A July day and an early start. It is not yet 7am, and the sun is climbing in a wide blue sky, by its dim, early splendour a good day – a real summer day – is promised. The streets of a chain of industrial towns – Bolton, Atherton, Leigh, Warrington are almost deserted, and possess that atmosphere of quiet serenity that is so characteristic of an English Sunday morning, even in those black monotonous areas given over to soulless industrialism. Chimneys gaunt and bare, high mill walls, wasted fields that are cinder tips, and rows and rows – endless rows it seems – of dirty brick dungeons that men call homes, and from which, here and there appear faces that, in the majority of cases, reflect the drab surroundings and hard conditions under which they first saw the light of day, live their short span of time, and pass – worn out machines, surviving their use as such only as a burden on their kindred.
Some of these faces would make a student of humanity despair. There are blank faces, dull-eyed and uncomprehending; tired faces lined with the cares of everyday existence; hard faces, hardened – steeled – to meet the common lot of mere existence; bitter faces, embittered by the inequality of man; vulgar faces; sneering faces, brutal faces – vulgarised and brutalised by a brutal system.
There are young, eager faces too – too young to receive the stamp that will certainly mark them sooner or later, and there are pretty flowers too – human roses that will early fade. They are faces that as yet are only just awakening to a brighter world beyond; hearts that are learning slowly to love beyond an intimate circle; arms that are reaching towards the throat of their oppressor. But yet – this in 1927!
And the change. From the depressing forests of weary brick, with the swiftness of a miracle, to a wonderful feast of green, of pink, of blue, of red, gold, white – of every colour and shade in leaf and blossom and flower; in hedgerow and garden; in rural England early on a July morning. A road cool and green-lined and smooth, rising and falling, winding across the face of a rolling country. Cottages nestling beneath the shadows of great trees, beneath banks of green, in fields of wheat and corn; cottages that have become a picturesque feature in the essential scheme of things. The world is a pleasant place; the world is happy, quiet – early on a July morning…..
So Jack and I found ourselves contrasting these things as we sped along the Cheshire roads. Beyond the tiny town of Frodsham we turned along a lane going up between the two headlands. It was woods of scented pine, it was banks of bramble and roses – roses all the way. It was good to live. On the top was a ridge road, with sunny plains to see below and the distant purple heights of Wales. There was Delamere Forest and another lane on the edge of the woods – across a humming highway, and lanes again, below a ridge, winding, rhododendron lined, and blooming, by a hall and cottage shyly nestling behind July roses. There were two miles of another humming highway and lanes again – and old timber cottages….. and gardens…and roses….. roses. In the distance was a solitary rock, standing high above the green plain, a line of blue hills to the south. The wavering lanes approach, the rock grows higher before us, and at length we stand beneath, the rock towering up; home of a hundred birds; castle-topped; coloured. Beeston Castle.
After lunch in a low-raftered cottage we join a footpath through woods to a village that scarcely is even a hamlet – three or four cottages, all rose-decked, and one just a riot of multi- coloured blooms. Here, higher up the hillside, is another great brown castle – Peckforton Castle, perfect in detail, with long castellated walls, arrow-slits, great flanking towers, and a towered gateway with portcullis, chapel, a courtyard that would drill a hundred – two hundred – men, and a moat, now dry – but still a moat.
You can people this castle as I did – no modern things jar with medieval things here, for the castle stands alone behind the woods. With little effort you can put five centuries behind – and, lo! you are back in 1427. Your bicycle – your iron steed – can take on the promising cloak of a steed of flesh, your clothes can be miraculously changed to doublet and vizier, pointed cloth slippers (or cowhide), steel breastplate, and a long-sword by a stretch of imagination.
If you are in a bloodthirsty mood you can add a couple of daggers and a longbow (or perhaps you prefer a crossbow). Odds bodkins! “Tis a scurrilous knave ye will seem!” “Gadzooks, but yon castle is nigh impregnable, sir knight; with ten score lads to guard thee, and a mettled steed to carry thee thou cans’t well ride out and bring yon trait’rous wights, the Welsh, to their knees, forsooth. An at their lean throats, as it were. Begone, by my halidom, else I’ll prove thee well till thine own kin think thee not of them. Gramercy!” (Here my medieval dialect runs dry).
But there is one disillusioning thought about this perfect example of a 14th century fortress. It was only built in the 18th century, when castles had become nonentities in warfare. There was a rage at that time amongst the big-wigs to build in the medieval style, but they saw to it that modern comforts were installed. This ‘castle’, in fact, is only a picturesque style, a shell, but nevertheless, two hundred years has mellowed the stones of Peckforton, and the illusion is perfect. The grounds of the castle are free to the public to roam at will so long as they keep to the paths; even up to the castle, and to the courtyard you can wander [sadly no longer the case – Ed]. Though I am one who does not believe in private estates of any kind, I must say that Lord Tollemache is generous to throw his grounds open – a thing most of his sort will not do. I can realise, too, how much trouble the public give by wantonly damaging trees and shrubs and by leaving litter, and realising this, I can’t blame the owner of an estate when he declines to allow anyone in. Many fine estates have been closed by the action of a few irresponsible folks.
The whole range of hills from Peckforton to Harthill, seven or eight miles, is full of footpaths, all extremely beautiful, and everywhere giving views of the Welsh mountains to the west and the Derbyshire-Staffs uplands eastwards. You cannot go wrong; wherever you wander you are amidst scenery of breathless beauty; quiet, high-hedged, sandy cart-tracks, with here and there a tiny cottage and roses, here and there a golden clump of gorse, a stretch of heathery hilltop, virgin woods, deep pinewoods, tiny isolated meadows and weathered sandstone crags. A day here flies as an hour.
From the Peckforton hills radiate lanes in all directions – the Cheshire lanes. The Cheshire lanes are famous; I do not think there is a county anywhere that can show such a number, such a labyrinth of lanes, and hiding such old world villages and quiet places. For hours did Jack and I traverse these lanes, winding, wavering, crossing, forking, forging a steady route across the county. The very village names are suggestive of charm and quietness; Highwayside, Church Minshull, and – a momentary descent into the depths of industrialism at Over and Winsford, an isolated plague spot. Middlewich, quaint, crowded, ancient and modern jostling with each other, and lanes again. Byley, a muddy cart-track, and Rudheath, on the great highway from Manchester to the Potteries, lanes again, near the site of a long-erased nunnery that once was a sanctuary for criminals and others who found themselves opposed by the corrupt laws of those times. And at last Alderley Cross, or Nether Alderley, where is a cyclists home from home, hundreds of years old, [Mrs Powell’s farmhouse café!].
Ere the run homeward, a walk along Alderley Edge, along winding footpaths, beneath deep pines on a soft brown carpet – a bit that might have been snatched from the Peckforton Hills. And Artists Lane – never was a lane better named.
Then the homeward run through Cheshire lanes – Styal, Ringway, Castle Mill (a pretty spot on the River Bollin), Ashley, Warburton and Chat Moss to the factories of home.
A hundred and thirty miles of Cheshire lanes we traversed on that summer day. The main roads roared with a hundred thousand engines, but in those lanes hardly a mechanical sound disturbed the peace of the countryside – at rare intervals a straying car would slowly pass, bewildered and apparently guilty of its trespass away from its fellows – its natural conditions. Cyclists passed us often, passing happily, for cyclists live in the lanes, and frequent their hostels, which mostly lie away from the main roads. And it was roses…roses…all the way !