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…..

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Republican* Ramble Round Ramshaw Rocks

* Trans-Atlantic readers should, on no account, attempt to interpret this word in an American context.

I wish Kate and Woss-is-name all the best, I really do, though I don’t actually know them. I am always happy to attend the wedding celebrations of any relative or friend who is kind enough to invite me, but my appetite for watching the televised splicing of a pair of complete strangers is minimal, to say the least.

The Roaches
So I bade a fond farewell to Lynne, royalist, romantic and, for yesterday at least, couch-potato and with the words ‘miserable old git’ ringing in my ears drove to Stone. There, by pre-arranged coincidence, I met Lee, Francis and Brian whose misery and gittishness matches mine. Lee drove us through Longton and Leek to the Peak District where there were no flag waving crowds, no sycophantic television presenters and no silly hats.

I will not claim that every member of the party believes that in a mature democracy the people should be trusted to choose the figurehead of state rather than leaving it to an accident of birth, so maybe ‘Republican Ramble’ is a slight exaggeration, but with royalists sprawled over every television channel not devoted to shopping, I feel justified.

Going up
We are fortunate in not only having Cannock Chase, Britain’s smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty within twenty minutes drive, but also having the 500 square miles of the Peak District, our oldest National Park, less than an hour away.

Despite its name the Peak District contains no real peaks – nor is this southern section, The White Peak, particularly white - but the two kilometre long rocky outcrop of the Roaches, with the detached hill of Hen Cloud at one end is a dramatic landmark visible from miles around.

Hen Cloud from the Roaches
From the lay-by outside the Roaches Tea Room – of which more later – we walked up into the gap between Hen Cloud and the Roaches. On the penultimate day of the warmest and driest April on record the sun shone, as we have come to expect, but a strong north east wind with a distinctly bitter edge was enough to induce a few shivers.

The Roaches is much frequented by rock climbers. Our two hundred metre climb to the highest point of the ridge may not have require ropes, but it was steep enough to justify my use of poles and to ensure most breath was reserved for walking. A little remained available for moaning about the wind but none was spent speculating about Kate’s dress, what she was thinking or the state of Wills’ nerves.

A strangely misplaced Japanese garden
After a while the path levels off and runs below the ridge through a stand of larches, like a strangely misplaced Japanese garden. Sheltered from the wind this was a very pleasant stroll, but we were soon up on the top where the wind brought tears to the eye and threatened to blow my hat – and possibly me as well - into the valley below.

Descending at the end of the Roaches we found a dry-stone wall where we could sit out of the wind and drink some coffee. Francis moved away to water another section of the wall. Five minutes later, a wind-swept party crossed the stile and commented on our snug position. They walked on and sat down at the exact spot where Francis had taken his pee. We didn’t like to tell them - they looked so comfy - and what they eye doesn’t see……

From here the usual route is eastwards, towards the well kept beers of the Ship in Danebridge, but for once we went the other way, towards Black Brook in the deep valley behind the Roaches.

Lee looks for an invisible cuckoo
The path, sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy, descends gently through the heather. Two thirds of the way down and far away to our right I heard my first cuckoo of the spring. Nobody else seemed that convinced. A minute later, much closer and to our left there was no doubt. Hearing a cuckoo is always pleasing but hardly unusual, actually seeing one is rare. It flew, barely thirty metres away, from one tree to the next. Brian, a birder for many years, claimed a ‘lifer’, saying it was his first ever cuckoo. Francis and Brian each raised several hundred pounds worth of binoculars. Lee peered through a pair he bought for £20 at a car boot sale. I just squinted upwards. When a bird sits on the far side of a tree in full leaf, it matters little how much you paid for your binoculars; it was as invisible to Francis’ precision optics as it was to my naked eye.

We followed the stream to the sound of curlews, usually easier to spot than cuckoos but hiding on this occasion and past Goldsitch house, which was surrounded by a swirl of swallows (we spotted the first of these three weeks ago near Milwich). Francis confidently identified a bird on a telephone wire as being a willow warbler. It was not much to look at, but it made a big noise for a small bird.

Climbing towards Gib Tor we encountered an area of peat bog, though the exceptionally dry April had turned the usual treacherous stickiness into a springy carpet. We heard a red grouse, which strangely likes this sort of territory, and watched it settle on the rocks, clearly visible against the skyline.

Gib Tor Rocks
From Gib Tor Rocks we descended to the minor road and thence to the A53 at The Royal Cottage, a pub that is not actually closed but never seems to be open – even on a royal day such as this. A hundred metres further on the more welcoming Winking Man provided a well-priced sandwich and relatively cheap pint of Black Sheep or Hancocks HB (choices and opinions were divided).

The pub is named after a formation on the Ramshaw rocks and that was where we headed after lunch. Although close to the A53 we approached the rocks by first following a minor road into the moorland to allow a more gentle ascent from the north east. Having safely negotiated a morning of rocky paths, some of them quite steep and tricky, it was on the flat metalled road that I turned my ankle. It was painful and accompanied by a worryingly loud crunching noise.

Not really the Winking Man
I continued, hoping to walk it off. We climbed through the heather and up onto the rocks. The Ramshaw Rocks are as high as the Roaches but stand out less from the surrounding elevated moorland. They are also a gritstone outcrop, but more twisted and weathered than the Roaches and dramatic in their own quiet way. The Winking Man resembles a face with a hole for the eye but passing above it we missed the best view. There was another rock, however, which had a wink that seemed more convincing than a mere hole.

The descent was steep and difficult, particularly when trying to protect arthritic knees and an increasingly sore ankle. It was slow going, for me at least, and the others had to wait at the bottom – for which I apologise.

Among the Ramshaw Rocks
From here we dropped into a pretty dell behind Hen Cloud, worked our way round to the gap before the Roaches and back down to the road where a Park Ranger had set up some impressive telescopes and cameras in a lay-by. A pair of peregrine falcons is nesting on Hen Cloud for the third successive year and after raising three chicks from five eggs last year it is hoped that they have settled there. Despite his equipment, the ranger had seen neither the peregrines nor the resident kestrel. All he had to show us was jackdaws wheeling across the crag face. Jackdaws are regular visitors to my garden bird feeder, so I was not that excited.

Into the dell behind Hen Cloud
A detour into the Roaches Tea Room was now obligatory. Some had cake while others - well Brian (Hilary please note) - settled for just a cup of tea. We had a pot of Earl Grey, originally blended for the nineteenth century Prime Minister of that name who may have been an aristocrat but was nevertheless a thoroughgoing democrat (Great Reform Act 1832). Lee had a latte, which is not named after the legendary Italian reformer Giuseppe Latte. By the time we moved on, my ankle had stiffened up considerably.

I spent the evening with my elevated leg attached to an ice pack. I woke this morning to see my ankle swollen and a bruise beginning to form. Below the bone is an angry red cross over a blue background against the whiteness of flesh that rarely sees the sun. It may be God’s way of telling me that He picks the head of state round here and I should accept it with due reverence. On the other hand (or rather foot) it might just be a bruise.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Stone Circle: Part 2 Fulford to Sandon Bank

Fulford is a pleasant village, but we spent more time there than intended. After pulling on our boots Mike, Lee, Francis and I spent some time wandering up and down the road trying to find the footpath. A gap between two houses did lead into the fields but was clearly in the wrong place and not obviously a right of way. After satisfying ourselves there was no other route we were about to set off when a passing paramedic stopped his ambulance and confirmed we were heading in the right direction, which was nice of him – I just hope he wasn’t on his way to an emergency.

Beyond the houses we found an overgrown and dilapidated stile in roughly the right place and crossed the fields to Greensitch Farm. Looking back, we could trace our path through the dewy grass, but the unseasonably warm sunshine suggested the dew would not last long. Finding our way through the farmyard was a challenge, but eventually we struck out southwest on a well-defined bridleway. The official Stone Circles route takes the minor road out of Fulford, linking with the bridleway later. The footpath, though, is clearly marked on the map, if apparently rarely used.

....we could trace our path through the dewy grass...

Despite some mud - horses churn up the surface in even the driest spring - the bridleway was a pleasant path, rising gently to the minor road where we turned west onto a concrete track past New Buildings Farm - not the most resonant of names, nor any longer, the truest.

Undulating fields

Turning south, we spent the rest of the morning in undulating fields with the occasional bosky dell and meandering stream. Francis described this countryside as bland, and to some extent he was right; we climbed no steep hills, descended into no deep ravines and saw no great views unfold before us. On the other hand, it is always pleasing to walk in gentle sunshine through rich pastures lined with trees bursting into leaf. The varied greens were fresh and full of promise, the blackthorns were covered in snowy-white blossom, and the stinging nettles - and this is important when you are wearing shorts – had hardly raised their heads above the ground.

Blackthorn covered in snowy-white blossom

Not so long ago the sight of a buzzard was worthy of comment, now it is commonplace to see a pair circling overhead or being chased off by an anxious crow (or possibly rook). We sat in a field to drink our coffee and watched a chaffinch perching on the fence and two blue tits checking out a hole in a gnarled oak as a potential nest site. Further on, the clear and unmistakable song of a chiffchaff (well, it was clear and unmistakable once I had asked Francis what it was) filled the valley.

After 5 km of field paths we reached Milwich, a pleasant village though its name presents a pronunciation problem. Francis lives in Baswich, pronounced ‘Baz-itch’. Nearby Colwich, on the other hand, is always ‘Coll-witch’. Milwich looks like a word where the ‘w’ is asking to be pronounced, but Mike’s local knowledge assured us ‘Mill-itch’ is correct. Consistency was never the strong point of English spelling.

However it is pronounced, Milwich features a pub, which is still open, and an old and characterful school building. A sparrow hawk flew down the street just above ground level and perched on a garden fence.

Milwich's old school

From here we reversed the route we had taken in the Baswich to Swynnerton walk until Coton Mill Farm. On Mill Lane, the first swallow of summer sat on a telephone wire, enjoying the sun but maybe wondering if he had arrived a tad too early.

Later we breasted a low rise and crossed a stile into a field of sheep, each ewe accompanied by one or, more often, two lambs, still at the age when they stay close by their mothers. From this elevated position, and amid much baa-ing, we were able to gain the mandatory glimpse of Rugeley power station, its cooling towers just poking above the distant hump of Cannock Chase.

The mandatory (if distant) view of Rugeley Power Station

After Gayton we left the official route, which precedes directly to Salt via the Sandon Estate and diverted through the village of Weston in search of lunch.

We approached the A51 intending to take a field path to what we assumed would be an underpass. Seeing no obvious exit from the field we walked towards the A51 and then took a slip road beside it – presumably an earlier incarnation of the main road itself. We soon realised we were walking into a cul-de-sac, the only underpass being already full of the main West Coast Railway line. As we turned the landowner chugged up beside us on a sort of motorised bedstead, turned off the ignition with a screwdriver and engaged us in conversation.

He did not mind there being a footpath across his land, he said, but wondered where it went. He had a point as it clearly went nowhere. He then wondered why the council had sent two men to spend a day putting a stile next to his gate, which he never closed. He furthered wondered why they had planted the post for a finger sign right next to the railway’s nine foot iron fence. He seemed to think we should have answers for these questions, but we could offer little but sympathy and a suggestion that he write to the County Footpaths Officer. To ensure he had his story right he explained it all to us again, and then once more to be certain. We tried to leave as he started the fourth run through, it was half past one, lunch was still twenty minutes away across the A51 and the beer was calling, but we heard him out again, just to be polite.

It had been a long morning by the time we reached Weston. We sat in the sun outside the Saracen's Head and enjoyed a sandwich and a couple of pints of ‘Dog Father Ale’, an excellent beer though the name must have looked better in the planning meeting than it does on a beer pump.

Our afternoon walk was a mere 3 kilometres as the crow flies, but our non-corvine navigation turned it into 5. We started with a zig up the Trent and Mersey canal and followed it with a zag through Salt and south towards Hopton Heath. Just after leaving the canal we re-crossed the Trent. I remarked on how much it looked like the Danube at this point, but nobody took me seriously.

Along the Trent & Mersey Canal

From the canal, we were again briefly on the official route. We walked through Salt and up the steepish slope to the woods overlooking Hopton where the Parliamentarian rearguard stood at the battle of Hopton Heath.

Looking back towards Salt

Leaving the official route again to avoid repeating last autumn’s walk over the battlefield and past the somewhat underwhelming monument, we zigged northeast, making a long, gentle descent to the minor road. A swift climb up Sandon Bank took us to the Seven Stars Pub where Francis’ car was parked. The building looked as sad as only a derelict pub can look.

Francis was unimpressed by the morning’s walk, but I enjoyed strolling over lush fields under a cloudless sky.  The afternoon section, though brief, had been more varied and involved more contours - and had been completed under the same warm sun. We encountered one path which should have been signed but wasn’t and one that was signed but should not have been – and took an ear-bashing for our trouble. Otherwise the footpaths were well signed and the stiles in good repair, as they usually are in Staffordshire.

It would be nice to think that Part 3, scheduled for May 21st , would attract the same benign conditions. Unfortunately, when it comes to weather, all the planning in the world guarantees nothing.