Here’s a map showing where we are in York. It shows the cemetery and Walmgate Stray (public common land) – the Low Moor Allotments are between the two! Access is generally from Heslington Rd (metal gate at top of hill) or Kilburn Rd (car park at end of road).
Here is some information on the surrounding area, including the history of Low Moor before the allotments.
The Retreat / Heslington Road
Conservation Area No. 8 (22.0 ha)
The land area of the Retreat and Heslington Road Conservation Area was originally outside the City of York and part of Fulford. It occupies the highest ground south of the City including Lamel Hill and Garrow Hill and commands views northwards across the City of York and southwards over Walmgate Stray and Low Moor to the village of Fulford. It is located within the City of York Green Belt. The conservation area was designated in 1975.
Lamel Hill is a large mound raised during the Civil War. It formed part of the Civil War works which encircled York. The area around the mound includes an extensive late Roman or Anglian cemetery; because of this Lamel Hill is a scheduled ancient monument and the area has been designated an Area of Archaeological Importance. In 1793, York Quakers decided to purchase 2 closes of land in Fulford to create a new hospital for the mentally ill. Their aim was to provide humane treatment, in airy surroundings with access to gardens and farm animals. They followed the advice of the prison reformer John Howard and their architect Bevan in choosing rising ground with a plentiful supply of water. To oversee the details of the building works they engaged the local architect Peter Atkinson. The grounds of the Retreat encompass Lamel Hill and a Quaker burial ground.
The Retreat, established in 1796, and extended in 1799, 1803 and later, is the focal point of the Conservation Area.
The major element which gives this Conservation Area its distinct character, is an institutional use – The Retreat – set in parkland surrounded by obscuring walls but with views out. The Retreat grounds were enclosed with high walls to keep the patients safe inside the garden areas. These were laid out with numerous ornamental trees and shrubs and with hedges in a series of gardens and parkland. In the 1850’s further areas were purchased and the hospital extended whilst still retaining its parkland setting. The open character of the Conservation Area extends west to York Cemetery, south to Walmgate Stray and east to the landscaped campus of the University. The Conservation Area also includes, in contrast, the pleasant Victorian suburban houses on Belle Vue Terrace some of which are listed. The main elements of the character and appearance of the area are:
- The Retreat, set in parkland surrounded by high walls but with views out;
- A series of gardens and adjoining parkland, giving a very open landscape character;
- Pleasant Victorian suburban housing on Belle Vue Terrace which forms an edge to the open space;
- The Conservation Area extends west to York Cemetery, south to Walmgate Stray and east to the landscaped campus of the University. It consists mainly of open greenspace on the edge of the city located within the City of York Green Belt.
Low Moor before the Allotments
I’m an archaeologist, but unlike most archaeologists, I never actually dig anything up; I just use the evidence that survives to be seen on the surface – ruined buildings, humps and bumps in the grass, patterns in modern boundaries – to try to understand what has gone on in the past. Old maps, aerial photographs and people’s memories are often very valuable in understanding what has gone on in recent centuries.
Anyone who has walked across Low Moor when it is flooded, or has a light covering of snow, especially when a low winter sunshine casts strong shadows, may well have noticed that the whole area is covered with lumps and bumps. Many people believe that the Stray has always been common land where people could let their cattle wander freely (hence ‘stray’). But, in fact, the whole area – except the piece of ground that still floods at the bottom of the Allotments – is covered in low, broad ridges, which are typical of the ‘strip fields’ formed by medieval ploughing. This proves that for a long period from the Middle Ages onwards, the whole Stray, including the Allotments, was owned and cultivated, which partly accounts for why it is such good, dark soil today. I cannot stop myself from picking up pottery when I am digging in our plot, and I am sad to say that my girlfriend has now also fallen into this irritating habit. The main path on our plot is now littered with pottery and clay pipes that we have picked up over the years. This pottery was almost certainly brought out to Low Moor already in fragments, mixed in with rubbish and manure (both animal and human) collected from the city centre to be spread on the fields as fertiliser. Most of the types of pottery we have collected date to between the 14th and 18th centuries, so this probably shows when the area was most heavily ploughed. An 18th-century view of York from the top of Lamel Hill, which you can see in York Museum, shows that much of the area was still being cultivated at that date. This is not to say that nothing was going on at Low Moor before the Middle Ages: we have also found a few bits of Roman pottery, and one small Stone Age flint, dating to somewhere between 4000 BC and 1500 BC.
Lamel Hill itself may well be one of the earliest and largest monuments on Walmgate Stray that can still be seen with the naked eye. In fact it is so large that most people who walk past it on the way from the Heslington Road Gate believe it to be just a natural hill. But in this part of Yorkshire, there are many examples of prehistoric burial mounds of this size, dating to the very end of the Stone Age, around 2,800 BC. Certainly the Anglo-Saxons believed it to be an earlier burial mound, for they laid out a cemetery around its base in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, which was common practice at that time. The Anglo-Saxon cemetery was revealed during building work in the gardens of The Retreat in the late 19th century, but Lamel Hill itself was not investigated. Documents show that in the 17th century, General Fairfax sited his largest gun on Lamel Hill to fire upon Walmgate Bar, but soon after that it was once again in more peaceful use, this time as a windmill mound. Windmills were often sited on mounds to catch the wind better and, although most mounds had to be constructed from scratch, wherever possible earlier monuments were re-used to save effort. When The Retreat was built, the function of the mound changed again: this time a gazebo was built on the summit, offering views across the City and also down the length of the tree-lined avenue that runs alongside the allotments. Of course, this avenue lay outside the walls of The Retreat – a cunning way of expanding the size of your garden without actually having to pay for the land or its upkeep!
The most recent traces that you can still see relate to the two World Wars. When I first walked down to the Allotments from Heslington Road, I immediately recognised the distinctive remains of First World War trenches between the trees of the avenue. These may have been sited to fire across the site of the allotments at targets against the Cemetery wall, so don’t be surprised if you dig up rifle shells! I have since discovered several more sets of trenches, the most extensive along the boundary of the Barracks. These are not rare: practice trenches were constructed on common land all over England to prepare soldiers for the Western Front. One resident of Belle Vue Street remembers playing in some at the far end of the Stray when she was a child. Although they were almost always carefully filled in shortly after they were dug, they can still be seen as shallow depressions.
Old Ordnance Survey maps show that the Allotments themselves were laid out between the two World Wars, and were then extended as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in the Second World War. This explains why Plots 1 – 56 are numbered east – west, while the others are numbered north – south. There are several more obvious remains of the Second World War:Anderson air-raid shelters. These must have been dug up at the end of the War and carried down to Low Moor, where they are still in service – by far the most vandal-proof sheds available!
So there we are. The use of Low Moor in the past probably has more influence on us today than you might think. English Heritage is just beginning a project that will examine selected areas of common land throughout England and I have already suggested that somebody (probably me!) should investigate Low Moor as a case study.
– Al Oswald