Unriddling the World
Alan Garner and Cheshire
by John Mitchinson

Published: Monday, March 15th, 2010

The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the Universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

‘Aback of Beyond’, The Voice that Thunders (1997)

You catch a glimpse of the escarpment of Alderley Edge just before Junction 18 on the M6. It’s the first inkling of the real North country beginning, the land of high moors, long horizons, moss, peat, grit. On a clear day that stretch of the motorway reveals the rounded spine of the Pennines, the high, distant mountains of North Wales and, eventually, looming out of the sea, the sublime peaks of the Lake District.
I don’t like motorways much, but I love that road to the high country. Even the names of the bland service stations have a poetry to them – Keele, Sandbach, Charnock Richard, Tebay, Shap – Saxon, Norse and Norman words that fix the ebb and flow of settlement and culture that has shaped the landscape. I grew up on the other side of the country but the North West drew me then as it does now. For nearly twenty years I’ve lived in the softer pastures of the South, tending my ground but dreaming of those hills.

This story starts, as many stories do, with a place glimpsed on the way to somewhere else. Alderley Edge has become infamous as home to the country’s highest concentration of millionaires; the place where Posh and Becks built their English palace. It is a small, preternaturally tidy, east Cheshire village laid waste by too much money and too little taste. AA Gill captures the odd melancholy of downtown Alderley: ‘They’re not bad people. All they’ve done is follow the instructions on the box and in the glossy magazines. Got on and consumed, cut their lawns, learnt to ski.’

But there is another Alderley Edge: an eroded fault scarp, 600 feet high composed largely of the Keuper and Bunter Triassic sandstones, a place rich in minerals and riddled with mines that have been worked since the Bronze Age. It is across this ancient but scrupulously ‘real’ landscape that Alan Garner set loose two urban children in a pair of novels that were to re-define writing for children. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) turned a whole generation on to myth and literature and the deep, unsettling power of the land. Garner fired young imaginations like no other writer. Even in the early books he seemed not to be writing ‘for children’, still less ‘for young adults’. He was a myth-maker, a visionary who fashioned stories out of the oldest material of all: fear, pain, joy, awe: the deep sediments of childhood. And at the heart of those early books, there stood The Edge, a place he calls ‘both physically and emotionally dangerous… as full of continuity and function as a cathedral’

Alan Garner is a ‘Cheshire’ writer, maybe the Cheshire writer. His family has lived and worked in and around Alderley Edge for at least five centuries. His father’s family were rural craftsman and he has taken on the craftsman’s mantle, using his hands in a different medium but with the same painstaking attention to quality and use. But the ‘Cheshire’ Garner knows and writes about is not the County Palatinate which, though ancient in terms of English history, is only a fleeting political shadow on the tessellation of fields, walls and hills that make up his ‘bone country’. For ‘Alan Garner’s Cheshire’, read ‘Alan Garner’s Back Garden’. That’s what really feeds him and his work. But what a back garden:

At the edge of the garden, cobbles have been dumped to clear the field. Others made a yard and paths. They are multicoloured and beautiful. They have been brought from the Lake District, from Ireland; they have been scooped from the bottom of the sea. The rolling fields are the slurry, the detritus of the ice: ice 1,200 feet thick.

Some of the cobbles are quite different from the others. They have the shape of flatirons: smooth underneath, with one end pointed, the other blunt. Their tops are domed, and their upper surfaces pocked as if by sandblasting. Yet not ‘as if’. It was sand that blasted them.

These cobbles are ‘ventefacts’. For hundreds of years they sat on the ground here in permafrost in a polar desert, where neither snow nor rain fell, but an endless wind blew.

The ice had gone, and into this land people returned after an absence of 12,000 years.
The Times, July 23, 2003

This is Garnerworld, not Cheshire – the long view of deep time made real by his imagination, his meticulous research and his craftsman’s mastery of prose.

He has lived and worked in same house for almost fifty years. He discovered it as a twenty-two year-old Classics scholar who’d given up on his Oxford degree in order to discover if he could write. To do so he needed a place to live. The cottage he had been sent to see was a hideous modern bungalow but as he was cycling back home to Congleton he noticed a battered sign advertising ‘17th Century Cottage For Sale’. Climbing the steep hill leading to the front gate the first thing he noticed was the long roofline. Once the whole structure was revealed, he saw what few others would ever have recognised. Through all the dilapidations and later accretions, the modern brick and the tin roof, he was staring at a timber-framed medieval hall. His destiny was set: he had to live there. He would write much later: ‘If I have any real occupation it is to be here.’ Penniless, unemployed, it didn’t look hopeful but his father, quite uncharacteristically, but perhaps sensing his son’s craftsmanly stubborness, lent him the £510 to buy it. All Garner’s books have been written in what was once the buttery.

This sounds idyllic. The writer’s cosy rural nest; the ancient cottage inhabited by the collector of folktales; the very model of a childrens’ writer’s home. But Garner’s home isn’t much like that. It’s no more restful or benign than his work. Like the work, it is strong, complex, confusing, archetypal, unforgettable. It’s rattled every few minutes by the Manchester to Crewe mainline which forms the boundary to his back garden. Less than a mile away the giant eye of the Jodrell Bank telescope is open to the sky. In one of the neat synchronicities that trail in Garner’s wake, the year he moved in was also the year the world’s most powerful terrestrial telescope became operational, the only telescope able to track Sputnik 1, also launched that year. It was semi-derelict for a long time, made habitable slowly as each of his books earned acclaim and royalties. In the early seventies he added a Tudor timber framed apothecary’s house scheduled for demolition in a town twenty miles away. He masterminded the dismantling and reconstruction of its hundreds of beams, turning the whole project into a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It is built around a central chimney, open to the sky, and a fire place where eight people can sit in a circle around the fire. It throbs with a strong, unsettling energy. The first spring after its re-construction the perimeter of the building was garlanded with poppies and other medicinal herbs and flowers that had sprouted from ancient seeds shaken from the beams.

So much for what you can see. The Garners (Alan is inseparable from his wife and soul-mate Griselda) are probably unique in having saved and catalogued every significant piece of stone, metal, flint, every tiny potsherd that fifty years of gardening and digging has turned up. Alan knows each beam and flagstone in his house, not a detail has escaped his sceptical attention. Five years ago excavations began. Combining what Alan already knew with speculative visits from the best archaeologists and historians in the country, a picture has emerged of ten thousand years of continuous habitation. Beyond that – and this is Alan’s story to tell – it now seems likely that Garner’s eight novels were written in the middle of a ritual site. A sacred place.

That probably sounds too tidy, too like an Alan Garner novel. Well, here’s another story. The young Garner was a keen runner. He was out on the high moors training one winter’s afternoon in the early 1950s when he slipped down a steep bank and felt a flat stone against his backside. Pulling away the tussocks of grass he found the stone inscribed with the following words: ‘Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snowstorm in or about the year 1755.’ He cleared more earth and managed to get his hand behind the stone. There was more writing. With his fingers he read: ‘The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead’.

The solution to that strange and troubling riddle is the subject of his latest novel, Thursbitch (2003). With its predecessor, Strandloper (1996) it is the second book in a loose trilogy which will cement Garner’s reputation as one of our greatest living writers.

The research for these books is humbling in its scope and intensity. To write Thursbitch Garner had to acquire a scholar’s knowledge of the history and development of the eighteenth century salt trade; the passage of goods along the Silk Route; the pathology of plague; Neolithic astronomy; Mithraism; the rites of Dionysus; the Mesopotamian cult of the bull; the Eleusian Mysteries; the geomorphology of the Western Pennines; the history of non-conformism in the Macclesfield area. But the story – the emotional momentum – all started in the hills, with a thump on the arse.

Thursbitch is a real place; a valley, high up in the South Western Pennines. It’s an Old English name meaning ‘Valley of the Demon’ and it’s an appropriately bleak and fearful place. My wife and I walked it with Alan and Griselda one cold spring afternoon. They were keen to show us what they’d found. They were stones, mostly. Standing stones, stones half buried in the turf, stones used as gateposts or lying in the moss. It was only when you looked more closely, felt the fluting that been chiselled into them, plotted them on a map and ran the computer projections that the full truth emerged. Forgotten and abandoned in the valley there emerged a late Neolithic cathedral with stones and natural features in a sequence of alignments that suggested a complex stellar cult. No plaques, no tour guides, no car park. Just us, and the valley, and its forgotten stones.

It was a life-changing day. For the first time I grasped just how little we know of the past. Most archaeologists are like cheese-testers plunging their drills into the heart of a vast Stilton. You get flavour and texture but absolutely no sense of the size or shape of the whole cheese. I suspect, up there in Thursbitch, we have the remains of a very large cheese and one that was sustaining its population long after the arrival of Christianity. It also gave me the clearest evidence yet of how different Alan’s methods are from most writers. Instead of finding things ‘out there’ and then turning them into a story, Alan starts with the story. Then he digs and, usually, mysteriously, he finds.

At the heart of Garner’s work is the power that places exert. Why are we are drawn to some rather than others? What makes us drive up the M6 to spend time among the hills or find ourselves undone by dread in a valley like Thursbitch or write all our books in one small room? Is it possible that the places themselves demand our attention and presence? The idea of a ‘sentient landscape’ has resonated with many readers of Garner’s work, especially Thursbitch. There is now a rich seam of contemporary archaeology dedicated to understanding the ritual function of natural places, as distinct from built monuments. As Sal, the geologist in the novel, remarks: ‘some places have to be treated with respect, though that doesn’t get written up in the literature.’

What makes a place sacred? The simple answer is: we do. The slow accretions left behind by human imagination and its interaction with the landscape, millennias of association, ritual and story make places significant. But are they the sole cause? Most of us, on the right day, at the right time, standing on a hill, staring into a river, looking at the night sky, entering a cave have felt Wordsworth’s ‘sense of something far more deeply interfused’. It’s not for nothing that the oldest words in a language always name these places. And unlike so much else, they change little; their constancy gives us an immediate link with the past.

This sense of places ‘meaning’ something is a common thread in human culture, as solidly attested as our need for food, sex and shelter. Perhaps it is an adaptive advantage hardwired within Homo sapiens sapiens, one which helped lead us out of the forest and into language. Because language is the tool that we have made places with, whatever drew us to them in the first place. We tell stories and the landscape changes; it becomes richer and more significant as each generation adds its own inflections to the tale. But it is just possible (as the owls shriek at dusk falls, as we wake at night in a strange house, as the moon climbs from behind a tree) that we are simply the conduits, the sounding boards, for the place to tell its own story.

No one understands, or relishes, this paradox more than Alan Garner:

The first stars were showing, their sounds the echoes of the moon, and the moonlight on the brook rippled up to him. As in the day, he took of the valley and the sky and the valley and the sky took of him; but now all was lapped in a greater silence, and in it and from it he heard something in front of him, and a rustling and a plashing in the mist.

Jack stood firm and waited. The rustling and the plashing drew near, the mist snorted, and of it and from it came a bull, a great white bull, marked only by a red stripe along its muzzle, dark in the moon.

Thursbitch, p 52

You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. But here is something rare: a modern writer who stays in one place so he can reach back to where all stories start, in the journey to ‘a mystical earth, a mystical geography, a mystical sequence of Time, a mystical history, and, through the individual, a mystical and personal responsibility for the universe.’


Alan Garner’s first six novels and most of his fairytale collections are available in paperback from HarperCollins. Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch are Harvill Paperbacks. The passage from The Times was taken from Garner’s review of Stephen Mithen’s After the Ice (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003). All other quotes come from Garner’s indispensable collection of essays and autobiography, The Voice that Thunders (Harvill, 1997). This is currently out of print, but second hand copies are available through Amazon. Snap them up; you won’t regret it. A very useful resource is the unofficial Alan Garner website http://members.ozemail.com.au/~xenophon. It is full of biographical information, reviews, interviews, articles, photographs and links, and some valuable background to the research that underpins the later novels.

1 Comment

  1. Robert says:

    Thanks for this eloquent and literate discussion of Alan Garner’s depths, and for the link to my unofficial website. The website has, however, moved and can now be found here.