During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a series in which we celebrate where we’re from.
Frondam. Fordsam. Frogjam. The name of my hometown gets mangled a lot. And you know what? Fair enough. None of those remixes are any less awkward than Frodsham.
When I moved away 11 years ago it was tricky telling anyone where Frodsham was. It helped that Daniel Craig – who used to toddle about the Ring O’ Bells pub as a child, down the road from my parents’ house – and Gary Barlow were local boys done ludicrously (and, in Barlow’s case, tax-efficiently) good.
Ultimately though, it was a leafy, semi-rural, very white, broadly middle-class market town with a weird name, easy access to the M56 and far more famous and interesting neighbours. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Cheshire, but: welcome to Cheshire.
It didn’t have an industry, like St Helens, or a sitcom, like Runcorn. It had Bob “Spit the Dog” Carolgees’ candle shop, and the first Welshman to climb Everest, and the man who introduced beekeeping to New Zealand. These are not totems to build a vibe around.
The closest thing we had to a local identity was as “wools”: a Scouse jab at anyone from outside of purple wheelie bin territory. It’s not as bad as being a Manc, but it’s on the way there.
The only thing that really marked Frodsham out was the guy who left his job in Pizza Pan to fight Gaddafi in 2011 and, as far as I can tell, the high school I went to being the only one that’s ever closed early because it was “too windy”.
So in the end I just started saying “near Liverpool”, snatching at some of the city’s reflected glamour. We don’t sound Scouse, and it took about an hour to get there via two trains or three buses, but it is at least literally true.
If you go down to Churchfields, a little sliver of park by the 11th century St Laurence’s church, and look across the marshes towards the Mersey and the silhouettes of the cathedrals and Radio City Tower as the sun sinks into the water, the distance feels vast. Frodsham is this little island of small-town swing-seat England jammed between Wales, the glossy swishness of east Cheshire, and the People’s Republic of Liverpool.
That feeling of being a couple of removes from something more interesting is most intense when I go past ex-Liverpool and France striker Djibril Cisse’s old house on Frodsham Hill. Along with the £2m mansion, he bought the title of Lord of the Manor of Frodsham. He turned up once at my junior football team’s end of season awards to hand out trophies, and took a dim view of a bunch of eight-year-olds fiddling with the spinners on his white Hummer. Other than that, I never saw him.
But then I visited for the first time since the start of the pandemic, at the beginning of June. Usually hanging around Frodsham felt a bit uncanny. I was glad I grew up there, and simultaneously glad I didn’t live there anymore. But this time there was something else: this is… pretty good? Actually?
It was the sandstone that looked most different. It had never really registered that deeply before. Most of Cheshire is built on sandstone laid down in the Triassic period, 225 million years ago. Everywhere you go in Frodsham it seems to burst out from under the tarmac at you, layer upon layer of bright red rock, slowly building. It’s beautiful.
It also reminded me that there was always a deep mysticism and strangeness in Frodsham. Any time it snows – which it almost never does – everyone goes up the hill to the slopes in front of the caves. I’ve heard them called the fairy caves, though there was another story about them too.
Frodsham has an uncontrollable oddness, and it’s at its best when you embrace it
Back before the Roman invasion, so it’s said, a race of giants lived on Frodsham Hill. The Nantwich Guardian wrote in 1880 that these big lads “offered up their children as a burnt sacrifice to propitiate their gods”. The caves were the theatre of their rituals. (Does it matter that the caves were formed by sand mining, the least interesting form of mining yet devised? No.)
Once you’ve seen that oddness once, you start seeing it everywhere. I went up to the Iron Age hill fort at the top of the hill for the first time; almost exactly opposite it is a listed Cold War bunker, spooky in its austere, concrete blankness. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in Wirral dialect too, so we’ll have him an’ all.
So call it what you want – underneath it all, Frodsham has an uncontrollable oddness, and it’s at its best when you embrace it. Here’s what to do on a visit.
It’s not just pubs...
Frodsham’s food scene has picked up a lot in the last few years, and Next Door is the jewel in the crown. Richard and Vicki Nuttall’s cosy, timber-framed restaurant was once where Vicki’s dad, granddad and great-granddad worked as butchers at local institution HE Coward – its pies are still legendary – and now is home to modern British cooking informed by Richard’s training at Petrus and the Savoy.
...But it is mostly pubs
There are a lot of decent country pubs scattered around, like the Goshawk in Mouldsworth and the Fishpool Inn in Delamere. The Helter Skelter is good but I’d pick the Ring O’ Bells. Locally known as the Ringers, it’s 400 years old, with beers from Manchester brewery JW Lees and a cosy feel. Get into the garden early on a bright late-summer evening and listen to the bells drifting over from St Laurence’s.
Pick up some nice bits
More food: the deli and wine specialist Whitmore & White for luxe nibbles and coffee; Bene Gelateria for sundaes and ice creams; and, best of all, the Devonshire Bakery for unbelievable bread, cakes and treats. The Beckhams bought their wedding cake from there back in the day.
Down by the black-and-white swing bridge which marks the start of Frodsham when you’re coming off the motorway, there’s a 1903 steamship called The Danny – it was restored by volunteers and now takes pleasure cruises down the River Weaver.
Hit the trail
Frodsham is the northern end of the Sandstone Trail, a 34-mile walk which reaches down into Shropshire via Delamere Forest – it’s only three or four miles from Frodsham, and its 972 hectares make it the largest woodland in the country. If that all sounds too much like hard work there’s Castle Park: lawns, woodland, arts centre, and a mysterious ‘synagogue fountain’ which nobody really understands the backstory of.
Frodsham isn’t exactly overburdened with hotels, especially with the 16th century Old Hall Hotel on the main street currently undergoing a revamp, but there are some good self-catering options around.
For a small sliver of the west Cheshire glamour which I’ve just made clear we definitely don’t have, head to the glamping pods at the Lady Heyes craft centre: they start at £100 a night, and come with a fire pit, a cute alpine aesthetic and a hot tub. Lady Heyes itself is a great place to go mooching around, with an ice cream parlour, record shop, vintage furniture and untold knick-knacks in its antiques boutiques. Plus, there are walks down to the River Weaver or up to Frodsham Hill nearby.