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Home Towns

Welcome to my home town: Beneath Knutsford’s genteel exterior lies a more exciting underbelly

Celebrity sightings, culturally rich history and more wine bars than you can shake a glass at: this Cheshire town has it all, writes Paul Tierney

Friday 28 May 2021 11:55
<p>Knutsford has an air of gentility</p>

Knutsford has an air of gentility

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from.

If anybody asks me where I’m from, I always say Manchester, even though Knutsford is 14 miles to the south. Being from Manchester is cool and identifiable. Tell them you’re from Knutsford and people invariably reply “Ooh, la-di-da”. True, the town does have a moneyed edge, mostly gleaned from the cast of Coronation Street and Premier League pay-packets, but it’s not all Porsche dealerships and Beaujolais Nouveau. Oh no.

In reality, Knutsford is a fur-coat-and-no-knickers kind of place – suburban bohemia with the lights on. My parents ran one of the country’s first proper wine bars here, Sir Fredericks – a place that categorically formed my entire outlook on life. As a teenage waiter my imagination was stoked, rubbing shoulders with the likes of jazz bon viveur George Melly, Everton’s Emlyn Hughes, or, on a good day, Corrie’s Elsie Tanner. Anyone who was anyone passed through Knutsford, seduced by boom-time Thatcherism and Blancs de Blancs. At the dawn of the 1980s, new money poured down its cobbled streets faster than a well-oiled Lamborghini (of which there were many).

Tatton Park in Knutsford

Sir Fred’s won the attention of food critic Egon Ronay, who eulogised about the Steak Diane and homemade burgers. People would drive for miles for the restaurant’s louche, candle-lit corners, tables hewn from vintage sewing machines (hello, All Saints) and art nouveau trappings. Looking back, it’s that very aesthetic which has informed everything in its wake. You can’t move for wine bars in Knutsford now. The place probably serves more Bordeaux per capita than anywhere else in the country. And the brickwork – mostly red and Georgian – is definitely worth exposing.

Red and fallow deer at Tatton Park

Of course, all that good taste has become painfully middle class, characterised by Valentino-clad Cheshire housewives and smug Smeg showrooms. Nevertheless, over the years the old girl has definitely wavered in terms of respectability. For every celebrity resident like Gary Barlow, lavishing the town with a certain civic pride, you will find less salubrious characters lurking in the shadows. I once had a gun pointed at me in The Angel, one of the town’s livelier pubs. Thankfully I was whisked from the scene by a kohl-eyed Portuguese Countess, slumming it with locals from Longridge, the nearby Manchester overspill estate. At 15, and more than a little precocious, I felt like Francis Bacon at Soho’s Colony Rooms – danger and glamour inextricably linked. Rita Fairclough might be propping up the bar, but there was always something being passed underneath it.

Culturally, the place has always punched above its weight. Brontë acolyte and one-time resident Elizabeth Gaskell captured the 19th century gentility in her novel, Cranford; US General George S. Patton stationed Third Army troops here during WWII. Scenes from Patton, the Oscar-winning bio-pic, were shot on location at the Old Town Hall. Pre-CGI, Hollywood often used Knutsford’s perennial good looks to fill in the gaps.

The town’s Rodeo Drive is almost certainly Legh Road, a leafy, cinematic stretch, punctuated by fantasy houses and purring, gun-metal Bristols. The car is certainly the star around these parts, so it’s only fitting that Henry Royce once resided in Brae Cottage, a beautiful old pile said to be haunted by its own Silver Ghost.

Further down, and much less traditional, lie a number of buildings which almost belie description. Designed in turn-of-the-century Italianate style by amateur architect Richard Harding Watt, these Tuscan-style follies never fail to astound. Steven Spielberg shot scenes for Empire of the Sun outside one, recreating Japanese-occupied Shanghai in leaf-strewn Cheshire. Surreal and romantic, unorthodox and bold, they fit in rather well among the sandstone and mock Tudor. Prices are rather less accessible.

My home town has a reputation for hedonism behind the festoon blinds

Blissfully, the town centre remains remarkably unspoilt. Handsome, narrow streets are lined with glinting antique shops, countless pubs, and more history than you can throw a pewter tankard at. King Canute bestowed the town with its name when he crossed the River Lily here almost 1,000 years ago. It was also a draw for highwayman Dick Turpin, who raided carriages en route to nearby Macclesfield. I lived in an 18th-century former coaching house, older than America, held together by wattle and daub. My bedroom had a priest hole, which seemed entirely normal. Naturally, all this was taken for granted. Nothing seemed implausible in a place so steeped in myth and legend.

It might all sound alarmingly twee, but do not be fooled by the Knutsford set and their marinated figs. My home town has a reputation for hedonism behind the festoon blinds. Knock on the right doors, and the world is your Oyster Bay.

Rest your head

Cottons has always felt like a pleasure hub of sorts. Big band leader Glenn Miller played impromptu swing here during the Second World War, and I have memories of a weekly disco and rural New Romanticism. Now it’s an appropriately smart four-star hotel and spa, providing upmarket rooms and suites with “a feel of Cheshire”, which sounds delightful. Guests can swim and decompress in the spa, or gorge on butcher’s platters in the restaurant. Doubles from £97.

Wine and dine

The Lost & Found is an impressive looking restaurant and bar, housed in the ornate Old Town Hall – a red brick Gothic building with magnificent arched windows and an outdoor terrace. I remember the place as an unremarkable furniture showroom, so the transformation is a welcome sight. It’s difficult to go wrong in a town that drinks wine like tea, but choice is extensive here, and an upmarket crowd tells you this is the place to be seen.

Take a stroll

Tatton Park, former home of the Egerton family, is one the grandest historic estates in the UK. A vast plot of bucolic heaven, this National Trust landmark comprises a neoclassical mansion, Japanese and Italian formal gardens, plus 1,000 acres of open parkland, populated by red and fallow deer. Walk up from the main arched entrance, past Mere lake, and head for the Hall, once used for the exteriors of Brideshead Revisited. Picnics are encouraged; teddies optional.

On your radar

The Lovell Radio Telescope

Jodrell Bank is less than six miles out of town but has the universe in its sights. The major star is the Lovell – one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world. There’s also an immersive Discovery Centre with a series of pavilions exploring Big Bang Theory and the solar system. Recently designated a Unesco World Heritage site, it now enjoys the same status as Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal. Neither of which have their own cafes.

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