Cheshire since 1900
The rapid industrialisation of north Cheshire after the middle of the 18th century reorientated the county, which had hitherto fallen into two halves divided by the mid-Cheshire ridge. The important division now was between the north, with the concentration of population, most of the large towns, and the commercial and industrial power of the county, and the south. During the 20th century this division has become more significant in terms of people, landscape and economy, and has been reinforced by the transfer of large areas of historic Cheshire to the new metropolitan counties.
The first half of the century also saw a pronounced shift in the pattern of industry within north Cheshire. By the 1890s a clear distinction was emerging between the north east, with its older textile industries, engineering and coalmining (the last already beginning to die) and the north west, where a complex range of linked industries had grown up along the Mersey and Weaver—salt, chemicals, soap and shipbuilding—and where the emphasis was thus upon more growth, from Eastham to Wallasey Pool and around Runcorn. The arrival of the ship canal in 1894 greatly reinforced this trend, and for half a century the canal zone was the main—arguably the only—area of dynamic industrial growth in the whole region.
Ellesmere Port was Cheshire’s fastest growing industrial town, chosen by many new industries which were attracted by ample cheap flat land and excellent communications. Metal-working and engineering came first, with firms such as the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Co., but during the First World War the marshes at Stanlow were drained by gangs of German prisoners of war, and in 1922 work began on the construction of a new oil refinery there. From this has grown the vast complex of refineries and petrochemical plants which now occupies some five square miles and dominates the local landscape. The modern plant evolved in stages from 1949, and by 1980 the Shell refinery was the largest in the U.K. The original advantage of the site was the ship canal, used by small crude oil tankers, but after 1960—despite the deepening of the canal—the new breed of supertankers could not reach the site and now virtually all the oil is brought to Stanlow by pipeline from deepwater terminals. Ellesmere Port benefited in other ways from the industrial boom: Bowaters established newsprint and paper mills there in 1930-34 and the very large Vauxhall car plant was opened in 1958.
Petrochemicals, combining an old tradition of chemical manufacturing with a completely new raw material, expanded rapidly in north Cheshire after the Second World War. Vast new chemical refineries were built at Partington in the early 1950s and at Carrington in 1970, and plants at Runcorn and Easbam were extended and adapted. The chemical industry was gradually rationalised and dominated by ICI, which as well as acquiring the manufacturing plants and companies also bought up the salt producers until it owned most of that industry too, though in the late 1980s company restructuring meant that the great conglomerate was broken up once more. By 1900 it was most efficient—technologically and financially—to extract salt by pumping brine and, whereas in the past brine was naturally-produced, it was now made by the controlled solution of underground rock salt reserves. This method was less labour-intensive, more thorough and allowed more efficient refining and processing, although increased subsidence was a serious side-effect. Most rock salt mines had closed by the 1960s, and only one—the Meadowbank Mine just north of Winsford—now operates.
While new industries were appearing along the Mersey the economic base of the older centres crumbled. North-east Cheshire shared in the collapse of the British textile industry after 1920, although because of its more modern equipment and newer mills it escaped the savage decline of its Lancashire counterparts. The silk industry failed to keep pace with technological and commercial developments in the later 19th century and became heavily dependent upon foreign sales long before 1914, so that when that trade was disrupted by the First World War many markets were lost. Furthermore silk, to a much greater extent than cotton, was challenged by the development of artificial fibres which ultimately removed most of the demand. By the 1970s the industry was in terminal decline, and today only a handful of firms in Macclesfield and Congleton are still working.
At Crewe railway engineering, the mainstay of the town’s economy, benefited from the grouping of the railway companies in 1923. The L.M.S.R. built a small steelworks and re-equipped the works, and output rose—between 1923 and 1948 Crewe built almost 2,000 locomotives—but overreliance on a single industry was still a potential problem. In 1938, however, Rolls Royce built a huge aero-engine factory with government assistance and when after 1960 railway employment shrank rapidly the town had a more diversified economy. In Birkenhead shipbuilding remained strong—and the town’s largest employer by far—until the 1970s, but thereafter it was affected by the near-extinction of the British shipbuilding industry and despite numerous attempts to keep the yards in business Cammell Laird finally closed in 1993.
In the late 20th century services, retailing, construction and high technology industries were the growth areas in the economy. Excellent road links, proximity to Manchester airport, and the technological expertise of the universities made parts of north Cheshire such as Wythenshawe and Cheadle the 1950s forerunners of the ‘high-tech’ business zones of the 1980s, and firms such as Ferranti and ICL located there. The building of the great telescope at Jodrell Bank in the early 1960s was part of that same emphasis upon new technology.
Cheshire thus remained a county with important, indeed vital, industries, but their character had altered dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1980s and 1990s the remaining older heavy industries, such as railways and shipbuilding, were disappearing, and those which did survive harsh recession and fierce foreign competition saw drastic reductions in the workforce. Some towns—Hyde, Stalybridge, Dukinfield, for example—have struggled to retain population and economic strength, but the fight has been hard, success is uncertain, and levels of unemployment and social deprivation remain stubbornly high.
The impact of transport improvements since the early 1960s has profoundly affected the county. The waterway network, with the exception of the ship canal and the Weaver Navigation, had become commercially insignificant by 1939, and the railways were by then beginning to experience fierce competition from road traffic. Closure of lightly-used lines began in the 1930s, the first to go being routes such as the Cheshire Lines branch to Winsford which duplicated other lines, but because of the large volumes f industrial traffic and the fact that many Cheshire railways were important hrough routes there were comparatively few losses, and the county’s inetwork has remained surprisingly intact.
Although most lines remained open many wayside stations and halts ‘ere closed as local services were withdrawn–there are now no stations j!etween Crewe and Chester, whereas in 1923 there were five. Even so, longer-distance rail commuting has ensured that every station between Manchester and Crewe survives. The most hotly-contested closure was that kfthe Woodhead route to Sheffield, electrified in 1954 and abandoned only 16 years later, but the closures of the line from West Kirby to Hooton in 4968 and of the Macclesfield to Rose Hill route in 1970 were also highly contentious—had these lines lasted a few years longer they would undoubtedly have been upgraded with the other local routes.
After 1960 the trunk routes to Manchester and Liverpool were upgraded, with electrification and track improvements to allow much higher speeds. The line from Manchester to Crewe was electrified in 1962, those from Liverpool to London and Manchester to London via Stoke in 1966, and the Weaver Junction to Glasgow line in 1974. The radical improvement in quality and frequency of services which this modernisation produced has meant that places such as Holmes Chapel and Sandbach have become important dormitory towns for Manchester, while Wilmslow and Runcorn are increasingly used as additional stops for intercity trains.
Some electrification of local services in the conurbations has also continued, though all plans have been bedevilled by perpetual shortages of finance and by under-investment. The electrification of the short stretch from Stockport to Hazel Grove, for example, was the only part of Manchester’s optimistic Picc-Vic regional network scheme to be completed. The Altrincham to Manchester line, one of the busiest commuter routes in Cheshire, was taken over by the Metrolink tram network in 1992, and in 1993 a direct rail link to Manchester Airport was opened. This has been extremely well-used, and current plans envisage a Metrolink route linking Wythenshawe and the airport to the city centre. The Merseyrail electrified network, based on the loop line under central Liverpool, incorporated the Wirral lines from 1977, and by 1994 had been extended to Chester and Ellesmere Port.
Major improvements to Cheshire’s roads began in the early 1920s. Between the wars bypasses were constructed to avoid some of the most congested towns and villages, such as Tarvin and Chester, while new arterial routes edged southwards from Manchester. In 1934 the corporations of Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey jointly opened the new Queensway, the first road tunnel under the Mersey. The tunnel was quickly congested by overuse and, in the long-term, had unfortunate planning consequences for it brought very heavy traffic into the centres of Liverpool and Birkenhead. Another major interwar scheme was the construction in 1936 of the road from Shotwick to Heisby, to serve the refineries and industrial complex at Stanlow and to provide a better route to North Wales from the Manchester direction.
The real impact of the motor age was not felt until the late 1950s, when work began on the M6. First planned in the 1930s, and opened through Cheshire in 1963, the motorway was the western spine of the national network and became, in the process, the central spine of a new geography of Cheshire, slicing through the county from Barthomley to Thelwall south side of the Mersey Valley the M56 from Wythenshawe and Stockport to the north side of Chester formed the main east-west cross-route, while the M63 was extended through Stockport as an urban motorway. At Denton it connected with the M67, the Hyde bypass, which was the first—and is likely to be the only—stage of a planned motor‑
way across the Pennines to Sheffield. The M53 linked the M56 with Ellesmere Port and then extended along the centre of the Wirral to connect with the second Mersey road tunnel, Kingsway, which was opened in 1970.
The trunk roads of the county were also improved and between 1950 and 1990 a number of important bypasses were built, such as those at Northwich, Kelsall, Tarporley, Tytherington and Nantwich. Problems of traffic congestion did not diminish—rather, the M6 and M56 were becoming grossly overloaded by the end of the 1980s because of the general increase in traffic volumes, and the trunk roads such as the A34, which had scarcely been upgraded, were now having to cope with the surplus long-distance traffic as well as local users. Many longstanding projects took an extremely long time to come to fruition—the A34 bypass of Handforth and Wilmslow, proposed during the 1930s, was not completed until 1996.
National plans in the late 1980s and early 1990s included a new series of motorway projects affecting Cheshire. The M6 was to be widened to eight lanes throughout its length; Theiwall viaduct was to be duplicated; and completely new motorways would be built from Birmingham to Manchester, around Stockport and High Lane, and from Knutsford to Altrincham, Eccles and Bolton. Manchester Airport was now a traffic source of exceptional importance, and in the new strategy a series of road links to the airport formed an outer ring road to south Manchester from Stockport and Macclesfield to Altrincham. These ambitious proposals perhaps mark the high tide of road planning in the region, for they coincided with the general change in sentiment about road-building. Only two years after they were announced, the government dropped some of the most contentious from its programme, including most of the Cheshire motorway schemes. However, major widening projects on the M56, M63 and M6 at Thelwall have been implemented.
The expansion of Manchester International Airport has been one of the most remarkable changes in 20th-century Cheshire. A temporary airfield at Ringway, opened by Manchester Corporation in 1928, was the first municipal aerodrome in the country. In 1935 it was reconstructed as a permanent airfield and scheduled flights began in June 1938. After 1950 the city invested heavily to modernise the airport and the introduction of a Manchester-New York service in 1953 was the real beginning of a dramatic expansion—Ringway was Britain’s second intercontinental airport. Thereafter the expansion was unstoppable. A new terminal was built in 1959-63 at the same time as the runway was extended, but by 1967 the runway had to be increased still further, to accommodate jet aircraft, and the Wilmslow-Altrincham road was diverted beneath it in a tunnel.
The airport, renamed Manchester International in 1975, was the fastest-growing in Europe during the 1980s, and by 1990—when a second terminal was opened—it was the world’s 20th busiest. At the time of writing a proposal to build a second runway, extending towards Mobberley, is the subject of a bitterly-contested public enquiry. If approval is given to this project, the airport will expand so that by 2010 it will be one of the ten busiest in the world. The impact of the airport, which is entirely within the historic county of Cheshire, cannot be underestimated. It has consumed a vast area of rural land, and may yet gobble up more. It is much the largest employer in east Cheshire, and generates as much road traffic as a major city. It has attracted a huge range of additional industries and services, ranging from electronics and computers to catering and cleaning. The incessant air traffic which feeds it makes its existence felt far from the airport itself, as planes circle the skies of Cheshire and their noise drones across the countryside and the adjacent towns. Much hated, much admired, it cannot be ignored.
The outward expansion of the conurbations, and the growth of suburbs around bigger towns, became a headlong rush during the 1920s and ’30s. Planning controls were still rudimentary but transport had never been better, so that the dream of a semi-detached house in a leafy suburb was now realisable for many thousands of people. Cheshire, by virtue not only of its location but also of its image, was a powerful magnet for such moves, and speculative builders covered the fields of Gatley and Bebington with bricks and mortar as the vision was realised.
Railway electrification contributed to this trend, though less so than in the south of England. The line from Manchester to Altrincham was electrified in 1931 and in 1935 the Wirral lines from Birkenhead to West Kirby and New Brighton, allowing through running to Liverpool Central, were converted. These schemes, bringing faster and more frequent services, accelerated existing suburbanisation and the open country between stations was quickly infilled.
The population of Altrincham grew by 55 per cent between 1921 and 1951, and other very fast growth south of Manchester was recorded at Bredbury & Romiley (75 per cent), Sale (79 per cent), Wilmslow (88 per cent), Hazel Grove & Bramhall (100 per cent), and Cheadle & Gatley (185 per cent). Heswall grew by no less than 193 per cent in the same period, and Hoylake by 63 per cent. Elsewhere in the Wirral the effects of commuting were augmented by the rapid growth of new industries, which in themselves brought about major population growth. Ellesmere Port increased by 98 per cent in 1921-51 and Bebington by 115 per cent. The Wirral, like the area south of Manchester, was fast becoming densely-populated and highly-urbanised.
These exceptional rates of growth—equivalent to those of the booming industrial centres a hundred years before—were in dramatic contrast to the interwar experience of those older, dirtier, economically-depressed towns. At Dukinfield, Northwich, Stalybridge and Hyde the population peaked at the beginning of the 1920s, at Birkenhead ten years later, though the decline was nowhere as severe as in some of the Lancashire cotton towns. Other Cheshire towns, with older industries and out of commuting range, grew only slowly between the wars—Congleton by 15 per cent, Macclesfield by four per cent, Winsford by 13 per cent, Crewe by nine per cent.
The most dramatic of all the urban developments which took place before 1939 was not, however, the result of commuting or of industrial expansion. In 1920 a Manchester Corporation report stated that, although the city desperately needed 17,000 dwellings to replace slums and provide for new housing requirements, there was no suitable building land in the city. The answer was to acquire a vast tract of ‘virgin land. ..with hardly a village or large group of houses to interfere with or direct the line of development’, lying south of the Mersey at Wytbenshawe in Cheshire. There the Corporation would build a garden city, of the most advanced design, to house its overspill population. Most of the land was purchased between 1926 and 1930, as the city waged a five-year battle with Cheshire County Council and Bucklow Rural District Council, both of which were implacably opposed to its plans.
They refused planning permission for new housing and fiercely resisted the city’s boundary extensions, but in 1930 Manchester won the war when parliament authorised the annexation of Wythenshawe. Building work began at once, using the detailed master plan which included the development of new strategic roads to bind the satellite to its parent. By 1939 over 8,000 houses had been built and the population of Wythenshawe—about 6,000 in 1930—had increased to almost 40,000. Wythenshawe was by far the most popular of Manchester’s estates—in 1933, 48 per cent of all applicants for council housing wanted to live there.
After the Second World War renewed industrial development, the massive growth of car-based commuting, and a vigorously-pursued public policy of decentralising population from the cities each made a major contribution to the continuing urbanisation of north Cheshire. Private speculative housebuilding, now based on a high level of car ownership, resumed in the mid-1950s and some of the towns which had been fast-growing before the war continued to expand rapidly. Hazel Grove grew by 101 per cent in the years from 1951 to 1971, Cheadle & Gatley by 92 per cent, Marple by 81 per cent and Wirral by 54 per cent. The effect was that broad swathes of north Cheshire, from Romiley to Altrincham and from Neston to New Brighton, became intensively urbanised. Cheadle and Gatley had 11,000 people in 1921; in 1971 the population was over 60,000.
The planned dispersal of population from the older cities, part of an idealistic but flawed public strategy espoused with equal enthusiasm by central government and the local authorities of the conurbations, was a parallel movement. Slum clearance, urban renewal, and the wish to create ‘ideal’ communities resulted in the compulsory redistribution of population between 1955 and 1975 on a scale never before seen in Britain. The areas ‘close to the conurbations, such as Cheshire, were seen as the obvious candidates to house the ‘surplus’ population of the cities, but there was immense hostility to the proposals from many quarters in such areas, and many projects were either abandoned or scaled-down.
Redevelopment of existing housing areas was a major element in postwar urban planning, affecting all Cheshire towns of any size. In the bigger and older towns—Stockport, Chester, Birkenhead, Macclesfield—there were major programmes of demolition, with replacement housing taking the form of peripheral estates or high-rise blocks. Thus Stockport built the very large estate at Brinnington, isolated in a triangle of railway lines near Bredbury, which has since suffered acute social, environmental and economic problems; the Corporation also built tower blocks in the vicinity of the town centre. At Chester peripheral housing estates—notably Blacon—were one strand of the city’s strategy; inner area renewal with tower blocks, as in the area south of the railway station, was another.
In regional terms the most important element in the dispersal of population was the creation of planned new towns. The pre-war example of Wythenshawe had been an important illustration of this principle, and it continued to grow after 1945. By the mid-1960s, when most of the original plan was complete, the ‘town’ had a population of almost 100,000, but it was already suffering very severe social difficulties, many of them derived from the dismal lack of essential amenities. Manchester Corporation had been able to build thousands of houses, but money for community and cultural facilities, proper shopping centres and other essential urban ingredients was sadly lacking. The plans for other new towns were intended to overcome these deficiencies, by providing the necessary elements of urban life from the start.
In the late 1940s it was suggested that a new town should be built at Mobberley, to accommodate Manchester overspill, but this proposal eventually foundered not upon the rock of local opposition but upon that of possible salt subsidence. Eventually, in the late 1950s, Manchester negotiated agreements whereby various Cheshire authorities would take smaller amounts of overspill, and the result was a series of town expansion schemes which ranged in character from the estates on the east side of Knutsford, which helped to increase the population of the town by 46 per cent in the ten years to 1971, to the notorious and bleak development at Hattersley, on the windswept plateau above Mottram in Longdendale. Liverpool made similar arrangements with Winsford, which grew by 95 per cent in the decade to 1971, and Ellesmere Port.
Formal new towns came slightly later, when the policy had changed in favour of building around an existing urban core. In 1964 Runcorn New Town was designated, with the aim of increasing the population from about 29,000 to 100,000 with overspill population from Merseyside. Here the aim was not only to help the planning problems of the conurbation but also to revitalise a declining area where the traditional industries were shrinking. In the choice of Warrington for a second, later, new town, the huge economic potential of the area, at a nodal point on the motorway network, was a key factor. Other plans for new towns, mooted in the dizzy atmosphere of 1960s planning, fortunately did not come to fruition: one would have joined Macclesfield and Congleton in a city of 200,000 people, while another involved a vast ‘Weaver City’ from Northwich to Crewe, with a population of almost half a million.
The administrative geography of the county continued to alter during the first half of the 20th century. In 1931 Manchester annexed the townships of Northenden, Baguley and Northen Etchells in order to build Wythenshawe, and in 1936 the ancient parish of Taxal (including the 128 Changes to the Cheshire half of Whaley Bridge) was transferred to Derbyshire, the town-county boundary in North- ships of Mellor and Ludworth being added to Cheshire in exchange. The East Cheshire 1888-1940. basic system of a county council and four county boroughs remained—Crewe’s applications for county borough status were rejected—but all four county boroughs extended their boundaries between 1900 and 1960 to bring in suburban areas, moves which were always fiercely resisted. New municipal boroughs were created: Sale received its charter in 1935, Altrincham and Bebington in 1937, and Ellesmere Port in 1955.
Ominous for the historic county, though, was growing central enthusiasm for a more radical reshaping of the local government map, to take account of the geographical and administrative complexities of the conurbations. Since Cheshire was so closely linked with Merseyside and Greater Manchester this could not fail to affect the county. In 1970 the Redcliffe Maud report proposed that Cheshire would be divided between great metropolitan areas based on Liverpool and Manchester, with new districts combining, for example, St Helens with Runcorn, Wirral with Chester, and Stockport with Macclesfield. South Cheshire would become part of a Stoke on Trent authority.
These plans were rejected, then reincarnated and implemented in modified fashion by the local government reforms of 1974. Cheshire was drastically altered in area, as the new Greater Manchester and Merseyside counties annexed much of the north east and north west of its territory. Longdendale was transferred to Derbyshire but, strangely, Warrington and Widnes were added to Cheshire. These changes were bitterly fought, and some Cheshire communities, such as Neston, Wilmslow, Poynton and Disley, were successful in their fight to stay in the county. Within the new counties metropolitan boroughs were created: Wirral, Trafford, Stockport and Tameside. Cheshire itself was divided into eight districts, amalgamating previously separate rural and urban authorities and bringing together some odd bedfellows—Crewe and Nantwich, Widnes and Runcorn, Ellesmere Port and Neston.
In 1994 the possibility of yet more reorganisation, and the abolition of counties to create unitary authorities, was the subject of intense debate, but among the members of the public who responded to the Local Government Commission’s questionnaire there was a clear majority in favour of the retention of the existing structure, and the proposals were dropped. Nonetheless, at the time of writing the possibility is that Warrington and Halton districts may yet achieve unitary status. Cheshire has survived, but for how long?
The changes in 20th-century Cheshire were within a new context—the planning framework, which for the first time sought to guide and direct the location, type and quality of development. It emerged in the early years of the century, flowered after the Second World War, and came under attack in the 1980s and ’90s. Cheshire’s planning problems are as great as those of any other county which combines attractive rural landscapes and country towns, intense pressure for urban and commercial development and suburban expansion, heavily over-used transport arteries, and the growing needs of environmental protection and leisure provision.
The key elements in the restriction of development were imposed in the 1950s. In 1950 the Peak District National Park, the first in Britain, was created, and two large areas of Cheshire—the whole of Longdendale above Hollingworth and the moors and valleys east of Macclesfield—were brought within its boundaries. Here the strong planning powers of the national park authority ensured that little commercial or residential development was permitted. The second element, designed to prevent the uncontrolled suburban sprawl which typified the period between the wars, was imposition of green belts. By 1970 these were in operation across the undeveloped land in a great arc south of Greater Manchester from Mossley to Lymm, and south to Holmes Chapel. Because of the very rapid disappearance of the remaining rural land in Wirral, and the real danger that Chester would coalesce with Ellesmere Port and Neston, a green belt was also designated around these towns. Finally, the northward spread of the Potteries conurbation was to be halted by a smaller green belt around Alsager and Congleton.
The effect of these restrictions has been two-fold. Development for new housing in the green belts has been largely eliminated, and the growth of towns such as Altrincham and Heswall has been greatly reduced with the exhaustion of available building land. However, other towns—and almost all rural villages in north and mid-Cheshire—have seen very high levels of growth, with extensive new housing development, because there building land is more freely available and crucially because improved road links mean that these places are now easily accessible from the larger towns.
Poynton, Holmes Chapel, Frodsham, Heisby, Kelsall and Bollington, to name but a few, have experienced this phenomenon in the past twenty years and continue to do so. Recently there has been growing and vocal concern about the effect that longer-distance commuting has upon the housing market in rural Cheshire, it being argued that ‘well heeled exiles from the cities’ buy older estate and farm cottages and prevent local people from gaining access to the housing stock, while the new housing which is built is aimed not at the local market but at commuters. Restrictions on house-building have not saved the green belts from development: in the Wirral and south of Manchester new roads, in particular, have carved the remaining open land into slices, making it vulnerable in the future to continuing pressure for new commercial and residential development.
Chester is arguably still the most important shopping centre in the historic county, serving an extremely wide area of west and central Cheshire and north Wales—conversations in Welsh in Marks and Spencer highlight the drawing power of the city as the main commercial centre for north Wales. Other north Cheshire towns suffer to some extent from proximity to Manchester and Liverpool, although Stockport and Altrincham, among others, have fought hard to keep their status as shopping centres. Redevelopment of central areas, that enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s, has left its mark in a legacy of shopping centres and office complexes. Some, such as the Grosvenor Centre in Chester, have built upon a strong existing commercial base and—in that example at least—blend in effectively with the surrounding townscape. Others, such as the Merseyway project in Stockport, are less sympathetic to their surroundings and have not stood the test of time so well. Even small towns have seen such developments, as with the 1960s brick and concrete buildings on Canute Square in Knutsford or the 1980s redevelopment of the Swinemarket in Nantwich, both in somewhat uneasy proximity to older streetscapes and buildings.
At Runcorn the development of the new town included Shopping City, one of the largest purpose-built shopping centres in the north west. Runcorn was also distinctive because, in a commendable attempt to tackle the problems of traffic congestion and to allow for car ownership which was far below the national average, a complex network of bus-only roads was built as the town grew. Most redevelopments fail to satisfy completely in aesthetic terms because of the unattractive car parks and service areas which they include—the shopping centre in Winsford is one example, and even the more recent redevelopment of the market area of Congleton, though using appropriate materials, has bleak rear facades.
Solutions to traffic problems have varied in aesthetic quality and in effectiveness. The dual-carriageway inner ring road which was forced round the tightly-knit centre of Chester in the 1960s, in the process damaging or destroying a number of historic buildings, was much criticised at the time but has at least facilitated the partial pedestrianisation of the city centre. At Congleton the relief road built in the 1970s severed the town centre from the riverside and the old silk mills, preventing any long-term possibility of re-integrating the different components of a fascinating town. Other urban relief roads, such as those at Crewe, Nantwich and Macclesfield, are more modest and less disruptive to the urban plan and townscape, though in almost all cases the inevitable garnish of car parks, roundabouts and traffic signs does considerable insidious damage.
Most towns have experimented with pedestrianisation or with other forms of traffic restraints, again with varying degrees of success. In some places the existing network of streets and lanes lends itself particularly well to this, as at Nantwich, Macclesfield and Chester, though King Street in Knutsford, narrow and varied and with an unusual variety of good buildings of many different periods, is marred by parking and traffic. Urban conservation has been of growing significance as the towns of Cheshire appreciate their historic and architectural heritage and realise that this is potentially a source of economic strength.
Inevitably the most important projects have been in Chester itself, where in the late 1960s pioneering schemes for comprehensive conservation strategies were introduced, but many other towns have made important progress since 1980 in conserving historic buildings and finding new uses for them, and also in enhancing and interpreting their setting. Tourism and leisure are an important industry in Cheshire. Chester, as one of the finest historic cities in England, is now one of the country’s leading tourist destinations, but other towns and villages have begun to market their history with town trails and interpretive signboards, and subjects which even twenty years ago would have seemed of little interest now have thriving museums and heritage centres—the silk industry at Macclesfield, salt at Northwich, canal boats at Ellesmere Port.
From the beginning of the century many of Cheshire’s great houses were in decline as their owners—whose families had often lived in them for centuries—sold up. Some were bought by the newly-rich, others (especially in north Cheshire) were sold for their land value. The great heritage organisations—the National Trust and English Heritage—have comparatively few Cheshire properties, although the Trust’s five houses (Little Moreton, Dunham Massey, Tatton, Styal and Lyme Park) are all on the list of its most visited properties. Many other country houses and monuments are still privately owned, or have been developed for public access by the county and district councils.
These bodies have also been extremely active in promoting the leisure use of the countryside. The beauty spots of north Cheshire have been favourite attractions for excursionists ever since the railways brought them within reach of the cities, and by the late 19th century places such as the crags at Frodsham and Heisby and the woods of Alderley Edge received thousands of visitors on holidays and Sundays. The consequences are clear in the dense network of footpaths and intense erosion which they have experienced for decades. During the 1960s national planning policies began to emphasise countryside leisure, and in 1968 Britain’s first country park was opened along the disused railway route from West Kirby to Hooton. This was also a pioneering project in another sense—it was among the earliest of the ‘recreational route’ projects providing a signposted way for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders completely free of roads and additional to the existing footpath network. Cheshire has three other such schemes, the Whitegate, Longdendale and Middlewood Ways, all on former railway lines.
The rural landscapes of Cheshire are now the subject of active management, to try to guide and control, as well as to encourage, leisure use. The multitude of picnic sites, forest walks, and cross-country trails are a reflection of this. Such action is necessary to cope with the great numbers of visitors which areas such as Macclesfield Forest and Delamere Forest now receive. Large parts of Cheshire are within the proposed Mersey and Red Rose Community Forests, the former extending south through Delamere to Winsford, the latter including large parts of the Mersey valley around Greater Manchester. These plans, which involve tree-planting, conversion of declining farmland to environmentally-appropriate uses, promotion of leisure, and ecological improvements, have not been without controversy, but they—and initiatives such as the long-standing Mersey Basin Campaign to improve the ecology, water quality and landscape of rivers of the Mersey catchment—hold promise for the future.
But can they be reconciled with the building of a second runway for Manchester International Airport, the construction of new roads, the release of green belt land for new housing, the development of superstores and motels, service areas and business parks, and all the other pressures which the county is experiencing? The moulding and remoulding of Cheshire’s complex and fascinating landscape never ceases, and Cheshire’s history is constantly being made.