Alderley Edge: Woods, Wizards and Mines

by frankbeswick

Alderley Edge is a wooded hill above the Cheshire Town of Alderley, south of Manchester. There is a legend that it once housed a wizard.

Alderley Edge is a place of contradictions. A sandstone cuesta [escarpment] whose steep face juts north towards Manchester, its lower slopes contain some of the classiest housing in Cheshire, where millionaires and sports stars have their homes. Above and beyond them there is farm land, but the edge itself is a woodland of uncertain age, where several mines said to be Roman, but probably older, are found, and there is the strange legend of the Wizard of Alderley, which may be very ancient indeed.

Picture courtesy of Igor Serazetdinov

The Legend of the Wizard

"From Mobberley on a bright morning

On a snow-white pure bred mare

A farmer went to Macclesfield

For to sell her at the fair"   

So begins the folk song that tells the tale. As with all folk tales it happened once upon a time. The farmer's route took him across Alderley Edge where he was accosted by a wizard who politely asked to buy the horse. The greedy farmer demurred, hoping to extract maximum price from his asset by auctioning her to the highest bidder at the fair, but the wizard put a spell on the horse that no bidding would be made for her and then said that he would await the farmer at Alderley Edge on his return. True to his word, no bids were made, and the chastened farmer returned to meet the wizard, who led the farmer through mighty iron gates, which appeared quite magically as he struck the rock with his staff,  into a cave where there were lying a king and his knights, all asleep, all of whom but one had a white mare. The wizard explained that these men sleep until the country's hour of need, but must all have a white horse. He was their unsleeping guardian. But he was an honest wizard who paid well, and so he told the farmer to fill his pockets with some of the masses of gold that surrounded the sleepers and then leave the Edge, which the greedy farmer did. The farmer prospered afterwards and often searched the Edge to find the great gates of the cave where there was much gold, but the path was ever shut to him and none have since then seen them, for the gates were a portal to another world, inaccessible to people in this one except by permission. 

The wizard is part of the culture of Alderley. The steep hill down towards the town is known as The Wizard, and as fourteen year old lads we used to free wheel down it on our bicycles and brake near the crossroads at the bottom, but we never dared tell our mothers about what we were doing. There is also the wizard's well, an ancient spring said to never dry out, that trickles from the rock somewhere down the steep wooded slopes. 

There are several routes to the well, but the one that I took as a lad starts from where the road finally reaches the top. You stop in a lay-by and walk down a track, until you come to the Edge. This is a sandstone overhang dropping about twenty feet to the slopes below. Bare of trees, it overlooks the woods and gives views over the north of the Cheshire Plain. From there you follow a path besides a fence dividing the Edge from farmland, and descend to a small streamlet before rising uphill again. Eventually you reach the well. Wells fascinate us, and since the bronze age they have exerted a lurking sacred presence in the British psyche. It is not deep, as it is a trickle from the rock which collects in a stone basin, but the water is crystal clear and ice cold. There is a carved, bearded face on an engraving on the rock,

"Take of this and drink thy fill, for the water falls by the Wizard's will."

It is not ancient and is probably Victorian. But I think that even today some people come surreptitiously to drink the water and make wishes. The wizard has not really gone away in peoples' minds, has he? 


Rocks and Mines

The rock is what geologists know as sandstone conglomerate. Go back hundreds of millions of years to the Triassic period, before the dinosaurs roamed, and this  was a massive delta fed by a river that drained the giant  continent that geologists know as Atlantis. The ocean into which it drained was the ancient Tethys, of which the Mediterranean is the final remnant. Conglomerate is a rock made up of the remains of others, and  this one  is spattered with millions of  pebbles eroded from the ancient continent and swept into the primeval ocean to be deposited in the delta. The rock is not, though, fossil bearing.

However, the turbulent earth intruded its own addition to the edge in terms of mineral veins. The sandstone is at places green with malachite, copper ore, brought up by gases bubbling from the depths of the Earth. What riches there once were before mining I know not, but as a youngster I had a piece of galena, lead ore, found in Engine Vein, the largest mine, and there are a few ancient drift mines at the Edge.

There is a tendency in Britain to unthinkingly accredit every site of unidentified age to the Romans.This is due to classical snobbery in which the upper classes believed that the native Britons were club-wielding brutes incapable of much except speaking rudimentary Welsh and battering the neighbours. They were far more sophisticated than the classical buffs think. But do we really think that the ancient Britons did not see and identify the copper and then exploit it? I have no doubt that the Romans, well ensconced at Chester only a few miles away and ever ready to plunder resources, exploited the mines, but they were already in existence.  

Engine Vein is now closed for  safety, but you can sometimes take tours. Another one on the Edge is a cave hollowed out of the rock from which a passage leads underground as miners followed the ore. As boys, we went down the cave, but the passage was a mud bath and too narrow for all but cavers, and mother would have wanted to know about why we were so muddy. She was not happy with us getting into dangerous holes in the ground in case the roof fell in. The cave is now too dangerous for entry and is sealed with a metal grill. Look, don't enter seems the rule. I suppose that it is safety first, but boyhood is inherently dangerous, but fun. 

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Who was the Wizard

It is the mines that give us our lead to identifying not his name, but the type of person that he was. Prior to the advent of metal magic was probably feminine, with the witch boiling up herbal brews, which is why we still see her with a cauldron, but as metal began to be used, the smith,a role for strong males, was increasingly seen as a magician, for he drew precious metal from the rock and made the tools forged from it.

The smith might also be a miner, one who delved into the underworld for its minerals.  This was risky, practically and spiritually, for it took him nigh unto the other realm. He was a man who had a foot in both this world and Faerie, and the other world is fraught with peril. From this other world he derived vast wealth, but he might open up gates to beings that are unfriendly to humans. There were, in the ancient mind, spirits down mines that might be mischievous or malicious, and they were to be propitiated by sacrifice, and maybe to be warded off by magic. 

So in the early metal age when Britons wrested copper from the earth, the wizard was the miners' master and protector, the one who guided them through the perilous realm near to the underworld. He is not one man, but a personification of many over the eons. The king and his knights? We do not know, but they may be ancient memories of the old gods who lurk in the underworld, lying asleep now in the mines but awaiting a call from humans. Over the Millenia they have been morphed into a mediaeval form and absorbed into the myth of Arthur as their story was retold through the lens of myth. Interestingly the legend of the sleeping king and warriors is found at other sites in Britain, such as the Eildon hills in Southern Scotland, and that it is found in a few places indicates an ancient British origin for the myth. 

How long the site continued as a pagan sacred site is unknown, but the lingering of the legend is consistent with a continuity of population since ancient times rather than replacement, as the now discredited Saxon invasion theory taught. 

Woodland Walks

There is a variety of routes through the small and peaceful woodland, but some take you to Armada beacon,a sandstone block that was constructed on a tiny knoll in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish fleet. That it was there indicates that the area was not a wood at the time, at least at the highest point, or that the trees had been cut down to make space for the beacon to be seen.It last housed a fire to celebrate the present queen's jubilee. 

The woodland was supposedly planted in the nineteenth century, but the woodland flora seem to be reminiscent of a more ancient wood, so they may have spread from an older woodland further down the slope.  Celandine and wood anemone intermingle with dog's mercury and bluebells. In Spring the wood is replete with ramson, which you might know as wild garlic.  Hazel, birch , hawthorn, ash and beech are found, and the woodland floor is deep in a hundred or so years of leaf mold. Britain is struggling at the moment with ash die back, a fungal infection which is wiping out the country's much loved ash trees, but some individuals have resistance, and these may be the nucleus of a future population. What will happen to the ash in the woods is unclear. We live in hope. 

There is a broad and easy path along the base of the woodland which abuts the farmland, where dairy cattle, the main agricultural product of the Cheshire region, fill the fields. 

But what delighted me was that I saw my first jay flying into the woods. This colourful member of the crow family eats flying insects, and so is marked out by its undulating flight as it swoops up and down. The native red squirrel is not present in the area, but the imported grey squirrels are widespread. 

I have loved the woods since I was a lad adventuring off on my bike. I would park my cheap, old bike by the rock and go exploring the caves and the woodlands. I don't go there by bike now, but I still walk there sometimes and take in the panorama over the north Cheshire Plain. And I don't climb  trees any more. 

Updated: 07/09/2015, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


blackspanielgallery on 11/29/2015

I am just catching up on some of your erlier work. Reading takes time, especially when there are words worth reading. Well done.

Veronica on 08/24/2015

This is very close to where I live, only about 6 miles away and we always went when the boys were young. My boys read the books when they were young. I visit frequently for walks now.

Every May, Alderley Edge holds its May Fair and the streets are blocked off to traffic whilst a huge procession lead by a wizard on a white horse parades through the streets with brass bands and carnival parade. It is a truly splendid occasion.

There are speciality food stalls and tea shops for the day. It' s marvellous.

The site is very ancient indeed. With the Edge protruding over the beautiful Cheshire landscape and the mining and the farming community I can see how the Wizard legend arose. But it is certainly still in the mind of the locals and beyond.

There is a very good restaurant on the Top called " The Wizard " .

Google Image Alderley Edge. You won't be disappointed.

WriterArtist on 08/24/2015

The story of Alderley wizard is very interesting, I wish our lives would be more exciting if we had such good wizards with good fortune.There aren't any more treasures left to be discovered.

Woodlands and caves have never ending attractions to adventurers and though I am not capable of perilous adventures, I would love to explore the woods and mines.

frankbeswick on 06/06/2015

I am glad that you liked it. Previously I have written about broader areas, but this is the first time that I have written about a place as specific as this.

NanciArvizu on 06/06/2015

What an interesting story!

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