At Love Goostrey we like to get to know the people of our local area. We were thrilled then that the globally-respected author Alan Garner, described by Philip Pullman as “the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien” very graciously agreed to answer our questions.
You’ve lived in this area of Cheshire all your life – you’ve talked before about being reluctant to stray. Do you find travelling away difficult or simply unappealing? Do you ever get tired of the area? How does it make you feel about taking holidays?
I’ve travelled far and enjoyed the experience of many languages and cultures. But I have not enjoyed the travelling, especially the stress of crowds, cities, airports and railway stations. I never tire of Blackden, which holds everything I could wish. As for holidays, the last one I had was with my parents in 1950, in Colwyn Bay, and I hated it.
I remember reading that when you first saw Toad Hall, you said that you instantly knew it was the only place you could live – why did it have such a immediate impact on you?
The moment I saw Toad Hall, through chance,at 19.20 on Good Friday, 19th April 1957, I knew I had to live here. I can’t explain why. All I can add is that I was right.The Medicine House was moved from Wrinehill, Staffordshire,to save it from demolition, and re-erected in Blackden in 1970. It is now the home of The Blackden Trust.
You’re an expert in British folklore – how would you characterise our national folk stories compared to other nations? Do ours tend to be bloodier? Happier?More cynical?
I don’t see myself as an expert in anything. The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.
I can’t work to order. “Holly from the Bongs”, which I consider to be as good as anything I’ve written, and certainly the most satisfactory, came, like everything else, in a flash. That was 1965. The whole experience was a joy.
Do you have any quirks that are essential to your writing process?
When an idea strikes, it arrives unbidden. I research that idea until there’s nothing left to find, then soak and wait for the book to emerge, like developing a photograph, and then I write down what I see and hear, without any conscious planning. The shortest time for this process has been two years, the longest, twelve. At the moment, with the next novel, I’m twenty months into the soaking.
Philip Pullman said that any country except Britain would have named streets after you. Love Goostrey, sadly, has no power to name streets after you but we can campaign to name a footpath or stretch of pavement in the area after you – which one would you like and why?
I would rather be remembered as a writer than by a footpath. It would embarrass meto have my name imposed on the landscape.
Our thanks to Alan and please take a look at the Blackden Trust organisation page for all of their upcoming events and details of opening times.
Saturday 11th March 2017, 3pm: Alan Garner is to introduce a talk by Professor John Prag (Honorary Professor at Manchester Museum) “The Story of Alderley; Life on the Edge ” at Terra Nova School. Tickets £10…..
‘In 1953 the schoolboy Alan Garner rediscovered a wooden shovel originally found in the Alderley copper mines in 1875. In 1991 he presented it to the Manchester Museum in the University of Manchester: this – and the discovery of a hoard of over 500 Roamn coins – inspired the creation of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project, a multi-disciplinary research programme of the Museum and the National Trust, who own most of the Edge, that aimed to study the entire history of Alderley, from geology to entomology, mining to oral history. No other village has enjoyed such a comprehensive study of its story.’
Children’s author Alan Garner and his wife Griselda have lived at Toad Hall, a medieval house in Cheshire, for over fifty years. Together, they have saved it from decay and dereliction and restored it to its former glory with very little modernisations. They have been shortlisted for an Angel Award by Historic England for their outstanding contribution to heritage in the UK.
I have lived here for over fifty years, but Alan has been here for nearly sixty.
In 1957 he was looking for a place of his own. It had to be somewhere isolated, landlocked. He needed a place where he could discover whether he was a writer. His family have lived on the same square mile of Alderley, in Cheshire, since at least 1592. He wanted to stay close to those roots, so he limited his search to a five mile radius of his parents’ home.
He was two miles outside his limit when he saw this: A torn piece of hardboard was lodged in the hedge. On it was daubed in whitewash: 17th. CENTURY COTTAGE FOR SALE. I pushed my bicycle down the overgrown path, across the brook and up the field. The line of the roof appeared and, with each step, the house stood up from the land. This was no seventeenth century cottage. t was a timber-frame medieval hall that had been divided into two cottages. One was for sale. I lifted the doorknocker at 7.20. p.m. on 19th. April 1957. Good Friday. The price was £510, and I had 8s. 3d. I rode back to Alderley. “And what’s up with you, then?” said my father. “I’ve seen the only place I can live.” “And where’s that'” “Blackden.” My father pursed his lips. “That’s a way. Is it for renting?” “Buying.” “How much?” “£510.” “How much have you got?” “Eight and thruppence.” My father put on his cap and left. He was back within the hour. “How much did you say?” “£510.” “You’ve got it.” He then revealed that since my birth he had been paying a penny a week for me to be a member of The Independent Order of Oddfellows. And he knew that the local Lodge Secretary would be propping up the bar at the Union Club. As my father told it, the conversation went as follows. “Our Alan needs £510 pounds for a house.” “Then he’d best have it. And I’ll have a pint of bitter.” Alan was 21 with a 100% mortgage, and no prospects; owner of an acre of garden and part of a semi-derelict house with no electricity, no running water and no drains.
Alan was right; it is the only place he can live. He is a writer whose novels are permeated by a deep sense of place. But he is also a historian, an archaeologist and champion of the heritage of Cheshire. His interaction with his acre of land has been profound.
As for me, I am the jack-of-all-trades. I’m the gardener that finds the pottery sherds and the flints and the slag, which, when identified by the experts that come here, provide the evidence that this acre has been occupied since the Mesolithic.
For 10,000 years people have found here a good place. It was a sacred site over millennia. The house stands on a prehistoric burial mound, on the edge of which we found a Bronze Age cremation, radio-carbon dated to around 1,800 BC. This site is still yielding its secrets. And with the excitement of each new discovery comes a greater obligation to care for what is here and protect it for the future. By 1968 Alan had written three novels: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor; all set within twelve miles of his home. He had bought the other cottage for £110 and the house became known as Toad Hall, not due to any association withThe Wind in the Willows, but because in Cheshire dialect ‘the old’ sounds like ‘toad’. We had electricity, two electric typewriters and a photocopier, but still no drains. The children were growing up. I was desperate for a flush lavatory, but we had no predictable income, and certainly no money for the luxury of a septic tank.
Then Granada Television commissioned Alan to adapt his fourth novel, The Owl Service which draws on the Welsh legend of Math ap Mathonwy, and is set in Wales, not Cheshire, as an eight part television series. This windfall was enough to cover the costs of extending Toad Hall and putting in a septic tank.
We knew how important Toad Hall was and how sensitive any extension would have to be. In Michael Peach we found the right architect. He said we should apply the traditional method of extending a timber building by recycling parts of other buildings. A Grade II listed building eighteen miles away was about to be demolished, he told us; we could use some of that. But the dilapidated house was so beautiful we could not be party to its destruction. So with not enough money to move the two rooms we needed, we took all ten. We dismantled, repaired and rebuilt the Old Medicine House in the garden.
The cost of restoration nearly cost us everything. Cheshire County Council demanded repayment of a loan that they had given us having said they would commute it to a grant. When Patsy Roynon, a school friend of mine, who loved this place and believed in its importance, heard of the threat, she offered to buy a share of the building. Its heritage was secured by the philanthropy of somebody who cared about its future. No public body ever gave us a restoration grant.
In 2004, with Patsy, we founded The Blackden Trust to protect this ancient site. We are the guardians and interpreters of a place that is nurturing us for our lifetimes. In order to protect its future it must be shared with people who respond to its atmosphere. Alan’s need for isolation has yielded to the aims of the Trust. Visitors now come to engage with their heritage at educational workshops and conducted tours and through the research carried out here on the archaeology and history of the area. Our reward is the commitment of the visitors and scholars and volunteers who engage with this very special place. Over the last fifty-nine years, the heritage here has been protected, not by any action of the State, but by the philanthropy of individuals.
Alan and Griselda Garner Daily Telegraph 7th Oct 2016. See the full list of Heritage Angels here: Shortlist 2016