How Queen Elizabeth I helped rebuild Nantwich

Nantwich town centre

Nantwich town centre - Credit: Archant

It takes hard work to preserve the past. We visit Nantwich to meet the town’s people who are dedicated to that task...and creating new attractions too

The Reverend Barry Wilson, Rector of St Mary's Parish Church

The Reverend Barry Wilson, Rector of St Mary's Parish Church - Credit: Archant

For a woman with a reputation for parsimony - heroic English sailors who confronted the Spanish Armada were left unpaid and dying in the streets of Margate - Queen Elizabeth I was extraordinarily generous to the town of Nantwich.

After the great fire that blazed through the town for 20 days in December 1583 and made some 900 people homeless, she ordered a nationwide collection for funds to rebuild Nantwich, to which she contributed £1,000. Her patronage is marked in a plaque on a building in Nantwich Square, now called ‘Queen’s Aid House’. A modern translation of the townsfolk’s gratitude would read: ‘God grant our Royal Queen in England long to reign, for she has put her helping hand to build this town again’.

Their work, 430 years ago, shaped the town that survives today in all the glory of its Elizabethan architecture, revered by its 14,000 residents and a source of fascination for visitors who flock to Nantwich for its remarkable annual programme of events and festivals.

Nantwich’s rich past has left the town with Cheshire’s largest collection of historic buildings outside Chester - no less than 131 listed buildings mainly clustered in the town centre on Barker Street, Beam Street, Churchyard Side, High Street and Hospital Street, and extending across the Weaver on Welsh Row.

Jeff Stubbs (Chairman of Nantwich Civic Society and Chairman of Nantwich Town Partnership) looking a

Jeff Stubbs (Chairman of Nantwich Civic Society and Chairman of Nantwich Town Partnership) looking at a copy of the new edition of the Town Trail - Credit: Archant

It’s a legacy that carries with it considerable responsibility as Jeff Stubbs, chairman of Nantwich’s Civic Society and of the recently formed Nantwich Partnership, explains: ‘The society exists to promote a sense of history, to campaign to improve the environment and protect the town’s heritage.

The former town planner retired to Nantwich almost 10 years ago as ‘a beautiful place to live’, believing he’d left his career’s preoccupations behind. ‘But Nantwich and its heritage just drew me in and I’ve been chairman of the Civic Society for seven years now.

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‘At the end of 2010 we produced an audit of the public regime with photographs and circulated it as widely as we could. As a result I has a meeting with Michael Jones, leader of Cheshire East Council, and the Nantwich Partnership was formed involving Cheshire East, the local town council, business groups and individual traders and the civic society.

‘We are making a big push for funding from the government and English Heritage to reinvigorate the town centre; it may take some time because there’s not a lot of money about, but if we have a plan and an agreed set of ideas, we’ll be much better placed.’

X Academy's Jacqui Richards and her star students; Madison Pickersgill (9), Freya Davies (11) , Jod

X Academy's Jacqui Richards and her star students; Madison Pickersgill (9), Freya Davies (11) , Jodie Cheetham (14) and George Cox (10) - Credit: Archant

He added: ‘We ask the owners of the listed buildings to protect their properties and to be fair, they are very aware of their responsibilities and do a pretty good job. The most difficult tend to be owners of national groups but luckily we don’t have a lot of those because Nantwich is a town of independent retailers and local businesses look after their properties very well.’

Nantwich’s new Mayor - the council’s sixth in the modern era - is Coun Christine Farrall and the wellbeing of the town’s heritage, its independent retailers and community spirit are her key priorities.

A Nantwich resident for 40 years, she said: ‘Coming from three generations of shopkeepers I have taken it upon myself to get involved with the retailers and the market,’ she said, though her own successful career was in education and she retired as head teacher of a Crewe primary school.

the owners of Ginger and Pickles, Nantwich, took an unusual cup of tea with Heston Blumenthal

the owners of Ginger and Pickles, Nantwich, took an unusual cup of tea with Heston Blumenthal - Credit: Archant

Sacred sandstone

The octagonal sandstone tower of St Mary’s Parish Church - ‘the Cathedral of South Cheshire’ - rises majestically 101 feet above the Mediaeval layout of Nantwich’s streets.

Begun around 1340 in the then prevalent Gothic Decorated style, work was interrupted for 20 years from 1349, probably as a result of the Black Death, and when building resumed, masons adopted the new Perpendicular style.

The great church, listed Grade I, survived the fire which razed the half-timbered buildings around it, including the nearby Grade 1 listed coaching inn, the Crown Hotel, one of the first buildings to be reconstructed from the ashes. The Rector, the Rev Dr Barry Wilson, passionate about making the Christian message accessible to people of all ages and interests, said: ‘When my wife and I came here in March 2013 it was in complete contrast to my previous parish of Madeley and Betley with two small village churches.

‘I think it’s an incredible privilege to know that the doors of St Mary’s are open wide to visitors who come in large numbers - up to 50,000 - every year. We have a dedicated team of stewards to share our vibrant, living history.’

He added: ‘The congregation regularly approaches 400 people - in terms of church attendance, within the top one per cent of all Anglican churches in the country.’

Market forces

Bustling Nantwich market continues to thrive on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays every week. The market can trace its origins back to the 11th Century, but the present market hall was build in 1867 and a wide variety of some 40 stall holders ply their trade both indoors and out. A farmer’s market is held on the last Saturday of each month.

The longest-standing stall holder is Cynthia Hill in the indoor hall, whose family business was established by her grandfather and has been trading for over 60 years in the town. She began helping at the stall when she was 17. Cynthia, who worked for 38 years as a bank cashier in Crewe said: ‘The traders at Nantwich Market are my extended family. I live in a pretty isolated spot with my two Labradors a quarter of a mile from my nearest neighbour so I really enjoy being with my fellow stall holders and my regular customers’

In the outside market each Thursday, visitors can hardly miss St Luke’s Hospice’s Frock Stop, selling a ranger of ladies fashions from a bright red vintage London Routemaster double decker bus.

The 1963 bus, found in a field and advertised on eBay, was painstakingly restored from a virtual wreck by workers at the Bentley factory in Crewe and boasts leather upholstery in an interior designed for its new role.

Museum’s memory therapy

Nantwich’s long and fascinating history - from Roman salt makers to local cheese makers of modern times - is represented in Nantwich Museum, opened in 1980 as an independent charitable trust, and currently managed by Kate Dobson. She returned to the vibrant community museum in Pillory Street, formerly the Victorian Jubilee Library, after gaining a Masters degree in museum studies.

‘There is much to see including a Mediaeval salt ship, memories of the Great Fire, artefacts from the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Nantwich in 1644, products from the town’s shoe and clothing industries and fine examples of Nantwich-made 18th Century grandfather clocks,’ she said.

The Nantwich Museum Dementia Friendship Group hosts themed sessions using artefacts to create ‘memory moments’ for people suffering from dementia. In May the charity group Thanks for the Memory staged a concert sponsored by Cranage Hall Hotel to raise funds for the museum’s group.

The charity’s Tim Ashcroft said: ‘Music has the power to bring back memories of times long forgotten. At the concert more than half the people were from care homes and were joining in the singing. Half the proceeds - £600 - were donated to the friendship group at the Museum.’

More recent history - the outbreak of the Great War 100 years ago in August - inspired Mark Potts, helped by his fellow Bentley Motors worker Tony Marks, to write a book compiling short biographies of the 1,186 fallen servicemen named on all the WW1 war memorials in Nantwich and Crewe.

‘The project started six years ago when I discovered two of my own great uncles had been killed in the war.’ said Mark. ‘Using the 1911 census and agencies such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for research - and the fact that the people of Nantwich and Crewe bent over backwards to help - enabled us to complete the book. We also sourced more than 400 photographs which is a fantastic effort from local families.’

Profits from the book, which will be launched in Crewe and Nantwich in July, will be donated to the British Legion and Help for Heroes.

Dancing for joy

Young ballet dancers at a school in Nantwich are jumping for joy. Students from the X Academy have achieved places at a number of prestigious dance schools around the country. Jacqueline Richards, Principal, spoke of how proud she is of her pupils and their accomplishments: ‘We set up base here in January, but the school has been running for 14 years around the area. These particular pupils dance as part of our gifted and talented programme, where they all receive one-to-one lessons as well as normal classes. They have done exceptionally well and I am so proud of them.’

Poppy Jardine, 11, has achieved a place at the prestigious White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School, located in Richmond Park, London. She begins there in September: ‘I love ballet as I can express feelings in all different ways.I didn’t expect this to happen at all. There are only 12 places available and I am so happy to be going.’

X Academy pupils Freya Davies, 11, and George Cox, 10, are both Junior Associates of RBS at Birmingham and Manchester respectively. ‘I got to perform in the Nutcracker in Birmingham at Christmas and that was really exciting – my friends think it’s really cool’ George has also got a place at RBS Manchester’s summer school: ‘Dancing is fun, and at this school and in Manchester I get to meet other boys who enjoy ballet.’

Jodie Cheetham, 14, who is in the English Youth Ballet, and Madison Pickersgill, 9, a 2014 Imperial Ballet Award finalist, are also budding stars as the X Academy.

Afternoon tea Heston style

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is known for his avant garde approach to recipe creation, so when Andy and Beverley Ozzard, owners of award-winning tea rooms Ginger and Pickles in Nantwich, were invited to join him for afternoon tea they couldn’t say ‘no’.

Andy says: ‘We were invited because of all the awards we’ve won from the Tea Guild. The event was at Weston Park in Staffordshire, and on arrival we were taken to the cellars, where Heston had set up a tea tasting for us, but they were teas with a difference. The Cucumber Sandwich tea was, surprisingly, quite delicious!

‘Following this we went to the Games Room. The sandwich was invented to meet the need of the Earl of Sandwich, who was such a dedicated gambler that he’d never leave the tables, instead demanding that food was brought to him in an easy to eat format! Everything in the room was edible – the gaming chips, the plates, Heston has even created a chocolate tea-pot, which was actually quite useful and held hot water without melting! We had marvellous, if rather surreal, experience.