In his Surprising Discoveries In Deepest Cheshire, James Ruddy Reveals That Cheshire Is Far More Than Trendy Villages Packed With Soccer Millionaires, Tudor Mansions, Friesian Cattle And ‘Roman’ Chester
Outside of London, few social groups have attracted more tabloid headlines in the past 30 years than the soccer glitterati (along with their Wives and Girlfriends – the so-called WAGs) who have flocked to the once-peaceful reaches of Cheshire.
There, many of those overpaid stars of the Manchester and Liverpool football temples have built gaudy mansions and turned nearby village High Streets into cocktail bar and trendy brasserie strips that would rival Downtown Los Angeles.
Yet, behind all the incessant gossip stories and screaming WAGs, lies a county that is bursting with history, fascination and magnetic charm, which gets lost behind that flimsy and passing veil of modern celebrity culture.
If you really want to go there, as a couple, family or a sole traveller, there is something, literally, for all interests, as I found when my partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy delved into its hidden depths. Hence this Surprising Discoveries In Deepest Cheshire piece.
First, though, a confession: I lived in the small Cheshire town of Poynton some years ago and once narrowly avoided a head-on collision with Wayne Rooney on a sharp country bend nearby.
Also, a further confession: I was sometimes drawn to have a rummage in the well-stocked charity shops in the ‘WAG’ triangle’ (Wilmslow, Prestbury, Alderley Edge and Knutsford) which are often stuffed with the unwanted designer-wear of those very soccer tycoons and their tribes.
So much Armani, Gucci et al was on the hangers and going for a song that I soon found my wardrobe was bursting at the seams with the kind of outfits that would have looked at home on the red carpet at Venice Film Festival or New York’s Met Gala.
Yet Cheshire offers far more than a retail therapy ‘fix’, as we discovered during a few days spent ambling around the county and its ancient capital, Chester, which are filled with great museums and eateries as well as some fine hotels, from the most tranquil of rural idylls, like Wychwood Park, to the liveliest of city centre spots, like Chester’s Macdonald New Blossoms. Surprising Discoveries In Deepest Cheshire are all around here, and I’m looking to help you find them.
On a more cultural note, you might fancy a walk up the steep sandstone hill to medieval Beeston Castle, which has rewarding views over the Cheshire Plain to the one-time warring tribespeople of Wales. A long siege there during the English Civil War ended after the starving defenders resorted to eating the castle cats.
A short drive away took us to the Lion Salt Works, where 19th century men toiled in creaky buildings to produce the precious crystals which were boiled up in giant vats and sent across the Empire for huge profits.
This geological miracle of priceless underground salt reserves was turned by some greedy mine owners into a living nightmare of collapsing buildings and huge sinkholes, as they bypassed structural and safety measures for the local communities and their hard-pressed workers, who were forced to dig ever-more extraction shafts into which family houses and complete offices would sometimes subside to death and oblivion.
Tatton Park, on the other hand, took us on a leisurely tour of the vast estate, where you could spend a whole day at the mansion, medieval manor house, working farm and gardens. There is a fine courtyard brasserie, The Stables, for a meal or just a coffee and cake and there are plenty of fun and education tours for families, such as a fungus foray and an apple fest. But try not to get as close as I did to the inquisitive deer though!
A short drive away is a reminder of another less tranquil era: the Cold War. With Putin making us wonder if we might need to dig a big hole in the back garden, the Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker used to be the region’s Cold War operations centre, where ‘the lucky few’ top politicians and civil servants would survive a devastating missile and bomber attack living on tinned food, filtered air and dodgy water as they plotted the future – if there was one!
Our far more peaceful base in the county was Wychwood Park Hotel and Golf Club, near Crewe, a modern and stylish 113-room property, set in spacious grounds with a good restaurant and a PGA European-tour standard golf course.
From there, one of the county’s most popular attractions is easily reached, Jodrell Bank radio telescope centre, which has an immersive planetarium, as well as stacks of fascinating special events’ including a presentation of the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album in December.
Further great views – not quite inter-planetary – can be had at very popular The Pheasant Inn, which sits on the county’s Sandstone Ridge at Higher Burwardsley and offers an out-of-this-world menu as well as 360-degree vistas from the Cheshire Peaks to Merseyside, Lancashire and Shropshire. Stunning and yummy!
Of course, all Cheshire roads eventually lead you to ancient and glorious Chester, where it’s best to orientate yourself with a wander along the two miles of restored Roman walls and a pop into the 11th century cathedral (you can see Wales from the top), as well the excavated Roman amphitheatre.
An even better insight into the city’s history can be had on a special tour, conducted by experts like Isabel Robertson, based at the main Tourist Centre, who can theme her walks to many periods of Chester’s thousands of years of history – not just the Romans!
She showed us some of the many ancient Irish connections, most notably in the grandiose 1869 Victorian Gothic Town Hall, which was designed by County Down architect William Lynn, went hugely overbudget and was opened by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Edward (who later became King), and the Prime Minister William Gladstone.
On a less imposing note, she revealed, the nearby Irish pub, the 19th century Dublin Packet, is named after the boat which regularly sailed from Dublin up the River Dee, before it silted up. Its most famous landlord was Everton’s greatest-ever player, Dixie Dean, who played for England and towards the end of his pre-war career turned out for Sligo Rovers.
It was Irish linen imports – in the 1780s over 3000 miles a year were being brought in by ship – which attracted the skilled Irish weavers to Chester, as well as many of their unskilled friends and relatives who worked on the local farms and roads.
Our very comfortable and central base was the New Blossoms Hotel, on St John Street, just round the corner from the country’s second most photographed clock (after Big Ben) from which we could wander at will along the famous built-up Rows, which provide shoppers with covered walkways that may or may not have resulted from the use of the rubble from past Roman construction.
A dinner at the nearby Grosvenor Hotel’s La Brasserie was a sumptuous introduction to the city’s range of great cuisine, although, by contrast, we could also recommend a tour of the unique Storyhouse Centre (a library, independent cinema and a restaurant in an art deco building) where the Eastern Mediterranean dishes are exceptional.
The city is packed when there is a meeting at its Racecourse, the oldest working course in the UK. Known as the Roodee, it was established by Sir Henry Gee in the 16th century and, apparently, is where the term ‘gee-gees’ was first coined.
Further afield we ventured to Chester Zoo as well as the Silk Museum, at Macclesfield, where the painstaking loom work was performed in countless cottages; even five-year-olds, would be called upon to use their delicate fingers for many hours a day refining the valuable threads. Little wonder many suffered painful joints and bad eyesight in later life.
And we finished up our surprising discoveries in deepest Cheshire tour by seeing the tough living conditions for canal boat families in the restored cottages at the historic National Waterways Museum, at Ellesmere Port, where the ancient TVs, radios and furniture dated from my own childhood.
It was a stark reminder that I may well becoming an antique myself!
All images (C) Sue Mountjoy
Tell Me More About Surprising Discoveries In Deepest Cheshire
For further information on these Surprising Discoveries In Deepest Cheshire please go to Visit Cheshire
For tranquillity and golf, try Wychwood Park Hotel and Golf Club
For central Chester comfort and a good base to visit my surprising discoveries In deepest Cheshire stay at Macdonald New Blossoms Hotel
The Pheasant Inn at Higher Burwardsley (for sweeping views and amazing food):
La Brasserie at the Chester Grosvenor (for delightful cuisine and service)
Chester Tour Guides (Isabel Robertson was a delight)