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Arley Hall Gardens sit on the Cheshire plain eight miles south of Warrington, less than twenty miles from Manchester as the crow flies.

It lays claim to one of the best gardens in the UK and the oldest herbaceous border in the UK from the 1840s. It also hosted one of the most interesting eighteenth century ‘commoners’, as they were once called, in the form of Elizabeth Raffald. She was the cook/housekeeper at Arley Hall.

Pullout quote:

‘Over the next 18 years in Manchester Elizabeth Raffald became a species of superwoman.’

I was thinking of this on Sunday as I wandered around the 12 acres of gardens. These are an untrammelled joy, immaculately maintained, with curving walks plants crowding the path, water features too and formal but gorgeous walled gardens. There’s even a crazy avenue of ‘pleached’ limes. Pleached. Good word. It means when individual plants are woven together so their branches merge. The word apparently comes from Latin and means to braid.

The house is infrequently open to the public and probably the best way of visiting is jumping on the guestlist of someone getting married there. I’m sure they won’t mind.

The house is a Victorian fantasy of Jacobean architecture, presently the home of Viscount and Viscountess Ashbrook, but it’s probably better known as the domicile of one Thomas Shelby. Who? Maybe you know him as Cillian Murphy, the actor.

We’re talking Peaky Blinders which despite being based around a chancer’s rise to fame and fortune in Birmingham in the early 20th century seems to spend all its time being filmed in Manchester, Liverpool or, in this case, Cheshire.

Back to Elizabeth Raffald who was born in Yorkshire as Elizabeth Whitaker and came to Arley Hall in 1760. She left in 1763 after marrying John Raffald, the head gardener, at which point the couple removed to Manchester and for a while they ran the Bull’s Head in the marketplace, or rather she did. But that wasn’t the half of it, over the next 18 years Raffald became a species of superwoman.

In 1769 she published The Experienced English Housekeeper, which ran to 13 editions and was pirated 21 times. It was, perhaps, the first mass popular cookbook in English with full recipes and menu recommendations.

The suggested second course of a grand dinner consisted of ‘roast hare, transparent pudding covered with a silver web, snowballs, moonshine, rocky island and burned cream, mince pies, creerant with hot pippins, crawfish in a savoury jelly, snipes in ditto, pickled smelts, marbled veal, collared pig and potted lamprey, vegetables, stewed cardoons, pompadour cream, macaroni, stewed mushrooms and dessert’.

During her time in Manchester, Elizabeth ran a shop, a domestic servants’ employment agency, an inside and outside catering business and two pubs. She also wrote the first Manchester Street Directory, that aforementioned best-selling English cookbook and in her last years assisted Dr White with his book on midwifery.

There’s a final twist: in the 18 years Elizabeth Raffald lived in Manchester, it is said she had 16 children. This figure is contested but even if the more accepted figure of six kids is right, trying to juggle all those different jobs with that number of children must have been a trial. It’s Elizabeth Raffald she died of exhaustion. It’s said no one was surprised. She was 48.

Her death might have been hastened by the pressure placed on her by John’s drinking and bankruptcy. During one particularly difficult time he is said to have threatened to drown himself. Elizabeth responded with: “I do think that it might be the best step you could take, for then you would be relieved of all your troubles and anxieties and you really do harass me very much.”

John survived his wife by 28 years despite more suicide threats, foreclosure of the business they’d had together and a period of ‘living extravagantly’ in London.

Whoever said life is fair.

The pictures show Elizabeth Raffald, Arley Hall Gardens, the former marketplace Manchester and Arley Hall with actors dressed up in Peaky Blinders’ style.

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