Where the flatness of the Cheshire plain begins to ripple into the Pennine Chain, the peaceful village of Alderley Edge nestles under the ancient, wooded sandstone ridge that gave its name to the village. Red brick shops in the High Street and elegant Victorian villas are little changed from when the nascent Alderley Edge made its first appearance on Cheshire maps of the 1840s. But in contrast to its relatively modern origins, Alderley Edge has a rich and ancient past, a tapestry woven through with mines, myths and magic.
Habitation of the richly wooded escarpment of Alderley Edge, known locally as “the Edge”, can be traced back to some 3500 years ago, when Neolithic man first mined the soft sandstone. He was followed by Bronze Age and Roman miners who in turn tunnelled for rich deposits of copper and lead, malachite and azurite, and who left behind them a legacy of tools and coins, myths and folklore. The Doomsday Book is the first mention of Alderley, the name probably a reference to the sacred alder trees which grew in the area. The Edge has been associated with witchcraft and Old Magic from time immemorial, and sightings of Little People have been frequently reported even in these modern times. There are records of several Ley Lines, linking Neolithic sites such as burial mounds and beacons, passing across the Edge. The Edge’s Ley Lines have been detected as strong positive feelings, but in contrast there are some sensitive people who feel a malevolent and dark presence in the Edge’s tranquil beauty. Hallowe’en is one of the Edge’s busiest times, when crowds prowl through the pitch-black lanes in the hope of catching witches and wizards practising their craft, although the covens are now long gone. Even today the supernatural associations are perpetuated by thirteen irregularly shaped stones south west of Stormy Point which form a circle known as the Druid’s Stones, although they are probably a 18th century folly.
The face of the area changed forever though in 1842 when a new railway line was opened, linking industrial Manchester with the major railway hub of Crewe, and which included a railway station at the tiny Cheshire hamlet of Chorley. To encourage the use of the new-fangled mode of transport, the railway company, the L&NWR and its subsidiary the M&MR, offered 21 years’ free rail travel to people who owned a house with a rateable value greater than £50 a year within a 1 mile radius of the station. Combined with the opportunity to move from the city grime to the lush green countryside of Cheshire, this proved an irresistible magnet for the self-made business men of Manchester, and the hamlet of Chorley developed into a prosperous Victorian commuter town. In the 1860s Chorley renamed itself after the sandstone ridge just a mile from the new railway station, avoiding confusion with the Lancashire village of the same name. The village of Alderley Edge was born.
The advent of the railway fed a housing boom in the area which many local landowners were keen to exploit. However, Lord Stanley, whose ancestral family estate at Nether Alderley included much of the local land, wanted nothing to do with these “new money” upstarts, refusing to either sell land or allow an increase in public access to the beautiful countryside which formed part of their extensive estate at Alderley Park. The Stanley’s lands included the dramatic escarpment and picturesque woods of the Alderley Edge ridge to which they allowed the local folk access once a week. The M&MR, however, had other ideas; they were keen to exploit the attractions of the Edge to day visitors, with offers of special excursion trains from London Road station in Manchester on Saturday afternoons (fare 2 shillings 1st class, or 1shilling covered wagon). The M&MR – eventually – persuaded Lord Stanley to increase public access to 3 days a week; pushing their luck a little the M&MR also tried to negotiate a “Special Private Excursion Day” for the railway directors and important Manchester business men who had no wish to mix with common folk. Although tolerant of the visits of the (defferential) working classes, who knew their position in the pecking order, Lady Stanley and her daughters were horrified at the intrusion of their privacy by (non-defferential) business men whose fortunes came from Lancashire’s cotton mills, and who considered themselves the equals of the aristocratic upper classes. Lady Stanley’s feelings about the “Cottontots”, as she referred to them dismissively, were not disguised in a letter to her daughter when she wrote with evident feeling that “the Manchester gentry are more annoying than their operatives as one can neither cuff them nor great dog them”.
It is easy to understand why the Stanleys were so possessive of this relatively small but spectacular area. Dense clumps of trees cling tenaciously to dramatic golden coloured cliffs, and here and there stunning views suddenly appear through the lush green canopy of the woodlands. From a flat cliff top known as Stormy Point, the distant hills of the Pennines can be seen to the north and west, and a little further across, Beacon Hill was the site of an Armada beacon, whose fiery message would blaze some 20 miles east across the Cheshire plain to Frodsham. The Edge is full of convoluted rock formations, fissures and cracks such as the “Devil’s Grave”, a narrow gash some fifty feet long and six feet deep. Further along the same path, water drips through a rocky outcrop into a stone trough, above which is a crudely carved face of a man and the inscription “Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the wizard’s will”.
Alderley Edge is inextricably linked with the story of the Wizard, a fireside tale of treasure, kings and magic. The Legend recounts the adventure of a Mobberley farmer who was taking his milk-white mare to be sold at Macclesfield market. On the road passing the Edge he was stopped by an old man who offered him a good price for the mare, but the farmer refused to sell. The old man told the farmer he wouldn’t sell the mare that day, and he would wait at the same spot for the farmer’s return. Sure enough, the mare was much admired at Market, but no one would buy her. At dusk farmer set off back for home, and exactly as predicted, was greeted again by the old man on the road by the Edge. The weary farmer agreed to sell the horse, and was then ordered to follow the old man into the darkness of the Edge, past Stormy Point and into the pitch black woods. Suddenly, the old man struck the steep rock face lining the path with his staff. A terrifying noise filled the air, and from nowhere, a pair of iron gates appeared, opening slowly to reveal a passageway into the very heart of the rock. The farmer, realising he was in the company not of an old man but a Wizard, obediently followed him through the gates into an enormous underground cavern, where a hundred Knights lay in a magical sleep. All but one had a milk-white horse by his side. The Wizard took the mare, and in return filled the farmer’s pockets with gold and jewels from huge treasure chests lining the cavern, telling the farmer that the Knights would sleep until Britain’s darkest hour, when they would awake to defend their country. By now completely terrified, the farmer took his treasure and fled back through the Iron Gates. The gates slammed shut behind him, and have never been seen again.
Thomas Broadbent assured the local rector in 1753 that the Legend was true, having occurred some 80 years earlier. It was printed in a Manchester newspaper in the early 1800s, and added to the air of mystery already surrounding Alderley Edge. A local hostelry, the Miners Arms, changed its name to “the Wizard of the Edge” (still a notable local landmark known now as “the Wizard”) sometime after the publication of the Legend; in 1843 Lady Stanley noted that the “new [hostelry] sign is … very well painted… but I expect the people will take the figure for my Lord in his dressing gown”.
After thousands of years of excavation, the Alderley Edge mines finally closed for good in 1918. During the 18th and 19th centuries Cornish tin and Welsh coal miners travelled to work in the comparatively benign mines of Alderley Edge, settling in the area still known today as Welsh Row. As a result the Edge became riddled with the mineshafts and tunnels of some half dozen mine systems, all now disused. Today, the mines are leased from the National Trust (who now owns Alderley Edge, and the majority of the land under which the mines run) by the Derbyshire Caving Club (DCC), who have undertaken the responsibility for surveying and maintaining the mines and their access.
The DCC conduct guided tours of 2 mine systems, Wood Mine and West Mine. By prior appointment, groups of visitors are provided with a miner’s lamp at a small white building known locally as the Surgery, and then escorted around Wood Mine or West Mine by DCC guides, veritable fonts of knowledge about the local history, geology, archaeology and social history of the area (as well as knowing the mines systems like the back of their hands). I joined a tour of West Mine, which proved to be an exciting scramble through low tunnels and enormous caverns. Sometimes I was bent double, or even flat on my stomach trying to ooze through a bone-squeezing fissure. The DCC guide was always waiting at the other end of the gap having taken the easy way round. In the warm glow of my miner’s lamp, the soft and sandy tunnels, streaked with rich veins of coloured ore, felt warm and friendly, and it was easy to understand their welcoming lure to casual explorers. After the mines’ closure, the open mine shaft entrances proved fatally attractive to ill-prepared explorers, disorientated in a nightmare blackness when their lights ran out. Many of the mine entrances were not sealed until the 1960s, and tragically more people were killed after the closure of the mines than when they were operational. The entrance to West Mine is never more than 100 metres from any point in the tunnels, but in the absolute blackness of an unlit mineshaft it may as well be 100 miles. At the end of the trip, I followed the lights of my colleagues through the cosy, sandy tunnels, amazed to find myself suddenly outside in the chill night air. Behind me, the unlit mine entrance was invisible in the shadows and crevices of the hillside. I could understand how the farmer of the Legend was unable to find the Iron Gates again.
Alderley Edge was bought by the National Trust in 1948 following the sale of the Stanley estates. They have a visitor centre and car park by the Wizard on the B5087 which links Alderley Edge with Macclesfield; access to the Edge is free and, in contrast with Lord Stanley’s days, open all year round. Be sure to make some time to visit if you ever find yourself in the Alderley Edge area. There is more information about the Edge and its woodlands on the Woodland Trust’s VisitWoods page, too. From the car park follow the path through the woods over to Stormy Point. On a sunny day when there’s no-one around, with the sun on your face and the whispering of the trees and a breathtaking view of the distant Derbyshire hills framed by the woodland falling away beneath your feet, it is impossible not to feel the Magic of Alderley Edge.
A Descriptive Account of the Area Known as Alderley Edge; Alan James Findlow. Albion Press, Macclesfield
The Ladies of Alderley. Being the letters between Maria Josepha, Lady Stanley of Alderley, and Henrietta Maria Stanley during the years 1841-1850. Maria Josepha STANLEY, Baroness Stanley of Alderley.; Edited by Nancy Mitford. Hamish Hamilton: London, 1967.
Further reading: (actually children’s books but set in the heart of the Edge and its mythology)
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley by Alan Garner ISBN13: 9780152017668
The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner ISBN13: 9780152017965