City clubbers are tired of commercialised nightlife. Now they're recapturing the buzz of the early rave scene - in the country. Decca Aitkenhead reports
magine that you have pounds 3m in your pocket, and that you want to build a nightclub. You travel the world for inspiration, enlist the finest designers, and create an exquisite fantasy playground on a scale never dreamt of in this country. A space-age Egyptian temple with suspended dance floors, a towering podium for 200 dancers, a 40-foot aluminium chill- out tube, a waterfall cascading down a rain garden and a river of drinking water winding through the floor - your ambition is limitless. And where do you build such a thing? You build it in Bolton.

Club culture throughout the Nineties has, until now, been locked into Britain's biggest cities. What began 10 years ago in far- flung fields around the M25 rapidly relocated itself in corporate machines of the big metropolises - London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool, with clubs like the Ministry of Sound and Cream setting the agenda for all that was cool and credible. And for a while, clubbers couldn't believe their luck. Where Saturday night had once meant a messy succession of phone calls, dubious directions and a precarious pied piper convoy into the wilderness, first-class clubbing was now just a taxi ride away. But a profound sense of dissatisfaction has been creeping in. City centre clubs, people complain, have grown soulless - complacent voids filled at best by clubbers lacking any imagination, and at worst by people whose only apparent interest lies in selling you horrible drugs.

Clubs in the provinces had always survived, but had been dismissed as terminally hick affairs. But now, in a bold revolt, some of the leading figures in cosmopolitan clubland are abandoning the cities and taking clubs back to the country.

There can be few more improbable sights than the one which greets you as you wind your way down a rural Cheshire lane through the village of Alderley Edge. Standing under the trees, along a hedgerow, is one of the most glamourous queues to be found anywhere on a Saturday night, snaking back from what looks like the door of a country house. Exotic drag queens and doormen in white dinner jackets present a glittering but rigorous reception committee, and hundreds are turned away. This is Millennium, one of the most exclusive, successful and remote clubs in the country.

"I knew I wanted my own nightclub, and I knew it had to be out of the city," said Andy Bassett, 30, who began promoting Saturday night at Millennium six months ago, and is now contemplating surrendering a career as a recruitment consultant just to keep pace with the club. The North-west's celebrity clique of footballers and models have become familiar faces at Millennium."Everyone was totally sceptical when I proposed a dance night in Alderley Edge. They still believed in Manchester. I didn't. You have to make people travel, not just to keep the bad element away, but to recreate that sense of occasion," he said.

Inside the club, a plush three-room venue playing uplifting house music, two things are instantly striking. First, there is indeed no hint of what is quaintly referred to as the "bad element" - shady types lurking menacingly in corners. And secondly, a quality even more rare these days, an atmosphere of genuine, high-octane excitement.

"I really thought I'd had it with clubbing by last Christmas. I was just sick of that whole tired old thing. Nobody had to make any effort, and then they wondered why the night was shit." A vision of Dolce & Gabbana chic, Simon, 25, enthuses with the fervour of the born again. "I was dragged down here by a friend, thinking, `What the hell am I doing in Alderley Edge on a Saturday night? This is ridiculous.' And I've been back every weekend since." Everyone here tells the same story of rediscovering a friendliness and thrill which has soured and drained away from other clubs.

"There's something absurd about clubbing, isn't there?" laughs a girl in the toilets. "Dancing around at 3am in sequins and feathers? It's mad. But the clubs in the cities, they take it so seriously. You've got to go somewhere daft like a little village, just to get back to that giddy feeling."

Millennium is not even merely full of clubbers who have quit Manchester's major clubs - Home, the Hacienda and Paradise Factory. Others have travelled from Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, and even Wales.

One of the first big city promoters to venture out of town was Manchester record shop owner and one-time Hacienda DJ Russ Marland, who quit a Friday- night residency at the club 18 months ago to run a dance night in the tiny Pennines town of Todmorden. Every Saturday, some 400 clubbers head for the hills to Out In The Sticks to hear resident local DJs playing deep American garage, rather than big-name guest DJs churning out commercial house.

"Mainstream clubbing has lost track of its roots," Marland says. "People are too worried about messing up their clothes to actually enjoy themselves, and it's become very mindless. People come here 'cause it's real. There's no pretension. And it's safe - you don't exactly have a gangster problem in Todmorden."

It's a view being voiced increasingly, from many quarters. In this month's issue of DJ magazine, leading London DJ Jon Pleased Wimmin complains of "the jaded old seen-it-done-it-all-dahling London scene. Down here, clubbers are far too spoilt, even if 90 per cent of their choice is absolute crap. I love playing places like Hereford." And it was this growing consensus which convinced John Musso to locate his pounds 3m venture, the Temple, in an 18th-century mill in Bolton.

"My honest, truthful feeling is this: screw London. And I wouldn't have a nightclub in Manchester for all the tea in China. Here, we've got a council which considers us the jewel in their crown, and the best police force I have ever worked with."

Where Out In The Sticks caters to an unpretentious, underground crowd, and Millennium serves the exclusive glamour set, the Temple is, in Mr Musso's words, "an outrageously ambitious, colossal fashion statement". The centrepiece of a complex which includes a Sicilian restaurant, a private members' bar and a soul and funk club, the 1,500-capacity Temple is designed for a chic clientele from all over the North-west.

Its attention to detail is unprecedented in British clubs still wedded to the old warehouse ethos. Calvin Klein has even sponsored the toilets. The Temple opens its doors to incredulous acclaim next weekend. "I will live or die on this," smiles Mr Musso. "It's not about stumbling around town and falling into any old club. It's about the real roots of dance culture. The cities are dying. And they brought it on themselves."

8 Out in the Sticks 01706 817568. Millennium 01625 585535. Temple 01204 406640