Six weeks after the end of Part 2, the Seven Stars on Sandon Bank still looked as sad as only a derelict pub can look. Alison, Francis, Mike and I pulled on our boots in preparation for setting off west while Lee prepared to go south. Once we had pointed out which blue beer mug on the OS map he was standing outside, Lee agreed to join us walking west.
The verges were thick with wildflowers: cow-parsley, speedwell, campion and many more. A chiffchaff sang, its brief performance followed and outshone by the liquid tones of a bird Francis confidently identified as a blackcap, ‘though the last time I heard a blackcap,’ he continued, ‘it turned out to be a garden warbler.’ I wondered how he knew this one was not a garden warbler. ‘It’s a blackcap’ he said, enigmatically, ‘you rarely see garden warblers.’ I was about to point out that we had not seen this bird either when he added, ‘Blackcaps prefer hedges, garden warblers hide in thickets.’ Looking about, I observed that hedgerows and thickets are not always distinct entities.
More cereal fields took us to bridges over first the Meece Brook, then the railway. Here, weed killer had been used to mark the path. It is not pretty, but I assume its preferable to having walkers crashing through the crops on whatever line they think might be right – it also excludes all possibility of navigational errors.
Across the bridges and climbing round Lower Heamies, our path was blocked by a crop of rape growing so thickly as to be impenetrable. We had to walk round the field head, overgrown and deeply rutted as it was. With my ankle still sore from the Ramshaw Rocks I found this painful, and my problems were not eased by the plentiful stinging nettles. A bird sat on top of the rape, singing at us; Francis thought it might be a meadow pipit but was too busy failing to avoid the nettles to make a firm identification.
With tingling legs we crossed the low hill, descended past an army shooting range to Yarnfield and found our way to the Labour in Vain. Although it is the second closest pub to home, this was, surprisingly, my first visit. A pint or two of Hook Norton, low in alcohol but full of character, and the landlady’s cheerful co-operation with Mike’s rewriting of her menu ‘I don’t want pickle or red onion and crisps, I want pickle and red onion but no crisps…’ might persuade me to venture there again.
It had been a long morning and a late lunch, so the afternoon was short. A pleasant wooded lane took us as far as Highlows Farm and then a kilometre and a half across Swynnerton Park brought us to the road behind Swynnerton Hall, from where it is a brief step to Dandly Towers. It was a simple stroll compared with December’s epic crossing of Swynnerton Park; this time the route was uncomplicated and sunshine replaced the blanket of snow and mist. The very last field was the finest wild flower meadow of the walk, carpeted in the usual buttercups and clover, but with other blue and yellow flowers I only wish I could identify.
And so, ten weeks after we set off, we finished in exactly the same place as we started. The 60 km walk is described as the Stone Circles Challenge, though this moderately fit sixty-year-old did not find it particularly challenging – at least not when taking three days over it. It can hardly be described as one of the world’s great walks, there are no hills to climb, rivers to ford or sweeping vistas to see, but it is a very pleasant walk and surprisingly varied. Mostly it crosses rich farmland, some of it arable, some grazed by cows or sheep, but there are also woodlands, streams in hidden dells and country villages. Even better, it started and finished on my own doorstep; what pleasanter way to spend three unusually sunny, and completely rain-free spring Saturdays?
The Seven Stars, Sandon Bank
Looking as sad as only a derelict pub can
A stroll down the lane and a kilometre of easy field paths brought us to Marston where we rejoined the official Stone Circle route we had left above Hopton Heath. Walking on through the village, if three well separated houses, two farms and graveyard can be described as a village, we retuned to the field paths.
The pattern of the day began to become clear. Francis, whose Duke of Edinburgh scheme commitments have had him out walking every week, and Lee who has been visiting the gym, strode off into the distance. Mike and Alison plodded along behind apparently discussing weighty issues, while I wandered along on my own, taking occasional photographs of those in front and those behind.
|Francis and Lee stride off into the distance...|
Silaging was in full swing and we watched a huge machine hoovering up the cut grass and depositing it in a trailer driven alongside. A large field was cleared in remarkably little time.
|...while Mike and Alison discuss weighty matters|
We heard the A34 long before we reached it. High-speed traffic is difficult to judge, but we reached the central reservation safely, climbed the stile over the crash barrier and made it to the far verge. I have driven that road hundreds of times and never seen anyone brave (or stupid) enough to cross it, or even realised there was a stile.
Approaching Whitgreave, squadrons of swallows swooped backwards and forwards above the lane. This seems a bumper year for swallows, though Francis says swifts have been much less successful. We passed a pond with an excellent duck house, though not, presumably, bought at public expense.
|Not the home of the local MP, Whitegreave|
A footbridge took us across the M6 and from there to Shallowford we crossed fields of cereals while skylarks fluttered and sang above us. Six weeks before it had been Blackthorn flowering in the hedgerows, now it was Hawthorn, with its white - and occasionally pink - flowers and distinctive scent.
Isaac Walton’s cottage soon came into view. I failed to photograph it (what an amateur!) but if you want to know what it looks like, click here. I crossed the little bridge at Shallowford every working day for sixteen years, but I had never before approached it over the fields; it is amazing how different a familiar place can feel when seen from an unfamiliar perspective.
Three kilometres of road walking followed, though the roads were tiny and free of traffic. Here we were deviating from the official Stone Circle Route which follows the B-road to Norton Bridge before turning off alongside the railway.
|I wonder which way to go in this field?|
|Alison among the nettles|
|Wooded lane out of Yarnfield|
|The road behind Swynnerton Hall|
The Stone Circle
Part 1: Swynnerton to Fulford
Part 2: Fulford to Sandon Bank
Part 3: Sandon Bank to Swynnerton