Wing, including the 14th century solar or private apartments, was surveyed in 1994. A decade later in 2005, 2006 and 2007 UMAU returned to undertake community excavation work on the moated platform (though no structures were located) ahead of the application for restoration monies to the Heritage Lottery Fund. UMAU also surveyed in detail the western wing and service ranges, in the processing discovering the remains of an earlier timber structure that proceeded the 1630s brick rebuilding of that wing. The Great Hall and East Wing timbers were also surveyed by English Heritage in 2004 and again during the restoration work of 2009 to 2011, confirming the 14th century dates for the solar range and demonstrating that the Great Hall was built in the 1500s. During the restoration work in 29010 and 2011 Oxford Archaeology North laser-scanned the hall roof and excavated the floor of the Great Hall locating the central medieval hearth
This work has demonstrated the remarkable age of the complex. The East Wing dates from the 1360s and 1370s and is a rare example of late medieval domestic apartments. The Italian Plaster Ceiling Room on the first floor is another rare survival of Italianate ‘lozenge’ design, dating from the late 1500s. The Great Hall was rebuilt in the 1500s and is one of the largest open timber-framed hall spaces in the North West. Finally, the West Wing incorporates fragments of the western service end of the Great Hall from the late medieval period. The southern end of the west wing was rebuilt at the same time as the Great Hall, whilst the rest of that wing was rebuilt in brick in 1632, as one of the earliest brick structures in the region.
As the last 25 years have shown archaeological research never stands still. New techniques and new questions emerge and evolve, and have an impact on even a well-documented historic building such as Ordsall Hall. Now in 2017 the exploration continues with a completely fresh set of evidence being discovered inscribed on to the very timbers of the building. Since last year the North West Graffiti project has been exploring the fabric of Ordsall Hall looking for historic graffiti, from protection marks to carpenters marks. In the process they are revealing how the hall is covered in dozens of taper burns, amongst other marks, and thereby giving us a glimpse into the very personal interaction between the occupants of the hall and their living space. No doubt we shall learn more about this ‘archaeology of the mind’ over the next few years.