What do you associate with Cheshire? The grinning cat created by Lewis Carroll? Delicious cheese? Footballers' wives? The county can be hard to bring into focus. Except for young bookworms, for whom Cheshire, and one part in particular, can only ever mean the wild imagination of Alan Garner.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Garner's first novel for children, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, set around Alderley Edge, a dramatic, wooded ridge rising above the Cheshire plain. In Weirdstone and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, two children, Colin and Susan, enter an underground kingdom, presided over by Cadellin, a wizard who watches over 140 knights, sleeping until the hour of England's greatest need. The novels are based on old legends that thickened around this beautiful, mysterious spot.
As someone with a lifelong love of Garner's work, I made my way north to tread the landscape of the books. My first port of call was Chester's Grosvenor Museum to see the new exhibition dedicated to him. The centrepiece is a new portrait of Garner by BP Portrait Award winner Andrew Tift. But you can also examine talismanic items belonging to Garner such as his Neolithic finds including stone hammers that became the deadly weapons of the Svarts, Cadellin's enemies. Also on display is a plate from the famous Owl Service, which inspired the book of the same name,
I caught up with Garner at the Alderley Edge Hotel, and asked what Cheshire meant to him. "Variety of landscape," he said immediately. "Cheshire is a 25-mile gap between the mountains of Wales and the Pennines. Wherever we are, there's variety. Where I live, I can look in one direction and see pastoral valley, woodland, Englishness. I turn around and I'm looking at terrifying bleak hills." But his especial focus is on Alderley Edge. "It's where I grew up and I didn't know there was anything odd about it until later.
"Everything moving from London to Ireland, everything moving up the west coast to Scotland – you've got to go through Cheshire. Cheshire is not spoilt because it's a place that people go through to get to somewhere else."
After tea, Garner took me and Sue Hughes, the curator of the Grosvenor Museum exhibition, for a tour around the Edge. We started out at the Wizard Inn and took the track to Thieves' Hole, a shallow depression where the farmer in the legend is accosted by the wizard, seeking to purchase his horse. Garner pointed out the shadow of an ancient track. It's hard to imagine the Edge as bare and stony, but Garner's mind moves through time easily.
From Thieves' Hole to Goldenstone, an ancient boundary marker. Turning left, we climbed the Elf Road, which would give us protection from any stray goblins. At the top, I didn't dare go widdershins three times around the Devil's Grave, but Garner amused us with the story of when he did just that as a lad, and his uncle, hidden within, groaned and hollered and kicked up soil.
We peered up at the Iron Gates – two huge rocks marking the entrance to Fundindelve, the underground realm – and I flung myself on the ground where Garner vowed that the gentle breathing of the sleeping knights could sometimes be heard.
"What did I tell you, no birdsong," said Garner, suddenly. The children are told so in Weirdstone, and indeed the woods seemed uncannily still.
After this scramble we had dinner in the Wizard Inn. Garner ordered "dead duck". I had delicious vegetable broth and gnocchi, but was defeated by the northern portions.
Our route can be traced with the help of a specially commissioned map, available at the museum. So if you go "By Seven Firs and Goldenstone to Stormy Point and Saddlebole", like the farmer in the legend, you might glimpse a silvery-haired figure with an aura of ancient wisdom. It might be Alan Garner ... or it might only be a wizard. You never know.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are both published by HarperCollins, £5.99
How to get there
Virgin Trains (0871 977 4222; virgin trains.co.uk) offers return fares from London Euston to Chester from £66. Hilltop Country House (01625 829940; hilltopcountry house.co.uk) offers B&B in a double room from £75 per night. The Wizard Pub (01625 584000; thewizardofedge.co.uk).
"10-10-10: 50 Years of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen" is at the Grosvenor Museum until 28 November. Visit Cheshire (visitcheshire.com).