In search of Alan Garner
My favourite book when I was a kid was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a fantasy adventure about two children who befriend a wizard and help him fight forces of evil. It was sort of like the Harry Potter of its day (except it was good). Like J.K. Rowling, the author, Alan Garner, chose to set his fictional tale firmly within the real world; specifically Alderley Edge in Cheshire. The wizards, witches, goblins, elves, dwarfs and other magical beings etch out an existence alongside society, albeit a secret one.
For a children’s story, it’s surprisingly bleak. The most memorable sequence is a prolonged chase underground where the children are pursued by monsters through the network of mines and caves underneath Alderley Edge. It scared me when I was a kid and haunts me as an adult. I decided to revisit The Edge and some of the other places where Garner set his stories to find out if the magic still lingers.
The mystical old man who chaperones the heroic youngsters in Weirdstone is based on the legend of Alderley Edge which goes something like this: A farmer from Mobberley is on his way to sell a white horse at Macclesfield market when he meets the fabled wizard who offers to buy the magnificent beast. He doesn’t offer enough and the farmer refuses. The wizard tells him that he will not sell the horse at the market and lo and behold, the farmer gets a peculiar lack of interest. He encounters the wizard again on the way home and gives in. The wily old sorcerer then opens a pair of iron gates that appear in the rock, revealing an entrance into a cave with a pile of jewels, inviting the farmer to help himself. It turns out the wizard cares for 140 knights who slumber deep within The Edge, waiting for the day when England needs them, and they are a short of a horse.
The legend is given more credibility by the existence of a carving of the wizard above an old well, just below Castle Rock; The Edge’s most notable landmark. Sadly, the carving has almost vanished, along with the rest of Garner’s Alderley Edge. Nowadays, the village is more famous for being the abode of millionaires although you can still find several commercial establishments named after The Wizard so the association is not completely lost. The Edge when I was young was a quiet and eerie place. Thirty years on, like most other well-known countryside walks, it is overcrowded and the elves and goblins have nowhere left to hide.
Mow Cop Castle
I was brought up in the shadow of Mow Cop Castle on the border of Cheshire and Staffordshire. It now seems to be called Mow Cop Folly, which doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I remember its foreboding outline on the horizon and the frequent visits to play there with my friends. Garner utilised the structure as the central location for his novel Red Shift. Unlike Weirdstone, I struggled to read this one when I was a kid; its multi-faceted and ambiguous themes were too much of a challenge. I tackled it as an adult instead. The castle seems smaller and less imposing to me now but it still cuts an impressive silhouette. It is cared for by the National Trust, ensuring that future generations will enjoy it, and probably breathe new life into Garner’s story.
The equally awesome sequel to Weirdstone exploits a gloomy ruin called Errwood Hall in Derbyshire for its climactic scene. Once the heart of a flourishing community, Errwood Hall was demolished in 1934 By Stockport Water Corporation to make way for nearby Fernilee Reservoir, along with almost everything else in The Goyt Valley. Quite why the company felt the need to knock down an impressive Victorian mansion that was nowhere near the water is a matter of dispute. The most likely explanation is that they did not have the funds for its maintenance. Now little more than a ruin in a sea of rhododendron, the Hall still gets thousands of visitors every year, drawn to the mystique of the mansion in the woods.
In Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath, Errwood Hall is returned to its former glory by sinister magic; a fanciful concept that becomes easier to believe in the presence of such a spooky place. Slowly but surely, the house is being reclaimed by the wilderness and may one day vanish completely. If I was a billionaire, I would buy it back and return it to its original splendour; probably using builders rather than sorcery.
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If you like Alan Garner’s stuff as much as I do and you have visited a place that he has written about, I would love to hear from you but feel free to get in touch about any weird and creepy bobbins.