Knutsford - Cheshire's novel town

There's more to Knutsford than Cranford - there's Italianate buildings and penny farthings for starters, as Mike Smith reports

As one of England’s most attractive country towns, Knutsford possesses a picturesque assortment of former coaching inns, Georgian townhouses, black-and-white gabled buildings and whitewashed cottages, but it also has a totally unexpected extra ingredient in its architectural mix.

Seen from The Moor, an extensive recreation area in the valley below the town, the buildings of King Street are strung out like an ornamental frieze. Rising above the rooftops, there are two contrasting protrusions: one is the square, red-brick tower of the Georgian parish church; the other is a tall, white tower that looks as if it could have been transplanted from the Italian town of San Gimignano.

Although very different in appearance, the towers do have a common connection. The bells of the church tower rang out in 1832 on the day of Elizabeth Gaskell’s wedding and the Italianate tower was built in 1907 as a memorial to the writer by Richard Harding Watt, a wealthy glove-maker, who was determined to import Italian architecture, or rather his own version of it, to the Cheshire town.

Knutsford was the inspiration for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and fans of the novelist can often be seen mingling with shoppers as they follow the ‘Gaskell Trail’. King Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, has more than enough independent shops to justify Napoleon’s observation that we are ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, but Knutsford’s retail outlets are much more up-market than those normally found in country towns. Alongside the jewellers, antique centres, designer clothes shops and top-quality bathroom and kitchen suppliers, there is a plethora of restaurants and caf� bars.

An alleyway on the western side of King Street leads to another of Knutsford’s unexpected combinations. The Courtyard Coffee Shop doubles as a penny farthing museum, with Glynn Stockdale’s collection of 40 penny farthings suspended from the ceiling. The town hosts a penny-farthing race once every ten years which attracts riders from all over the world.

While enjoying coffee and homemade scones, I met local resident Margaret Hancock and her friends Chris and Geoff Wadsworth, who had travelled to Knutsford from Billinge, near Wigan. The women first met 15 years ago in Booths supermarket when Margaret complimented Chris on her shoes. The two ladies fell into conversation and, together with Geoff, they have been meeting for a Saturday morning chat in the Courtyard Coffee Shop ever since.

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When I suggested that striking up an instant friendship with a stranger seemed at odds with the sort of English reserve one might expect in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, I was told that Knutsford is ‘a family place where everyone is welcome to join the family’. This claim was backed up by Sue Young, who I met in Regent Street, a new shopping thoroughfare which links King Street with Princess Street and has replaced a collection of old stables behind the former Royal George Hotel.

Sue moved to the town last year from Hampshire when her husband, Rev Dan Young, became an associate minister of the parish with special responsibility for Toft Church. She said: ‘I was immediately struck by the friendliness of everyone in Knutsford; there is absolutely no formality and people are happy to share their lives with you.’ No sooner had she made this observation than we were joined at the junction with Princess Street by Val Brooker.

Val lives in Legh Road, in a house that is part of a group which was designed by the irrepressible Richard Harding Watt and was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the maddest sequence of villas in all England’. Princess Street’s Georgian buildings are equally striking, but much more restrained in style. The street also contains plenty of independent shops but, as Val pointed out, changes are taking place. A Sainsbury’s Local has already arrived and a Waitrose store is on its way.

Shopping of a more traditional kind is to be found on an alleyway which runs parallel to Regent Street, where there is a thriving stall market. Pride in Knutsford’s traditions and old-world appearance is very evident in the splendid Heritage Centre, which contains a 40 foot long tapestry created by 3,000 members of the local community, depicting the entire town in great detail.

While looking around the other fascinating exhibits, I encountered Evelyn Brown, Beryl Briscall, Jan McCappin and Val Dawson, four of the 30 volunteers who staff the centre. They told me about Knutsford’s May Day tradition, when some pavements are decorated with patterns made of sand. This ancient tradition commemorates the occasion when King Canute is supposed to have shaken the sand out of his shoes after crossing a local stream.

On the day of my visit, hundreds of children were making their way to Egerton Youth Club, where Ann de Ruiter and her team of volunteers were waiting with over 500 costumes that had been assembled for the children to wear when they join the May Queen, 13-year-old Jessica Pottle, in the May Day procession through the town.

On my way back to King Street, I passed Drury Lane, where the Ruskin rooms, a former laundry and yet another San Gimignano-style tower were all designed by Richard Harding Watt. In typical Knutsford fashion, these Italianate buildings face the entrance to the very grand and very English estate of Tatton Park. 

Location, location

Last year was the bi-centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Gaskell who spent much of her childhood living with her aunt in a red brick house on Heathside, now re-named Gaskell Avenue. She later immortalised Knutsford in her most famous novel, Cranford

The town's name may mean 'Canute's Ford', a reference to the supposed fording of the river Lily by King Canute in 1016

Visitor attractions include Knutsford Heritage Centre; Millennium Tapestry; Penny Farthing Museum; Tatton Park; May Day procession; The Moor

A farmers' market is held on the first Saturday of each month in Silk Mill Street

Chancellor George Osborne was elected MP for Tatton in 2001, succeeding Independent MP Martin Bell

Eight-year-olds Rachel Potts and Cameron Cook with the top hat which was discovered in the roof space during alterations to the school in 2008. Egerton Primary School are seeking information about the hat and think that Cheshire Life readers might be able to help? If you know whose hat it was, write to us at

Where it is: Knutsford stands about two miles from junction 19 on the M6, at the junction of the A50, A5033, A537 and B5083. If you have a sat nav, WA16 0PE should take you to the town centre. The railway station is close to the centre of the town and there are regular services from Manchester Piccadilly, Chester, Stockport, Altrincham and Northwich.

Where to park: There is limited on-street parking around the town but there are short- and long-stay pay and display car parks.

Where to eat: There is a variety of restaurants, cafes, pubs and delis around the town offering something for every diet and occasion.

What to do: Indulge yourself in the shops, treat yourself in the restaurants and admire the beautiful buildings. Then start practising to ride a penny-farthing - the next race will be held in 2020. And if you run out of things to do in Knutsford, visit Tatton Park which is just to the north of the town. The Tatton Food Fair will be held in the park from May 20th-22nd. To read about the drama at last year's penny farthing race, click here