Travel Jottings

My wanderings are urban as well as rural, and several have taken me overseas around Europe and to North America. All have needed at least some planning: knowing what to see and where to stay remain ever present needs. That and remaining ever open to new possibilities have contributed to what you find here. Everything builds up over time, and I hope that the horizons continue expanding to mean that I can continue to share new things with you here.

Cheshire: Ever Alluring, Maybe Overshadowed

Tatton Hall, Knutsford, Cheshire, England

In Norman times, the need to keep out the Welsh made Cheshire (or was it called Chester-shire back then?) important enough to make it a semi-independent palatinate with a degree of autonomy from the crown. More recently, the rise of Liverpool and Manchester in the last few hundred years has done much to disrupt that position. Successive local authority reorganisations in the last forty years reflect this, as does the passage of so many through the county and they en route to elsewhere.

Curtailments to the numbers of Avanti and CrossCountry trains stopping in the county may reflect what people are doing, but it doesn't out a very good message either. For all the world, it will look that Manchester will appear more important than what lies next to it. Hopefully, some will see through this and take the time to visit a county with much to offer a visitor.

Those other destinations may shine more brightly to many, and they have smaller problems with their identity than Cheshire currently has thanks to successive local authority reorganisations too. Even without a county council, existing local authorities are playing their part to keep it alive. Many of the websites that you'll see mentioned throughout the piece are fostered by those same local authorities. A single council may have made the county more identifiable, but it doesn't look as if the brand is going to disappear that easily either.

Still There After Successive Rearrangements

Helpfully, the effect of successive local government reorganisations is shown on a page on Cheshire East Council's website. Being accustomed to most Irish counties staying the same for decade after decade except perhaps those around Dublin, I find the constant changes to their British counterparts amazing and there have been two since I started living in the U.K. It almost feels that Westminster governments exert their power over their local counterparts through these changes, and they have been taking place for a few decades now.

The last of these that affected Cheshire was in 2009 when, in April of that year, the preceding two-tier structure of a county council and a number of borough councils was replaced by two unitary authorities: Cheshire East (serving where I live), Cheshire West and Chester. For the sake of a little continuity of service provision, I would have preferred a single unitary county council like what happened for Northumberland and many all Irish counties. However, borough and urban councils (Macclesfield, Congleton, Vale Royal, Crewe & Nantwich, Chester, Ellesmere Port & Neston) had their own ideas and convinced the government to implement the option involving two unitary authorities.

The county council then derisively called this the "Manshire/Merseyshire" proposal, since it removed the entity of Cheshire from the political map. Even so, that territorial split may have some bearing on reality because getting from one side of the county to the other without a car takes on the aspect of a time-consuming dark art. Maybe we have been living separate lives anyway.

As it happens, there may be less separation than that which is apparent on the surface; there appears to be much sharing of back-office operations brought on by the current economic conditions. Is that producing visitor websites whose only betrayal of Cheshire's status as a non-council area are the logos on the bottom of the council supported visitor websites that you find below? From this, it would appear that the Cheshire remains a simple label for this part of England, with the Ramblers' (Association) use of the local authority in the Ramblers Best Walks Britain book being atypical.

Chester, Cheshire and Beyond

In some respects, bundling Chester and Cheshire together is no bad idea, though the attractions of the city can outshine those of the surrounding county without a bit of care. There once were separate websites for each, and there was something to be said for each. On the other hand, Cheshire's gaining an elevated profile by association with its city is good too, so there's no clear-cut way of doing things either.

For some reason, my mind tends to distinguish Chester from Cheshire. Maybe it's because Chester nearly always has been somewhere I have gone by train, and Cheshire for me is what is around Macclesfield. As if to add more confusion, I once cycled from one to the other, so I shouldn't have this disconnection in my thinking.

It's as if a history featuring Roman legions (it probably inspired the enactment group Roman Tours), city walls and a Victorian fascination with Tudor architecture is a world away from the rural one featuring old halls and churches surrounded by lush countryside. Though different, there is one thing in common in that there are plenty of things to see in both.

West Cheshire Museums

This is a Cheshire West & Cheshire Council website promoting such attractions as Lion Salt Works, Grosvenor Museum, Weaver Hall and Stretton Watermill. Chester does not escaper mention either, which is understandable given its long history since Roman times. Otherwise, a part of the area's industrial heritage gets conserved and explained in a way that otherwise may not have happened.

This website seems to have a case of multiple personality disorder, but it does have a single purpose behind it. To explain that, I need to refer to three series of Great British Railway Journeys that have been broadcast on BBC 2 television. These have erstwhile leading Tory politician Michael Portillo going around Britain by train, brandishing a Victorian-era travel guide authored by a certain George Bradshaw. These guides were the nineteenth-century counterparts to what now is fulfilled by the likes of Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, and some editions have been reprinted following the television exposure. This triple website claims to be a modern Bradshaw's guide dedicated to the ceremonial county of Cheshire, an entity that includes parts of Greater Manchester and Merseyside, so you get places like Stockport included. There are details of every train station in Cheshire and nearby attractions. The result is a curious mix, but that makes it worthy of a little time spent seeing what it has to offer. Mind you, it would do no bad thing to add in a little station history, for I was after when Knutsford station's main rebuilding got rebuilt when I found it. That it didn't answer that little question is not something that I'll be holding against the website, though.

A Changing Shape

Before 1974, the shape of the county could be likened to that of a teapot. To my eye, the Wirral was the handle with a spur including Stalybridge appearing like a spout. After the bulge around Warrington, Altrincham and Stockport have the appearance of the tea pot's lid with the rest of the county looking like the body of the pot itself.

1974 saw the loss of the Wirral to the new metropolitan county of Merseyside and the establishment of Greater Manchester took away what lay around Stalybridge, Altrincham and Stockport. At that time, Tintwistle seems to have become part of Derbyshire. Things remained stable until 1998 when it became the year when Halton and Warrington's unitary councils were established, further reducing the area controlled by the county council until that got divided in 2009. The only saving grace was that Cheshire didn't change its overall boundaries on that occasion. Now, it looks unlikely that any more can be done, but you never know.

There was a time when the shape of Cheshire could be likened to a teapot, but that is long gone; the 1974 local authority reorganisation saw to that when the metropolitan counties of Merseyside and Greater Manchester were brought into being. Speaking of Merseyside, that took in the Wirral peninsula and Greater Manchester took in places like Stalybridge, Stockport, Altrincham and Timperley among others in the same vicinity. Additionally, the rural parts around Tintwhistle were sent into Derbyshire.

Reminders of Grander Times

The twentieth century wasn't the first time that Cheshire ceded territory because some of its historical western fringes are now part of Wales. That frontier with a then hostile land had a hand in its becoming a county palatine in Norman times, with the Earl of Chester presiding over the area with quite a lot of autonomy from the crown. That the county benefited from rich agricultural land only can have helped to make it prosperous too and affluence hasn't gone away in present times either, with the proximity to Manchester and Liverpool ensuring that those with newer money enhance the economic standing of the area. That it is entrepreneurship and football that is making the major contribution only shows how times have changed.

Cheshire's continuing status as a ceremonial county is what gains it a Lord Lieutenant. Currently, this is the squire of Capesthorne Hall, situated between Macclesfield, Congleton, Knutsford and Wilmslow, and one of the county's larger houses and estates. Of those, it retains a good number and many are open to the public, so here are a few that you can visit.

Tatton Park

This is not just a repository of visitor information for the aforementioned country house, now in public ownership, but it covers the Knutsford area too. In addition to the wilder oasis among the fertility of the rolling farmland surrounding it, it hosts a number of events, of which the annual RHS flower show is just one. As I discovered one year when my employer still paid for such things (I must add that was quite a few years ago), it hosts elaborate Christmas work dos too. Personally, I am more than content to enjoy the parkland and any sightings of its deer herd.

Rode Hall & Gardens

It was the rediscovery of a leaflet publicising the delights of this big country house and its garden that was the cause of my adding an entry for it here. The website is extensive and is worthy of some of your time due to the amount of effort expended on it and the interesting content that is included. So far, this hasn't been somewhere that I have visited, but I am set to thinking now that it is an omission that deserves rectification.

Gawsworth Hall

For the visitor, this is more than an old country house with genuine half-timbered construction using oak with a hefty Kerridge slate roof. That would be sufficient reason to go there, but there is a summer season of comedy, music, opera and drama for a selection of summer evenings too. It's a very different experience when an evening's entertainment begins with a picnic on an old tilting ground where jousting tournaments once were staged.

Current Austerity

It wasn't the loss of an area's identity that occupied my mind when Cheshire County Council was abolished, but the provision of public services such as support for bus services and maintenance of public rights of way that go through the countryside. As it happened, there was nothing much in the way of upheaval until the economy started to underperform and public finances markedly deteriorated. The resulting cuts in public have taken their toll, with some bus services no longer running. However, there's little sign of those cuts having an effect on visitor information for the county apart from a little consolidation. So, I suppose that's seen as an investment in the economy and not a cost as some bus services are seen. Maybe the same logic is helping with the continuation of support for public rights of way too, though the work of the Peak and Northern Footpath Society cannot be underestimated.

That mention of a voluntary organisation like the PNFS is apt given the current reductions in public spending. With the current constraints on what local and national government can do, now perhaps is an opportune time to demonstrate what local communities can do for themselves. While working on a return to economic prosperity is uppermost in many minds, encouraging visitors to spend some time in the county remains part of that. After all, that seems to be part of Ireland's economic policy these days, so I'd be surprised if it was excluded in Cheshire too. These are times for holidays near home too, so even getting locals to make use of what surrounds them is a step forward, even without needing to lure outsiders. With those thoughts in mind, here are a few websites that I have discovered that seek to achieve both ends.

Congleton Museum

The museum is a charitable enterprise that is staffed mainly by volunteers, so is very much a community enterprise. For all that, it is possible to spend an hour here and there's a piece about the town's history on their website, as if keeping artefacts on display in a building open to the public weren't enough.

Happy Valley

It is hilly around this part of the course of the river Dean, and here's a community website from the good people of Bollington telling you about what they have in their part of the world. Community events and history feature here too, so it's a good place to spend a while.

Make It Macclesfield

Macclesfield is where I call home these days, and it has been hit by the current downturn, like so many places. That has spurred a local business group to create this website to promote the town and what surrounds it. It came to my notice when I spotted a banner hanging from the columns of the town hall and decided to check up on it. All the sorts of information that a prospective visitor needs is to be found on there, though some pages are more clearly a work in progress than others. Given the pretty countryside that surrounds the place, I can vouch for its worth as a part of the world worthy of a visit.

Virtual Knutsford

If I recall correctly, this website existed before the downturn and has taken on greater importance since economic conditions toughened. As well as general information about the place, there also is a part of the website devoted to Knutsford Heritage Centre and a recently added accommodation guide too to compliment the Keep Knutsford Busy initiative.

Much to be Missed

In summary, when you speed through Cheshire en route to elsewhere, you are passing quite a lot and doing yourself a disservice. The mix of attractive countryside, historic houses and gardens along with equally historic villages, towns and a city mean that plenty of variety is on offer here. The county may not exist as a local authority area any longer but its identity is not fading thanks both to enduring memory and local councils' promotion of the place to live, work and enjoy. It seems that whatever political upheavals come our way in the course of history, the attractions remain. Some things just don't change or alter that quickly.