Malpas - a place of myths and more
Malpas is one of Cheshire's prettiest locations but it also has a story to tell that has become the stuff of legend WORDS BY MIKE SMITH MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
Although Malpas is situated close to the Welsh border, it has all the ingredients, from chocolate-box cottages to stately Georgian town houses, that make up the English country town of popular imagination. Proximity to the border suggests strategic importance in times past, and a spot of sleuthing in an unlikely location reveals convincing evidence of a former fortress. This fascinating town even has a story to tell that has become the stuff of legend.
The most striking feature of Malpas is its abundance of black-and-white buildings, including a fine example in Old Hall Street which has won a conservation award. Preservation of the past is matched by sensitive development in the present, particularly on the site of the former Old Hall Farm, where modern residences, which are set around a series of courtyards, have been given black-and-white gables in keeping with the town’s fine architectural tradition.
Two public houses, the Crown and the Red Lion, stand face-to-face at the head of Old Hall Street. Richard Lever, the fourth member of his family to be the publican at the Red Lion, is the owner of Malpas’ famous three-legged chair, which was used, according to legend, by James I when he watched a cock-fight during an overnight stay at the inn.
Richard said: ‘I’ve stowed the chair away for the time being because it’s become a little rickety, but visitors always ask where it is and regulars miss it as well, so I’m hoping to have a replica made that will be placed in the pub.’
The tale of the King’s visit is taken up by Chris Davies, who runs You Media and produces a monthly ’Directory Magazine’ which includes historical snippets. Chris said: ‘The story goes that the King joined the curate and the rector for a few flagons of ale during his stay, but became so incensed when the rector refused to pay for a round that he ordered the promotion of the curate to the same rank as his more senior colleague, and so it was that Malpas ended up with two rectors, rather than one.’
Old Hall Street terminates at a Victorian market cross, which stands on the huge sandstone podium that supported the original medieval cross. Its fine detail is captured in a drawing by Ben Waddams, a journalist and prolific wildlife artist. Ben says: ‘My love of natural history began before I can remember, but my very first art tutor was my late grandmother, Margery Waddams, who lived at nearby Shocklach. Through my paintings, I want to help people to appreciate wildlife and to encourage them to play their part in conserving the species on our planet.’
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At this point, Old Hall Street becomes High Street, where there are yet more black-and-white buildings, many of which were built in mock-Tudor style by the Victorians. The largest of these is the Victoria Jubilee Hall, which displays plaques commemorating the town’s victories in the Best Kept Village competition in 1987 and 1991. Aside from its striking architecture, the most impressive characteristic of High Street is the large number of thriving independent shops, many of long-standing.
These include Huxley’s, a store famed for its home-baked products and managed by Rob Huxley, who told me: ‘My father founded the firm 35 years ago. He absolutely refuses to retire and still runs our bakery in Whitchurch.’
At the nearby Dog House, Cathy Bowman has spent the last 16 years as a beautician to members of the canine community. She says:‘The key to putting dogs at ease is to give them a safe, caring environment. We groom every type of dog from tiny chihuahuas to giant newfoundlands but, whatever their size, they emerge from their sessions sporting a little red bow, making them the envy of their canine friends’.
Like all the best English towns, Malpas has a place where gossip can be exchanged over a nice cuppa, but its caf� is unusual in being housed in a former fire station, unchanged on the outside but splendidly refitted on the inside for the purpose of quenching thirst rather than fires. Another caf�, at Boogle’s Barn, just outside the town centre, provides parents with a chance to relax while their children enjoy a soft adventure play area or the electric karting track.
Explaining her aims in setting up the play centre, Stephanie Grace said:‘We wanted to create a magical world for children, but also a place where parents could feel comfortable.’
The older children of Malpas are equally well catered for at Bishop Heber High School. It is the first school in the Cheshire West and Chester Authority to be classed as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, which reported: ‘Students achieve exceptionally well in their studies and benefit from outstanding care, guidance and support in everything they do.’
Malpas’s remarkably extensive shopping provision continues on Church Street, which also contains the Market House Restaurant, the Old Vaults public house and a colonnaded former market hall. The residential part of this street must rank as one of the most beautiful in Cheshire. Red-brick buildings on the south side include some superb Georgian town houses and a range of almshouses, while picturesque black-and-white cottages on the north side include a converted tithe barn.
Four cheeky gargoyles stare down on this pretty scene from the porch of the magnificent Church of St Oswald’s, which was completed in the 15th century and stands on the summit of a large knoll. Hidden behind the churchyard, there is another knoll, eerily surrounded by a ring of ancient gravestones. In Norman times the mound supported a keep that enabled the barons of Malpas to protect their domain from possibly invasion from across the border.
At Cholmondeley, a few miles outside Malpas, there is an actual castle, albeit one built in the 19th century. This architectural fantasy is surrounded by sweeping lawns, glorious woodland and beautiful gardens - all the ingredients of the English country estate of popular imagination.
What's in a name?
Malpas is Old French, meaning bad (mal) passageway (pas).
The town was once known as Depenbach, meaning ‘deep valley with a stream’.
Where can I park? There is a free car park immediately behind High Street.
What can the children do? Boogle’s Barn, immediately north of the town, has a soft play area and electric Karting track.
What can I do? Cholmondeley Castle is located east of Malpas, close to the A49. For details of events and opening times of the castle and gardens, see www.cholmondeleycastle.com
Art lovers can find examples of Ben Waddams’ wildlife pictures on www.waddams.webs.com