‘This is our shrine’: Why Harry Styles fans are on pilgrimage to a viaduct

<span>The columns of Twemlow Viaduct, reported to be the location of Harry Styles's first kiss.</span><span>Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian</span>
The columns of Twemlow Viaduct, reported to be the location of Harry Styles's first kiss.Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

Elvis Presley had Graceland. Dolly Parton has Dollywood. Harry Styles has a railway viaduct on the mudflats of rural Cheshire.

It may not compare to the grand estates of some megastars but fans across the world are descending on the sleepy village of Holmes Chapel to pay homage to its most famous former resident.

More than 5,000 Styles fans – or Harries, as they are known – have visited the tiny country parish in the past year, nearly equal to its entire population, prompting community organisers to launch a recruitment drive for superfans to lead official tours.

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Peter Whiers, a retired nuclear engineer overseeing the search, said supporters from as far afield as Argentina, the US and Spain had applied for the coveted gig after it was advertised this week.

However, he added, they were looking for someone a little closer to home unless those overseas “have a great-aunt they can live with”.

Whiers, chair of the Holmes Chapel Partnership, said Styles fans had been trickling into the village since the Grammy-winning singer rose to fame on The X Factor in 2010 – but it had become a deluge in the past two years.

One father and daughter flew nearly 6,000 miles from Japan just for a day trip before travelling straight back, he said: “I don’t think that’s unusual. It’s almost like a religion now,” said Whiers.

The mecca of this pop pilgrimage is the 180-year-old Twemlow Viaduct on the banks of the River Dane, where Styles reputedly had his first kiss. The grand railway bridge was a headline-making feat when it was built in 1841. Now, thanks to Styles signing his name on its historic arches, it has its own hashtag on TikTok.

“It’s just very overwhelming,” said Alyssa Fleming, 17, adding her name to the Grade II-listed structure, now known as Harry’s Wall, alongside thousands of others.

The teenager, from Belfast, had travelled by ferry with her parents just to visit the mural – and to pick up some Styles merch in London’s Camden Market.

But visiting the viaduct is not for the faint-hearted. Last year, the Holmes Chapel Partnership warned that fans were “risking life and limb” by darting across a notoriously dicey A-road to access the site.

Some tourists are unsure which way to look on British roads, said Whiers. Others are left confused by the kissing gates. A free map was released last March (now selling on eBay for £5) with the aim of guiding Harries across country fields to avoid the 50mph main road.

Yet the new route has its own perils: namely, the British weather. The half-mile riverside trek is a mudbath for much of the year and home to rather excited cows in spring.

“There are a few issues we’ve got to navigate – like frisky cows,” said Whiers, 67, on the safe side of barbed wire fencing after a small herd gave chase to the Guardian on Thursday.

The mud is another issue, he added: “The trouble is: if you’re coming from Peru, are you really going to bring wellies because it’s the only time you will ever need them – on the mudflats of Holmes Chapel.”

Many fans describe visiting the railway mural as an emotive experience. Fleming, who lives nearly 200 miles away, described it as like a “home from home”. Her mother, Anne Fleming, 45, said: “It was sentimental knowing that everyone else had done the camel hike to get there as well. It’s very mucky.”

The tours will begin in June at a cost of £20 a person. The town’s residents expect they will instantly sell out and hope they will help businesses recover from the recession.

They will begin at Holmes Chapel railway station, which is staffed by the cheerful superviser Graham Blake, who knows the Styles family.

Blake, 62, sold Harry the train tickets that began his journey to fame and pictures of the pair adorn his tiny ticket office. He is the first port of call for international visitors who arrive, somewhat lost, often straight from Manchester airport.

“This is our little shrine,” he says, pointing to a table with Styles artwork and guestbooks for fans to leave messages, five of which were given to the former One Direction frontman on his 30th birthday in February.

Harries often say they are drawn to the star’s down-to-earth nature, but for some his home town is a little too down-to-earth.

One fan was left in tears on her 18th birthday after falling down a muddy slope. Two Danish youngsters in tight white jeans had to seek help from a hardware store after suffering the same fate.

Others take their fandom slightly too far: “One girl asked me what Harry smelled like,” says Blake. “I said I don’t really go round sniffing my passengers.”

Yet in the warmth of W Mandeville, a fourth-generation family bakery where Styles worked as a part-time cleaner, Laura Mulry, 18, explains why she and her friend had driven 50 miles from Walsall to be in this quiet country village.

“A lot of celebrities are so out there and you don’t feel close to them because they’re so unrelatable,” she said. “Harry just seems so human.”