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The Myth Behind the Mountains ... Alderley Edge.

Views across the Cheshire Plain from Alderley Edge, Cheshire.
Views across the Cheshire Plain from Alderley Edge, Cheshire.

Alderley Edge is a small town in the northern county of Cheshire. The areas of woodland and sandstone on the outskirts of the town were designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its impressive geology. I have always loved exploring the woods and countryside around Alderley; its impressive formations and caves have always instilled a sense of awe and adventure as have the incredible myths, magic and legend that fill the air.

The sandstone escarpment of Alderley Edge stands 600ft above the surrounding landscape and looks across the Cheshire Plain to Manchester, Stockport and the Pennine Range. The ‘Edge’ is a ridge of land which separates the short, narrow valley from the higher ground of surrounding South East Cheshire and Derbyshire. It was formed partially from the weathering of the resistant layers of sandstone atop the softer layers and partially from faults in the rock layers.

The beds of sandstone can be many metres thick and are made up of both red (due to the high iron content) and white sandstone formed by alluvial processes during the Triassic period 220 to 250 million years ago. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock and was formed when sediment was moved by water and air and deposited. The cumulative weight eventually compressed the sediment into different layers (or beds) of rock.

Faults in the rocks are vertical divisions in layers of rock formed many millions of years ago after the initial sandstone was formed. These faults tend to occur due to stress created by the weight of the rock causing breaks, or cracks, and can result in significant rock movement. These rock movements caused the uplifting of the Edge itself. The whole area of land has been raised several hundred metres due to the faulting. The faults also result in mineralisation, as minerals are carried through the faults in a solution. These minerals have been mined in Alderley Edge for thousands of years.

Old mine entrance, Alderley Edge.
Old mine entrance, Alderley Edge.

There has been evidence of mining in the area for more than 4,000 years from the early Bronze Age right up until the early 20th century and it is one of only a small handful of prehistoric mining sites found throughout the whole of Britain. It is in fact, the oldest known metal mining site in England with activity thought to have begun as early as 1900BC. As a result, various prehistoric tools have been found here including an oak shovel found in the 1870s at Engine Vine which was carbon-dated to around 1750BC. The Romans also appreciated the value of the area as shown from the presence of a Roman mineshaft dating back to the 1st century AD and the finding of a pot of Roman coins.

Mining in the area continued for thousands of years and in the early 19th century a sail-driven mill was built to crush land ore, the foundations of which can still be seen in Windmill Wood.

The area is not only abundant in mining history. The highest point on the Edge was the site of an Armada Beacon during Tudor times. During this time there would have been no trees in the area (hundreds of Scots Pine were planted between 1745 and 1755 before which no trees grew here) and so the elevated position made the beacon visible for miles around. The beacon was built on a bronze age burial mound and was lit during the invasion of the Spanish Armada. It is said that with the help of these beacons scattered throughout the whole country, news of the invasion in 1588 reached York from the South Coast in just 12 hours. Unfortunately in 1931, the building housing the beacon was damaged in a storm, however, a memorial stone now marks the site where it once stood.

The Golden Stone stands on the edge of Windmill wood and marks the medieval boundary between the Nether Alderley and Over Alderley parishes. It lies close to Engine Vein where Bronze Age man mined cooper and is thought to have originally been a Bronze Age standing stone.

While the history of Alderley Edge is immense and fascinating, the countless legends and myths which enshroud the area have enticed me to spend countless hours exploring the mystical woods. The legend of the Wizard of Alderley Edge is perhaps the most famous and was the inspiration behind local author Alan Garner’s novel ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and also behind the naming of many local attractions including the 13th-century Wizard Inn, The Wizard’s Tearoom, The Merlin pub and The Wizard’s Thatch Bed and Breakfast.

Cave entrance, Alderley Edge.
Cave entrance, Alderley Edge.

The legend goes that there was once a farmer with a milk-white mare walking to Macclesfield Fayre to sell his horse. As he reached Alderley Edge, the horse stopped and refused to move. The farmer saw an old man standing by the side of the road with a staff in his hand who offered to buy the mare, but the farmer refused thinking he would get a better price at the fayre. The old man informed the farmer that the horse would not sell and he would see him later when he returned. The farmer continued onto Macclesfield where, despite lots of praise for the horse, it did not sell and he set off home. When he arrived back at Alderley Edge the old man was waiting for him and the farmer agreed to sell him the mare. He was led along many paths until they came to a big rock, the old man touched the rock with his staff and a tremendous rumbling sound filled the air. The rock split open to reveal a pair of iron gates. He told the farmer not to be afraid and to follow him, they walked through the iron gates and followed the passage down into the hill where they came to a colossal cavern filled with 140 knights in silver armour, beside all but one was a milk-white horse all as still as stone. The old man (or wizard as the farmer now deduced he was) told the farmer the knights were waiting to fight the last battle of the world and he was to wake them when that moment came, but there was one horse missing. The wizard took the farmers mare and laid it down into an enchanted sleep. He then led the farmer into another cavern filled with gold, silver and all manner of precious stones and gems. He told the farmer to take as much as he could carry in payment and then led him back up the passage. The iron gates slammed shut behind him, followed by a tremendous rumbling, and then the wizard and the gates were gone.

There have been many variations and versions of this local legend, many name the wizard as Merlin and say the sleeping men were King Arthur and his knights waiting to fight the last great battle on the Cheshire Plain. Another details a prophecy in greater depth; “There will come a day when these men and these horses, awakening from their enchanted slumber, will descend onto the plain, decide the fate of a great battle and save their country. This shall be when George, the son of George shall reign.”

I must admit, I have spent many an hour wandering the Edge in the hope I might meet a wizard or stumble upon those iron gates (said to lie somewhere between Stormy Point and Holy Well) and I am certainly not the only one to be fascinated by the myths and supposed magic. In the 1960s, the Edge had a reputation as a meeting place for a witch’s coven. They, however, have long since ceased to congregate (possibly due to the attention received when this was made public) and visitors today are more interested in the sights and beauty of the Edge.

The Holy Well, Alderley Edge.
The Holy Well, Alderley Edge.

There are numerous landmarks and locations dotted throughout the area which tie in with the myth and magic of the story. The ‘Wizard’s Well’ is a natural spring which runs down into a stone trough. Carved into the rock above the well is the bearded face of a wizard (thought to have been the work of Robert Garner, a local stonemason and the great-great-grandfather of author Alan Garner) with the words “Drink to this and take thy fill for the water falls by the wizards will” inscribed below.

The Holy Well has pagan links and possibly dates back to Anglo Saxon times. Waters from the well are said to be a cure for barrenness and, it was reported, around 1740 a large boulder fell from the rock above Holy Well, burying a woman and a cow within. A few yards below the Holy Well is the Wishing Well (also known as the De Trafford well – the namesake of the De Trafford pub in the village) which also has pagan links. The hollow just by the well is thought to have been a trial working made by miners searching for copper, although Alan Garner suggested the cave may have been a result of the Romanticisation of the Edge in the 18th century with the cave being cut to resemble a hermits cell. Similarly, the Druid’s Circle is, in fact, only 200 years old, and is claimed by Garner to have been created by his great grandfather.

I’m sure there are countless other myths, legends and stories surrounding Alderley Edge, an interesting point I came across was that the town was first recorded as ‘Chorlegh’ in the 13th century however, with the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, the name was changed to Alderley Edge to avoid confusion with Chorley in Lancashire.

I also find the Wizard Inn fascinating as I am sure it is filled with countless stories and has a fascinating history dating back to the 13th century. It sits on the road to Macclesfield and I like to think it may have some part in the story with the wizard but I have struggled to find any details about it – I’ll keep looking and in the meantime, hopefully, I’ll bump into you on the Edge, maybe we’ll encounter upon a wizard or a cave holding Arthur and his knights.

Happy Adventurers Embarkers.


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