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Cheshire gave us cheese and the cat and the fiddle

Posted in British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, English Literature, Farming, Historical articles, History, Legend on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about Cheshire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

Rostherne Mere legend, picture, image, illustration

The legend of Rostherne Mere in Cheshire

As bread goes with butter, so Cheshire associates itself with cheese and cats. The origins of that grinning feline are shrouded in mystery, but the man who spread the fame of the Cheshire cat all over the world was born in 1832 at Daresbury parsonage in Cheshire.

His name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who will be remembered better as Lewis Carroll, educated at Rugby, and at Christ Church, Oxford.

Ordained a deacon, he did not take priest’s orders but became instead a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, where he was something of a recluse. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the company of children, and the original “Alice” of “Alice in Wonderland” fame, was, in fact, a real-life Alice, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.

So much for cats. By the way, the rhyme “The Cat and the Fiddle” is also said to originate from Cheshire, but again there is no explanation of this intriguing affinity between an English county and cats. And now for cheese.

It has been produced from very early times in the southern part of the county.

Here is one of the richest dairy districts in England where the dawn air is punctuated with the lowing of thousands upon thousands of cows and pummelled by the clinkety-clank of thousands of milk churns.

And they will tell you that their reddish cheese, rich in taste and texture, is as fine as any in the world.

In the north-east and east of Cheshire, there flourishes arable as well as dairy farming and near Knutsford is Rostherne Mere, one of the largest, most beautiful and most richly endowed in legend of Cheshire’s lakes.

Into its waters, so the story goes, some mighty and mysterious force flung a workman who cursed a bell as it was being taken to Rostherne Church some hundreds of years ago.

His screams were, by all accounts, dreadful to hear, and the poor fellow was drowned in the waters of the lake, and the accursed bell was swept in with him. Now the lake is said to be connected by an underground channel to the Irish Sea and at Eastertide a mermaid swims up it to the lake and rings the bell.

An unlikely tale but an enchanting one for all that. More down to earth, but with a past as exciting as any legend, is the city of Chester itself.

The Romans called it Deva, and in those times it was a tough fortress for the legions that were the army of occupation, and the old Roman walls of the fort still form part of the present foundations of the existing stone walls of Chester.

When the Romans left, the city was for centuries fought over by successive invaders. Fierce tribes poured forth from Wales and sacked the once-proud Roman fort. Saxons, Vikings – they all came and burned and destroyed.

Chester was the last town in England to hold out against the Norman Conquest. Later it came under the rule of the 1st Earl of Chester, Hugh Lupus, whom the Welsh impudently called Hugh the Fat.

It was in Chester, too, that the Royalists grimly held out for days against the fearful battering of the Roundhead guns, until the half-ruined and starving city surrendered in 1646.

But to the battle-scarred history of Chester there finally came peace, and with it prosperity. It flourished as a port until the Dee channel silted up and trade went the way of Liverpool. With the coming of the railways, Chester prospered again, together with Crewe. Today Crewe is a great railway junction, where the lines from London, Manchester and North Wales converge in a vast network of criss-crossed steel.

One of the biggest industrial companies in Great Britain, I.C.I., controls the rock salt mine at Winsford. To it, in that arctic winter of 1962-63, came a continuous stream of lorries, 24 hours a day.

It was Winsford’s rock salt that was spread over Britain’s roads in an attempt to keep them free of ice. (Salt sprinkled on ice will dissolve it and the salt water that results will remain unfrozen down to a temperature of 21 degrees fahrenheit).

It is thought the Romans were the first to mine salt at Winsford. During Henry VIII’s time, there were over 300 salt workings near Nantwich, and a ceremony called “Blessing the Brine” used to take place there.

On Ascension Day the inhabitants would decorate the brine spring with flowers and branches and then dance around it.

Today, salt extraction is carried out by brine pumping; from the pumps, the brine is conveyed to large pans beneath which furnaces burn and so dry out the brine and evaporate it into coarse white salt.

Constant subsidence due to pumping give much of the town of Northwich an unstable look. Some of the houses lean at fantastic angles and there are tales of some of them disappearing overnight.

No article on Cheshire would be complete without reference to its canals, which cater for both pleasure and commercial craft.

The two main pleasure networks are the Cheshire Ring and the Shropshire Union with commercial traffic being found on the Manchester Ship Canal and the Weaver Navigation.

An added attraction is a horse-drawn, traditionally decorated “narrowboat” which provides trips from Chester to other towns.

From any vantage point on Cheshire’s sandstone ridge, the prevailing impression is of an endless patchwork quilt of hedges and fields. Cheshire has more dairy cows to the acre than anywhere else in Europe and is also (after Somerset) the biggest milk-producing county.

In transport, it produces heavy goods, vehicles, cars (including the Rolls-Royce) and railway locomotives. Other industries such as textiles have been joined by rapidly growing developments such as oil, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and electronics.

But the balance between the needs of industry and the need to conserve the open countryside has been carefully watched and the result is “a well-balanced county.”

Conservation is no new fad in Cheshire. The fact that it can contain a surprisingly high degree of industrialisation while still remaining “a green and pleasant land” demonstrates this fact.

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