Alderley Park / The Stanley Family


History of the Estate, Building on the Past

The history of Alderley Park, the former stately park of the renowned Stanley family, can be traced back by name as far as the year 1390. Even before this, the early ownership of its lands can be learnt from the Domesday Book of 1087, at which time it was divided between two owners. The main northern part, including the location of the present Mereside complex, was held before that date by a Saxon freeholder called Godwin, who had doubtless been dispossessed if not killed by the Norman invaders of 1066. Godwin’s lands passed through many hands over the next few hundred years, whereas the land on which Alderley House now stands was, for centuries, one of many properties owned by the wealthy monastery of Dieulacres at Leek.

The better documented history of Alderley Park began when it became the home in the sixteenth century of the Stanley family, an ancient house possibly descended from Charlemagne.

The Alderley Stanleys, the elder of the family’s two branches, are less well known only by comparison with their younger relations, who were made instantly famous by the Stanley who, as Shakespeare portrayed, snatched the crown from Richard III’s head and placed it on Henry VII at Bosworth Field in 1485. However, the Alderley Stanleys’ history, and that of Alderley Park, were themselves to become deeply and famously entwined.

The story of the Stanleys, a family which included everyone from a cabinet minister to Kings (of the Isle of Man), could not possibly be told here in detail, but many facets of the Park still bear their influence. Radnor Mere was built and extended by them in the seventeenth century, partly to support the beautiful mediaeval water-mill now situated beside the A34 close to the Alderley Park boundary. Later, in 1826, the building by the first Lord Stanley of a new, higher dam submerged the original one, enlarging the lake from 15 to its present 23 acre (9 hectare) size.

Across Radnor Mere, the Beech trees planted by the Stanleys were the first in Cheshire, set there in 1621 to comfort a young bride brought by her Stanley husband from the south of England, where the trees are native. Sadly, most of the beeches were felled in the two World Wars. Only during AstraZeneca and its predecessor companies’ time has the planting of over 200,000 young trees, recently with a new programme of sensitive forest management, begun to achieve proper restoration.

The Stanleys formerly lived in a great hall to the north of the present Park. But a disastrous fire in 1779 left them homeless. At this date they began building their huge mansion of Alderley House, on the site where AstraZeneca’s offices of the same name now stand. They also began to create what must be one of Alderley Park’s most beautiful features, the sunken walled garden and pool of the Italian-style Water Garden. It still lies behind the present Alderley House, between an arboretum and a tiny wood sheltering a well-preserved Ice House.

The small house they moved into in 1779 grew rapidly. An early phase of building was complete by the time of a great celebration in 1815, when the victory at Waterloo was celebrated by an immense party, including the firing of artillery from the field near the present Conference Centre. By early this century the mansion possessed sixty bedrooms and six great entertaining rooms, of which the Sir James Black Conference Centre, with its oak panelling and coats of arms, is the only one remaining.

Under the fourth Lord Stanley, Alderley House became a meeting place of people with power, especially Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who stayed there every Christmas. He sometimes brought members of his Government including the young Winston (later Sir Winston) Churchill. Perhaps the most valued tree in Alderley Park is the stumpy sweet chestnut standing by the road below the Conference Centre, planted by the great man and always known as the Churchill Tree.

In 1938, catastrophe came. The sixth Lord Stanley’s finances had been crippled by two expensive divorces, together with gambling debts and death duties, as well as a fire in 1931 which led to the demolition of most of the mansion. The immense sale of the Stanleys’ entire landholding, the largest real estate sale ever held in Cheshire, including 77 farms and 166 houses, was a great local tragedy, many of the tenants being left homeless as homes held for generations went for prices far beyond their means.

No bids at all were made for Alderley Park itself, said to be ideal for a country club or a golf course! As the shadow of war descended, the Park was left to fall into disrepair.

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