Knutsford in Cheshire is the inspiration for Cranford, the novel that became a hit BBC period drama. Visitors can discover the tale behind the book and also uncover other hidden gems in the area
MANY people may not realise that the inspiration for hit BBC series Cranford came from the picturesque British town of Knutsford.
This was the place that gave us the traditional buildings and unforgettable characters that were watched by almost eight million UK viewers in 2008.
During a walk through the streets you can pass the store Miss Matty's tea shop was based on, see the pub Cranford's characters stayed at and even visit author Elizabeth Gaskell's final resting place. But even if you are not a fan of the novel or the award-winning drama series (screened on PBS in America), there is still plenty to see during a long weekend in this beautiful part of Cheshire.
I first came to the town for work almost seven years ago – and I previously had little knowledge of its delights. But over the years I have discovered the area's hidden gems and brought many relatives and friends of all ages to sight-see, eat, drink and shop.
There are several places to stay in Knutsford – and a few of them even offer some surprises. The Longview Hotel in Manchester Road was once the home of a Victorian merchant. Now it is an independent business with 32 bedrooms that include quaint touches such as home-made biscuits and a hot water bottle. One of the most surprising things about The Longview is its links to the infamous 'battle for Knutsford Heath' during the 1997 General Election. The hotel's cellar bar became the headquarters for BBC war correspondent and Independent candidate Martin Bell when he took on - and beat – serving MP Neil Hamilton with an anti-sleaze campaign.
Another place with a famous former client is the Cottons Hotel and Spa in Manchester Road.
This four-star business was once the setting for David and Victoria Beckham's birthday party for their son Brooklyn. Visitors who are willing to pay for the experience can enjoy luxury rooms, a swimming pool, a sauna and a gym.
After you've found a room for the night, there is plenty to see in Knutsford. The Heritage Centre in King Street offers a tour of the Cranford sights including the author's former home and the scenes that inspired her writing. Visitors can also pay their respects at Mrs Gaskell's grave, which is in the grounds of the 17th century Brook Street Chapel – one of the oldest buildings in Knutsford.
Meanwhile, there is another wonderful sight back at the Heritage Centre itself. The building houses the Knutsford Millennium Tapestry – a suitable example of the town's community spirit and creativity. Eager volunteers will describe in minute detail how 3,000 residents helped to stitch the 53-metre Bayeux Tapestry-style map of the town.
After visiting the Heritage Centre, those with children needn't worry about a lack of activities for little ones – or the young at heart. Nearby Tatton Park, which has an entrance in Knutsford, provides the ideal setting for some fun and games. The estate boasts a working farm where youngsters can feed the animals and learn about agriculture. Meanwhile, families can also visit Tatton's mansion to learn about its former residents – the Egertons. There is also almost 1,000 acres of land for picnics, ball games and dog walking. And green-fingered tourists should definitely take time out to marvel at the estate's gardens, and my personal favourite the Japanese section.
Away from Tatton Park, you may be looking for a little retail therapy. Knutsford can offer a range of independent gift shops and clothing stores, that is if you don't mind paying designer prices. But if you can only afford to window shop, the antiques stores, book sellers and art galleries are different to the usual high street monotony.
Knutsford is famed for its restaurants, so visitors will not go hungry during their stay. There are good value eateries such as Mediterranean specialists Pastiche in Tatton Street. For fans of more continental flavours there is also Indian and Thai cuisine, as well as Loch Fyne's seafood and plenty of gastro pubs to enjoy. Personally, I would sample the delights of Man Zen's Cantonese food – the duck is particularly mouthwatering.
After a few days in Knutsford you may need to venture out a little. Other attractions within an easy drive include the internationally-renowned Jodrell Bank observatory and visitors' centre, the sumptuous stately home of Tabley House and children's favourite Stockley Farm.
Knutsford also offers direct rail links to Manchester and Chester. Drivers can reach both of those places, as well as Liverpool, in under an hour.
But, for me, Knutsford is still one of the jewels of the North West. I'm now looking forward to watching more fictional tales about the town in the Christmas 2009 Cranford specials on the BBC.