By Elise Boothroyd
On the face of it, Congleton is a small, little-known and generally unremarkable town in Cheshire, north-west England — by no means an obvious tourist destination. However, it is this lack of ostentation that makes Congleton the ideal location for anyone looking for a quiet weekend exploring unspoilt countryside or the authentic remnants of the region’s industrial past. Given its proximity to, and easy transport links with, a variety of cities and larger attractions, the town also serves as a convenient, peaceful base to return to after a fun-filled day out.
Congleton [is] the ideal location for anyone looking for a quiet weekend exploring unspoilt countryside or the authentic remnants of the region’s industrial past
Despite Congleton’s small size, it has played host to a number of high-profile events over the years, so it’s certainly worth investigating what’s going on locally at the time of your visit. In late 2016, cycling enthusiasts had the opportunity to meet Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish as the Tour of Britain made its way through the town centre, and — only a couple of weeks ago — well-wishing residents welcomed Prince Charles and Camilla as part of their tour of Cheshire. In addition, this year, visitors to the town will be able to enjoy the Congleton Unplugged music festival in March and Congleton Food and Drink Festival in June, each free of charge. Day-to-day, Congleton boasts a Victorian park five minutes’ away from the centre, its very own theatre and a charming museum celebrating local history.
The best way to get a real taste of Congleton’s past is simply to take a stroll around the town. A number of imposing nineteenth-century mills are still in evidence, which will be of particular interest to history buffs. These mills produced silk until around 1860, when a rise in foreign imports undermined the industry in England. Henceforth, the buildings were used instead for the practice of fustian cutting, which compelled workers (including members of my family) to walk thirty miles daily to prepare fabric that would later be turned into luxury velvet. Additionally, even the least observant visitors to Congleton will notice an abundance of bears all over the town, in the form of sculptures, statues, signs, bus artwork and in the names of eateries, pubs and clubs. This harks back to an often-recited local legend, ‘Congleton rare, Congleton rare, sold the town Bible to buy a new bear’, referring to the town’s decision in the 1660s to use funds saved for a new Bible to purchase a bear for the practice of bear-baiting. This somewhat controversial act has given the Congleton its alternative and much-loved name – Beartown.
The best way to get a real taste of Congleton’s past is simply to take a stroll around the town
Even if industrial history – or bears – are not your thing, you will certainly be able to appreciate the idyllic natural scenery surrounding the town centre. Congleton nests below a prominent hill named The Cloud (not the meteorological feature, although given the north west’s high quantity of rainfall you would be forgiven for thinking this), which offers a family-friendly yet satisfying walk with the ultimate reward of incredible panoramic views over the Cheshire Plain, the Peak District, Staffordshire, Manchester and even the Welsh mountains. Piercing through this endless green landscape you will also spot the prominent white dish of the Lovell Telescope, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world, situated at Jodrell Bank Observatory. If this particular hike sounds like too much exertion, there are plenty of flat but equally beautiful alternatives. Macclesfield Canal, which originally opened in 1831 to transport coal, cotton and grain, runs through the town and is now popular with local walkers, cyclists, fishermen, canal boaters and, of course, ducks.
Congleton’s best asset is certainly its position. While the small town centre itself does not offer much in the way of shopping, nightlife or entertainment, visitors are only half an hour’s train ride away from Manchester, offering all the amenities you would expect from the UK’s third largest city. Those looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city will be glad to know that Congleton also lies just to the west of the Peak District National Park. Aside from providing countless opportunities for photography, walking and outdoor activities, this area also encompasses a number of popular visitor attractions. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring of these is Chatsworth House, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The country estate is particularly renowned for its extensive gardens, award-winning farm shop and elaborate Christmas decorations, and served both as Austen’s inspiration for Mr Darcy’s home in Pride and Prejudice and as a filming location for Joe Wright’s adaptation of the book in 2005. Adrenaline junkies and reluctant riders alike are also sure to enjoy the themed wonders of Alton Towers Resort, mysteriously situated beneath the tree line amid spectacular Staffordshire countryside.
Clearly, Congleton has more to offer than first meets the eye. Whether you wish to explore the local history and scenery of a new area, or simply require somewhere welcoming to stay as you enjoy the attractions of the wider region, this small northern town may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Photographs: Phil Boothroyd