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A Journey Around the British Isles… Part 104

The Staffordshire town of Cheadle should be much better known but I’m glad it isn’t. It is a town that goes alongside Northallerton, Knaresborough, Retford, and Daventry. These are the towns, along with a good number more, that give England its flavour. Real places with real people in them. No especial romance. Not visited by over many yet containing more than enough to divert those looking for the heart and soul of the country. And all with at least one special reason for visiting.

For Cheadle, most tour guides would pick St Giles Church as the must see venue. It is superb. But it isn’t the only thing that sets this town apart. It’s just the right size for a town, has a fine range of local and independent shops as well as the national chains you know and trust (by which I usually mean Boots and Smiths). The high street is attractive in a best working clothes sort of way. The older buildings are handsome (again in a Richard Widmark rather than James Dean sort of way) and rectangular flat roofed sixties contributions defy my usual mantra of always looking up if you want to see the best of a town. They are not attractive at all and play their part through their characterless anonymity. They are ugly, but in so passive a manner, as to not draw attention to themselves.

Photo by Astronautilus

The people are brilliant. As I’m locking my bicycle one of a group of three elderly men says, “Leave it over here son. We’ll keep an eye on it for you.”

In the car park near Iceland (Cheadle hides its supermarkets) people are offering their parking tickets to strangers while two teenage girls practice smoking out of sight of prying eyes.

The Family Butcher and I share a family name and the pork pie I buy is a credit to the lineage. The man who serves me isn’t related but he thinks the owner might be a distant cousin. “Aye, I think he’s got some family in Warslow. He used to go across there from time to time.”

The chemist sells me painkillers. I cheekily ask if she’ll fill up my water bottles rather than charge me a pound a pint for water from the fridge. She sees no problem and carefully wipes them down with kitchen towel before handing them back.

I’m less than a day’s travel from home and have no intention of having to book into a hotel within a hour’s cycle of my own bed. Cheadle has a great deal to hold me but the pull of journey’s end is strong. There is no way though, that I can leave the town without visiting the church known locally as Pugin’s Gem. I’d listened to a Radio 4 programme on the church and on the architect’s role at nearby Alton Towers (when Britain’s favourite theme park was the stately seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury) and had been riveted. BBC Radio 4 is one of the things that make living in Britain wonderful. Eighteen hours a day of spoken programmes that you can listen to (with the exception of the anachronistic and often banal Woman’s Hour and the bloody awful and earnest consumer programme You and Yours. There is often a very fine line between the profoundly brilliant and the flagrantly obvious as evidenced, for example, by Wittgenstein’s family resemblance theory of language. On Woman’s hour and You and Yours the line between sounding deeply meaningful and talking total bollocks (non gender specific) is crossed on an almost daily basis).

Photo of Cheadle by Astronautilus

Photo of Cheadle by Astronautilus

The programme on Pugin was on while I was driving home up the M1. I got home before it finished and sat in the driveway for ten minutes to get to the end. I’d wanted to visit the church ever since.

Pugin was the architectural genius of the Victorian age. Most famously he gave us the interiors of the Palace of Westminster (British Houses of Parliament) and was responsible for the clock tower now correctly referred to as The Elizabeth Tower but known throughout the world by the name of the bell that booms out the hour; Big Ben.

A convert to Catholicism, Pugin designed churches around Britain and Ireland including cathedrals in Enniscorthy County Wexford and Birmingham. He also designed churches and other buildings in Australia. He designed stately homes and country residences as well as his most famous work by the banks of the Thames. He was married three times had eight children. He spent the last seven months of his life in mental institutions including The Bedlam Hospital (Royal Bethlem) in Southwark, and was dead by the age of forty.

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In the late 1830s the 18th Earl of Shrewsbury invited Pugin to design the perfect church; one where everything in and of the building served both a functional  and a symbolic purpose. Pugin was a great proponent of the medieval gothic revival (see Houses of Parliament) and was given almost unlimited funds for this project. From the moment you arrive at the astonishing red doors, with the gold lions rampant, it is a feast and a delight to all of the senses.

It’s too much to take in in one sitting. But it isn’t overdone. This, as I say, is a feast but a feast which balances its courses one against the other. From beautifully ornate stonework to incredible wood carving. This is craftsmanship of the highest order. Pugin may take all of the plaudits but there must have been a highly skilled team assembled for this job. The public houses and inns of Cheadle spent a lot of months selling a lot of beer to a lot of very talented people. As an example of Victorian gothic splendour, I have never seen better. As a treasure trove of church building techniques it is unique. As a place to sit quietly and contemplate the immensity of the universe from a secular or spiritual viewpoint it is a wonder. I can only afford thirty minutes, if home is going to be reached before bedtime, but they are thirty of the best minutes I’ve spent on the whole adventure.

Is it the finest church in England? Well, lets just say; it’s a contender. Finding it in an un-showy, respectable, decent town like Cheadle adds to its glory.

At a mini-mart I get a large bottle of cola and a bar of Fruit and Nut. The lady is as helpful and friendly as can be.

“Waterhouses. Now let me see. You’ve some banks to get over but once you’ve managed them you’ll be fine.”

I found the banks and they were everything you expect from a Staffordshire hill: steep, long but ultimately rewarding you with a village shop or views of astonishing beauty. I don’t find my way to Waterhouses which is a pity. It’s at the end of the Manifold Valley Light Railway and for the last thirty years or more this has been a quiet and rather beautiful cycle path on weekdays and a very busy one at the weekend. I can’t resist heading up to a little village called Ipstones. It is one heck of a pull and I find my rhythm by panting out the words “Ipso Facto, Ipstones Factor”. It literally means “Because of that fact”. Because of the fact that I’m passing through Ipstones, I’m not heading for an eight mile saunter along the tracks that my grandfather once worked on. I’m heading for Onecote and Butterton and Warslow and some very big hills. My mother was born in Warslow. The hills are as steep and as tough as they get in England, but I’m heading home.