Taking off my glove, I knocked on the rock face and opened my mouth to say the magic word, but nothing emerged.
‘You haven’t forgotten, have you?’
I looked at my wife. I had.
We had come to Alderley Edge – the limestone escarpment that rears up out of the Cheshire Plain and the setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ – to see how many of the places that are meticulously described in the stories we could find.
I wasn’t hopeful. After all, 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of ‘The Weirdstone…’ and Alderley Edge the town, which lies beneath the escarpment, is now best known as a ghetto for Premier League footballers and their shopaholic wives (Manchester is a short Bentley ride north). Driving down London Road, the main drag, with its boutiques and bars, the idea that anything should have survived seemed ridiculous.
But as we arrived so did the snow, and suddenly Garner’s world of high magic, voluble dwarves and old gods seemed possible. It was like being caught in the fimbulwinter, the storm unleashed by the witches of the Morthbrood to stop Colin and Susan, the heroes of the stories, making their escape.
Driving out of town on the B5087 Macclesfield Road we passed some eye-wateringly garish mansions before reaching open country. Parking by the excellent Wizard pub (Macclesfield Road, Nether Alderley, SK10 4UB, 01625 584 000), we walked through the snow, keeping an anxious eye on the weak blur of the sun. It was twilight, and in this snow-covered world everything looked different. Would we find anything in these conditions?
Our delighted laughter soon answered the question. There it was, carved into the rock: the face of a bearded man, and underneath was engraved, ‘Drink of this and take thy fill, for the water falls by the wizards will.’ I dipped my finger into the water-filled hollow below the figure and licked. The water tasted metallic, understandable given the long history of mining for copper that has left the Edge riddled with tunnels and quarries.
As we walked between snow-crusted beech and oak trees, glimpses of the distant Pennines appearing between them, we found all the locations we had come to see: Castle Rock, Saddle Bole, the Beacon, Goldenstone. The places in the books were still there, and in the snowlight, as tree roots grasped exposed rocks like fingers and abandoned mine shafts gaped in mute invitation, the idea of a wizard living beneath this hollowed-out hill was pretty credible. There was only one more place left to discover.
Just down from Stormy Point, with its wonderful views across the flat land to the hills beyond, we saw the rock face that hid the Iron Gates that led into the hill, now dusted with snow. The legend of Alderley, of a wizard guarding warriors sleeping beneath the hill until he should wake them to fight for England’s deliverance, is old. It was first written down in 1753, but the tale has deeper roots. On a midwinter’s evening like this, you could imagine the Iron Gates opening and the wizard coming forth.
We looked around to see if anyone was watching, but the coast was clear. Feeling like a child again, and with something like a child’s conviction that if I believed hard enough what I wished for really would come true, I knocked and tried to say the word of opening.
But I’d forgotten. And so had my wife. Despite listening to the book on the drive up, our memories were as trackless as the snow. The rock turned its blank face outwards and the wizard turned his back on us. Unlike Colin and Susan, we were not going to find our way into Fundindelve, the last realm of high magic in this old world. At least, not on this trip. Next time, I’m going to tattoo ‘Emalagra’ on my palm.
Where to eat
Fosters Fish & Chips
Colin and Susan eat here at the start of ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ and Fosters is regularly voted the best chippie in the North-West. What’s more, the patient staff didn’t turn a hair when my son, who had been looking ill all day, turned green and threw up inside. It wasn’t anything to do with the perfect fish or wonderfully crisp and fluffy chips. The staff cleared up, too, while we flapped around in an effete Southern manner.
4 Chorley Hall Lane, Alderley Edge, SK9 7EU (01625 582682, www.fostersfishandchips.com). £6.75 for cod or haddock and chips, eating in, or £3.50 takeaway.
Where to stay
Harrop Fold Farm
For a rural retreat, this beautifully restored seventeenth-century farmhouse is perfect. Set on the western flank of the Pennines, it’s about 12 miles from Alderley Edge, with views over the Cheshire Plain and 20 acres of ground to wander in. The owners, the personable Stevenson family, run art and cookery courses and serve exquisite breakfasts.
Macclesfield Rd, Rainow, Macclesfield, SK10 5UU (01625 560085, www.harropfoldfarm.co.uk). £95 per night B&B for a double room.
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