CIVILISED residents of Cheshire might be forgiven for thinking that today's pub culture is all about drunken, rowdy behaviour. But according to renowned author Elizabeth Gaskell, things were not so different in 19th century Knutsford.

In an essay she wrote a few years before Cranford - the novel recently adapted for a BBC television show - Gaskell described how intoxicated troublemakers would attack ladies on their way home from card parties.

As a solution, in 1809 the Reverend Harry Grey arranged for the church bell to be tolled at five minutes to nine.

Then he and his church wardens would patrol the town's inns to make sure all drinking had finished and prevent anything untoward happening.

Fortunately, much of Knutsford's pub history tells a more favourable story of the town.

The Royal George Hotel in King Street was one of the main landmarks and is steeped in history.

Built in the 14th century, the tavern was originally called the White Swan. Its name is thought to come from the time of the War of the Roses when Queen Margaret visited Chester in 1455 and distributed swan emblems to be worn as a token of love to the king'.

But it was renamed The George and Dragon in 1727. Some believe this was to commemorate the accession of George II but more recent studies have shown this to be inaccurate.

The Royal' prefix was added in 1832 when the Duchess of Kent visited with the young Princess Victoria, five years before she became queen.

They stayed there as guests during visits to Chatsworth. Another somewhat more ominous patron was Highwayman Higgins - alias Edward Hickson - who lived a double life in the 1750s and 60s wining and dining by day and burgling the local gentry by night.

He managed to commit a number of audacious burglaries until his luck ran out in 1764 when he was tracked down for robbing a house in Gloucester. This certainly came as a shock to his unsuspecting wife.

He fled to Bristol and continued his crime spree until 1767 when he was caught in Carmathen by two butchers and locked up in Bristol. He was hanged that year.

The George used to house a desk in an alcove under the stairs in the hall. This was believed to have been used by frequent patron Lord Nelson when arranging a rendezvous with Lady Hamilton, who lived in Cheshire.

Gaskell's Cranford - based on her experiences in Knutsford - also has many scenes set in the Royal George, such as when the ladies went to see the magical tricks of conjurer Signor Brunoni in the pub's assembly room.

The assembly room had been added to the inn about 100 years earlier by county families raising subscriptions.

They met there once a month during the winter to dance and play cards.

The grade II listed building closed in 2001 to make way for a £15million development of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments.

Another pub to be immortalised in the pages of Cranford is The Angel Hotel on King Street.

In the novel, this pub was where Lord Mauleverer stayed when the impoverished Captain Brown's house proved too humble. The Angel is difficult to date because it has gone through many changes but its main front is 18th century.

In fact, the pub you can see today is not the original, which was sited on the opposite side of King Street.

Knutsford has always been renowned for its civic festivities and the 19th century was no different.

In 1817, the masses gathered for the jubilee of King George III and the officers and gentlemen of the town dined at the George and the Angel.

For an attractive reminder of what Knutsford looked like in times gone by, you need look no further than the thatched and gabled White Bear Inn on Warrington Road. This 16th century pub was popular with coach travellers waiting for The Aurora going north to Liverpool or south to Newcastle, Birmingham and London.

The tavern showed a bear in a pulpit on its sign at one time in tribute to the travelling bear that was taken to the chapel of ease. It is very unlikely that this bear was white though.

Among its customers were Highwayman Higgins who lived close by to the pub on Gaskell Avenue.

The cottages to the rear of the White Bear used to be very rundown but a successful renovation in the 1970s helped the cottages to scoop a national commendation in the European Architectural Heritage Year 1975.

The Rose and Crown Hotel on King Street, with its black and white half timbered style with slanting gable, is another well-preserved example of what Knutsford pubs used to look like.

It carries the date 1041 but this should actually read 1641. The top of the six was chipped off more than 50 years ago and was never replaced.

It now houses the Italian restaurant Portofino but the historical exterior remains.

Another of Knutsford's oldest pubs is the Lord Eldon Inn, just off Canute Square.

This inn was previously known as the Duke of Wellington until a certain indignant protestant took over.

The innkeeper did not approve of the Duke having consented to Catholic emancipation and promptly replaced the pub's sign.

Rumour has it that the landlord used the old Duke of Wellington sign as a door for a pigsty - such was his opinion of the Duke.

The pub was also the birthplace of Annie Sarah Pollitt, who was Knutsford's first May Queen, in 1864.