There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 20 December 2010

Cannock Chase with Snow and Ice: The Nth Annual Fish and Chip Walk

For the second year running The Chip Walk, on the last Monday before Christmas, took place in snow. This year, however, it was much colder, –13 as I drove through Sandon on my way to the Chase. I claim no great accuracy for my car’s thermometer, but this is definitely the lowest figure ever seen on it.

Sue, Alison, Mike, Francis, Brian (hiding) and Lee
Cannock Chase

Starting from Milford, I noticed that Mike was not wearing shorts. He claimed to have considered the idea but, rather wimpishly, rejected it. We walked up the Heart of England way and onto the ridge above the Sherbrook Valley. The sheltered trees below the ridge were home to a substantial colony of large thrush-like birds identified by Francis and Brian as Redwing.

Hoar frost, Cannock Chase
Higher up the trees, coated with hoar frost, stood out against the misty backdrop of the valley with a stark beauty. After stopping to watch a young male Roe Deer walk calmly along the edge of a belt of pines, we reached the Katyn Memorial, descended into the Sherbrook Valley and climbed up the other side.

Down into the snowy Sherbrook Valley
Cannock Chase

And up the other side

We had coffee by the bird feeding station in Marquis Drive. There were a dozen or so robins, fluffed up to the size of tennis balls, bullfinches - a brightly coloured male and slightly duller female - and coal tits. There were probably others I do not remember, but I was not taking notes. Lee, with customary ornithological precision, identified a pigeon. He also claims he can recognise swans, but saw none.

Robin fluffed up to the size if a (small) tennis ball
Bird feeding station, Marquis Drive, Cannock Chase

We followed Marquis Drive, crossing the railway line and the Hednesford Road, and continued below Lower Cliff, where the icy cyclocross trails looked perfect for launching riders into the frozen pond below. We reached Stile Cop where Lee had cunningly parked his car before we started.
Marquis Drive, Cannock Chase

Five minutes driving took us to the ‘Swan with Two Necks’ at Longdon for the customary fish and chips and a couple of pints of Arkell’s excellent 3B. Arkell’s web site notes that in 1860, a gallon of Arkell’s XXX cost one shilling and fourpence (12p). A pint now costs £2.90. Swapping Bs for Xs turned out expensive.

We spent a little longer in the pub than usual – well, it was warm and comfortable - but eventually reasserted self-discipline and forced ourselves out. Shandy drinker Lee drove us through Rugeley to the Seven Springs car park.
Into the Sherbrook Valley again
Cannock Chase

The 7 km walk up Abraham’s Valley, over into the Sherbrook Valley, along the brook and then up
and over to Milford may have been far shorter than the morning, but was a long drag for a very brief afternoon. Sue and Lee set a storming pace, being the youngest and fittest, while others trailed in their wake. I would have cursed them under my breath, had I breath available for cursing. The speed was necessary, though, as we reached Milford just after four as the sun was setting.

Francis walks on water
Cannock Chase
Leaving the car park I noticed the temperature had risen to a balmy –5. There had not been a breath of wind, and I had never felt cold while walking. The white and misty Chase had been a beautiful and sometimes eerie place to spend (almost) the shortest day of the year.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Baswich to Swynnerton

This is a travel blog. I intended it to be about long journeys through strange and exotic lands.

Baswich to Swynnerton is a short journey, barely 11 miles as the crow flies, and it is hardly far from home – indeed, one end is home - but it is still travelling. Walking maybe the slowest form of travel, but it is the purest; it is all about the journey, never, until your feet start to hurt, about the destination.

It took us two days to walk; two Saturdays separated by seven weeks; two Saturdays in two different seasons. It took two days because we are not crows, because the shortest route crosses the centre of Stafford and then follows the A34 and no one would walk that way for pleasure and because Swynnerton is northwest of Baswich and we spent the first day trudging northeast to Milwich.

The Staffs and Worcs Canal

Lynne is no fan of walking, so leaving her at home on October the 17th I drove to Milwich to meet Mike. It was cold, with mist clinging to the trees and lingering over the fields, but Mike was wearing shorts. ‘It’ll warm up,’ he said confidently.

Mike parked his car and I drove us to Baswich, stopping briefly where a platoon of pheasants blocked the road, strutting about with the confidence of birds who have survived the first three weeks of the shooting season and believe themselves immortal. At Baswich we joined Francis, Alison and Lee - and a pile of bacon butties.

Canal enthusiasts enjoying the autumn sunshine

Several bacon butties later we left Francis’ house, marched over the park and down to the canal. It was still cool, but the mist had burned off and we strolled along the towpath under a clear blue sky. The Staffs and Worcs canal, built in 1772 by James Brindley, is part of the ‘Grand Cross’ linking the Rivers Severn, Trent and Mersey, but the few moving narrowboats carried not coal or steel, but canal enthusiasts enjoying the autumn sunshine.

We crossed the Trent, too small here navigation, left the canal and headed towards Tixall.

Staffordshire’s reputation as an industrial county depends entirely on the Black Country in the South (no longer actually part of Staffordshire) and the unlovely city of Stoke-on-Trent in the North. Most of the county is rural, much of it covered by the great estates once owned (some still owned) by the aristocracy.

Across the former Tixall Estate

1853 saw the end of the Tixall Estate. The hall, built in 1780, was finally demolished in 1927 leaving only the much earlier gatehouse, a remarkable Jacobean building, but not on our route. The estate was sold off piecemeal and we crossed the land of several farmers as our path rose gently towards the county showground.

At the showground, the ‘Motor Cycle Mechanics Show’ was in full swing, closing several paths and forcing a detour through the car park. For a bikers show, there really were a lot of cars. The public address invited us, repeatedly, to visit the ‘Wall of Death.’ Call me picky, but nobody really died.

Francis & Lee at Hopton Pools

Dropping down to Hopton Pools provided some peace, at least for humans; a heron peering into the water waited patiently for a fish to impale upon the ‘Beak of Death’. The announcements became audible again as we climbed to the road but faded as we rounded MOD Hopton - an ugly collection of buildings surrounded by a wire fence. I have no idea what the Ministry of Defence stores there, but the level of security suggests it is probably not nuclear weapons.

The battle of Hopton Heath in 1643, may not have been a major Civil War battle, but with two and a half thousand participants, it was more than a skirmish. The Royalist captured the Parliamentarian artillery, the Parliamentarians killed the Royalist commander, both sides claimed victory and then both retreated. The memorial is inside the MOD compound so we could only stare at it through the wire.

...we could only stare at it through the wire...
Leaving the MOD, we crossed the battlefield and climbed to the line of woods that marked the Parliamentarian front line. On a sunny autumn morning, it was difficult to imaging the turmoil that must have been there almost four hundred years ago.

We continued to Salt, where lunch at the Holly Bush, black pudding in a Staffordshire oatcake, seemed suficiently local.

Pitt's Column

North of Salt, we entered the Sandon Estate, passing through a small wood containing a Doric column erected in 1806 to the memory of Pitt the Younger. William Pitt died in January 1806, four months after Nelson whose better-known column was not started until 1840. Whilst it is pleasing that Staffordshire thrashed London in the column erecting stakes, it is hard to understand why this memorial to a man unconnected with the county was placed on this obscure hillside.

An even more pointless construction than Pitt's Column

Much of the Sandon Estate is a grassy plateau, commanding sweeping views across miles of farmland. Any walk in Mid-Staffordshire must contain at least one view of Rugeley Power Station, which looked surprisingly elegant – at least from that distance.  Being an aristocratic estate, the grazing sheep also need a folly to gaze at and improve their minds; it is an even more pointless construction than Pitt’s Column. By mid-afternoon it was not only sunny but warm, Mike had been right all along.

Once off the estate, poorly signed field paths took us, with some navigational discussion, to Milwich and the end of part one.

Seven weeks passed. Getting people together is difficult, and I did not help by disappearing to China for three weeks.  On December the 4th, Brian was able to join us, but Mike was unwell – probably a cold on the knees.

It does not snow every year in Staffordshire, but generally, we expect a covering for a few days, maybe a week, in January or February. It does not snow before Christmas, and if it does, never in November. Except this year when the snow came, the temperature plunged and the snow stayed. It was still there on December the 4th; indeed a sprinkling had fallen in the night, making the drive up the lane from Sandon to Milwich a touch slippy.

A sad monochrome world

The morning was as misty as the first leg, but there was no danger of it burning off. Had the day been colder and the sky clearer it might have been pleasant, but grey mist limited the view and the white fields and black limbed winter trees gave the world a sad monochrome appearance.

Although it was easy walking over the field paths to Hilderstone, we passed only one other party – everybody else had decided to stop indoors. We sat in the bus shelter outside Hilderstone to drink our coffee; the next bus was due on Monday morning so we were in no danger of being disturbed.

Crossing a stream, approaching Stone

More of the same brought us to Stone. The temperature had risen and a thaw had started as we walked through the farmer’s market in the High Street. There were pies and speciality sausages, cakes and patés, pheasants and partridges - oven ready or fully feathered - and many other goodies I might have liked to buy, but could not fit in my rucksack. We lingered by the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse stall, producers, in Brian’s well-informed opinion, of the world’s finest kippers.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent some ten miles to the north, is a dismal place, but produces things of beauty. I cannot get excited by Wedgwood, Moorcroft or Claris Cliff, but Titanic beers are another matter. Captain Smith of the Titanic hailed from Stoke, hence the name. We sat in The Royal Exchange and sank a couple of pints.

Walking through Stone, then up the small but busy road towards Yarnfield was not a great start to the afternoon.

A lurching the wrong direction

Turning onto the Swynnerton Estate was only a slight improvement. Ploughed fields under 5 cm of snow are not easy walking. Uneven footholds and a tendency to slither into the hidden furrows causes a sort of lurching stagger, as though we had spent too long in The Royal Exchange.

After a while, Lee looked at the field patterns on the map and decided we needed to turn left. I thought he was right and Francis nodded so we turned left. Francis soon voiced doubts. Lee was adamant and I agreed, but quietly as I know that disagreeing with Francis over map reading is a sure way to be wrong. Naturally, Francis was right, our detour bringing us an extra hundred meters of hidden ruts and a damp crawl under a barbed wire fence. do not show the roar of the adjacent motorway...

 Back on the right track, we found the underpass below the M6 and walked through a small wood. It was pretty as a picture, but pictures do not show the roar of the adjacent motorway nor the thawing snow dripped unpleasantly down your neck.

The Swynnerton estate is large and it was a long haul towards Swynnerton Hall, built in 1729 by the Fitzherbert family and still the home of Francis Fitzherbert, Lord Stafford. After more navigational uncertainty, we found the path that hits the lane behind the hall. The sun was setting, but it is only a short walk behind the big house, past the church and on to the more modest Dandly Towers where Lynne had the kettle on and the cake cut, bless her.

Travelling through remote parts of China may be more exciting, but it is always worth taking a look at the countryside closer to home. It is full of history, pheasants, snow and, just occasionally, sunshine. The beer is better, too.