Cheshire is a flat county, forming part of the Shropshire Plain,—so flat that Beeston Eock, with its castle on the top, can be seen all over the county, though it is less than 400 feet high. Beeston Eock is in the south-west, a little south of Tarporley. There is another low hill to the north of Macclesfield, called Alderley Edge, which overlooks the whole of Cheshire, with its deep meadows and slow winding rivers.
Wherever you look in Cheshire, there are these same green meadows by the waterside, divided from one another by tall hedge-rows with trees, often old oaks, rising among the bushes. There are many rivers and streams in the county, and the land lies so flat, that they make slow way, and twist in and out, in and out, as if they could not find slope enough to help their waters along to the open sea.
Cheshire is rather a rainy county, and when there is much rain, the rivers overflow, leaving a fine coat of river-mud behind them when they get back to their own beds ; all of which is very good for the meadows. For these reasons, the chief business of the Cheshire people is to grow grass. What for? To feed the thousands and thousands of cows which may be seen grazing at their ease, or chewing the cud in sleepy fashion in the pasture fields: not in the meadows; the long, rich meadow grass is cut and dried and made into hay for their winter food when grass is scarce and poor. These cows are kept to make the famous Cheshire cheese, of which thousands of tons are sent away yearly; and a very pleasant sight the cheese-room of a Cheshire dairy is.
Nantwich on the river Weaver is the chief cheese-selling town; the cheeses are made throughout the Weaver Valley.
So they are also in the Vale of Dee, the river which comes out of Welsh mountain-valleys to meander among the green meadows of Cheshire.
Perhaps you know the song about "Mary," who was sent to—
"Call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee:
The western wind was wild and dank with foam;
And never home came she."
She never came home because the tide rose upon her unawares, and she found herself all at once struggling in deep sea-water with nobody by to help. The Dee reaches the Irish Sea through a broad estuary, about fourteen miles long; when the tide is out, the river, a rather shallow stream here, winds its way to the sea through the sands which stretch a long way on each side of it. But when the tide comes in, it fills the estuary and covers the sands with deep enough sea to carry .a ship, and woe to man or child found wandering upon them.
Before the Dee enters its wide estuary, it sweeps nearly round the old walls of Chester. Strong and thick old walls they are, with here and there a turret, a memorial of the days when Chester was a great Roman city.
These walls are two miles in circuit; they stood a siege on behalf of Charles I., which lasted from Midsummer 1643, to February 1646; and not till sore pressed by hunger, and glad to feed on the flesh of cats and dogs, would the garrison surrender. At the north-east corner is Newton's tower, upon the top leads of which King Charles stood with the mayor of Chester watching a battle two miles away on the heath of Bowton; a sad enough sight for him, for the royal forces were defeated*
Chester is an ancient and a pleasant city, full of interest, and, in some ways, unlike any other in England.
No other English town has anything like "The Rows"; "galleries wherein the passengers go dry without coming into the streets, having shops on both sides and underneath." The Rows are simply passages formed by cutting away the fronts of the first-floor rooms; the side pavement is laid upon the top of the lowest rooms, about six or ten feet above the roadway; the upper part of each house is again brought forward, supported on pillars. Steps lead up to the Rows, and you walk under shelter by all the best shops of the city. The projecting house-fronts, often three or four centuries old, have gabled roofs, latticed windows, and cross beams, carved and painted.
The way the streets are laid out shows that Chester, like Chichester in the south, was once a Roman camp and city. The four chief streets run north, south, east, and west; they all branch out from the same open space, and each street ends in an arched gateway.
The treasure of the city is its Cathedral, which is very old, and was falling into decay; but, quite lately, it has been made beautiful and perfect again at great cost, and with the sort of loving care which was spent upon churches in the days when the English cathedrals were built.
Chester is the county town, and is a busy place, with iron-foundries, lead-works, and soap-works.
The Conqueror gave Cheshire to his nephew, telling him to keep it with his sword as best he could. In his time, and after, the earls of Chester lived in Chester Castle with all the state of kings; they made their own laws, ruled their own subjects, and always had many fighting men ready to take the field. They had need of an army, for in those days Cheshire and Shropshire were border counties, and the fierce Welsh tribes would pour down upon the lowlands from their mountain hiding-places just as the Scotch borderers did upon the northern counties. The eldest son of the English sovereign is now Earl of Chester.
The Wirral is the peninsula that stands out between the mouth of the Mersey and the mouth of the Dee, both broad estuaries.
Birkenhead is a busy place, with large docks like those of Liverpool.
New Brighton stands at the end of the Wirral; it is a watering-place with broad sands and odd looking red cliffs.
All the Wirral coast is bordered with sandhills. The soil of the peninsula is sandy, and therefore is suitable for potatoes and some sorts of green vegetables, which are grown here for the Liverpool market,
The Weaver, which flows through mid-Cheshire, sends its waters to the sea by the mouth of the Mersey. Sail up the river, and you pass barge after barge laden with smooth blocks of white salt, or with rough lumps of rock-salt, reddish or clear. All these vessels are coming down stream, and they are on their way to Euncorn, or, more often, to Liverpool, from whence their cargoes of salt are sent pretty nearly all over the world—east and west, to America and India, to Denmark, Russia, and Africa.
The boats come from Northwich, which yon can distinguish in the distance by the thick smoke cloud hanging over it. Northwich is a busy place with many chimneys, and the chief work done there is to turn the rock-salt, which is brought from the mines, into the pure white salt which comes to table. The rock-salt is put into shallow pans of water to dissolve; then, all the water is boiled away, and the salt remains, but not as it was before. The grains of red iron and earthy matter have gathered together at the bottom, and left the salt pure and white.
The salt does not become pure the first time it is dissolved, however; the same thing must be done many times. Now you can understand why there are many chimneys and much smoke in and about Northwich. Where does the salt come from? At Northwich itself, and at all the villages round about—Anderton, Wilton, Marston—there are salt-mines, with beautiful snow-white streets, deep under ground, and white arched roofs, supported on great white pillars.
The mines have made such great follows about Northwich and under Marston village, that the jground on the surface has sunk; and many houses slope in the strangest way, and have to be propped up to keep them from falling. These beds of salt-rock lie under the valley of the Weaver, and, now and then, the salt-rock crops up in the river banks. A great field of salt, over a hundred and fifty miles long, lies far under ground in Cheshire and about it. The beds of rock-salt are often a hundred feet thick, and in Cheshire there are. two of these deep beds, one under the other; the purest salt is found in the lower bed.
How came these salt-beds to be in Cheshire? That is a curious part of the story. Where the salt is now, there was, ages ago, a lake; a kind of Dead Sea, for its waters were so bitterly salt that nothing which had life could endure them; never a tiny shell-fish, nor the pattern of any seaweed is to be found in the salt rocks. So salt was this lake, that the waters could not hold all the salt dissolved, and much of it sank to the bottom and made salt rocks. The sun was very hot over Britain in those days; it drew up the water of this salt sea in thin vapour. But the sun is dainty, he will drink nothing but pure water even out of the dirtiest ditch; he drew off the water and left the salt behind. By and by, the layer of salt-rocks at the bottom became deep, and the sea more and more shallow, until at last there was no sea, nothing but a great stretch of salt.
New changes came; the salt was covered with other rocks, and, after ages had passed, another salt lake lay in the place of the first, and disappeared by degrees in the same way, leaving a deep layer of salt-rock behind it. In course of time, the salt was again covered by layers of other rock, and it is now, usually, far underground, and is reached by deep shafts.
There are many brine-springs scattered about the county, that is, water rising from the earth, salt as pickle. The water from these brine-springs is boiled down to make table-salt at Northwich, Nantwich, the little old town of Middlewich, and some other places. The boiling is done in much the same way as for rock-salt, only that instead of having to dissolve the rock in water to make brine in the first place, the men draw the brine ready made from the springs.
It is not difficult to understand where these salt-springs come from; much of the water that conies down as rain finds its way underground; it is easy for this water to dissolve the salt-rock, and so make a channel for itself, but of course it carries the salt along with it, and is no longer pure water, but brine.
When the ground below becomes so filled at any particular spot that it can hold no more, the water comes out at the surface as a brine-spring.
"In many parts of Cheshire the surface is dotted about with «meres/ or fresh-water lakes, the haunts of rare birds and plants, and the prettiest spots to be found in old England. In many cases, perhaps in all, these seem to have been formed by the slow settling of the over-lying rock masses over the hollows left by the dissolving of the rock-salt beneath."
Cumber Mere, a mile and a half long, is the largest of these; it is in a beautiful park in the south of Cheshire. Others are, Mere Mere, Moss Mere, and Broad Mere.
The South Lancashire coal-field, upon which Manchester stands, reaches far down into the east of Cheshire, and three or four towns which are nearly in a line with Manchester are engaged in the same two great manufactures, cotton and silk. Macclesfield, built on the side of a hill not far from Alderley Edge, is a great silk-making place; velvets, fringes, fancy braids, neckties, silk buttons, as well as muslins and calico, are made here.
Stockport, which stands on a red rock, just where the Tame and Goyt join to form the Mersey, is another silk and cotton town. Congleton, in a delightful valley, south of Macclesfield, makes cotton, and in Sandbach, a little to the south-west of it, silk is made.
Crewe, a great railway junction, where the engines and carriages of the London and North-Western Railway Company are made, is a rather dull town, with many rows of well-built red-brick houses, one row like another, where the company's work-people live.
Altrincham, quite to the north, is a pleasant and very healthful town, where many of the Manchester "cotton lords" live. Around the town, fruit and vegetables are grown for Manohester; especially carrots, for which Altrincham is rather famous.
The north-east corner of the county is hilly, containing part of Feather-bed Moss, a bit of Yorkshire moorland.