The architectural splendour of Nantwich
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 March 2017 | UPDATED: 08:52 14 March 2017
Nantwich is ancient, and has historic buildings attracting visitors daily. But it never stops evolving, writes Martin Pilkington
A visitor to Nantwich taking in the town centre would surely list the magnificent church and fine black-and-white buildings among their first impressions. Then they may well comment on the busy streets and shops, and the plethora of pubs and restaurants. It’s a vibrant place with amazing architecture.
St Mary’s Church sets the tone. ‘They started the church in the early 1300s, and the first mass was 1405, so it took a hundred years to complete,’ says steward Liz Chisnall. ‘But the entrance is only a year or so old, and fits in beautifully.’ She’s less complimentary about Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian ‘improvements’, but praises the recent restoration of the medieval misericords. ‘Many of the lower carvings are not religious – griffins, wyverns, wrestlers, a fox...the upper canopies are finer, but there’s no saying they were done by the same craftsmen.’
Similar stylistic contrasts abound here. Two minutes’ walk from St Mary’s is the French Baroque-style building where Pillory and Hospital Streets join, the most modern of Nantwich’s listed buildings it dates from 1911, and was designed by Ernest Edleston. Martin Greenwood is a director of the same practice, Bower Edleston, and a century on he has given the town another fabulous landmark, the modernist house La Hacienda.‘That part of Nantwich overlooking the lake has houses with good variation in style,’ he says, ‘with another modernist one a few doors down, and it’s variation which looks good. We wouldn’t have built it in the conservation area, but in the outskirts it fits in.’
Call in at the town’s museum and the town’s lengthy history means you’re assured of similar breadth. ‘The most fascinating old exhibits date from the Romans,’ says curator Kate Dobson. ‘Many are linked to the salt trade, mostly found at an excavation across the river.’ She’s equally proud of the recently-opened Cheese Room, where artefacts largely from the early 20th century are displayed, links with an industry still vital locally.
The town’s booming hospitality sector similarly spans the centuries. ‘A lot of people make different claims about which is the oldest pub in Nantwich, and it’s surprisingly hard to answer the question,’ says Bill Pearson, who with local author Andrew Lamberton is writing a history of the pubs. He puts forward cases for The Crown, rebuilt after the 1583 fire so ‘new’ with old roots; the Black Lion, and what is now The Union Vaults. Reconstruction after the fire left numerous Tudor buildings in Nantwich. That conflagration was, Bill says, caused by a publican-brewer careless of his cauldron. The situation worsened when valuable bears from one of the inns were freed to save them: ‘Frightened angry bears didn’t encourage fire-fighting efforts,’ he says.
It’s not just the architecture that evolves, but what it’s used for. Louise Bastow is director of a company that owns both The Cheshire Cat and Street restaurants in historic Welsh Row. The Cheshire Cat was once an almshouse, for a time operated as a night club, and for many years has been a restaurant. ‘It’s a very traditional set-up,’ she explains, ‘a very established place.’ But a few doors away they’ve developed a decidedly different concept: ‘Street started in Nantwich in April 2015,’ she continues, ‘We wanted something different in casual dining, based on street vendors and food-trucks around the world – Vietnam, Mexico, America... to eat in or take out. It’s proved hugely popular.’ Inevitably for Nantwich the new eaterie occupies an old building.
Over the bridge from Welsh Row, in Swine Market, there’s Beerdock, another new idea. Manager Nick Warren, says: ‘We opened in mid-2016 and we’re something between a bottle shop and a German Bierkeller, very informal, for people who love beer and lots of choice.’ The choice is astounding, beginning with local ales then continuing around Britain and Ireland, with selections from Belgium, the USA, and Germany.
Of course you don’t even need a building to serve refreshment, as Andrew Patterson demonstrates. ‘I saw a long queue at a little coffee bar at the Nantwich Food Festival, and thought where there’s a queue there’s an opportunity.’ In late 2015 he invested in a Piaggio 3-wheeler van equipped to sell high-end coffee and home-made macarons, and that vehicle has done so well that he bought another, smaller version to sell Prosecco.
‘We’re booked up for farmers’ markets, weddings, pride events, etc every weekend for months,’ he says.
Charities – old and new
Nick Warren, Manager at Beerdock
Kate Dobson with some of the artefacts from local cheese-making inside the Cheese Room at Nantwich Museum
Trustees, Amanda James and Phil Taylor outside Nantwich Almshouses on Beam Street
Andrew Patterson of the Little Italian Van
One of the misericord carvings inside St Mary's Church
Exterior of the Cheshire Cat
A hidden treasure
It’s normal that a town as prosperous as Nantwich has been for many centuries should have built almshouses, and quaint ones at that. Where many such institutions elsewhere have been run down, Nantwich has retained a surprising number. ‘In the sixties a number of Nantwich good men and true came together, and took several charities under one umbrella,’ says chairman Amanda James. The organisation has accommodation on Beam Street, Wall Lane, Welsh Row, Manor Road and in Shavington and Willaston. The older foundations can have some intriguing customs, like the one observed every November 24th: ‘We’ll be celebrating the 444th anniversary of Sir Edmund Wright’s baptism this year,’ says Amanda: ‘He was born in Nantwich and became Lord Mayor of London, and endowed almshouses here. We have a church service, then tea for all the almshouse residents, and in the evening a dinner for which he generously gifted six guineas – we add to it now! We toast the pious founder, guests, then absent trustees in silence as they’re dead and can’t hear us, and give a toast to the rector for his excellent service – and that has to be said whether it was or not!’
Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Great Manchester Police until 2015, now lives just outside Nantwich, and he has taken to charitable work too. After his daughter worked for a charity during a school trip to Africa, he involved police colleagues in similar efforts to broaden their experience, and when he retired was invited to head Retrak, which works with street children in Africa and South America.
‘What you need in police-work and charity-work is passion and belief, though it’s very different from running an organisation of 13,000 and one of 200 with most of them in Africa. Fundraising is different too of course, but at the local level what has struck me is the similarities with what I was dealing with in Cheshire then in Manchester, working with vulnerable children, weak families, and making communities active,’ he says.