The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Knutsford

Lucy Wightwick and Abi Jessup-Neary from Abi & Lucy, crafted with care

Lucy Wightwick and Abi Jessup-Neary from Abi & Lucy, crafted with care - Credit: Archant

We visited locals who are full of excitement about the festive season

Committee member of the Friends of Tabley, Susan Batters

Committee member of the Friends of Tabley, Susan Batters - Credit: Archant

When traditional carols ring out from the packed pews of St Peter’s chapel, Tabley, this festive season, the scene will be a magical one - not just because Christmas is such an engaging time of the year, but also because the place has an enchantment all of its own.

Louis Smith and Ian Cass at Hunters Gin

Louis Smith and Ian Cass at Hunters Gin - Credit: Archant

Jack Levy

Jack Levy - Credit: Archant

To the Friends of Tabley, the stately Palladian mansion built between 1761 and 1769 for Sir Peter Byrne Leicester Bt is Cheshire’s ‘best kept secret’ and a treasure house of superb period paintings and furniture. Many famous artists, such as JMW Turner, Henry Thompson and James Ward stayed at Tabley and today, their works grace the splendid rooms for which they were painted, together with notable pictures by Dobson, Lely, Reynolds, Cotes, Northcote, Callcott, Fuseli, Lawrence and Martin. Tabley House was built by John Carr of York to replace Tabley Old Hall, the family seat since the 13th Century and now little more than a ruin on its island in Nether Tabley Mere.

The chapel, also a Grade 1 listed building, was built alongside the old hall in 1674 but moved, brick by brick to its present location beside the new house between 1926-29 after subsidence caused by brine pumping threatened its collapse.

Anna Smyth, one of some 150 Friends of Tabley, whose role is to protect and restore the house and its collections, said: ‘It is the only Palladian house in Cheshire and the north west with unique and beautiful paintings and furniture, but many people don’t know it’s here and drive straight past.’

Unlike nearby Tatton Park, well publicised through its ownership by the National Trust, Tabley House is much less well-known and relies on volunteers and friends to organise events and keep it open to the public. In fact, when Lt Col John Leicester Warren died in 1975, bringing an end to 700 years of family history at Tabley, his will requested that the estate be taken into the care of the National Trust but it was declined; Tatton is only a couple of miles away.

Instead Tabley House came into the care of the University of Manchester, was used as a school until 1984 and, since 1988, a health care company has used the ground and top floors and the wings as nursing home accommodation. The first floor was opened to the public in 1990 by the Tabley House Collection Trust.

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Mrs Smyth said: ‘We have recently spent £30,000 refurbishing the dining room with real gold leaf and we are in the process of refurbishing the chapel as well. It hasn’t been touched for 50 years so there is much to do. We have also been conserving and cataloguing treasures from the cellars.’

One of the chapel’s most striking features is a stained glass window in the mid-19th Century Pre-Raphaelite style in memory of the third Lord Tabley, designed by Edward Byrne-Jones and made by William Morris & Company, among the movement’s most prominent figures.

‘Festive carols and song will be interspersed with Christmas readings, sacred and secular, amusing and profound, from the Tabley archive,’ said Mrs Smyth. ‘It’s a gorgeous event and a delightful way to welcome Christmas with Madeira and mince pies served after the carols. It is always a sell-out.’

Christmas today is a very different celebration from that Elizabeth Gaskell would have known i n the middle of the 19th Century - before many of the traditional trappings we associate with the festive season were popularised by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. But the spirit of Christmas has remained the same since the novelist and outspoken social commentator Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her short story Christmas Storms and Sunshine.

It tells the story of quarrelling neighbours, a mistreated cat, a sick child and a timely reconciliation so that the Hodgsons and the Jenkins put aside their animosity and share a Christmas dinner. The message of the story is that if you make friends before Christmas, your day will be merrier.

It’s a moral that has stood the test of time, and the 600 members of the Gaskell Society certainly think that the author of North and South, Cranford, Ruth and Mary Barton is as relevant today as ever. Members in the north west have resumed their monthly meetings at St John’s Parish Church rooms in Knutsford.

‘We a have study lunch,’ said Mrs Pam Griffiths a Knutsford-based society member. ‘This year we are studying Sylvia’s Lovers, set in the whaling community in Whitby at the time of the French Revolution and like some of her other books it is a powerful and moving story expressing some highly controversial opinions for the time it was written.

‘So much so, that some of her husband’s congregations forbade their wives to read novels like Ruth, her heroine who was also an unmarried mother.’

Mrs Griffiths will be among an expected strong contingent of Gaskell Society members attending the Christmas carol service at Knutsford’s historic Unitarian Brook Street Chapel, a place of worship since the 17th Century. where Elizabeth Gaskell is buried.

Jack Levy’s take on Christmas is an altogether less festive affair. The budding 27-years-old film maker’s movie heroes are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez - neither of them known to shirk from blood and guts. His first short film, shot in Alderley Edge in the depths of one of the coldest winters for years, was called Christmas Dinner.

‘It’s about a character who kills and eats another person,’ said Jack. So if you go down in the woods tonight around Knutsford and Toft you could well be in for a big surprise. That really gruesome noise is probably Jack and his producer girlfriend Rachael Jenkins - they met while working for an independent TV production company - attacking melons, pumpkins and squashes with an armoury of ‘weaponry’ for movie sound effects.

Jack said:’I come from an artistic family; my mother paints and runs a gallery and my grandmother was also an artist. When I left college I wanted to get into film school but doing so is a bit like Catch 22 - you have to have made a movie first. That’s where the Christmas Dinner came in; it won a few awards at festivals.’

His latest project, a violent, apocalyptic tale set amid the anarchy of economic and social meltdown, is almost complete after shooting footage in the back streets of Manchester and Liverpool.

‘At Goldsmiths College in London, the most important lesson seemed to be: if you want to make a film, just get out there and do it. It’s the idea that counts,’ he added.

Local resident Paul Griffiths reckons the home he shares with his wife Elaine and daughter Katy is ‘heaven on earth’. He’s possibly as well qualified to make the judgement as anyone could be, because Paul, 59, is chairman of the Monastery of St. Francis & Gorton Trust, the charity he co-founded with his wife in 1996, to save and restore the former church of cathedral-like proportions in East Manchester. The Grade II* listed building had been put on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World, alongside Pompeii and the Taj Mahal.

Appointed by Her Majesty the Queen last spring as the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester, he stepped down from a 40-year career in the food industry in 2006 to focus full-time on his work at Pugin’s Victorian gothic masterpiece.

He lives in the Old Vicarage on The Cobbles, the picturesque square in the centre of Lower Peover, just outside Knutsford. ‘It really is heaven on earth, it’s close to the village’s delightful 800-year-old St Oswald’ s Church, the school and the Bells of Peover pub. You could say we have salvation, education and damnation close at hand! The setting is breathtaking all the time, but dressed for Christmas, it’s just magical.’

Now available in almost every restaurant, bar and pub in Knutsford - and that’s a fair number - Hunters Cheshire Gin, brainchild of three local enthusiasts, will be putting the export-strength spirit into Christmas as it celebrates its second anniversary. Conceived and launched in the town a year ago by colourful local character Ian Cass, the company’s managing director, chairman Jon Jones and sales director Louis Smith, the brand has been expanding according to Louis ‘like there’s no tomorrow’.

Ian and Jon are old school friends who always wanted to produce their own gin and they asked me to get involved because of my background in wine and spirit retail. We’ve been regulars at Knutsford’s artisan markets and we’ll definitely be at the town’s Christmas market.

Ed Salt, managing director of Knutsford based Delamere Dairy, says: ‘Christmas is a really busy time of year for us, particularly on the cheese side of our business. Goats’ cheese is always popular during the festive season, especially as there is perhaps even more home cooking taking place than usual. Our winter calendar is usually full of activity as we attend lots of food and drink events at this time of year, where we get to chat to people and share our passion for goats’ cheeses and other products.’

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