Monday, 17 April 2017

Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford

Have you had a lovely Easter? We've had a relatively quiet one with lots of gentle pottering and catching up. On Saturday though, we headed out to the small town of Knutsford in Cheshire to follow the Elizabeth Gaskell trail. Officially it's called the Cranford Trail as she based many of the fictional characters on people and buildings in the town. I didn't watch Cranford but did love the mini-series, North and South, based on another of her novels (Richard Armitage - sigh!). Knutsford is a lovely place anyway, even if you're not a Gaskell fan and, last summer, we also did the town trail, following their 'Museum in the Street' signs. This post and photos are mostly the Gaskell/Cranford trail with a bit of the town trail mixed in - apologies in advance that it's pretty long as there's so much to see!

The starting point of the trail is Canute Place where there's a mosaic of King Canute. It's believed that Knutsford is named after him and is the place he built a ford - Canute's ford.

Walking down Canute Square to our next destination, you pass the 16th century White Bear which supposedly takes its name from an incident in 1617 when a bear was taken onto the pulpit of the Chapel of Ease in King Street (photo of that later). It also used to be the departure point of the stagecoach to London.

Heathwaite House, in Gaskell Avenue, was the childhood home of Elizabeth Gaskell. She was born in 1810 in London but her mother died only a year after her birth. She was sent to live with her mother's family, the Hollands, and brought up by her Aunt Lumb ('my more-than-mother').

The house overlooks the Heath, an area of common land. In Elizabeth's day it was the site of a racecourse.

Further along the street is Heath House which in Cranford was the home of the snobbish Mrs Jamieson. In real life, in the 18th century, it belonged to the notorious Edward 'Highwayman' Higgins.

Walking back to town we passed this row of pretty Georgian town houses. We loved the ironwork in the windows above the doors and the little balconies.

Back now in the town centre, we're walking along Princess Street which was the High Street in Cranford. Either the NFU or WHSmith building used to be a teashop ie a shop which sold tea.

At the end of Princess Street is the Old Town Hall, dating from 1871. It's recently been restored and opened as a restaurant and has some really beautiful brickwork.

A short walk away is the Sessions House. Built in 1818, the gaol which stood behind it once housed up to 700 prisoners.

Across the road is Hollingford House which was the home of Dr Peter Holland, Elizabeth's uncle.

Next door is St John the Baptist church where Elizabeth married William Gaskell in 1832. Although they were Unitarians, non-conformist chapels weren't allowed to hold weddings.

She wrote in her diary that the wedding was a happy occasion and most of the houses 'sanded' for the day (decorated the street with brightly coloured sand patterns). Sanding is still part of the Knutsford May Day celebrations.

We walked down the pretty cobbled street to King Street.

Walking to the right, number 15 was the home of Captain Henry Hill, a half pay officer who fought at Waterloo. He's thought to be the inspiration for Cranford's Captain Brown who was disapproved of because he spoke of being poor 'not behind closed curtains...but in the public street'!

There's a lovely row of 17th century whitewashed cottages at this end of the street.

Turning round and walking back towards the town centre, you pass the site of the former Chapel of Ease (mentioned earlier in the bear story) which was also a grammar school.

Over the Easter weekend though it was decorated with a bunny to show it as a site on the Bunny Hop trail. The whole town seemed to be out searching for bunnies that day!

There was also a lovely Victorian postbox outside. I read a fascinating article about old postboxes recently and all the different designs. Most of them have the ER logo for our current Queen but I've started looking out for the older ones now.

Next on the tour is Gaskell Tower, built in 1907 to commemorate the author.

On the side are engraved a list of her works. To be honest I think it's pretty ugly but, hey, I'd be happy to have a tower named after me!

This archway was the location of the Royal George Hotel.

Highwayman Higgins dined here and Queen Victoria visited in 1832. It also featured in both Cranford and Wives and Daughters as a place for dancing and playing cards.

On the opposite side of the road is the birthplace of Sir Henry Holland who was a doctor to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert amongst others and was also Elizabeth's cousin.

This building, currently a Chinese restaurant, was once a grocer and draper's.

Looking down King Street towards Tatton Park - marked by the burgundy sign in the distance.

A little further along is the entrance to a cafe which houses the  Penny Farthing Museum. The bikes hang from the ceiling and decorate the walls. The cafe is always incredibly busy and we've never yet been able to get a table.

Walking through the streets of Knutsford there are some lovely hidden corners including this one. The archway once led to the stables of an inn. The steps you can just make out behind the pink flowers were a mounting block.

My eye was also taken by this old bike with flower-filled baskets, outside an antiques shop.

Finally, at the end of King Street is this pretty blue and white house, the Old Vicarage. As well as featuring in Cranford as the home of the Matty family, it has also been the home of another famous female author. Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit books lived here in around 1910.

Just around the corner are the Ruskin Rooms completed in around 1902. The blue plaque notes that 'A Welcome Club for officers of the American Third Army was opened in this building by General George S Patton, Commanding Officer, on 25th April 1944 prior to the Liberation of Europe June 1944 to May 1945'. Look at the interesting chimney pots on the cottages next door too.

Beyond King Street is the entrance to Tatton Park which is mentioned as the home of the Cumnors in 'Wives and Daughters'. If you've read my blog a while, you'll know we visit Tatton often, though we usually enter by the main entrance at the other side of the park.

This point marked the end of the official trail. However, it seems more fitting to take you instead to a place we missed.

At the opposite end of town lies the Unitarian Brook Street Chapel. It is the oldest place of worship still in use in Knutsford and dates from around 1689. It was built at a time of great change in religious freedom so was built to look like a private house in case the right to worship here was withdrawn.

It is here, in a quiet corner of the small churchyard...

surrounded by her family...

that Elizabeth Gaskell was laid to rest in 1865.

I hope you enjoyed the tour. As you can see, Knutsford is a lovely place to visit with lots of historic buildings, independent shops and Tatton Park on its doorstep. Well worth a visit if you're in the area.

Enjoy what remains of the Easter weekend. Back to work for me tomorrow :( But I have a quilt workshop to look forward to next Saturday :) xx


  1. great tour! love the old post box and have to agree with your tower assessment. Had sunny 80 degrees Easter and now will be maybe 50 today.

  2. What a great post, you know I loved it!
    I scrolled back up to see one of your first photos here, the 16th century White Bear. How I would love to go inside that building!
    You mentioned the American Third Army, my Uncle Jim was in that unit, he was one of those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He survived the war but had major problems the rest of his life.
    Glad you had a happy Easter! xx

  3. I like Knutsford, it's not too far from me though I don't go very often. Didn't know of the Elizabeth Gaskell connection, not that I know anything about her, I've never read any of her novels. This was an interesting tour!

  4. What a wonderful place to visit. Some of those buildings are just amazing. Great post.

  5. Knutsford looks a gorgeous place to visit. I didn't know Elizabeth Gaskell even came from there. Lovely post. :)

  6. Knutsford is SOOOOO attractive! The buildings are so impressive and varied! I would love to visit those! The tower is pretty cool too! I confess that Cranford is one of the rare books that I gave up on. I loved the TV adaptation but the book is awwwwfully dull!x

  7. Lovely photos. I enjoyed all you shared in this post. Thank you!