With its leafy canals, crooked Tudor houses and saltmaking heritage, visitors to Cheshire discover a lesserknown but uniquely colourful history
Words by Jenny Rowe-Patel
Perhaps best known as the home of footballers and their reality TV-starring housewives, or otherwise lumped in with Manchester, which lies to the north, the real Cheshire too often goes undiscovered. But these preconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Cheshire is more industrious than ostentatious, and while proud of its attributes, it prefers to stay out of the limelight.
The county town of Chester is a case in point. With Roman walls and a historic racecourse, Chester is a mini York. It may not have its own minster, but Chester Cathedral is a more than sufficient stand-in, which began life as a monastic house in 1093. While the majority of the Gothic red sandstone structure you see today began construction in 1250, it took a mammoth 275 years to complete. When you peer up at its awe-inspiring vaulted ceiling, you can see why.
Perhaps more famous, however, are Chester’s Roman roots. The town’s two-mile-long Roman walls are the longest and oldest that remain in Britain. It was in Georgian times that the walls changed from a means of protection to a pastime, and today you can walk around the entire perimeter. En route, admire the Eastgate Clock, which celebrates Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, before descending to Eastgate Street for a spot of shopping. Enjoy nipping up and down the half-timbered galleries of the Chester Rows. This double-decker design is unique in the world – take that, York and its busy Shambles!
From Chester, the county opens up to the north, east and south – go west and you’ll soon enter Wales. In general, the northern parts of Cheshire have greater links with urban industries, whereas heading south takes you towards an agricultural hinterland and the border with Shropshire.
Along the way – amongst the fields of crops and cows – you’ll find rural but extremely well-kempt, lively villages. Marbury, surrounded by meres and lakes, is a good place to stretch your legs. And don’t miss Audlem, slightly further south, where an old mill houses one of the best needlework shops in Britain. Audlem lies on an exciting stretch of the Shropshire Union Canal – you can watch the barges contend with its famous run of 15 locks.
Canals cut deep through Cheshire’s landscape – and history. The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port is the best place to explore the stories of Cheshire’s canal heritage. Nearby you can also visit the mighty Anderton Boat Lift, dubbed the ‘Cathedral of Canals’.
Also named one of Robert Aickman’s Seven Wonders of the Waterways in 1955, it’s one of only two surviving boat lifts in Britain. It lifts boats 50 feet from the River Weaver Navigation to the Trent and Mersey Canal, with the original aim of speeding up the transfer of goods – most notably china from the nearby Potteries and table salt from Cheshire.
In fact, this tasty staple – more properly known as halite – is Cheshire’s most precious export. Just next door to the boat lift, visit the Lion Salt Works – a recently opened museum designed to preserve a key piece of Cheshire history.
When the Romans settled here over two thousand years ago, they had stumbled upon veritable gold. For beneath a lowland area known as the Cheshire Plains was a vast amount of halite. Brine springs gave the game away and by the 17th century four salt towns – Northwich, Middlewich, Nantwich and Winsford – were established. Then the Industrial Revolution, which made extraction more efficient via brine pumping and salt mining, threw a curveball.
Eventually over-supply issues forced many companies to close shop. Today, the Winsford mine remains in business as Britain’s oldest and largest. Visit Cheshire in winter, and you’ve nothing to fear – the gritters have a ready supply of the finest rock salt to thaw those icy roads!
Less than ten miles from Ellesmere Port, although technically over the border in Merseyside, you’ll find the seed of another global industry. Port Sunlight is a model village dreamt up by William Hesketh Lever in 1888 to house the workforce of his soap factory. Lever would go on to build Unilever, but the village where it all started remains as provincial as ever. Using 30 different architects and guided by the Arts and Crafts movement, Lever created more than 900 high-quality homes. But there was a catch.
Tenants had to live on Lever’s terms. There was a pub – the Bridge Inn – but it served no alcohol, as Lever himself was teetotal. Certain pastimes were also compulsory. Nowadays the village has modern residents, but the autocratic spirit of Lever lives on. They’re under strict instructions on how to preserve their homes – including, it’s rumoured, what colour to paint their front door. It’s well worth a visit, not least to explore Port Sunlight’s 130 acres of parkland and gardens.
Cheshire excels at horticulture, too. Tatton Park Gardens near Knutsford showcases 50 acres of pristine Edwardian gardens, and hosts an annual Royal Horticultural Society flower show. The onion stores, mushroom sheds and intriguingly named vegetable and fruit varieties in its walled garden are highlights for foodies. Make a day of it by exploring the 18th-century state apartments in the mansion house, or stroll through a thousand acres of deer parkland, complete with two meres (you can’t go far in Cheshire without happening upon one of these small lakes).
Further east still, Lyme is another ready-made Cheshire day out cherished by locals and visitors alike. Perched on the edge of the Peak District National Park, it was owned by the ‘Leghs of Lyme’ and renowned for raucous hunting parties during the Regency era. Other than the house, with its striking Italianate facade, the second most imposing building on the estate is known as The Cage. Originally a hunting lodge where ladies could rest and watch the action, it was later used as a prison for poachers.
On a less grisly note, the hall’s formal gardens were a 19th-century addition, which shot to fame in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, most memorably for Mr Darcy’s impromptu lake swim.
An endearing heritage building with a somewhat less ‘straightforward’ history is the crooked Tudor house near Congleton called Little Moreton Hall. Floors sag dubiously and walls lean inconceivably, yet still, the house stays upright – and has done since 1604. It supposedly took more than a hundred years to build… They weren’t in any rush, so what went awry?
In the past, historians have blamed poor planning and marshy foundations, but this was unfounded. The last-minute addition of the Long Gallery on the second storey seems to have caused most of the structural slippage, reminding us of that old adage ‘quit while you’re ahead’.
And while Little Moreton Hall defies gravity, physicists at nearby observatory Jodrell Bank consider conundrums on a rather more astronomic scale. You’ll likely spot its four landmark radio telescopes at some point on a trip to Cheshire – they can be seen for miles around. The most famous, the magnificent Lovell Telescope, has a 76m diameter. Completed in 1957, the project was set in motion by Bernard Lovell, an enthusiastic physicist from the University of Manchester who trekked out of the city to study cosmic rays in the quieter, remote Cheshire countryside.
Since then Jodrell Bank has helped discover several phenomena including black holes and the fading glow of the Big Bang. The observatory remains at the cutting edge of science today, inviting visitors to enjoy what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the January/February 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 8 December.