Saturday, September 19, 2009

Peek in the Past - King Canute and Elizabeth Gaskell

If you’ve been following along so far with my childhood memories from Knutsford, Cheshire, England, you might be interested in some general facts about this ancient place. I didn’t appreciate the history as a child, but am now excited to think I once lived in a town with writing connections.

Knutsford was recorded in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book - a record of the great survey of England completed in 1086, executed for William I of England, or William the Conqueror.

It is said the name Knutsford comes from Cunetesford ("Canute's ford"). King Canute, known as Canute the Great, or Cnut/Knut in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, was a Viking king of England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. History says he thought he could make the sea obey his command, but when he tried telling the tide to go out, it didn't. Hmm!

The novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 to 1865), was brought up by her aunt in Knutsford. “Mrs Gaskell's literary output was varied, and included not only numerous short stories, tales of mystery, murder and the supernatural, but also the anecdotal and amusing Cranford, for which she is perhaps best known; Mary Barton, which deals with unemployment, drug addiction and poverty; Ruth, the story of an unmarried mother; and the novel North and South, set in Manchester.” From the website, Joan’s Jotting.

In 2007, Living TV's Most Haunted filmed two programs at Tatton Park on the outskirts of the town. Following that, a four-day Halloween special based at Tatton Park was also recorded. My family used to visit that park on a regular basis. There’s a beautiful old mansion called Tatton Hall, and rambling grounds surrounded by idyllic green fields. English living as the rich once lived.

There’s also a manor house called Tatton Old Hall (dating from medieval times), a farm, and a deer park of a thousand acres. Hundreds of annual events are held here. The estate is now owned by the National Trust.

Together with my parents, my brother, sister and I looked forward to Royal May Day (an annual event dating back to 1864) when we walked to town and joined the crowds lining the streets. This custom, with its Maypole dancing, procession, and crowning of the Queen, still continues today, recreating the customs upon which it is based, including unique traditions such as 'sanding' the streets, whereby the streets are decorated with colored sands in patterns and pictures.

Tradition from as early as the 1600s says that King Canute, while fording the River Lily, threw sand from his shoes into the path of a bride and groom, wishing as many children as the grains of sand at their feet. In 1832, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal, "We arrived at Knutsford, where we were most civilly received, the streets being sanded in shapes, which is peculiar to this town."

We also saved our pennies for the huge funfair held on “The Heath” during the May Day weekend. I can still smell fairground fumes when I think of it, and almost taste the clouds of pink candyfloss, and hear that raucous hurdy-gurdy music. We stayed all day and tried every ride. I even rode back there one night on my bike, much to the alarm of my parents when they found out. The place was magnetic, lit up against the dark sky. The sights, sounds, and smells drew me in and held me tight, even with no money to spend. Looking back, I wonder how I avoided danger. No wonder Mum and Dad were upset.

So if you’re heading on vacation to England and want somewhere different to visit, go to Knutsford and enjoy some quaint history many sightseers miss.

Anne Bradshaw


King of New York Hacks said...

Next time I'm there, I will visit. King Canute, seems like I would have been friends with him. ;-)

JoAnn Arnold said...

Loved your post, Anne, Fun reading. I've been to England once and that was with the Heritage Choir so I didn't get to see alot of the country cause we were always rehearsing or singing. but I did buy a skirt in Scotland, inbetween rehearsal and performance

Tristi Pinkston said...

I've been watching movies made from the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, and love them!

Anne Bradshaw said...

Thanks for your comments. They help me keep going :-)