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County-landscape

. From the Wirral, a wedge of silted land between the rivers Dee and Mersey, the ancient boundaries of Cheshire swing up into a corner of the Peak District, some 60 miles to the west, and swoop down towards the Midlands, taking in rich farming land, manor houses and churches, mill towns and moors.

. in the south of the county is rich red marl on which grows some of the best pasture in Britain, so this is good dairy farming country - and in 1759 noted for its cheese "esteemed to be best in England".

. The river Weaver in the southeast runs through what were once the largest salt fields in the kingdom. Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich made up the Salt Wiches. Hollows caused by subsidence ofsalt subsequently filled with water and formed small lakes called flashes.

. Macclesfield Forest is a wild, hilly area some 1,800 feet above sea level.

. in the northwest the islands of Hilbre, Little Eye and Middle Eye, off the Wirral, are quiet havens for birdlife; in the northeast the 18-mile Gritstone Trail passes hills of the tough sandstone rock known as Millstone Grits, on its route from Lyme Park to the Staffordshire border.

County-facts

Origin of name: Chester means the camp or fort. The Britons originally called it Legacchestir, meaning the camp of the legions. This was then shortened to Chester, a corruption of the Latin word costro.

Name first recorded: 980 as Legeceasterscir.

COUNTY TOWN

CHESTER An ancient city with a long and impressive history and some of the finest half-timbered buildings in the world.

Other Towns

BIRKENHEAD: Prosperous port founded by Vikings, who called it Birken Haven. Remains of 12th Century Priory, imposing Williamson Art Gallery.

GRAPPENHALL: Nice village whose Church has a grinning Cheshire cat on its tower!

HALTON Ruined 11th century castle, attractive Castle Inn, and Chesshyre Library with many rare volumes, plus glorious views over to Wales and Lancashire.

HOYLAKE: Comfortable residential and seaside resort with a 4-mile promenade and famous Royal Liverpool Golf Club links. Once, it was a mere hamlet from which people set off for Ireland.

KNUTSFORD: Olde-worlde atmosphere still around with good hotels and guest houses.

MACCLESFIELD: Mentioned in the Domesday Book. Once the leading silk-manufacturing town in England with a legacy of 18th- and early 19th-century mills.

NANTWICH: Famed for its brine baths with medicinal qualities. The leather trade flourished here and its streets were said to be paved with scraps of leather.

NEW BRIGHTON: The promenade here is Liverpool's answer to the seaside.

STOCKPORT: its bridge over the Mersey was blown up in 1745 to prevent a rebel army marching from Scotland into the centre of the kingdom. Grew rich on silk, cotton, textiles and engineering. Captured by Prince Rupert in the Civil War.

. Altrincham . Bebington . Bromborough . Crewe . Dukinfield . Hale . Heswell . Hyde

. Neston . Sale . Wallasey . Wilmslow . Winsford

COUNTY RIVERS

Dee, Mersey, Weaver, Dane.

HIGHEST POINT

Black Hill at 1,908 feet.

county-calendar

. Saturday nearest 25 January: the people of Nantwich recall their 1644 defeat of the Royalist army with a re- enactment on Holly Holy Day.

. June-July: every five years Chester holds its famous series of Mystery Plays.

. June: Cheshire County Show at Knutsford.

.June; Woodford Air Show near Cheadle Hulme.

. World Worm-charming championships near Nantwich, in June!

. Events at Tatton Park near Knutsford and Arley Hall nearNorthwich - including outdoor music

famous-names

. Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson lived in the little town of Knutsford and has left her legacy in a memorial tower: as Mrs Gaskell she described the area in her 19th-century novels Cranford and Ruth.

. Footballer Joe Mercer, who led Manchester City to the FA Cup in 1969 and the League and European Cups in 1970, was born in Ellesmere Port in 1914.

. Glenda Jackson, actress and MP, hails from Birkenhead, also the birthplace of Keeping Up Appearances actress Patricia Routledge.

. Actor Ronald Pickup was born in Chester in 1941.

. Lyme Park, a lovely Elizabethan mansion in Disley, doubled as Pemberley for the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

. Granada TV's 1979 screen version of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited was partly set at Tatton Park, a Georgian house in Knutsford.

. TV soap Holyoaks is set and filmed in Chester.

. Outspoken cricketer Ian Botham was born in Heswall in 1955. He went to Milford School.

local government

Cheshire County Council governs about half of the County of Cheshire under a two-tier system with six district councils: Chester, Crewe & Nantwich, Congleton, Ellesmere Port & Neston, Macclesfield and Vale Royal. Then there are five unitary councils shared with Lancashire - Halton, Manchester, Tameside, Trafford and Warrington - and two wholly Cheshire

. Stockport and Wirral. Tintwistle is two-tier administered by Derbyshire County and High Peak District Council.

intro

BRING OUT THE red white and blue - not the Union Jack but crumbly Cheshire cheese of course and the three colours it comes in. I'm rather partial to the blue . . . it's enough to bring a broad grin to your face - like the Cheshire Cat! Seriously though, you need to be on best behaviour here especially in sophisticated Chester as it's quite posh, I always think: posh and pastoral. For sheer contrast to this Surrey-of-the-north vision you can always detour to the industrial Mersey shipbuilding region of Birkenhead (the Mersey Estuary is almost a mile across here) or the railway sidings at Crewe if you are a rail buff complete with anorak, notepad, packed lunch and carrier bag.

towns-and-villages

Multi-storey shopping takes on a new meaning in Chester, the handsome city where history is laid out before your eyes. The foundations of its two-mile town walls were laid by the Romans, who chose this site for the major fortress and port of Deva, on the shore of the Dee. In the Middle Ages 19 wealthy City Guilds and Companies set up shop here, and proof of the prosperity of those years can be seen in the astounding half-timbered buildings of the medieval centre. And this is where the 'high-rise' shopping comes in: in the Rows, two tiers of shops are reached by steps leading to covered galleries that were probably first built in the 13th century (though the present buildings are Tudor and Stuart). Some of the ground-floor doors are actually below ground-level, having stayed put while the pavements were raised over the years. The facades are graced with projecting windows and fine timberwork, and there are exquisite carvings on Bishop's Lloyd's House, where Adam and Eve cover their nakedness watched by the serpent, and a wealth of other scenes and characters are worked into the wood panels. There are more intriguing carvings in the choirstalls of Chester Cathedral, which stands on the site of an 8th- century college for canons. Here, under elaborate spired canopies, the panels are crowded with demons, animals and stories, including the tale of St Werburgh, who tamed and released a flock of wild geese wreaking havoc on the land.

Along the old Roman route through the fortress, Eastgate is now a busy street lined with Victorian buildings and spanned by the 18th-century gate that replaced the original arch erected by the Romans. In 1897 the ornate red, white, blue and gold clocktower, with its legs of lacy ironwork, was set on top of the gate to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

Fans of magpie architecture can have a field day in Cheshire, and will probably head for Nantwich, on the banks of the river Weaver. The Elizabethan houses that line its narrow streets were hastily built after 1583 to replace the wooden town that burned to the ground in the Great Fire of that year. After the 20-day blaze Nantwich was little more than a smouldering heap around its 14th- century parish church, St Mary's, whose octagonal tower and gruesome gargoyles survived, being made of stone. Good Queen Bess heard of the disaster and came up trumps, providing £2,000 and a supply of wood from Delamere Forest. The grateful residents expressed their thanks with a plaque on the High Street, acknowledging that Her Majesty 'hath put her helping hand to bild this towne again'.

Down on the southeast slope of Cheshire, near the Staffordshire border, is the creme de la creme of black-and- white Britain. Little Moreton Hall is a spectacular three- storey manor house, each floor jutting over the one below. Its crooked walls, covered with dizzying half-timber patterns and intricate carved mouldings, lean out around the courtyard and knot garden and over the rectangular moat; and inside are painted murals, a spiral staircase and Elizabethan plasterwork. This was the showpiece of the Moreton family, who (luckily for us) couldn't afford to follow the fashion of the day and cover their home with later improvements - because they were Royalist and Catholic at the wrong time, and had to pay hefty fines to the anti-Royalist, Puritan Commonwealth.

local-history

The people of Cheshire put up a fierce fight against their Roman occupiers, but by AD79 the imperial troops had taken charge and their fleet was moored at the fortified port of Deva. After the Romans had withdrawn a few hundred years later, waves of new invaders settled in the area. By the 7th century the Saxons had arrived. During this era two beautifully carved stone crosses - one 16 feet tall, the other 11 feet - were raised in Sandbach, now a small town off the M6, its name immortalized in the motorway services station. More incursions, by Vikings and then by Normans, met with more resistance: Cheshire saw much fighting, being a strategically placed county on the border with the inaccessible highlands of Wales. In fact, this was such an important area that its nobles were virtually independent of the king for centuries. The earls of Chester held their own parliaments and Richard II even declared Cheshire a principality in its own right.

In the relative calm of the Tudor period, Cheshire's townspeople and merchants were free to build their grand houses and elaborate churches, but in the 17th century trouble hit again, as the Civil War ripped the county apart. Nantwich was the only anti-Royalist town in the county, but it managed to defeat a detachment of the king's troops after six weeks of battle, and turned the church into a makeshift prison for the surviving Cavaliers. Industry brought Cheshire its later wealth - in salt, silk, shipping and cotton. The Wiches (Middlewich,

Northwich and Nantwich) were the salt-producing area - salt pits were worked in Roman times. From the 17th century, mines were dug to extract the salt which is not yet exhausted.

One of the few water-powered cotton mills still standing is the 18th-century Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, founded by benevolent employer Samuel Greg, who provided a school, cottages, food and a church for his workforce. This was a tradition continued by William Hesketh Lever, who invented the sweet-smelling Sunlight soap in the 1850s and built a model village, Port Sunlight, for his workers on the Mersey shore of the Wirral, south of Birkenhead. At the base of the peninsula, further south along the Mersey, a group of ambitious tradesmen from Ellesmere had built a harbour in the 1790s - Ellesmere Port - as the gateway to their new Shropshire Union Canal, linking the river with their Midlands factories. The success of this new transport system brought a trail of warehouses, quays and mills along the route. Nowadays the port is a museum to the maritime trade of that exciting era that changed the face of British industrial life.

Near the village of Goostrey, east of the M6, a new age of discovery and technology has its working monument: Jodrell Bank, a 3,200-ton radio telescope as big as St Paul's Cathedral, but steerable. Built in 1957, this vast, 250-foot bowl sits on steel girders mounted on rails and looks up at the sky, listening for cosmic signals and picking up the information that tells the experts of Manchester University in Lancashire what's going on in outer space.

 

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