The opening lines of ‘Cranford‘ by Elizabeth Gaskell
“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad.”
Elizabeth Gaskell in Knutsford
Standing outside an elegant double-fronted house on a rainy day in Cheshire, Caroline, our expert guide, explained how Elizabeth Stevenson (1810-1865) came to Knutsford as a baby in 1811 after the death of her mother. She lived with her Aunt Lumb until she went to school in Stratford, then stayed in London and around the country before returning to the town and marrying William Gaskell. Together they went to Manchester where he was the minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel.
I have been to Knutsford, not far from Chester, a number of times but had no idea that Elizabeth Gaskell had based her well-known novel, Cranford (pub. 1851) on this attractive little town, as well as Hollingford in ‘Wives and Daughters’. I was on a day out with a group of friends from our local Book Club to find out more about Elizabeth Gaskell and her connections to the North West. Caroline told us that many of the characters in Cranford were based on people she knew and some of the buildings still standing feature in her novels.
A blue plaque outside WH Smith’s states: This property built in the reign of George I is reputed to have been the fictional home of ‘Miss Matty’, the principal character in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford and was also the home of Miss Elizabeth Harker upon whom Mrs Gaskell based her Cranford character ‘Betty Barker’. Caroline informed us that actually it was probably the property next door … Miss Matty was played with great wit and panache by the glorious Dame Judi Dench in the BBC TV adaptation of Cranford.
We saw the old Assembly Rooms, sadly not open to the public, the Royal George and Angel Hotel, all with connections to the author and her stories. Most impressive was the Gaskell Memorial Tower and King’s Coffee House, designed by glove merchant Richard Harding Watt from Manchester. Influenced by the Continent and inspired by Italian architecture, Watt’s tower is remiscent of those in San Gimignano, and is dedicated to the town’s most famous resident.
This Grade II listed building features a copper bas relief and bust of the author, along with the titles of all her novels and a sign: This plaque was placed here on the occasion of Mrs Gaskell’s 150th birth anniversary, Sep 29th 1960 and to record that this tower was erected to the memory of Mrs Gaskell by Mr RH Watt in March 1907.
We ended our tour at the 17th c Knutsford Heritage Centre, hidden in an alley through the pretty May Day Gate and past the giant Green Man sculpture. Knutsford May Day is a major annual event and ‘Jack in the Green’ always appears in the front of the May Day Procession. As well as leaflets on The Cranford Trail and an excellent Official Guide to Knutsford, the Heritage Centre has an exhibition of local artefacts, costumes and and items relating to the area’s history, which goes back to the Domesday Book in 1086. Did you know the town is named after King Canute (Cnut the Great), who apparently forded the River Lily here?
We didn’t have time to see the Knutsford Millenium Tapestry; we’ll have to return another day to see it and have another look round this charming home to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Amazons.
If you’re a Mrs Gaskell fan you must also visit the Elizabeth Gaskell House Manchester, where you can learn about her life as a married woman and successful author.
More about Cheshire: Shopping and a dash of history in Chester