This week, inspired by Michael Portillo – possibly not something anyone’s ever written before, so here it is again – inspired by Michael Portillo, I’m making a case for Congleton to become the cultural and tourist centre of Cheshire East.
There’s often a feeling that Macclesfield and Crewe are the “big” towns and Congleton the smaller brother; Cheshire East itself bases many of its operations in Macc and Crewe.
That’s fine for practical things: let Crewe have the piles of grit for the roads and all those job-creating warehouses and Macc the council’s fleet of trucks and biosciencetechnology biopark.
But when it comes to culture, heritage and history, and, above all, charm, Congleton (and indeed, the former Congleton borough) is well ahead.
Empirically, you can see this for yourself. Not that I recommend it, but if you find yourself shopping in Macc you’ll notice what a tatty town centre it has. Admittedly, there’s a Waterstones (nice staff), but that’s about it. The town looks scratty — a technical word, used by town planners — and it lacks the ancient charms of Congleton or Sandbach.
As for Crewe: I’m led to believe its town centre is somewhere between the multi-storey car park and Asda but I’ve never felt the urge to look.
Obviously I exaggerate for humour, and that’s clearly a biased generalisation. Even if it’s true. Both lack the qualities of Congleton — and we’ve recently discovered reliable and independent proof.
Inspired by Michael Portillo (that’s three times) and his televised travels on trains, we picked up a cheap copy of Bradshaw’s handbook, the legendary guide to the railways, as used by Mr P.
It’s interesting reading anyway, but it’s very interesting for its coverage of this area.
Take Macclesfield, for instance. Despite having a population (then) of 36,000, it’s dismissed by Bradshaw in a mere paragraph, about the same as Leek (population 10,000). It’s got a church and an MP or two.
In a book about trains, Crewe is obviously important but again benefits from only a small amount of Mr Bradshaw’s time. Though to be fair, back then it was just a small town landed with a big station. After some impressive stats on railways and their ways, and a passing admiration of the town’s grease, Bradshaw mentions Crewe Hall and moves on.
Congleton, on the other hand, despite being a third the size of Macc, gets a lengthy entry from the discerning Mr Bradshaw. He mentions the half-timbered houses, the town hall, and the many stately homes in the environs of the town.
The route into the town (and out of Macclesfield, obviously) is “rich in natural beauties”, and there’s Cloud End and Mow Cop. The Bridestones are singled out for attention, as are the viaducts.
All in all, Congleton merits nearly half a column — it’s on the same spread of page as Ashbourne, then, as now, a tourist trap, which gets only a bit more.
And Bradshaw was writing before Little Moreton Hall was open to the public, or Jodrell Bank was built, or Biddulph Grange restored and handed over to the nation. Or we started honouring his namesake, regicide, and made the town the centre of all things ursine, not to mention real ale.
He doesn’t mention Sandbach Crosses, only a short trip away, or our beauty spots.
This made me realise that the Congleton area is just as well-placed as more famous tourist towns like Buxton or Bakewell to cash in on day trippers or “staycationers”; we’re on the edge of the both the Peak District and the Cheshire Plain to boot.
There are numerous attractions within only a short drive, be it Sandbach’s historic cobbles and crosses, or Biddulph Grange, or Jodrell Bank. Visitors staying in the area can be directed to the Peaks without having to see Macclesfield, and they can get to Chester without having to observe Crewe.
Obviously, our development as a tourist area depends on Congleton and Sandbach not being destroyed because of Cheshire East’s dismal failure to produce a local plan (overseen by a Congleton councillor, ironically) but once the council has a valid local plan, and the link road is sorted — freeing up Congleton’s medieval streets — we should be lobbying for a tourism boost in this area.
When it all gets going, maybe we should get Mr Portillo and his worn copy of Bradshaw to wish us luck.