From rolling hills, to the Cheshire plains, to the Sandstone Trail, Cheshire is a wonder to the eye.
Cheshire is mentioned in the Domesday Book and formed the biggest English county - by default. The Normans had massacred whole areas of Lancashire after the county resisted Norman occupation. As a punishment, Lancashire and its assets were included as part of the entries of Cheshire.
The Layout of Cheshire
Cheshire occupies a section of the north-west of England that borders North Wales, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Shropshire, Staffordshire and (just) Derbyshire. It has Snowdonia to the west and the Pennines to the east - this means Cheshire receives less rainfall than it would do otherwise, as the hills 'capture' the clouds and hinder their passing.
Having had its boundaries changed three times over the last 50 years, Cheshire has evolved many times.
Before 1974, Cheshire included the Wirral peninsula to the west, with the Manchester Ship Canal forming the boundary between Cheshire and Lancashire. Many boundaries were redrawn when local government was changed in 1974. The Wirral became part of Merseyside. Runcorn and Warrington then became part of Cheshire, but it also lost a great chunk to the north-east of the Shire. This stayed in situ until April 1998.
Cheshire is still a very confusing county to define, boundary-wise but the main area of Cheshire covers Frodsham to the north and down to Audlem and Malpas in the south and from Neston to the west to Disley and Alsager in the east. In 1998, The Wirral took on the Cheshire postcode, becoming a CH postcode instead of an L postcode. But this does not mean that the Wirral has been included in Cheshire. The debate as to whether the Wirral belongs to Cheshire or not is still ongoing.
As things stand, Cheshire has six Borough Councils. These are: Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council, Chester City Council, Vale Royal, Congleton Borough Council and Macclesfield Council.
Cheshire has two major rivers that run through from the sea either side of the Wirral. The River Mersey continues inland through the north of the county via Runcorn, while the River Dee starts out life at Bala Lake. It is known as the Little Dee before it reaches Bala Lake, and after this point it winds its way through North Wales and around Chester before reaching the Dee estuary, dividing the Wirral from North Wales.
The County Seat of Cheshire is Chester, the biggest occupied town or city in the county. It is a former Roman settlement that boasts an impressive Roman wall and archaeological digs dotted all over the place. The main dig taking place at the time of writing1 is to reveal the second half of the Roman Amphitheatre. This is a long dig which began in early 2005. There is an excellent in-depth guide to Chester which takes you on a stroll around the city, as well as a guided tour of the River Dee from its birth to its eventual meeting with the sea.
A Victorian Definition
Bartholemew's Gazetteer of the British Isles, written in 1887, describes the county as follows:
Cheshire, a palatine and maritime county of England, bounded on the northwest by the Irish Sea, and bordering on the counties of Lancaster, York, Derby, Stafford, Salop, Denbigh, and Flint; extreme length, northeast and southwest, 58 miles; extreme breadth, 40 miles; average breadth 18 miles; area, 657,123 acres; population 644,037.
Cheshire forms, towards the Irish Sea, a flat peninsula, the Wirral (12 miles by seven miles), between the estuaries of the Mersey and the Dee, and inland a vast plain separating the mountains of Wales from those of Derbyshire. This plain is diversified with fine woods of oak, etc, and is studded with numerous small lakes or meres. A low ridge of sandstone hills runs north from Congleton, near the east border, and another extends from the neighbourhood of Malpas to Frodsham, near the estuary of the Mersey.
The chief rivers are the Mersey with its affluent the Bollin, the Weaver, and the Dee. The soil consists of marl, mixed with clay and sand, and is generally fertile. There are numerous excellent dairy farms, on which the celebrated Cheshire cheese is made; also extensive market gardens, the produce of which is sent to Liverpool, Manchester, and the neighbouring towns.
Salt has been long worked; it is obtained from rock salt and saline springs; the principal works are at Nantwich, Northwich, and Winsford. Coal and ironstone are worked in the districts of Macclesfield and Stockport. There are manufacturers of cotton, silk, and ribbons, carried on chiefly in the towns of the East division; and shipbuilding, on the Mersey. Cheshire contains seven hundreds and 503 parishes, and is entirely within the Diocese of Chester.
The Celtic tribe of the Cornovii, who occupied the area that was to become the County of Cheshire, were one of several native British tribes who succumbed to Roman occupation. In 60 AD, the Roman fort of Deva (Chester) was built. It was most probably built to protect access to lead and silver that was found over the Welsh border in Flintshire.
A full-scale occupation of Cheshire began around 71 AD following various battles against the Brigantes, who were based in Lancashire. Chester became the most important defence against native incursions, and developed into a major military and commercial centre. Many Romans received their pay in salt after the colonisation of the settlements at Condate (Northwich) and Salinae (Middlewich), which was the second largest town in the county after Chester. Salt mines beneath these towns were highly valued by the Roman forces.
By 80 AD, Cheshire was pacified and increasingly Romanised. Other industries arrived in the area which included smelting of lead at Runcorn and potteries at Wilderspool, though the county retained most of its rural character as native Britons tended more towards agriculture than industry.
Mercian Saxon Cheshire
When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 5th Century, invasions of increasing magnitude took place from Scandinavia. Yet, they too grew peaceful with woodland clearances continuing as they settled and farmed new lands in the area. By the mid 7th Century, Christianity had become widespread and early churches were erected, one of the oldest was built at Eccleston, near Chester. 'Eccles' is an old Celtic-Welsh word meaning 'church'.
Cheshire roughly marked the frontier between the Danes in the north and east and the Welsh to the west, and at least two defensive ditches were dug to keep them out - Offa's Dyke, which can still be seen today, built by King Offa of Mercia between 760-780 AD, and the earlier but less well known Wat's Dyke, built some time before 655 AD. Wat's Dyke remained the recognised border until the Norman conquest.
Mercian place names are still evident throughout the county, recognised by the suffix 'ham' (from the Saxon word 'hamm' meaning a settlement), and 'burgh' or 'bury' (indicating a fortified settlement or stronghold). Old Cheshire townships like Frodsham, Eastham, Weaverham, Wrenbury and Prestbury all indicate their Mercian Saxon origins.
After the invasion of the Norman Conquest in 1066 by William I, ongoing dissent and resistance took place for many years, which led to confiscation of lands by the conquerors. Cheshire, still offered stiff resistance. William therefore imposed his will with such severity and brutality that earlier Norse incursions paled into insignificance. His treatment of Cheshire was severe; whole areas of land were destroyed, villages razed, crops burnt, livestock slaughtered and people rendered landless, homeless and dispossessed. In 1069 a last-ditch attempt at local resistance was put down and draconian measures taken to show native Saxons the futility of future resistance. Earl Edwin of Mercia and other major landowners were made examples of, with their properties confiscated and their lands redistributed among Norman barons.
The devastation of Cheshire was so complete that in William's own Domesday Survey of 1086 most of the lands in Cheshire were recorded as 'wasta', or wasteland, as 'abandoned or useless lands' whereas before the conquest they had been fertile and prosperous. Macclesfield seemed to have been especially targeted for destruction by the Norman forces, together with the city of Chester, which was besieged in 1070 and eventually largely demolished. All this devastation plunged the county into a state of utter poverty, starvation and deprivation, from which it took many decades to recover.
At Chester, William built a castle in a defensive location overlooking the River Dee from where it could dominate and control the city. The county of Cheshire was also governed from this Castle. Gaps in the old Roman wall were repaired and 10 additional guard towers built. The inner city had a two mile defensible wall and walkway - making Chester probably one of the most heavily defended cities in Britain at that time.
The New Administration
Having dispossessed Edwin and overthrown his governorship, King William then created one of his faithful baron supporters, Hugh d'Avranches (called Hugh Lupus, or 'wolf') as Earl of Chester, ruling virtually on his own in the King's name and with his full authority. Cheshire was thereby declared a County Palatine, a title it still holds today.
The county continued to be ruled by Norman earls, with their own courts of law, until the last died without a male heir in 1237. The then King, Henry III, declared the female line of inheritance invalid and took back the title, giving it to his son, Prince Edward. Since that time the eldest son of all English monarchs has held the title of Earl of Chester. By the 13th Century, Chester had become so important that extensions were built to the castle to include a royal apartment for King Edward I and his queen, where they stayed during the various wars with the Welsh.
A line of castles protected the border from the Welsh on the western side of the county. In addition to that at Chester, these included motte-and-bailey castles at Shotwick, Dodleston, Aldford, Pilford, Shocklach, Oldcastle and Malpas. They reinforced or replaced with stone, earlier or derelict forts at Frodsham, Runcorn, Hale and Halton to protect the Mersey Estuary. The central Cheshire Plain was dominated by a new castle at Beeston, which still overlooks it today.
Cheshire during the Civil Wars
During the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, divided loyalties tore apart an otherwise well established and cohesive society. Peasant and aristocrat allied with either the Royalists or Parliamentarians depending on conscience, irrespective of social status. The county saw vicious battles fought on its lands - namely, the sieges of Nantwich and Chester which caused devastation and bloody battles at townships like Middlewich. This brought havoc to the surrounding countryside of Cheshire.
England was placed under military rule in 1654 and Cheshire, Lancashire and North Staffordshire were governed by Charles Worsley. His barbaric treatment of Royalist supporters made his name feared and despised throughout the northwest of England. Riots were planned, most notably one by Sir George Booth (of Dunham Massey near Altrincham) who was a Parliamentarian. In the face of Worsley's barbarism, though these were quashed and led to the leaders' executions.
Nineteenth Century Victorian Cheshire
Late in the 18th Century, land and district reorganisations took place, with many large estates being reorganised and boundaries redrawn. With many mill towns in Lancashire and Manchester becoming industrialised, several Cheshire farmsteads were abandoned as workers sought 'a better living' in the industrial towns. Abandoned lands were absorbed into bigger estates so that eventually 98% of the land in Cheshire belonged to only 26% of its population. By 1870, enormous estates grew up, including John Tollemache's estate at Peckforton with over 25,000 acres, the Marquess of Cholmondeley's (pronounced Chumley) lands of nearly 17,000 acres and those of the Duke of Westminster at just over 15,000 acres.
Cheshire was a wealthy county in the 19th Century. It is estimated that there are more 18th and 19th Century country houses in Cheshire than in any other English county. The wealthy land-owning Egerton Family built theirs at Tatton between 1760 and 1820 and is set in its own magnificent parkland and exotic gardens. The 17th Century house at Dunham Massey saw significant 19th Century re-development and expansion into its present state.
Cheshire cheese also came to the forefront, with some 10,000 tons being sent per year to London alone, thanks to the completion of the Trent and Mersey Canal which connected rural Cheshire directly to the industrial areas in the Midlands and beyond. Cheshire Cheese is also the oldest known type of cheese in Great Britain.
Modern Day Cheshire
Rural Cheshire is today a most pleasant and a much sought after place to live. It is believed that more millionaires live in the county than in any other in the United Kingdom, apart from Greater London and Hertford.
It has also been said that Cheshire bowmen formed the backbone of the archers at Agincourt; a tremendous team of toxic toxophilites! They were said to have one forearm longer and stronger than the other, with broad chests and shoulders, as a result of a lifetime's shooting practise. Cheshire still has a selection of names linked to the tradition of archery and bowmanship. One h2g2 Researcher's aunt married an Archibald Stringer, the meaning of which is simply a 'bold archer'. He was so named because of his surname, based on the ancient craft of twisting a twine or string for the bow. Names like Bowyer (a carver or maker of bows); Fletcher, who made the feather flights for arrows, and Arrowsmith, which speaks for itself, are now less common than they once were in the county.
In mid-Cheshire, there is the ancient and pretty market town of Knutsford. Said to be named after King Canute, who is believed to have sallied forth to the then 'village near a ford'.
In the vast green splendour of Tatton Park on the outskirts of Knutsford, the family of the Egerton dynasty, who came over with the Conqueror, has left the nation a splendid mansion house, and it is believed, about 10,000 acres of parkland and a vast clear lake. It is the venue of the Cheshire Show (agricultural and craft-skill fair) and concerts, outdoor and indoor. Deer roam freely in a large reserve area. The long approach to the house is similar to that at Blenheim Palace with two straight rows of mature oak and beech trees down each side of the lane. The two parks are about equal in size, and very alike.
Also in mid-Cheshire are the 'Wiches' or 'Wyches', towns built over vast deposits of salt: Northwich is the main one, then Nantwich, Middlewich, Leftwich, and the vast underground caverns of salt mines in Winsford. These have those large-wheeled dumper trucks you see in open-cast mines. They are taken down the mine in pieces and assembled down there, never to come up in one piece! There are traffic lights and road signs in squared-off tunnels with two lanes of traffic! Much of the rocksalt is used on the roads of Britain in winter to grit and melt the ice.
The chemical industries of north-west and mid Cheshire use brine from local brine wells in their processing of soda-ash and chlorine. The Romans were the first people to mine salt in the area. There was a Roman castle in Northwich, standing on what is now called Castle, a smaller shopping and residential district of the town.
Much of the county is still, of course, prime farming land, with a very fertile loam suitable for both arable farming and cattle rearing. Cheshire stands in the lea of the Welsh mountains, in a 'rain-shadow' region. The Cheshire plain forms what is called the Cheshire Gap by the meteorologists.
The presence of cattle and dairy farming in the county led to the development of the leather tanning industry in the four main tanneries in Runcorn, which had always been both an urban (and rural) district of Cheshire. The chemical industry of Cheshire and south-west Lancashire developed to serve the needs of the tanning industry as one of its main customers. It provided the dyes, developed by the pioneering chemists of the University of Manchester, and financed by industrial entrepreneures like Sir John Brunner and Hamilton Y Castner, an American mining engineer and Karl Kellner, a German chemist.
Below is a small selection of villages and towns which should whet your appetite to visit Cheshire.
Alsager, situated next to the Staffordshire border, is a thriving town that has managed to retain its rural charm. It has two parish churches of note in addition to places of worship for Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. These are Christ Church and St Mary Magdalene. The former is the older and was erected by the Misses Alsager in 1789. St Mary Magdalene's was completed in 1898 although the tower was never built.
The Leisure Centre in Alsager has a large sports hall, gymnasium, swimming pool, squash courts, outdoor floodlit artificial pitch together with a licensed bar and refreshment facilities. For outdoor recreation there is a private 18 hole golf course, public playing fields, and tennis, bowls, football and cricket clubs.
Alsager Mere is a must for walkers and presents a picturesque stretch of tree-flanked water. These walkways also connect up with other public footpaths through the countryside.
Alsager is served by trains on the Crewe to Stoke and Derby line and bus services provide links with nearby towns. The Trent and Mersey Canal is also nearby.
The centre of Alsager provides adequate facilities for local shopping. In addition, a varied selection of eating establishments provide a range of dining options for that special occasion as well as inexpensive ones for bar snacks, etc. Several hotels in the town cater for tourists and business users alike.
This small canal-side village is a popular place for a stroll by the canal on a summer evening or a quiet drink or meal at the local pub called the 'Shroppie Fly', named after the fly-boats, fast horse-drawn water-buses.
The town of Congleton, which gives its name to the Borough, has a number of half timbered buildings as well as a fine 'Venetian Gothic' Town Hall. Its origins seem to date back to Neolithic times and the remains of a Stone Age chambered tomb known as the Bridestones can still be seen on the hill road to Leek. Other archaeological finds suggest there may have been Bronze Age settlements in the area. The River Dane was named because of its reputed usage by Scandinavian settlers in Congleton in the 9th to 11th Centuries.
In 1752, the first silk mill was built and by 1771 this industry had restored the town's prosperity. Ribbon weaving began in the 1750s, followed in 1784 by cotton spinning and a small wares trade came later. The textile industry was the major activity until light industry and the engineering and paper trades arrived to give the district a more varied industrial basis.
Congleton is one of four towns in Cheshire to have retained the main elements of its mediaeval street plan. The town centre has now been relieved of through traffic by an inner-relief road which has allowed the central shopping area to be pedestrianised.
Crewe, one half of the Borough or Crewe and Nantwich, played a major part in the industrial revolution that transformed the modern world. Crewe is home to Crewe Station, a rail route to the North, South, East and West of the country where many a northern stand-up comic has found inspiration for an opening line while awaiting a connection.
The town was founded on the fortunes of the Grand Junction Railway Company, evolving in the mid-19th Century from a small hamlet into a thriving community. The railway led to the development of what was once the town's largest employer, the railway works where steam locomotives and rolling stock were made.
'The Railway Age' is a must-see for train enthusiasts - Crewe's railway heritage can be explored and steam locomotives examined at close quarters.
Until recently Crewe was the home of the Rolls-Royce car factory. It now only produces Bently, which is just as luxurious, and in the good old days, the only difference between the Rolls-Royce and a Bently was the design of the radiator grille. Rolls-Royce also produced the diesel engines for the early diesel rail cars (two to three coaches per train).
At the railway station, Bombardier's Crewe depot is now the last place in the UK where trains are built.
The Lyceum Theatre is a fine Edwardian building which has recently undergone major refurbishment with the auditorium being restored to its original splendour.
The northern boundary of Holmes Chapel is the River Dane which flows west. This is crossed by an impressive railway viaduct of 23 by 63 feet brick spans, taking the railway line up to 105 feet above the floor of the valley through which the river runs. The viaduct was completed in 1842 and is still in use on the main Manchester to Crewe line.
Nearby stands the magnificant telescope complex at Jodrell Bank whose giant reflector dish dominates the Cheshire Plain.
These two great structures were built for Manchester University in 1952-7 and 1962-4. The larger, Lovell Telescope, is now a Grade 1 Listed Building. It weighs 3,500 tons and is 250 feet in diameter. The smaller has a bowl 125 feet by 84 feet in diameter. The Jodrell Bank complex has a wide range of areas to view and they include: Concourse Building, Planetarium, Exhibition of Modern Astronomy, picnic gardens and arboretum.
Nantwich, second half of the Borough of Crewe and Nantwich, is a town with a totally different character to that of its neighbour. It is is a smaller and older market town set beside the meandering River Weaver with a medieval street pattern.
Just as Crewe is associated with railways, so Nantwich is associated with salt, Cheshire cheese, and picturesque black and white buildings. In medieval times salt was used for cheesemaking and tanning. The restored Brine Spring, known as 'Old Biot' on the banks of the River Weaver, is a reminder of when salt production was the mainstay of the town's economy.
Nantwich has survived many disasters throughout the years. In the 11th Century it was razed to the ground by Norman invaders. Nearly two centuries later it was attacked by Welsh marauders, and finally in 1583 it was almost destroyed by the great fire. The town was rebuilt with the help of Queen Elizabeth I.
Nantwich supported the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and was besieged several times by Royalists. Eventually the town was relieved on 25th January 1644 and the townspeople celebrated by wearing holly in their hats. Every year the Battle of Nantwich is remembered with a re-enactment on 'Holly Holy Day.'
A 'Walkabout Tour' leaflet is on sale at the Tourist Information Centre where a free Tourist Guide can also be obtained.
Surrounding Crewe and Nantwich are a multitude of beautiful villages set in classic English countryside. Many of the villages date back to before the Norman conquest and several have been listed as conservation areas because of their attractive and historic buildings.
One of these villages is Barbridge. Below is a quote from a gentleman who used to live in the village some 65 to 70 years ago.
At the age of 5, myself, and my brothers, Bill, Reg, Harold and Norman, used to walk to 2 1/2 miles to Calveley School. In those days there were no buses laid on and no short cuts could be taken because the bridges over the canal were quite far apart in that area.
It was a beautiful walk and kept us in tip top condition. Being one of 13 children, I think my family pretty much kept the school in service.
One Researcher has provided factual information in relation to his assertions that Runcorn does form part of Cheshire. Below is a quote he has provided from 'History of the County Palatine and City of Chester 2nd Edition' by Routledge, 1882, p674 of 'The History of Cheshire': headed: 'Runcorn Superior and Inferior' which provides an historical text by 'Leycester' the historian.
These two townships, now distinguished into Over-Runcorn and Nether-Runcorn, are mized together in our common mize-book, and are very hard-mized.
Here at Runcorn that magnanimous virago, Elflede, countess of Mercia, and widow to Ethelred the chief governor of Mercia, and sister to King Edward the Elder, did build a town anno Domini 916, as Florentious, Huntington, and other of our historians do affirm: a town and castle, saith Stow, page 81. Probably it was then in a more flourishing condition than now it is; for now it is a very poor village, and seems to be waste in the Conqueror's time, for it is not mentioned in Domesday-book.
Both these townships comprehend not fully 300 Cheshire acres, upon a survey of the assessors made by estimation in the time of our late war.
These little villages are both of the fee of the ancient barony of Halton, and were formally copy-hold land to the manor of Halton, until the several owners bought out their lands in fee-farm, to hold in free and common soccage of the mannor (sic) of Enfield in Middlesex; the King's grant bearing date the ninth day of September 4 Car.1.1628, as you may see also above in Moore.
Some lands in these townships are ancient freehold land; for Sir Hough Dutton of Dutton, by office taken at Frodsham 22 Edw.1.1294, was found to hold seven bovates of land in Runcorn, with other lands, of the honor of Halton, which are termed the third part of Over-Runcorn...
With a combination of shops, pubs, modern and traditional houses and fine community facilities, Tattenhall is a typical rural small Cheshire town and is an ideal spot at which to stop and relax while touring the county's delightful countryside.
The nearby Peckforton Hills form part of a sandstone ridge that rises above the Cheshire Plain in the west of the county. The Ridge begins in Frodsham and winds its way to Whitchurch. It is magnificent walking country with the hills providing panoramic views across a patchwork landscape of hedges, trees and ponds.
Within ten minutes drive of Tattenhall are two famous castles. The ruins of 13th Century Beeston, destroyed in the English Civil War 300 years ago, still stands dramatically on a craggy, tree-covered hill. The steep climb to the top is rewarded with views as far as North Wales in the West and the Pennines in the East.
Peckforton Castle, just a short distance away, is a perfect Victorian copy of a medieval fortification. It was used as the location for the Hollywood production of Robin Hood, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman.
The Cheshire Ring
The Cheshire Ring comprises of inland waterways made up mostly of man made canals.
This link The Cheshire Ring gives you an in-depth write-up as to which rivers and canals make up the Cheshire Ring, together with the option of hiring a canal boat to navigate the waters.
Population statistics as per National Census of 2001
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