A famous walk from Manchester to Chester
... with Thomas de Quincy, at the start of the 19th century

"WINE robs 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 coquettish bonnets."

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 night’s 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 of Mere.

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 Wales."

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 ahead.

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 an hour."

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 to her."

"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.