We had almost stopped there on our way to Wales. The suggestion had been made, but for some reason I had been reluctant to turn aside from our road west, for what might be no more than a walk in the woods. Not that we ever expected it to be that simple, but the mind goes its own way when looking for excuses. Especially when the inner voice is silently and inexplicably putting its foot down.
Consciousness dons blinkers, failing to see things that should be obvious, but which cannot become clear until the story has unravelled. It was as if some guiding spark of intent was aware of a chain of events spanning time, a sequence that had already begun, but had not yet reached a point where we could be allowed to see. And if that sounds confusing to read, imagine what it feels like to be caught up in such a current.
The return journey, however, was different. We were going to stop at Alderley Edge, regardless of any vague interdiction.I had first heard of the Edge as a child when I read Alan Garner’s book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner set his book within the landscape he knew and loved and I had fond memories of the story; memories which proved to bear little resemblance to the book when I re-read it. There was much we wanted to see and explore, and quite apart from anything else, we knew we could count on the Wizard to provide refreshments… travellers have been doing so for five hundred years.
It would be pleasant to sit in the stone-floored room beneath blackened beams and recall the tale of the Wizard of Alderley Edge. The story goes that a farmer from Mobberley was taking a milk-white horse to sell at the market in Macclesfield one day. Passing the place known as Thieves Hole, an old man in long, flowing robes appeared as if from nowhere.
He offered to buy the farmer’s horse, but the farmer refused, expecting a good price at market for the milk-white beauty. The old man told him to go to market, but warned him he would not sell the horse… and if his words were true, the farmer would meet him again upon his return. The farmer laughed and rode on… yet no buyer could he find for the horse.
Upon his return, the old man was waiting. In silence he led the farmer beyond Golden Stone and Stormy Point to a place where tall rocks stood sentinel. Touching the rocks with his staff, a doorway opened, flanked by great iron gates, leading deep into the earth. The Wizard commanded the frightened farmer to follow him and see a sight that no mortal man had seen.
Through cavern after cavern they walked and in each cave slept armoured knights and their milk-white steeds. In the central cave, great piles of treasure…gold and glittering jewels…were piled high and from these the farmer was told to take all he could carry as the price for his horse. For all the knights had their steeds except one…and now their number would be complete.
The Wizard spoke again, prophesying that a time would come, when ‘George the son of George’ sat on the throne of the realm, when all warriors would rise and decide the fate of nations in a great battle on he plains. He then bade the farmer farewell and sent him safely on his way…. and no man has since seen the Iron Gates of Alderley Edge.
But, before we visited the Wizard Inn, we needed to explore a little of the Edge for ourselves. On this occasion we would not go too far as the day was already drawing to a close. The woods of the Edge have a reputation for strangeness and you could feel the life and presence of the place in the dancing trees and deep shadows.
Within a few moments of entering the woods we passed the first small cave, little more than a shallow shelter. Minutes later, we found ourselves at the mouth of another…and this one was a tunnel that led straight into the darkness.
It was, as my companion said, as if we had been invited into the earth. First I had accidentally stumbled across a cave high in the hills. Then we had been led deep underground in prehistoric mines. Next we had sheltered from the sun in an ancient tomb… and now the earth opened its doors and asked us in.
We did not refuse, and walked from light into darkness with a trust that defied common sense. There is a vast difference between being an interloper and being a welcomed guest. Walking back from darkness, rebirthed into the soft green light, was an unconscious act of magic.
We continued exploring, watched quietly by the denizens of the wood. Squirrels busied themselves at our feet, a rabbit grazed without concern, a black winged shadow seemed to lead us on towards a fenced enclosure… and the earth opened once again.
This time, in spite of the invitation, the padlocks and chains of man prevented us from exploring the strange rocks and scars that lead deep within the earth, into tunnels and caverns first carved by the earth itself then worked, thousands of year sago, by our ancestors. Two things were certain… we did not have enough time to explore before dark… and we were really going to have to return…