A history of Holmes Chapel in Cheshire

PUBLISHED: 19:20 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:46 20 February 2013

Holmes Chapel

Holmes Chapel

THE year is 1839. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for barely 18 months.

Cheshire's lush dairy pastures bask beneath the sky, unscarred by motorways for the car is not even a chrome-fendered glint in an engineer's eye. But there is a price to pay for this unspoilt verdure: it takes 18 long hours of jolting and jarring to travel by stagecoach from Manchester to London. Livestock has to be driven to market on foot, and perishable foodstuffs are best eaten locally to avoid putrefaction en route.

All that is about to change. Railway mania has struck the country, and Holmes Chapel will never be the same again. The Manchester and Birmingham Railway Company is building a new track. The line needs to traverse the marshy ground of the Dane valley, and the only safe way it can do that is across a viaduct on the outskirts of the village.

Today the viaduct's 23 brick arches, soaring 105 feet above the valley and spanning a total of 1,794 feet, are a monument to the working man's resilience, determination, ingenuity and sheer hard graft.

Over a two-year period, more than 500 navvies helped to build this impressive industrial structure with basic tools and the sweat of their brows. Their labour was rewarded with fair pay (triple that of the average farmhand) and spartan living conditions.

There was insufficient local housing to accommodate them, so most of the navvies camped out by the viaduct in boggy fields devoid of sanitation.

Holmes Chapel's population swelled from 406 in 1831 to 1,008 in 1841, and the increased pressure on local bakers was so great that, after a long day of backbreaking labour, the navvies were sometimes obliged to walk four miles to Middlewich for a loaf of bread. Water was more readily accessible.

Primitive living conditions had polluted the River Dane, but those willing to trudge across the village to the Knutsford road could obtain a drink from The Spout, a natural spring which pumped out clean water at the rate of five gallons a minute. Alternatively, liquid refreshment of a more exuberant kind was available at the village hostelries.

The Red Lion, the George and Dragon and the Bull's Head needed to rake in all the custom they could, because once the railway was finished the local population melted back to 555, and the establishments' status as prosperous coaching inns along the main London-Carlisle thoroughfare evaporated.

Not all pubs suffered as a consequence of the railway. A brand new one called the Swan Inn was built opposite the station. It served both human and bovine passengers, its yard being used as a pen for cattle awaiting transportation to market.

The other pubs took what steps they could to bolster their trade. The Bull's Head became the headquarters of the village's Gooseberry Society, enjoyed a renaissance with the advent of the motor car, and accommodated Italian prisoners of war, then American servicemen, on its top floor during the Second World War. But it was knocked down in 1948 when the road was widened to facilitate traffic flow. The same fate befell the magnificent half-timbered George and Dragon in 1970, but tradition was upheld by building a new pub of the same name behind the original site.

Now vaunted by estate agents for its proximity to junction 18 of the M6, Holmes Chapel's entire history seems to revolve around the transport network.

In Roman times the area subsequently occupied by the village seems to have been a hinterland north-east of the saltworks at Salinae (Middlewich). All major north-south routes completely bypassed the area, and if you wanted to travel east or west towards Mamucium (Manchester) or Deva (Chester), you had to go north to pick up the road in Condate (Northwich) first.

Yet by the Middle Ages, a new north-south route (now the A50) went slap-bang through the centre of the thriving settlement. The village had also become a pit-stop for travellers heading east or west towards Congleton, Macclesfield, Middlewich and Chester.

The establishment of east-west roads to link towns on opposite sides of the county made perfect sense, but if you were drawing straight lines between them on a map, none would go through Holmes Chapel. Similarly, if a crow were in charge of devising the route of the 'great road to the north' between London and Carlisle, Holmes Chapel would not be on the itinerary.

So why did an important crossroads develop at this point? It's all to do with the terrain. The site is sandwiched between the River Dane, to the north, and the River Croco, to the south, and it's on higher, firmer ground than either of the riverbeds.

So if travellers wanted a breather between watery crossings, this would have been the driest spot to take one.

The location's status as a respite from boggy mires even gave it its name. In the earliest written references, the settlement is called Holm or Hulm, ancient English and Danish terms for a small island of drier ground surrounded by marshes and water meadows.

This linguistic evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians colonised the area, used the river crossings, and were instrumental in establishing a northsouth route through Cheshire at this point.

By the mid-13th century, Hulme's population was sufficiently large to merit the construction of a chapel of ease to save its residents the five-mile journey to the mother church at Sandbach. The new chapel was built on elevated ground in the middle of a circular churchyard.

Sites of this shape have frequently been associated with earlier religious activity, leading some experts to conclude that a pagan wayside shrine may once have been located midway between the river crossings. If so, it was perhaps established by people making offerings to their gods for safe passage across the rivers and marshland.

Such superstitions are still hinted at by the local sites Nicker's Well and Nicho Well Field, whose names are corruptions of Old English nicor, 'water-sprite'. Pagan religions could not, however, compete with Christianity. Within a few decades of its construction, the chapel became a useful way to distinguish Hulme from another (no longer existent) Hulme further south near Brereton.

From the 13th century onwards, the village was interchangeably known as Holmes Chapel or Church Hulme, a circumstance which suggests that the place of worship was always more splendid and significant than a mere hut.

By the 15th century, St Luke's had become a large black and white half-timbered building. Eight slender wooden pillars supported its magnificent oak-beamed roof, and a sandstone tower graced the west end. With the addition of Queen Anne upper galleries along the west and south walls, much of the medieval interior can still be seen. Externally, however, the tower is all that remains of this period. In 1700 the decaying outer timbers were replaced with red brick walls pierced by arched windows.

The resilient brick helped save the church from conflagration in 1753, when fire swept through the village, destroying all but four of the buildings. The only other survivors were two cottages behind the church, and the nearby Red Lion.

Now rechristened the Old Red Lion, the pub unquestionably merits its venerable status. It was mentioned in a probate inventory of 1625, attached to the will of its landlord, Thomas Gandie. At that time it could offer its customers a comfortable dining room and overnight accommodation in either the main building or an overspill extension called the Whyte Lion.

Unfazed by the presence of strong drink, the Methodist minister John Wesley is believed to have preached at the inn in 1738, and in 1745 some of Bonny Prince Charlie's troops were stationed there overnight during an abortive attempt to restore the Stuarts to the English throne. One of the first-floor windows still bears the graffiti of a Jacobite supporter: 'Bless and preserve Prince Charles for ever, Amen, I pray God'.

The same invocation could equally be declaimed on behalf of Holmes Chapel and the legions of travellers and labourers who made the village what it is today.

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