25 December 2015

The year of the Cheshire Cat

This stamp is one of a set of 10 issued by Royal Mail
to mark the 150th anniversary
The world-famous grinning cat turned 150 years old in 2015. Not bad for a literary creature that was originally imagined simply to amuse a small girl named Alice (daughter of Henry Liddell, the Vice-chancellor of Oxford University and friend of author Lewis Carroll). Since its publication in 1865, Carroll’s masterly tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out of print and, in the subsequent 150 years, the work has been translated into more than a hundred languages.

Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson on 27 January 1832, spent his early years in the village of Daresbury, in Cheshire, where his father Charles Dodgson was the vicar (from 1827 to 1843) of the local church, All Saints’.

Not surprisingly, Daresbury is proud of its famous son. In the church, Carroll is commemorated in a special stained glass window. As well as a Nativity scene, the window also depicts scenes from Carroll’s life: the Cheshire Wheatsheaf, representing the country where he was born; the shields of Rugby School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was educated; and a pair of compasses and the Lamp of Learning, symbolising his considerable skills in mathematics. And, at the bottom of the window appear some of Carroll’s unforgettable fictional characters, including the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the mad March Hare, the Mock Turtle, the Dormouse sitting in a teapot and, of course, the inimitable Cheshire Cat. (Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been to Daresbury but you can see the window here.)   

I’m sure it will also come as no surprise that the whole of Cheshire celebrates its name being associated with the famous grinning cat. There are Cheshire Cat public houses in Christleton and in Nantwich (its signs appear in the photograph below), a company of that name provides themed parties and events, and you can enjoy tea and cake in the Dormouse Tea Rooms in Daresbury.

The inspiration for the fictional Cheshire Cat character is claimed by several places. There is a 16th-century sandstone carving of a grinning cat on the west face of St Wilfrid's Church tower in Grappenhall, a village very close to Daresbury, but there is also a cat carving in Croft church, where Carroll’s father was rector for 25 years, and a cat gargoyle in St Nicholas Church in Cranleigh, where Carroll used to visit.

The origin of the Cheshire Cat, though now largely associated with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, does, in fact, predate the book and it seems Lewis Carroll merely elaborated on the idea of a grinning cat when concocting the mischievous character for his tale.

During the six months I lived in Cheshire earlier this year, I searched for the famous grinning cat but never found him. The cats I encountered never displayed that famous grin and were, on the whole, rather taciturn. Certainly, none shared any pearls of wisdom similar to those uttered by the fictional Cheshire Cat, which are what I love most about the character. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotations:

‘I myself don't need a weathervane to tell which way the wind blows.’

Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here.’

‘Those who say there's nothing like a nice cup of tea for calming the nerves never had real tea. It's like a syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart!’

‘Only a few find the way, some don't recognize it when they do – some ... don't ever want to.’

‘If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.’

And, my particular favourite, ‘I’m not crazy – my reality is just different from yours.’

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