County of conspicuous wealth: The big cheeses of Cheshire Life

The fake-tanned world of the North-West's boom towns is the inspiration for a new television drama series. Jonathan Brown and Geneviève Roberts report

They used to be content with two-carat solitaire diamonds in Wilmslow, the Cheshire boom-town that has become a byword for conspicuous wealth in modern Britain. Today it seems, the five-carat rock is all the rage.

For those unschooled in the intricacies of the jewellery trade, that is a diamond the size of a five-pence piece and it will set you back the best part of £200,000.

"If they want it, they will buy it," explains local jeweller Peter Harrington. He should know. He has shifted half a dozen of the ostentatious baubles in the past 12 months alone. Wilmslow along with Bowdon and Hale, is known as the "golden triangle" among Cheshire's champagne set. It is a place where Premiership footballers' Bentleys rub bumpers with the Aston Martins of the North-west's leading industrialists, where actors from Manchester's Granada studios swap anecdotes with the city's media types on some of Britain's finest golf courses, or in country pubs.

And the salaries for the elite that have made the rolling countryside south of Manchester their home are more than a match for their contemporaries 200 miles down the M6.

For these reasons Channel 4 is staging a new eight-part drama here. Made by World Productions, whose This Life embodied the spirit of a certain type of young urban professionals in the late Nineties, Gold Plated aims to do the same again in the North. More than a grown-up Hollyoaks, the Beverly Hills 90210 wannabe set down the road in Chester, the series promises to explore the hidden side of the county's wealth explosion. Billed as a "family saga of life on the edge, on the never-never and on the verge of madness" it promises to pull no punches.

And according to Channel 4 senior commissioning editor, Francis Hopkinson, the location was a no-brainer.

"If society is becoming more consumerist, then Cheshire is the glitzy heartland of that new wealth and of lives lived on the brink of bankruptcy. Getting under the fake-tanned skin of this world is what I hope will make Gold Plated compulsive viewing," he said.

Just down the road from Mr Harrington's jewellers is the Wilmslow car dealership Stratstones. It alone accounts for 20 per cent of all UK sales of £100,000-plus Aston Martins. A village home that cost £500,000 at the turn of the millennium can fetch up to £2m.

But it is not just new money that is priming the boom here, argues Mr Harrington. The bedrock of the county's spectacular wealth comes courtesy of the region's industrialists, lawyers, doctors and financiers.

Stephanie White is marketing manager at Chester's five-star spa, restaurant hotel The Grosvenor. Owned by the Duke of Westminster, Britain's second richest man whose family seat is near by at Eaton Hall, she represents the quintessence of established county wealth. "Footballers' Wives is a stereotype. We get a lot of people here for the racing, people come locally and we have a lot of national and international visitors. There is a lot of old money here and a lot of new money as well."

And while Manchester city centre may have had eye-catching developments in recent years, its suburbs are suffering middle-class flight. The professionals are deserting the once affluent quarters of Bury and Stockport, lured by Cheshire's top-quality schools and negligible crime rate.

Unemployment in the county is barely one per cent. But now villages which just a few years ago were well within the reach of first-time buyers, are feeling the effects of the boom. In Stockton Heath the gentrification process continues apace. Exclusive cookware shops, nail bars for men and specialist food shops selling olive frittatas with sun-dried tomato coulis line the high street. On Saturdays there is a farmers' market. But not everything has changed. Just across the Manchester Ship Canal in neighbouring Warrington, they still prefer chips.

Manchester

May not enjoy the title as such but (with apologies to Birmingham) the commercial and corporate capital of the North-west has long been Britain's de facto second city.

Who lives here?A host of actors working on productions at Granada and the BBC including Cold Feet's John Thomson.

Eating out: The Living Room, top right, on Deansgate sees the city's famous footballers, media set and business community sit down to break bread. Piccolino on Clarence Street attracts an equally well-heeled crowd.

What to do: For culture vultures the Lowry Centre in Salford offers theatres and galleries with jazz on a Sunday. For shopaholics, the city centre offers Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, right. The truly nouveaux-riches, however, prefer the out-of-town Trafford Centre.

Knutsford

The main town in Tatton - the most affluent constituency outside London - is appropriately the birthplace of Henry Royce of Rolls Royce. Less appropriately, Knutsford is also the home of Eurocamp.

Who lives here? Elizabeth Gaskell used Knutsford as the model for her novel Cranford. Veteran footballer Sir Bobby Charlton, above, is a resident.

Eating out: Posh and Becks and Wayne Rooney have all dined at Belle Epoque. Porto Fino Italian restaurant also comes highly recommended. The Lord Eldon pub occasionally has live music while the White Bear pub is more traditional.

What to do: Tatton Park features a mansion and a Tudor hall set among 1,000 acres of parkland with lakes and deer.

Wirral

A large part of the peninsula is still part of Merseyside although some of its residents would rather it wasn't. The accent remains distinct.

Who lives here? Pete Burns of Dead or Alive - and more recently Celebrity Big Brother. The Coral come from Wirral, as does Andrew Irvine, the mountaineer. Glenda Jackson was born in Birkenhead.

Eating out: The Oyster Catcher pub and Pier Bar.

What to do: The Floral Pavilion for theatre or Club 57 for live jazz, blues gigs and jamming sessions. New Brighton promenade is a three-mile trek around the Mersey estuary, with views across to Liverpool.

Chester

Forget the Roman heritage and the cathedral. For a generation of teenagers, the city is known as the fictional suburb in Channel 4's Hollyoaks - Cheshire's answer to Beverly Hills 90210.

Who lives here? Britain's second richest man, the Duke of Westminster, who has his family pile at Eaton Hall. He's worth £5bn.

Eating out: The Arkle restaurant, named after the famous steeplechaser, is part of the five-star Grosvenor Hotel and Spa. It has held on to its Michelin star for 16 years.

What to do: The city council offers a Hollyoaks tour of key filming locations. Or head for the races.

Altrincham

With five golf courses, multimillion-pound homes and even a £3,000-a-week Priory Clinic right on the doorstep, this is the ideal dormitory for Manchester's high-flyers.

Who lives here?

England cricket heartthrob Andrew Flintoff, left.

Eating out: Juniper, owned by celebrity chef Paul Kitching, is Greater Manchester's only Michelin-starred restaurant.

What to do: There are the usual high-street chains, but for a more authentic experience, check out the 200 or so stalls in the covered market, which dates back to 1290.

Wilmslow

Part of the so-called Golden Triangle of the North-west, together with Hale and Bowdon. Wilmslow's millionaires are rumoured to buy more than one-fifth of the UK's Aston Martins (the ones that cost more than £100,000).

Who lives here?

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, above, is a resident, as are British indie rock band Doves - Jez Williams, Andy Williams and Jimi Goodwin - who met at Wilmslow High School in the 1980s.

Eating out: A foodie's haven. Chilli Banana serves Thai, Heddy's is recommended for Middle Eastern food, and the 39 Steps has a good selection of fish. The Swan is the oldest pub in town, and The Brasserie is a good spot for people-watching.

What to do: Thespians and singers join Wilmslow's theatre and opera groups, while those who are less culturally inclined visit one of the many hairdressers or fitness centres. The Black Lake with its swans and ducks, feels a world away from Footballer's Wives territory.

Sale

In the heart of the commuter belt, this town of 60,000 has managed to remain aloof from the urban grit of Manchester.

Who lives here? Former Celtic and Manchester United footballer Paddy Crerand, and Harry Gregg, the Manchester United goalkeeper who survived the 1958 Munich air disaster. Darren Campbell, silver medallist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, is a member of Sale Harriers. Most famous former resident is 19th-century physicist James Joule, left, and Robert Bolt, author of A Man for All Seasons, was born here.

Eating out: Most people jump in a car and drive five minutes to the restaurants in Altrincham, but locally, Oca serves good Italian food and upmarket pizza.

What to do: Waterside Arts Centre has an art gallery and touring shows, while waterskiing, windsurfing and dinghy sailing are on offer at Sale Waterpark. The banks of the Mersey and the Bridgewater canal are favoured spots for Sunday afternoon strolls.

Bollington

Known as "Happy Valley", Guinness World Records says this Cheshire town has the highest ratio of pubs to people. Cotton brought affluence to the area and Bollington remains wealthy.

Who lives here? Terry Waite, who was held hostage for four years, was born in Bollington, and David Dickinson, above, of Bargain Hunt fame, is a resident.

Eating out: Briscola serves traditional Italian food, whereas Beasdales offers British.

What to do: White Nancy, built by the Gaskell family as a summer house, and now a monument to the Napoleonic Wars, lies at the summit of Kerridge Hill overlooking Bollington. The Peak District borders the town.

Alderley Edge

Once the preserve of the Mancunian cotton barons, old money has given way to new with rampant house price inflation.

Who lives here? Old Trafford aristocracy old and new, such as Rio Ferdinand, right, Peter Schmeichel and Andy Cole.

Eating out: The Wizard Restaurant, just down the Macclesfield Road, offers Michelin-starred modern British food.

What to do: Wander up the National Trust-owned Alderley Edge - a red sandstone escarpment with views over the Peak District. Or buy a gold-plated truffle at the village's celebrated Chocolate Trading Company.

Prestbury

Former silk-making town that gave way to suburban affluence at the beginning of the 20th century.

Who lives here? Wayne Rooney and girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin, left, demolished the Thirties mansion they bought here to make way for a new £3.5m home, Waynesor Castle.

Eating out: The White House restaurant and manor is a favourite with cricketers and those on corporate packages for the Old Trafford Test. Chef Richard Ryland's signature dish is his treacle town pudding.

What to do: Admire the Norman architecture and hanging baskets before heading back into Manchester.

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