Like most fantasy books written after The Lord of the Rings, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen starts with a pen-and-ink map.
Unlike most, this map shows a real place – albeit one containing such evocative place names as Stormy Point, Iron Gates and Golden Stone. It's a place anyone can visit. A place, better still, that plenty of Reading Group contributors have visited.
Alan Garner was young and learning his craft, and he set the books in the modern world and in real places that can be visited, which gives a hell of a buzz to the reader. All you need to do is to go where he tells you, sit down, wait, and let the atmosphere and the stories get to you. I've been scared stiff many a time. He really does know the power of the places he writes about.
I grew up reading AG's books, and as soon as I was able, made my way to Alderley Edge for a good 'scrat around' (as Gowther might say!). Garner's books are very much about the landscape and those who live in it. I first visited in 1997 while at university, a lot of the locations were still open(ish), but on a more recent visit (2009) I was saddened to see that many of the interest points on the Edge have had to be fenced off to protect them from the pounding boots of tourists. Still, there is a magic to the area, and much fun can be had matching the real-life locations to those found in AG's books. The Wizard's Well, of course, with its inscription - Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizhards will. The Golden Stone, which has its own history. Errwood Hall – dare you go at full moon? And the location of the dolerous blow … Cleulow Cross. I could go on (really!). If you like the stories, do go and visit …
And all there is to say about that is: wonderful. Thank you Dan Collins.
If that doesn't persuade you, have a look at this video of the Hlcarpenter.com's own Sarah Crown visiting a few of the locations with the author, too.
Oh, and Collins has even started building a Google map based on locations in Garner's books, and has had a go at plotting the journey Colin and Susan make from Highmost Redmanhey when pursued by the powers of Nastrond … It's actually a challenge to continue writing this article instead of just filling a flask with tea, packing my boots and driving straight off to Alderley Edge.
Mind you, Collins does also include a word of warning: "The Edge has lost some of its magic, as it has become a real tourist hotspot (not the fault of AG alone). But wander off to Shuttlingsloe or other far-flung locations and you can feel the magical landscape Garner describes." More troubling still is a joke from Starrface about the forthcoming Boneland: "If this is based in Alderley Edge again and is to reflect the area, will this third book in the trilogy feature footballers and Wags?"
Unfortunately for seekers after magic, instead of wizards, Alderley Edge is now best known for housing shops unironically titled Posh, cars with engines specifically designed to cut down the time before we get to peak oil, and the stars of Coronation Street. As Wikipedia tells us:
Alderley Edge, like its neighbour Wilmslow, is famous for its affluence and expensive houses. It has a selection of cafes and designer shops, and has attracted numerous Premier League footballers, actors and multi-millionaire north-western business people that live in and around the Wilmslow area. It is one of the most expensive and sought-after places to live in the UK outside of central London.
It sounds like a candidate for Crap Towns. Then again, the fact that such a large proportion of the 1% live in the area adds a little extra spice to Garner's descriptions. Does the Morrigan attend Wag parties? Has Cadellin's hill full of gold had an effect on property prices? Are the customers in G Wienholt's continental pastry shop aware of the brooding menace in the land around them?
Even though the modern age may have impinged on Alderley Edge, I have a feeling that, long after the Premier League has collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and The Rovers' Return has served its last pint, people will still be telling stories about the knights sleeping under the hill and the farmer who met a wizard at Thieves' Hole. Admittedly, that isn't just thanks to Garner. Many of the stories he tells in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as the mines and paths that have helped shape the Cheshire landscape. You could argue that the local lore and landscape have shaped Garner's books just as much as his dark visions alter the way we look at the place. Indeed, a good part of the book's longevity might be attributed to his ability to work in material that has already stood the test of time, stories long since proven.
That's not to detract from Garner's achievement. Anyone can walk around a beautiful place and learn a few local legends. It takes a rare talent to breath them into passages like this:
After a while they left the hedges behind, the land became broken and uneven, but they did not falter. Wide trenches opened under them, one after another, dangerously deep; and ghostly, broken walls, gaping like the ruins of an ancient citadel, lowered on either side. It was as though they were rising out of their own time back to a barbaric age, yet they were running only by the peat stacks of Danes Moss, a great tract of bogland that lay at the foot of the hills.
Colin turned off the road on to the track that ran along the wood side. On his left were pine and oak, on his right the fields and hills.
He came to the grey block of sandstone that stood at the border of the path and was called the Goldenstone. It was so crudely shaped that few people would notice that it carried the mark of tools, and was not one of the many outcrops on the Edge, but had been placed there at some time of the world for a forgotten purpose.
About half a mile from Highmost Redmanhey, round the shoulder of Clinton Hill, there is a disused and flooded quarry. Where the sides are not cliffs, wooded slopes drop steeply. A broken wind pump creaks, and a forgotten path runs nowhere into brambles. In sunlight it is a forlorn place, forlorn as nothing but deserted machinery can be; but when the sun goes in, the air is charged with a different feeling. The water is sombre under its brows of cliff, and the trees crowd down to drink, the pump sneers; lonely, green-hued, dark.
Right, that's it. I'm packing my boots …