The Weird of Alderley
This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.
England is tame. It’s been shorn of mystery, its wildness cut away as mercilessly as Aslan’s mane. But there are places where something wild and mysterious lingers on, and some of these places lie hidden in plain sight, side by side with all the excesses of modern-day England. Of these, none is stranger, nor juxtaposed more jarringly with its surroundings, than Alderley Edge in Cheshire.
What is Alderley Edge? In the blunt fashion of so many English place names, the answer is given in the asking. It’s a sandstone ridge, an edge that, depending on how you look at it, is the last ripple of the Pennines before it sinks into the Cheshire Plain or the first step upward from the flat lands. As such, it is border country, and this quality of strangeness is still palpable today. It was this strangeness that made the Edge the ideal setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone, and the book has remained in print throughout.
To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle (Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 9TX; 01829 260464; www.english-heritage.org.uk; £5.30 adults, £4.50 concessions, £2.70 children), which is about 25 miles south west of Alderley Edge. The ruins of the medieval castle stand atop and around a great rock crag jutting some 500 feet out of the plain – it may be the best view for the shortest climb in the country! To the west are the Welsh hills, south lies The Wrekin and east is Alderley Edge, marked out by the unmistakeable circle of Jodrell Bank just in the foreground, with the Pennines lying beyond (the visibility of the dish does rather depend on where it is pointing though). But what the view also shows is that this is a settled land, one deeply embedded in history and legend. And it is this that makes the British Isles so much more evocative than their size or comparatively gentle landscape would suggest.
However, you might be forgiven for wondering what on earth I’m on about should you arrive by train at Alderley Edge and walk down the main, appropriately named and directed, London Road. For a small town, the high street is densely packed with wine bars, boutiques and slightly predatory looking, if immaculately turned out, women. If the weather was 10 degrees warmer you could be in Marbella. This is where Alderley Edge, a place of legend, runs full tilt into our modern myth of fame. The town is just a few miles south of Manchester, convenient for the airport and Manchester United Football Club. The Beckhams lived here, as did Cristiano Ronaldo. Property prices are even higher than you’d think, the new-build mansions more ghastly than you could imagine.
Do look out for Fosters Fish & Chips though (4 Chorley Hall Lane, Alderley Edge, 01625 582682, www.fostersfishandchips.com). Not only is it one of the best fish and chip shops in the region, but Colin and Susan eat there at the start of The Moon of Gomrath, when workmen unleash an ancient evil that was trapped below ground in front of the Trafford Arms, opposite Fosters.
The town is small, and taking the B5087 Macclesfield Road, you’ll soon start winding upwards, past some eye-wateringly large and imposing houses. Continue on, and after a while the houses are left behind, and woods and fields appear. You’re now up on the Edge, but it would be perfectly possible to continue on to Macclesfield without ever knowing it. (In fact, a friend of mine did once come in search of the Edge and fail to find it, despite asking the way in the town. It’s likely that the WAGs of whom he inquired the Edge’s whereabouts – he was young and testosterone fuelled at the time – did not count hill walking among their main pursuits.) Instead, stop at the first lay by and take the sign-posted path heading north east, with an open field to your right. At the end of the field, head straight on, go down some steps and then turn left, following the path past some rock outcrops until you come to the Wizard’s Well. At this point, readers of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will be entitled to laugh out loud in delighted recognition. For there it is, exactly as described in the book:
a stone trough into which water was dripping from an overhanging cliff, and high in the rock was carved the face of a bearded man, and underneath was engraved:
Drink of this
And take thy fill
For the water falls
By the wizards will
The legend of Alderley Edge, which was first documented in 1753 although it’s likely much older, tells of a farmer from Mobberley making his way over the Edge to sell his milk-white mare at Macclesfield market. An old man asks to buy the horse, but the farmer refuses, thinking to get a better price at the market. But the old man tells him no one will buy the horse, although all will admire it, and he will be waiting for the farmer when he returns that evening. And so he is, and he leads the farmer along the Edge until he comes to a large rock, which he touches with his staff. At his touch, the rock parts, revealing Iron Gates, and a by now thoroughly frightened farmer and steed are taken deep into the earth and brought to a chamber where lie many knights, sleeping. And beside all save one is a milk-white mare. The wizard takes the farmer into a cave filled with treasure and tells him to take what he will as payment for his horse, for these knights lie sleeping until the wizard wakes them to do battle for England’s deliverance. The farmer leaves, a chastened but richer man, and the Iron Gates clang shut behind him.
Being near urban centres, timing is important when visiting Alderley Edge. Arrive on a bank holiday Monday and it came seem about as mysterious as Blackpool beach. But come in autumn twilight, when the wind is blowing the trees ragged or, as I did on my last visit, with snow beginning to fall and the world looking as unfamiliar as only the first winter snow can make it, you too will wonder what is real and what is imaginary. Holes, deep and unexpected, open in the rock, and hollows, man made but tree grown, lie in wait.
For the Edge is worked rock, made of sandstone that was laid down some 240 million years ago when even dinosaurs were still young, and it’s been mined since the Bronze Age. Those strange hollows are quarries and they pockmark the Edge, their number a testament to the intensity with which it was worked. Tunnels, some leading down deep into the ground, others simply test mines that failed to find what they sought, make silent ‘o’s in the rock. And though you know you shouldn’t go in, each and every one exhales temptation. ‘Enter. Explore. Delve deep and you will find the secret roots of hill and tree and rock,’ they seem to say. But the temptation must be resisted. It can be hard, though, for everything about the place suggests a secret land. Tree roots reach like fingers over the exposed rocks, their nails digging deep into the cracks. Unexpected vistas to the Pennines open suddenly and then, just as suddenly, close. This is a strange country, where it is easy to feel that the veils between this world and another are thin.
But what is this other world? In The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath it is a place of high magic and old magic, of dwarves and elves, the wild hunt and the sudden, shocking onrush of fimbulwinter. But Garner is tapping into much older traditions here, for the idea of the gate which opens into an Otherworld that is both coterminous and distant from our own is an old one, with deep roots in the cultures and imaginings of the inhabitants of these islands, be they Celt, Scot, Saxon or Norman.
Beowulf dived into the lake to confront and kill Grendel’s mother; Arthur – the once and future king – sleeps in Avalon; Bran sails over a sea that is a flower-speckled plain; True Thomas lives for seven years beneath the three peaks of the Eildon Hills when he goes with the fairy queen upon ‘that bonny road,/Which winds about the fernie brae,/ That is the road to fair Elfland,/ Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.’
Here there is wildness, lurking barely beneath the skin of modern life, but it is a wilderness of a different order. It’s the inchoate stuff of legend and myth, where spirit and matter, history and death meet and plunge strange roots into land and heart. It’s the wild heart of these islands, transmitted and transfixed in particular areas and as such illustrates how our wilderness is different from that of a country like America, where the dominant experience of wilderness is of a place apart from humanity and into which we venture as visitors. Here, wildness lies at the intersection of land, culture, myth and memory, in the place where worlds meet.
The Edge is a perfect example of such a liminal place. It’s not particularly large, and you could explore most of it in a day, and yet I suspect that even a lifetime of daily walks would not reveal all its secrets nor uncover all its moods. The Edge was a bare, windswept ridge until the mid-18th century, when local landowners planted it with Scotch pine. Since then, oak and beech have colonised the Ridge, their roots often making use of the cracks in the rock strata exposed by quarries to anchor the trees against winter storms.
The quarries and mines are perhaps the most striking feature of the Edge. Although they are obviously the work of men, they add considerably to the otherworldly atmosphere of the place. Bronze Age man first mined here, digging for copper and lead, and the Romans followed. However, there’s little evidence for any further activity between the Romans and 1690. For the next two hundred years, the Edge was extensively mined and quarried, and though there was little real activity after World War I, the mines became something of a tourist attraction. However, several unwary visitors were hurt or killed, and the mines became notorious. Some were sealed, and tourists warned not to venture under ground. The sandstone has also been eroded in many places by visitors, so it is best to keep to the paths.
Much of our knowledge of the tunnels comes from a man called John Evans, who lived a hermit life out of a log cabin in Church Quarry, which lies not far behind The Wizard pub (Macclesfield Road, Nether Alderley, SK10 4UB, 01625 584 000). Evans lived there for many years after he suffered a breakdown in 1915, reputedly brought on by the loss of the woman he loved on the Titanic. Knowledgeable about geology and a good climber, he began exploring the caves. Despite his hermit reputation, Evans enjoyed socialising and this led to his strange death. After an evening drinking in a local pub, Evans returned to his hut with two friends to continue the merrymaking. But one of the men, Walter Whitelegg, fell ill and died later that night – from cyanide poisoning it turned out. The inquest called to discover the cause of death summoned Evans as a witness, but when he failed to turn up the police went to Church Quarry only to find Evans dead – of cyanide poisoning too.
The Derbyshire Caving Club (www.derbyscc.org.uk) now leases the caves from the National Trust, which owns the land, and it is continuing to explore and excavate the mines. The club runs guided tours (ring Paul Stubbs on 0161 493 3132 for details) and a couple of open days during the year (17/18 April 2010 are the next ones scheduled) when anyone can turn up and be taken through the mines. The National Trust also runs free guided walks on Sundays; email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/placestovisit for dates and more information.
Strangely, but rather appropriately, six bars of gold have also been found around the Edge, with most of the finds made in the 1990s. See, I said there’s something truly odd about the place. Maybe, behind the tame façade, the old gods of England are laughing.