Daresbury, Cheshire

Cheshire is a surprisingly varied county. From the wild uplands of Macclesfield Forest to the bare hills of the Peaks; from the lush and rolling countryside of the Cheshire plain, where huge lakes lie hidden like Combermere and Tatton and old families linger in vast estates like the Cholmondeleys of Cholmondeley and the Grosvenors of Eaton, to well-hedged hunting country merging into the wooded hills of Shropshire and Wales. But Daresbury – pronounced to rhyme with raspberry – is my favourite Cheshire because it is stalwart and strong and not soft at the edges.

576px-Daresbury_church_towerThere is a ridge high above the wide whining A56, carrying its infinite stream of traffic from Warrington to Chester, from where you will see what I mean. If you look westward there is the plain of south Lancashire spread before you and the hills of Abbeystead on the distant horizon. The church spire of St Elphin’s in Warrington (the third highest parish spire in England after Louth and St Mary’s Redcliffe in Bristol) pierces the smoky sky, epitomising the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution. There beside it is Widnes, where the smell used to be so bad that if you were driving through it you were obliged to close your windows. Now there is less smell and there are fewer jobs and still the strange spindly grey bridge like an arched caterpillar stretching among the seagulls across the great River Mersey, alongside the battlemented railway viaduct.

Looking eastwards, the abruptness of that industrial strength is mitigated by Elysian Fields. These mild valleys and oak copses with their promises of foxgloves, these dark plum-coloured sandstone farm buildings, deep laurels in Row’s Wood, and the church spires of Hatton and Walton rising from the hill’s folds, these neat hedges and hedgerow trees and clipped hollies are still as beautiful as this because they are safeguarded by the families who made their fortunes in the plains.

As you walk down the road towards Daresbury church, there is an air of solidity and warmth. The church was packed on the Sunday I went. The prosperous patronage of the Greenall family is all apparent, Victorian philanthropy at its best. The church of All Saints was virtually re-built by the architects Paley and Austin in the early 1870s at the expense of the first Sir Gilbert Greenall, the Warrington brewery owner and local MP. He also commissioned Paley and Austin to build the church of St John the Evangelist from scratch in nearby Higher Walton, where his swanky mansion stood and staff in yellow and black livery abounded (it is now owned by the council and partly demolished). The Bridgewater Canal cuts close between church and house, and the vestiges of the garden once tended by 21 gardeners are still there.

Sir Gilbert’s son was created Lord Daresbury for his services to agriculture – he bred pigs and cattle and cut, together with his wife, a legendary dash out hunting and at the annual show held at Daresbury since 1850. Edna de Prez, whose father had come to farm in the village over 100 years ago from Dutton, remembers Lord Daresbury well: ‘He and his friend Colonel Mosley Leigh from Belmont Hall were like identical twins. They came to the show together wearing exactly the same clothes from the same tailor: masher ties, spats, and grey bowlers, dove’s-wing-grey suits and they carried walking sticks with silver knobs. They were real gents.’ The show still takes place in the same field beside the church and is still presided over by the Greenall family, who forever cut legendary figures on the hunting field, four generations on.

Past the half timbered Ring O’ Bells pub in the village, past Newton Cross – haunted and steeped in local legend of cattle dying should a stone from it be removed – is the ghost of the old parsonage where on 27th January 1832 Charles Dodgson, one of 11 children, was born and lived for 11 years. His father was vicar of Daresbury for nearly 20.

An island farm, ‘mid seas of com

Swayed by the wandering breath of morn,

The happy spot where I was born.

A stunning stained glass window in the church commemorates the Mad Hatter, his friends and Cheshire’s world famous son Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll.

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