famous walk from Manchester to Chester
... with Thomas de Quincy, at the start of the 19th
a man of self-possession, opium sustains and reinforces it,"
so said Thomas de Quincey (1785-1850), that original drug addict
who was to find in later years that the addiction brought nightmare
visions with steadily deteriorating health. But his famous walk
from Manchester to Chester, along what is now the A556, was undertaken
when he was only 17.
In July 1801, the youth who was to become a famous writer, and biographer
of the Lakeland poets, climbed out of a window of Manchester Grammar
School and began his odyssey, his small bundle of possessions containing
a book of Wordsworth's poems. de Quincey, having had enough of school,
had decided to walk to the Lake District and make the acquaintance
of the poet whose works he greatly admired.
It might be thought that the lad should have paid more attention
to the geography lessons at Manchester Grammar School, the Lakes
being to the north and Chester to the south. But Thomas knew what
he was doing. His mother was living in Chester with his sister Mary,
and he wanted to establish a line of communication with Mary before
making his way to Grasmere.
In "The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater", he writes:
"The first town that I reached was Altrincham, colloquially
called Awtrigen. I found myself in the centre of the market place...
fruits and flowers... bonny young women tripping up and down in
He refreshed himself with a late breakfast, for it had been only
6am when he left Manchester. Then he continued southwards, and writes,
"The distance between Manchester and Chester was about 40 miles.
This I planned to walk in two days. I wished to bisect the journey
within two or three miles, and such a bisection was attained in
a clean roadside inn, of the class so commonly found in England.
A kind, motherly lady, easy in circumstances, having no motive for
rapacity, and looking for her livelihood much less to her inn than
to her farm, guaranteed to me a safe and profound nights rest.
On the following morning there remained not quite eighteen miles
between myself and venerable Chester."
His mileage is somewhat hazy. It is 32 miles from Altrincham to
Chester, so, if he stayed the night three miles out of Altrincham
then he had nearly thirty miles to go, not 18. Where did he spend
the night? Presumably it must have been somewhere in the vicinity
Later on his second day he describes how, two hours before reaching
Chester, "I saw held aloft before my eyes that matchless spectacle
an elaborate and pompous sunset hanging over the mountains of North
The place from which he observed this spectacle would obviously
have been the rise of ground just before the village of Kelsall.
Today, the Kelsall bypass, beginning where the old road drifts down
into the village, presents the same superb panorama of the Cheshire
Plain with the Welsh hills beyond.
He spent a second night at an inn before entering Chester the following
morning, but does not say where this was; possibly Kelsall itself.
"I descended into some obscure lane that brought me to the
banks of the river Dee. I was walking along this bank, with no one
else in sight except a woman of middle-age, dressed in rustic fashion,
when suddenly ... an uproar of tumultuous sound rising clamorously
From round the bend of the river came that angry clamour. What was
it? Earthquake? Convulsion of the earth? There came as with the
trampling of cavalry a huge charging block of water, filling the
whole channel and coming down upon us at the rate of forty miles
When the water had passed, so shaken was Thomas by the spectacle
that, abandoning the conventions, he approached the woman and spoke
to her, "despite the fact that I had never been introduced
"It was," she told him, "the Bore." He learned
that the Bore was "an affliction to which only some few rivers
here and there are liable."
Thomas had seen was a phenomenon denied to us now. The great tidal
bore swept daily along the Dee, but since those times the river
has gradually silted up in the estuary, choking the commercial life
out of what was in earlier times the Port of Chester and preventing
the bore from forming. In recompense for the loss of commerce, Chester
has its beautiful and peaceful waterfront, available for leisure
pursuits to be enjoyed by visitors and natives.
Thomas bungled the attempt to contact his sister secretly, and was
found by his uncle who diverted him from the Lakes by persuading
him to undertake a walking tour of Wales on sixpence a day. But
that is another part of the de Quincey story.
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