02 October 2014

England: Nether Alderley, Cheshire

The first time we went looking for Alderley Edge we couldn’t find it. Although I generally think the road signage in the UK is good, many signs are obscured by overgrown foliage in the late summer, and I have found during this trip that places of interest are sometimes poorly marked. Suffice to say that, although we looked hard and actually went round in a big circle, we couldn’t find the Edge.

We did, however, find the amazing ancient Church of St Mary’s in Nether Alderley. Nether here means ‘lower’ – one of the fascinations of English place names is their use of words like ‘nether’, ‘mickle’, ‘over’, ‘lower’ and ‘much’, to name just a few, to explain the position of one place relative to another. Nether here is used to distinguish Nether Alderley from Over Alderley, which is at a higher elevation. Oh, and one inane factoid that I found while researching Nether Alderley on Wikipedia – Posh and Becks used to have a home there, back in the days when he played for Man U.

But I digress … St Mary’s is a 14th-century church, though it’s likely a wooden church occupied the site prior to the stone one being built. And the original church has been added to, with the tower being constructed in 1530, and other additions and alterations following through the centuries, as the plan below shows.

The old school with its wonderful maker's inscription
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enter – so many churches are locked these days to prevent vandalism – but the outside was a picture in itself. Graves surrounded the building, with many of the oldest gravestones lying flat on the ground, as I’ve seen in some other old Cheshire churchyards, and some dated back to the 1600s. There’s a statuesque 1200-year-old yew tree growing amongst the graves and in one corner of the property there sits an Elizabethan school building – now the parish hall, but used as a school until 1908.

Just along the road from the church is an old mill, a National Trust property which was not open the first time we passed this way (in 2014 it’s only open on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays) so we pencilled that in for our return visit.

On my last day in Cheshire we set out once more, this time armed with maps and instructions scribbled down from the website, to find the elusive Alderley Edge and, on the way, returned to Nether Alderley Mill. This time, it was open and we enjoyed a guided tour of the mill, with a volunteer guide and the miller both explaining how the place worked. You would never guess from the road that there’s quite a large body of water sitting in a dam behind the mill. It was created to supply the mill with water and has an island in it on which the local lord of the manor used to have a big house. I say ‘used to have’ because the lord of the manor is long gone and so is his big house – it burnt down – and now the smaller house that replaced it is privately owned so hidden away from inquisitive eyes. A very picturesque place to live, I’m sure.

The mill grinds corn, mostly bran, but also wheat and barley, and was built to fulfil the estate owner’s obligation to provide somewhere for his tenants to have their grain ground to get the flour they needed to make bread.

Left, the interior roof and, right, ancient graffiti on the outside walls
The mill has two wheels, unusually – possibly uniquely – working together to provide the energy to power the mill stones, which are actually called burr stones and come from France. These are used instead of ordinary stone as their grinding together doesn’t give off the small particles of stone which, in previous centuries, would have caused dental problems for those eating rather gritty bread.

It was fascinating hearing and seeing how all the bits of the mill work. Being somewhat technically challenged, I can understand much more easily something I can actually see working – the wheels revolving, the gears turning, the pulleys pulling, etc.

From there we went to Alderley Edge, finding it easily this time thanks to the easy-to-follow instructions of the mill guide. It’s called The Edge because it’s basically a huge ridge of sandstone that sticks up from the surrounding countryside. Not surprisingly, you get panoramic views from a couple of rocky outcrops along the top of the escarpment where the woodland trees don’t obscure the outlook. There are various trails, two of which we followed, all of which were very poorly signposted, like the place itself. Luckily, I took a photo of the signboard, which we kept referring back to, or we could easily have got lost.

There are some remains of mining and farming cottages but most are merely ‘here is the site of …’ rather than anything concrete to see. The woodland was lovely – Scots pine and beech, and other very old trees that may once have marked ancient footpaths or field boundaries, but the place as a whole didn’t really live up to our expectations.

One bonus from our visit: I got a good pub sign photo right outside the park entrance – the Wizard of Edge, named for a local legend which first appeared in print in an 1805 edition of the Manchester Mail. It is a strange tale of a man with a horse to sell who meets a wizard with a great army living underground. Intrigued? If you’re sitting comfortably, you can read the story here.