A trip out to look for a piece of furniture and we choose Leek. Leek is not in Cheshire or Derbyshire but Staffordshire with a real flavour of the midlands. Here there is a possibility of being called “Me duck” or buying Staffordshire oatcakes (readers in the south should think of a Breton crepe) To reach Leek, the only way is by road and that means a choice of two routes from the north. You can use the A523 from Macclesfield or the A53 from Buxton. Each roads has a different character, the A523 is pastoral, is punctuated by speed traps and features Rudyard Lake ,once famous as a sort of Victorian Centreparc and the source of inspiration of the eponymous Kipling’s christian name. The A53 is the best choice with wild great open views , it’s venerable mileposts still preserved and the fascinating shapes of the Roaches rocks decorating the last 4 miles. It also passes through the village of Flash (which claims the title of highest pub in England somehow) and down below, in the wild valleys to the left, lies Panniers Pool at Three Shires Head where the counties referred to above all meet.
Leek itself has a curious and unique sense of place. A town of 20,000 souls, it’s architecture is on the whole well preserved and has a character of it’s own. St Edward Street has almost a Ludlow feel and seems to be re-inventing itself as the capital of Shabby Chic as a new shop selling old and new designer stuff seems to open every week.
We had seen signs for Leek Club Day and preparations for road closures as we arrived but had no idea what this would be. We were soon enlightened as a brass band leading a procession of children , scouts and sunday school banners emerged from a terraced street passing a shop still in the fifties that sold the aforementioned oatackes. It was like being an extra in a Mike Leigh Film with set dressing by Beryl Cook. So the Club day, or Walking around day as it also known, is similar to Manchester Whit walks, a demonstration of faith and community.
After our fruitless furniture hunt, we visited the Pronto Deli on Sheep Market for some excellent coffe and sandwiches, this is another of those Deli’s where you inevitably spend more than you expect and there are queues every time. Leek has a number of interesting looking hostelries serving some interesting looking stuff for the beer drinker. The Cock Inn with it’s resurrected Joules Brewery, Den Engel a Belgian Beer bar and Restaurant, The Wilkes Head serving local Whim ales and another free house on St Edward Street, The Quiet Woman. (They seem to have a thing about this pub name and it’s decapitated lady sign in these parts – there is another one some 10 miles north east at Earl Sterndale.) We were content to cellar shop however – if only there was a train to here from anywhere! One final mention goes to Raymondo’s, tucked away in both Russell Street and the Sixties. It looks like a shoe-in for one of those Restaurant Inspector or Ramsay Nightmares episodes. It’s web site boasts of opening in 1981, when Charles and Diana married, so presumably the straw-wrapped Chianti Bottles now in the window were still there then? I am sure it’s very nice.
It was time to leave Leek , this odd mixture of town and country, home of Arts and Crafts founder William Morris and master of the oche, Eric Bristow. I was reminded of a part of one my favourite travel books by John Hillaby, Walk through Britain, where he describes a night in a pub not too far from here with some Men Of Staffordshire singing:
We come of a race of yeomen bold,
Whose drink is the best of beer;
Our fields feed beasts for the Christmas feast
And you may share our (Staffordshire) cheer.
We marshal our ranks on the grey pit banks
And our lads on the football field,
If the cause be right, we are game to fight,
We never were known to yield.
For this is the song of the Staffordshire men,
In forge, in kiln, in mine.
Our fires shall burn, and our mill-wheels turn
And the Knot shall be our sign.
We stopped at Buxton on the way home, declined the opportunity to pay £1.50 to go into a book fair (look , you want us to buy things – don’t charge us for the privilege), noted that the Buxton Festival was just beginning and played a form of I-spy with some of the marvellous looking characters such events seem to attract. I have never been to the Edinburgh Festival but that must be great fun.