On sunny weekends throughout my childhood, my father, ever eager to escape work for a few hours, would drive our family to the nearby village of Alderley Edge to go walking. Set in the picturesque countryside of north Cheshire, the village lies at the base of a thickly wooded sandstone escarpment of the same name that rises over the large, flat Cheshire plain, a mainly rural area that forms the border between England’s West Midlands and its industrial North. The village was once an agricultural settlement, its major industries dairy farming and copper, and a network of tunnels still crisscross deep inside the scarp. From the Edge’s peak, Cheshire stretches out below into a patchwork quilt of colors and tones, the shimmering gold wheat fields and the deep rich greens of pastureland running on for miles until the hills of north Wales emerge on the horizon. To the north and east, hanging over the plain, rise the Pennine Hills, a far bleaker landscape of mountain and dale that stretches for hundreds of miles through northern England like a spine in a torso.
Despite its postcard beauty, my abiding memory of these trips is darkness. The path up to the Edge winds its way through the dense woodland, the sun barely breaking through the cracks in the foliage. Along the way are dozens of hollows and holes. Some are small crevices from the twisting of roots up through the soil, others the remnants of long-gone industry. These have a subterranean allure to a child: perfect sites for exploration into their darkest reaches. I don’t remember my father being with us as we walked, at least not for long. A few hundred yards in, he’d retreat to the nearest pub, where we’d find him still hours later.
It is because of these early visits to the landscape of north Cheshire that I first became interested in the novelist Alan Garner. In a career that has stretched for over sixty years, and that includes ten novels along with poems, screenplays, libretti, a memoir and several collections of folktales, Garner has charted the land around Alderley Edge with a singular intensity. Yet what is most striking about Garner’s vision of Cheshire, particularly to those who grew up locally, is how different it is from the standard version of the county in the British popular consciousness. In Garner’s work, one discovers a new depth to the landscape, a numinous quality that belies its scenic beauty.
Alan Garner was born in his grandmother’s front room in the small town of Congleton, Cheshire, at 9:30 p.m. on October 17, 1934. His father, Colin Garner, was a painter and decorator whose family can trace their descendants in the area back to the sixteenth century. His mother, Marjorie, was a tailor from a gifted if unstable family—“talented cranks,” Garner would call them in his 1997 collection of essays, The Voice That Thunders—that included the inventor of the elastic-sided boot. This particular combination—both academically precocious and firmly rooted in the soil of the rural English working class—would define the rest of Garner’s life.
Garner spent much of his childhood in and out of hospital with a series of major illnesses, leaving him with little time for formal education. What he did see of school he hated; while there he was both encouraged for his intelligence and punished for speaking the local dialect. Refuge would come at the age of eleven when Garner was awarded a scholarship to attend Manchester Grammar School, one of the country’s most prestigious secondary institutions, a move he experienced as both a fulfillment of his academic potential and a tearing, even a violent one, from the culture and lifeworld of his family. Shortly after news of his scholarship broke, a friend’s mother emerged from her house while he played with the other local children and shouted to him: “Well, Alan… you won’t want to speak to us anymore.” In that moment, he says, he “felt something go and not come back.” Later, after two years of national service spent in the Royal Artillery, he won a place to study Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1953. He would leave before he completed his degree. During his military service he experienced what he would later describe as a “disturbance”—perhaps one of the many depressive episodes that he has suffered during his life—that made him question his future, and on leaving Oxford he returned to Cheshire, where he began to write. In 1957 he bought a fifteenth-century house called Toad Hall for 510 pounds, where he has lived, and written, ever since.
Garner’s first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), were fantasy novels written for children, although both ran somewhat askew of the Tolkien-inflected expectations of the genre. Since then, his work has become increasingly difficult to categorize. It is densely philosophical, occasionally fantastical, and written in a spare, unadorned and finely crafted prose smattered with the regional dialect of his home county (“mithering,” “baggin,” “bazzil-arsed”). His protagonists are often children, even in his later work for adults, and there is a sense of wonder and curiosity rare in literary fiction.
While exhibiting a subterranean influence on some of the U.K.’s most well-known writers (Neil Gaiman described him as a “national treasure,” and a 2016 collection of essays on his work contained tributes from Philip Pullman, Ali Smith, Neel Mukherjee, Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald, among others), there is still the sense of Garner as a writer out of time, a novelist who confounds his readers’ expectations. Often read as a children’s author, a label he stridently rejects, it was only when his most recent novel, Treacle Walker, was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize that he began to receive wider critical recognition as a writer for adults.
That novel, Garner’s tenth, follows Joe, a young boy with a lazy eye who lives alone and marks time by the passing of “Noony,” the midday train, as it whistles past his house. One day, Treacle Walker, a rag-and-bone man who can “heal all things; save jealousy,” appears and offers Joe a small white jar and a stone marked with a horse. Soon, Joe discovers that his bad eye is a result of the “glamourie,” a gift that enables him to see beyond time itself. While this may sound like the premise for a fairly conventional fantasy novel, in it the preoccupations of a lifetime rise to the surface: a sensitive, lonely child; a series of talismanic objects; the magical power of the landscape; and the tightly wound, somewhat murky interplay between myth and history. And it’s no mistake that Cheshire, once again, is the crucible in which it is forged.
Cheshire, geographically the southernmost county in England’s North, is as close to the ur-English countryside as you are likely to find beyond the home counties of the English South. While England has long been an urban and industrial nation, the ideology of Englishness, its very ideal, at least since the late nineteenth century, has been a rural one. “What England means to me,” said Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in his famous speech from 1924, is “wild anemones in the woods in April, the last load at night of hay being drawn down a lane as the twilight comes on … and above all, most subtle, most penetrating and most moving, the smell of wood smoke coming up in an autumn evening.” It is the small village, with its village green and thatched cottages, that most captured this rural Englishness. In Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, a semi-fictionalized account of a rural Suffolk community, this village is an idealized one of “tall old church on the hillside, a pub selling the local brew, a pretty stream, a football pitch, a handsome square vicarage with a cedar of Lebanon shading it, a school with jars of tadpoles in the window, three shops with doorbells, a Tudor mansion, half a dozen farms and a lot of quaint cottages.” Here is “the kind of place,” writes the historian Raphael Samuel, “in which an Englishman has always felt it his right and duty to live.” But this landscape is decidedly not a working one. The hay is taken in, but by whom is not clear. There is little room for the laborer except perhaps as the happy village yokel. This is a place of retreat, not toil, a bucolic haven beyond the city walls.
Alderley Edge is both an encroachment on this ideology of Englishness and its very fulfillment. The village is known both locally and nationally as the playground of soccer players and real-estate agents, the kind of crassly new-moneyed elite who fill the local villages with their flashy sports cars and designer boutiques. The area surrounding it is one of the wealthiest in England outside of the South East, and the village was the setting for The Real Housewives of Cheshire, the first British installment in the reality TV franchise. (In 2008, to prevent his home from “falling into the hands of some footballer’s wife, who might destroy ten thousand years of heritage for the sake of building a swimming pool and a tennis court,” he said at the time, Garner put his house into a trust, precluding its sale.) The village has long been a rural retreat for those with swollen pension pots and bulging investment portfolios. What has brought these wealthy residents to the area since the early years of the twentieth century is the landscape’s crisp green beauty as well as its proximity to the booming metropoles of Manchester and Liverpool. London is only few hours’ travel to the south via train.
Garner’s Edge, though, could not be more different.
In Red Shift, his fifth novel, published in 1973, we can see Garner’s most vivid and concentrated reflection on the power of landscape to retain and transmit a dark historical power over its inhabitants. The product of six years’ intensive research and writing and just over a hundred and fifty pages, it is a small-scale epic, a minutely constructed masterpiece of three loosely connected, interwoven narratives.
The setting is Mow Cop, a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Cheshire plain. In the first, Tom, a bookish and troubled boy, and his girlfriend Jan, who has recently moved to London to become a nurse, are teenagers in the present day struggling to maintain their relationship. On her visits back north, the two decide to meet at the train station in the nearby town of Crewe—my own hometown and a slightly shabby former hub of the railway industry that has long since experienced the brutalizing effects of deindustrialization—rather than in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Tom’s home, a caravan he shares with his mother and his emotionally repressed and heavy-drinking military father. The second narrative is set in the seventeenth century, and centers on Thomas Rowley and his wife Margery who live in the village of Barthomley, near Mow Cop’s summit, and the historical siege and massacre of local villagers by Royalist troops recently returned from Ireland. The third is in the second century as a group of Roman soldiers, after assaulting a local village and killing all of its inhabitants bar one, attempt to hide out in the savage surroundings of Celtic Cheshire.
In one scene, having first clambered over the railway lines of industrial Crewe and followed a path that winds its way up through the Cheshire countryside, Tom and Jan arrive at Barthomley. With its thatched inn and scattered cottages surrounding an old stone church, the village is idyllic. This is classic England: “A Come to Britain poster,” according to Tom. Yet such an idyll hides more stark, elemental forces. After wandering into the church, Saint Bertoline’s, to eat, the teenagers are confronted by the local vicar, who presumes that they have been using the empty church for sex.
That same building was also the scene of the massacres whose trauma pulses through the centuries, fracturing Tom and Jan’s present. It was also close to the site where both Thomas and later Tom rediscover the votive axe head left by one of the Roman legionnaires, an object that, like the land from which it was hewn, carries with it a terrible, violent power that draws the three temporalities together as if by force of gravity. Both quotidian and numinous, the land of Cheshire, Garner reminds us, is not only the site of thousands of years of physical toil—of life in its most concrete way—but is drenched with myth and violence. This is a land that holds deep wounds. A land, Garner has written, “where beauty and terror had been as opposite sides of the same coin.”
Perhaps what Tom says of Crewe, half-mockingly, could stand in for Garner’s work as a whole. “You know what Crewe is?” he asks. “Ultimate reality … Each of these shops is full of every aspect of one part of existence.” His vision of the country, of the landscape of north Cheshire, is both picturesque and infernal, pastoral and industrial, deeply particular and yet universal. “You think you walk on grass,” he once told an interviewer, “but we walk on layers of history—ancient sites, old graves, all the wondrous rubble of the past.” In his earlier work, these subterranean forces were the standard fantasy fare of witches and wizards, slumbering knights and evil goblins. By Red Shift, however, the force is history itself.
As much prose poem as novel, its style is often brutally spare, as when Tom and Jan meet for the first time after Jan’s departure for London.
“It was the waiting.”
They stood on the platform. A line of trolleys rattled by, and people moved, but Tom and Jan held each other invisible.
“Memory: hair in my face.”
“It was waiting.”
They had to step back to be closer.
“Let me look at you,” said Tom.
“You’re too far away.”
They came together again.
“Are your eyes shut?”
“Funny. I shut my eyes to be with you when I’m not, and when I am—”
“You shut them!”
They giggled, and went the length of Crewe station, skipping, running, breaking to rejoin, under the glass, the dark bridge, and into the daylight to the platform’s tip, and back again. The platform made a headland above the woven lines, and at the end, away from passengers, was an old bench. Tom and Jan sat there in the sunlight and wind and watched the junction.
Unlike his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, with their almost cartographical obsession with the topography of the Edge, thick with descriptions of woodland and lakes, forests and caves, Red Shift is structured almost like a screenplay. Garner constructs his prose like a stone, worked repeatedly, knapped until it forms the clean, sharp edge of a blade, and the narrative proceeds via taut dialogue and rapid changes of scene rather than concentrated description. And yet the landscape is alive, its sparseness reflecting the bleak, windswept crag of the Cop, as well the emotional turmoil of Tom and Jan.
Garner has few obvious contemporaries in English writing. His closest kin is perhaps the poet Geoffrey Hill, whose cycle of prose poems, Mercian Hymns, like Red Shift, uses three overlapping temporalities to probe the shifting meanings of myth, landscape and historical memory. There are echoes, too, of Russell Hoban, whose post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is equally attentive to the shape and sound of language. That novel is written in an imagined-future corruption of a dialect from the English county of Kent, and like many of Garner’s books the present is permeated with fractured myths and images forged from a scattered and corrupted past.
It is little surprise, then, that Garner has said that he rarely reads novels, and his occasional remarks on the state of contemporary writing have often been scathing. During a lecture at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1996, he set himself explicitly against what he called a “metropolitan intellectualism.” This is a culture that
churns out canonical prose through writers who seem unable to allow new concepts or to integrate the diversity of our language; who draw on the library, ignorant of the land; on the head, bereft of the heart; making of fair speech mere rustic conversation; so that I am led to ask: have we become so lazy that we have lost the will to read our own language, except at its most anodyne, and, from that reading, too lazy to create? For true reading is creativity: the willingness to look into the open hand of the writer and to see what may, or may not, be there.
If it appears that here Garner creates a false dualism between a cosmopolitan intellectualism and a form of rustic innocence, then that is decidedly not the case. As Garner recognizes, and as his own family attests, the world of the cloistered academic may have a different focus than the farmer or the stonemason but is no more knowledgeable for that. Nor is there simple innocence to be found in the fields of England. Yet such sentiments have led some critics, notably Jacqueline Rose, to read Garner as little more than a modern Romantic. For Rose, Garner’s vision of childhood is one of an untouched state of nature, a time before the corruption of a dead and decaying culture. On the child therefore lies “the responsibility for saving humankind from the degeneracy of modern society.” To read him this way is, however, to expect easy answers from this most difficult of writers. Modern society may be degenerated, but nature is no less corrupt. There is no escape from history, he reminds us. The task is not to hark back to a lost golden age, or to denigrate a metropolitan intellectualism by comparison with a purer, rustic way of life, represented by the child, but to hold together the broken pieces, however difficult that may be.
This is a task that he comes closest to accomplishing in The Stone Book Quartet. Published in full six years after Red Shift, the book is a collection of four interlinked stories, each based on one of Garner’s ancestors, all of whom lived within the same square mile in north Cheshire. These are tales he picked up throughout his life, while listening to his relatives talk, and together they form a kind of compressed family history. Perhaps that is why, for the first time, the language of his Cheshire upbringing and that of his education as a writer are so delicately balanced. Against the sharp, staccato rhythm of Red Shift, the prose is rounded, rhythmic and expressive. It is the language of Cheshire, perfectly caught.
If Garner’s experience of Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University was alienating, divorcing him from the culture of his family and his background in the rural English working class, it is in this book more than any other that he sought to overcome that distance. The stories range from the stonemason Robert, Garner’s great-great-grandfather, and his daughter Mary, through to Joseph, Mary’s illegitimate son, a blacksmith and Garner’s own grandfather.
The final story in the book, “Tom Fobble’s Day,” brings the sequence up to 1941, and is set on a snowy day in which Joseph makes a sledge for his young grandson, a stand-in for Garner himself. Like in Red Shift, objects, as well as the land and people that form them, take on a powerful cultural and personal significance. As the boy, William, runs home, dragging his sledge behind him and with the horseshoes his grandfather gave him, objects that he once made as the village smith, clanging in his pocket, their weight is a physical representation of family and community. “The line did hold,” writes Garner. “Through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill and all that he owned, he sledged sledged sledged for the black and glittering night and the sky flying on fire and the expectation of snow.”
Unlike the deep pessimism of his earlier work, or the bleak historical vision of Red Shift, there is a warmth here too. Its comedy is not bitter but lighthearted; its themes home and community, not jealousy and isolation. Rather than puncturing one another, as in the shifting temporalities of Red Shift, the stories in The Stone Book Quartet are layered like the sedimented history of the land itself. His use of the local Cheshire dialect has changed too. Where in Red Shift Garner uses dialect to signify alienation—Tom’s from the world of his parents, the rather clumsy attempts of the Roman legion to “go native”—here, dialect presents us with characters who are integrated into their home. (“You daft ha’porth!” Joseph playfully chides Uncle Charlie in the third story, “The Aimer Gate.” “You lommering, gawming, kay-pawed gowf!”) Taken together the book, in the words of the poet and folklorist Neil Philip, is “an act of acceptance.”
“In this particular place,” Garner writes in his autobiographical essay “The Edge of the Ceiling,” referring to his choice to move back to Alderley Edge after his experience at Oxford, “I find a universality that enables me to write.” More than that, it enabled him to live. “It was not imperative that I should be born in Cheshire,” he said, “but it was imperative that I should know my place. That can be achieved only by inheriting one’s childhood landscape, and by growing in it to maturity. It is a subtle matter of owning and of being owned.” It is fitting, then, that I discovered Garner’s work only after I had left the county and had begun to feel the loss of home acutely. My family has deep roots in the soil of Cheshire. Like Garner, I, too, am a child of the rural working class who sought escape in books, a process experienced as both fulfillment and, later, a wrenching from my family and its structures of support. Yet unlike Garner, I am yet to return, having spent much of my twenties trying to disavow my origins: to live in the library, ignorant of the land.
Garner’s writing over the past sixty years has been an attempt to bridge the gap between the two, to hold the fractured pieces of modernity together, whether via myth or via a recognition of the intense historical force present within the land. In my own recent attempts to reconsider the landscape of my childhood, I’ve turned often to Garner’s powerful, almost uncanny sense of place and the dense thicket of ties that bind us to the land. If his work has not quite given me the tools to overcome my separation, it has at least shown me how to recognize it. Each of us is separated from our origins, whether we realize it or not. The task of overcoming this distance is difficult, perhaps impossible, but no less urgent for that. As Garner writes, “I need Manchester Grammar School just as much as I need Alderley Edge. But I do need them both.”