FOR OUR return to Bygones this week, we take a brief look at one of Whitchurch’s most famous products – cheese.
Nearly everyone loves a bit of cheese – and for the people of north Shropshire, there’s plenty of choice and plenty of history too.
According to Whitchurch Heritage Centre’s excellent website, Cheshire Cheese is believed to be Britain’s oldest- named cheese and is thought to have been first produced in the garrison town of Chester by the Romans.
Whoever first made it, Cheshire Cheese was mentioned in the Domesday Book at the end of the 11th century.
It was traded across the country and different varieties of Cheshire Cheese were aged to a sufficient level of hardness so they could be transported to London. They were carried firstly by horse and cart, and later by canal boat.
From 1739, Cheshire was the only cheese bought for consumption by the British Navy.
During the 19th century, sales of Cheshire Cheese grew strongly as it became a firm favourite in the industrial towns and cities of the midlands and north of England. Indeed, it was sometimes known as the poor man’s meat.
After the construction of the Shropshire Union Canal, Whitchurch became a collection point for farms sending cheeses to market by boat.
Canal boats collected cheese from farms on all parts of the Welsh canal but mainly from Shropshire. The bottom floor of the Shropshire Union Canal Warehouse was used for storing and checking the cheese.
Once it had been examined, it would be sent on to Ellesmere Port docks and then on to Liverpool for export.
The boats would leave Whitchurch on Wednesdays and arrive at Ellesmere Port on Fridays.
The cheese fair in Whitchurch started in 1899, and ran for many years in the old Market Hall.
Today there is still a tradition of cheese-making in the area, including the award-winning Belton cheese.
Belton are “the” cheese makers in the area, regularly winning awards across the country.
In the early 1920s, Stanley Beckett left the family textile business in Manchester to work at Belton as a farm student, before taking on the tenancy and eventually buying the farm.
John Beckett, his son, has farmed Belton since 1970 when Traditional Farmhouse Cheshire cheese was made at one end of the farmhouse from milk produced on the farm.
Belton Cheese Limited was founded in 1973 when the first phase of the modern dairy was built and it has been further modernised in the past five years.
Now, Justin Beckett and his highly-professional team carry on the tradition of excellence in cheesemaking, to innovate and produce a range of prize-winning English territorial cheeses eminently fulfilling the discerning market requirements set by all the major supermarket customers, as well as export customers in Canada, USA, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. Belton has been an organic farm since 2002, producing cereals – wheat for milling and organic beans, and growing red and white clover for grazing cows and sheep.
And as recently reported in the Herald, Dennis Biggins – who died in October 2016 – was the creator of Shropshire Blue in the 1970s, which is one of the best known “blues” in the country.
Named because Dennis was from Shropshire, the blue was the first to be created for many centuries.
n Many thanks to Belton Cheese and Whitchurch Heritage Centre for words and pictures.