Two very enthusiastic guides showed us around Nantwich and Combermere. We have to thank Barry and Myra for being our respective and informative guides to these places.
It would be impossible to do justice to the amount of information we were given on the history of Nantwich. We can only indicate a few themes we covered.
Nantwich’s history begins with salt. It is now thought a sizeable and permanent community of Romans worked here, sending salt to the camp in Chester and to the Stoke area.
Salt continued to have a huge input on the town’s development until the late seventeenth century. We saw Old Biot, once one of the sources of brine in the town. There are hopes of making it a more important feature in the town.
In 1593 a huge fire raged through Nantwich for 20 days. It was begun in an illegal distillery and was slow to be controlled, because three bears, which were used for entertainment, had been released and were wandering around the streets.
The town was totally rebuilt.
It had an important place on the main London to Holyhead Road via Chester. This meant that it was well served with inns throughout its history. The Crown Inn with its long gallery was an inn, which was rebuilt at this time. The group was particularly interested that Lester Piggott’s grandfather had worked in the stables here.
THE BATTLE OF NANTWICH
In 1643 the town was besieged for a year. It was the only major Parliamentarian town in south Cheshire. A battle finally occurred at Acton where the Royalists were firmly routed. There is a yearly enactment of the battle on Holly Holy Day at the end of January
Nantwich was an important market town for the surrounding area. It still has an indoor market and an outdoor Farmer’s Market. Dairy was particularly important.
Tanning became a significant industry, and eventually replaced salt. Shoe making developed from this industry to become important in the town.
The town’s links with farming and dairy are shown in the annual Nantwich Show. The cheese section of the show is internationally known.
It is the parish church of St Mary’s, which links Nantwich to Combermere. Nantwich was once just an industrial outpost to Acton, which was the largest settlement in the area. It was here that the parish church was built and was linked strongly to Combermere Abbey.
St Mary’s was just a chapel of ease to Acton. As Nantwich grew in grandeur and money, so did its church. The Guilds were especially important in the development of its size and adornment. It was not until the seventeenth century, much later than even the Reformation, that it became officially a parish church.
We were lucky that the inside of the church was bathed in light and its features could be seen with great clarity.
The Choir is particularly magnificent and has recently been renovated. Its workmanship is compared to that of Chester Cathedral.
Misericord, Chester Cathedral
We then moved on to Combermere Abbey.
Until last year Combermere Abbey was shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulin. Sarah Callander Beckett inherited the property in 1992 and has worked with energy, love and economic acumen to restore the estate and house. The house was on the English Heritage’s At Risk Register. The Wellington Wing had to be demolished in 1975, but much of the rest of this side of the house was becoming increasingly problematic.
This is still a work in progress. The former service areas are still in need of restoration, although the Game Larder has been fully restored. These still present a Picturesque appearance.
Only this year has the scaffolding been removed and the house opened to pre-booked groups. We were privileged to be one of the first.
Combermere Abbey, former service areas
The house has much in common with Vale Royal Abbey, which we visited a few years ago. Both began as Cistercian monasteries; both were adapted to become mansion
homes after the Reformation; both went through a number of architectural reincarnations over the centuries; the fabric of both went into a serious decline and both were restored through entrepreneurial intervention.
Combermere Abbey was founded earlier than Vale Royal Abbey approximately around 1130. It was not a royal foundation, but begun by a local noble. Hugh de Malbank. Over the next four hundred years it went through similar ignominies and vicissitudes as did Vale Royal. After it was dissolved in 1536 it was gifted to Sir George Cotton, who was in charge of the household of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy.
Unlike in Vale Royal there is no evidence of the abbey church. Sir George’s son, Robert, set about creating a fashionable black and white residence. As in many of these new Tudor mansions, created from the remnants of a monastery, the grand Abbot’s Hall was incorporated into the new building
Stephen Cotton, the first Viscount Combermere, encased this building to create the present Gothick house between 1814 and 1821. It was the variable quality of this encasing, which was to create such serious structural problems, when the original timber framing began to suffer from water gradually leaking into the building.
The Abbot’s Hall continued to be the main reception room of the house. The original decorated timbers can still be seen above the ceiling.
The present ceiling in the so-called library dates from the time of the first Viscount Combermere. It is a fine piece of plasterwork, but Sarah Callander Beckett herself doubts the veracity of the earlier family coats of arms.
The restored Tudor fireplace in the Library is particularly impressive.
In 1919 Sir Kevin Crossley bought the estate. The present owner is his great-great granddaughter.
The group became interested in the exploits of his daughter the aviatrix, Fidelia, the great aunt of Sarah Callander Beckett.
We finished our tour with a delightful half-hour in the three restored wall gardens. The fruit maze by is unique. Designed by Randall Coate in 1993, the fruit planting scheme was by Bert David of Reaseheath College. It incorporates pears, apples, gooseberries, currants, peaches, apricots and quinces.
Account of visit written by Karen McKay