“When I was not confined to the house, I would spend my days and my nights on the Edge.”
– Alan Garner (1997, p.12).
On a frosty but sunny January morning, I was making my way along the M56 towards Macclesfield. The pilgrimage was not one of unique exploration but one of repetition; I was treading my own ghost steps to a place I had visited almost a year to the day. I was on my way to Alderley Edge in Cheshire, the stalking ground of fantasy writer, Alan Garner. In 2015, I had made this journey in order to make a film, quickly zipping variously between Alderley, Jodrell Bank at Congleton with its famous Bernard Lovell-designed radio telescope (and where Garner still lives), and the monument of Mow Cop further down the M6. With such haste, I had been unable to fully explore the Edge on foot properly, in part due to the need to get shots that were at the mercy of the weather. My aim in returning was to properly explore the Edge in relation to Garner’s history and especially in the context of his first novel, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen (1960), which maps the area in such detail (as well as actually providing an illustrated map) that reliving Susan and Colin’s fantastic adventures into the world of magic and evil is possible without difficulty. After all, the subtitle of the book is A Tale of Alderley.
Driving through the town which sleepily resides further down the hill, it is clear that the area has changed dramatically since Garner’s time. The affluence of the place is all too clear. Its local supermarket is Waitrose and its shops are almost all independent and expensive-looking, rather like the groups of people who wander in and out of them; all dressed impeccably, pushing huge designer prams into delicatessens and vintage sweet shops. This is no longer the realm of the ancient or the place to produce working-class characters such as Gowther and Bess Mossock; the older, land-working characters from Garner’s novel, based on genuine people from the area. The new sheen to the place is, however, quickly lost once on the Macclesfield Road. Though it is itself initially built of impossibly large looking mansions, it quickly merges into forest and rocks. A few minutes hence and civilisation has virtually vanished, only reappearing like a conjuring trick when the official National Trust car-park for the Edge appears alongside a certain pub.
The Wizard Inn is one of the key points in Garner’s story and is the first stop on the walk, at least to view. In Brisingamen, Garner writes the following on the pub: “It was named The Wizard, and above the door was fixed a painted sign which held the children’s attention. The painting showed a man dressed like a monk, with long white hair and beard”. Little has changed on the surface, the building retaining its early black and white wooden design, built on the very precipice of the forest. The sign still hangs proudly, its magical character standing confidently as protector to the area. It is aptly one of the few buildings around whose sense of magic is retained, its beams bending gently with age and its windows creaking wisely in the breeze.
Moving on from here, the aim was to hit the Edge as soon as possible. A path wound around and through the forest, past several mines which may or may not have housed various groups of aggressive Svarts, the goblin-like creatures which haunt Garner’s first two novels. This path ran steeply downwards which was surprising as it didn’t lead to the very bottom of the Edge itself but actually to its plateaux. The Wizard sits on the hill of the Edge, an edge of an edge so to speak. Instead of veering left straight away towards the forest again, I meandered straight on through an impossibly thin path created by barbed wire on either side, fields stretching out as far as they dared but politely reclining and giving hint to the boundary of the land ahead about to drop. In terms of Garner’s map, it was heading towards Clockhouse Wood though the weather meant that a left turn was quickly taken before reaching this point in the hope of some wooded shelter from the rain.
The paths twisted again through a wooden gate though the neatness of the area leading up to the Edge’s various points began to feel rather too tidy and unnerving; there was a viewing point and path so unnaturally created that it felt ominous but the view itself was excellent. Garner writes of this Edge in Brisingamen, describing it as “high, and sombre, and black”. He further elaborates on Susan and Colin’s reaction to the place:
Nearer they came to the Edge, until it towered above them, then they turned to the right along a road which kept to the foot of the hill. On one side lay fields, and on the other the steep slopes. The trees came right down to the road, tall beeches which seemed to be whispering to each other in the breeze.
The beeches were indeed whispering as the wind began to pick up. Such wildness of the eventual rocky plains of the Edge will never be taken in by the neatness of the town. The outcrop is simultaneously jagged and smooth, allowing a Roman-sentry’s view onto the Cheshire plains that is astonishing; a wave to Macey down the M6 at Mow Cop, the Roman character from Garner’s 1973 novel, Red Shift. It is a view that transports temporally as well as physically. This combination of its geography and the acquired intellect surrounding its history gave Garner a unique but perhaps emotionally lethal view of this landscape; Stormy Point is aptly named.
He writes that “As a result of gained knowledge, for me the Edge both stopped, and melted, time” but also writes in the same essay that “It is physically and emotionally dangerous. No one born to the Edge questions that, and we showed it proper respect”. He is evidently not discussing the dangers of an incorrect footing but of a relationship with the self; places that force us to reflect on our own minuteness and forcibly conclude how pitiful the position we hold is in any sort of universal schemata. The rock was here before we were born and the rock will be here once we and the Waitrose are gone. Garner knew this, especially as the rock transcended through his own family, right the way back several generations. With such an angle, it is worth restating the sheer aesthetic beauty of its rolling landscape. Perhaps the surprisingly morbid quality of Garner’s vision of this place is also partly to do with being so personally attached to it. This aspect of emotional danger does not quite make it through into Brisingamen but the spellbinding nature of the place certainly does. For example:
To the north, the Cheshire plain spread before them like a green and yellow patchwork quilt dotted with toy farms and houses. Here the Edge dropped steeply for several hundred feet, while away to their right the country rose in folds and wrinkles until it joined the bulk of the Pennines, which loomed eight miles away through the haze.
The day of the walk presented an equal, hypnotic haze which took a great deal of effort to pull away from. The walk continued though not with the handrail caution and safety of the path. Down through the valley of the stones, little discernible way seemed to present itself. Behind the Edge, a quick stray from the path lead to some eerily abandoned mine shafts, of which the danger became all too obvious. Standing unwisely and irresponsibly over a precipice, the wild danger of the place – the same aspect that Garner channels again and again – was briefly felt. The rain fell with a increased force, the place resisted; the Edge had ironically found its edge again. Mud clogged the grips of my boots so the gravel make-way of the path was finally followed back through to find some of the many features that haunt the forest. Past the small, obviously Victorian “Druid” stone circle and back down into the forest’s valley, an unstable path eventually lead to a formation known as the Holy Well.
The sound of the water was incredibly pleasant, in part because it was the history of Garner and the place made manifest; a source perhaps. He talks about this well several times in various essays, mentioning that it is where his family gathered both their water and their children’s pocket money: “Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change”. His Grandfather even claimed that the well’s water was “a cure for barren women”. I drunk some of its water, in spite of being neither barren nor a woman, as a resistance to the prevalent idea of everything outside being contaminated with germs; a fear that effectively keeps more and more people indoors, away from the giddy exuberance provided by the phenomenology of nature and its physical pleasures. The boggy nature of the path became more evident and the walk back up the side of the valley was enjoyably slippery, even catching an absentminded dog-walker off balance as he fell off the path and down the side. Coming to his aid, he looked rather aghast, as if tricked by a trustworthy acquaintance.
The last stop on the walk was the Wizard’s Well, another natural source of water that bears the carving of a wizard and an inscription that reads “Drink of this and take thy fill, for the water falls by the Wizhard’s will”. The carving is reputedly one of the many remains of handiwork by Garner’s great-great-grandfather, Robert. The well sadly proved too magical for my camera to properly capture its wonderful phylacterium, its overhanging rock casting out most of the light from above the trees. I rubbed my hand on the Wizard’s mossy beard and then onto my own, perhaps for some encouragement in its growing long and wise. In Brisingamen, Colin and Susan also find the Wizard’s Well which provides a clue the presence of Cadellin, the wizard at the heart of Garner’s narrative:
Just as they were about to turn for home after a climb from the foot of the Edge, the children came upon a stone trough into which water was dripping from an overhanging cliff, and high in the rock was carved the face of a bearded man…
The warmth of the inn was calling but it was not to be an entirely uplifting end to the walk. The inn itself, rather than the restaurant, is still effectively functioning in its service of foods for more transient travellers. It seems an impossibly old building, more like a barn extension to the original pub. This outer layer is misleading though as, upon entering, the strangest of atmospheres is apparent. Though the beams are old, the fire well lit and dusty, and the oak gently groaning, the inn actually acted as a sentinel enclave from the town. People were sat discussing holidays in Dubai and how to get their second iPad repaired, Radio 1 was at full volume blasting Mr Brightside by The Killers, and there was even a sign on the counter that read “Have a totally amazeballs day”. It was like waking from an ancient dream to the loud and brash nightmare of today, alien to the character of the Edge.
While sat at a table, a figure came in with a long, grey beard. Like most psychogeography, this could be read as mythologizing but this man genuinely did appear whilst I was sat in a mournful stupor. He was in walking gear rather than a long cloak but, upon witnessing the atmosphere of the cafe, he sighed, turned and walked back out. It seemed an impossibly poignant Arthurian alarum. Perhaps he went back to the gates in the stone again to wait another hundred years to see if things would improve. The Edge is such a wild terrain, so full of magic and yet it feels like an anomaly, a portal to some ignored past. Garner writes that “Coincidence, error, fantasy or folklore: this is a reality. And for this I care”. My walk on the Edge provided all of these things though it seemed a reality that was slipping away, stone by stone, gradually going into hiding under the rocks and trees; lying in wait for a new dawn to come.