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…..

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Aqualate Mere and Norbury Junction

The A519 from Eccleshall to Newport runs along a low ridge as it approaches Shropshire. I had arranged to meet Mike in Sutton, one of the villages on that ridge but finding nowhere to stop on the main road, I was forced to wander a little. I eventually found him parked on the verge where the minor road to Gnosall flattens out at the bottom of the ridge.

After two very cold days, Wednesday was considerably milder and we set off along the base of the ridge optimistic that the rain would hold off.

Across fields towards Forton

A kilometre across rough fields brought us to Forton, the next village along the ridge, the path coming out on the minor road beside All Saints church. First built in the 12th century, much of the present church is the result of an 18th century remodelling. It remains a handsome building of dressed sandstone.

All Saints, Forton

Forton Hall next door is also a handsome building. It was constructed in 1655 by Edwin Skrymsher (and more of the Skrymsher family later) for the cost of £100 – less than I paid for my walking boots.

Forton Hall - cheaper than a pair of boots

We strolled down the lane from Forton to Meretown, crossing a bridge that spans the defunct Newport arm of the Shropshire Union Canal and the River Meese at the same point. We paused on the bridge trying to understand how it all worked. The aqueduct built in 1833 to carry the canal over the river has gone, and the site is further complicated by an extra stream which we decided must be a mill race. According to Staffordshire Past Track, the dilapidated building by the stream was Meretown Mill, a 16th or 17th century construction, though there is documentary evidence of a mill being here since before the Norman invasion.

The remains of Meretown Mill hidden among the trees

Meretown is a hamlet today, but was an important centre in medieval times. The Domesday book describes Forton as being part of the manor of Mere, which had a fishery worth 4000 eels.

We left the road and crossed the boggy land towards the western end of Aqualate Mere, the source of those eels. The path was mainly dry, though in places we were glad the wet grass and mud were still frozen, allowing us to walk on the top of the ground rather than slog through the mire.

Mike and a tree, near Aqualate Mere

Aqualate Mere is the largest natural lake in the West Midlands (admittedly hardly a region famed for its lakes). A kettle lake formed by glacial melt water some 50 000 years ago, it is 1.5 km long, 0.5 km wide but nowhere more than a metre deep. The same glaciation formed the esker along the northern bank. The area is part of the private Aqualate Estate, but the lake itself and the wetlands to its west and north are a National Nature Reserve.

We made our way between two drains, past a wood and then back across the River Meese on a footbridge just to the east of the lake; the slow moving waters still carrying a film of ice. Here reed beds obscured our view of the lake, while from the north it is hidden by the gravel bank of the esker.

Reed beds on the River Meese

 We failed to spot any of what Natural England calls Aqualate’s ‘star species’; bitterns, ospreys or reed warblers (not that either of us would have recognised a reed warbler if we had trodden on it), but we did watch two geese launching themselves into the air some fifty metres ahead of us. Smaller than the common Canada geese with well-defined black and white markings, I am confident(ish) that they were barnacle geese, winter residents in British coastal regions, but occasionally seen this far inland.

As we paused for a standing coffee (it was too wet to sit) a group of roe deer came bounding round the edge of the wood and ran towards us. At first they seemed heedless of our presence, but as I stooped to pick up my camera they paused and sniffed the air. They disappeared, unphotographed, as quickly as they had arrived.

At other times of the year the wood at the southern end of the mere has a magnificent display of bluebells. It was only from here that we caught sight of the lake at all, a slate grey expanse beyond the trees, an optical illusion making it appear to be slightly above us.

There will be bluebells here - in a few months time.
The lake is somewhere off to the right

The lake is clearly visible only from Aqualate Hall and the private parkland to the south. The first hall was built in the 16th century by Thomas Skrymsher and rebuilt by Edwin Skrymsher (of Forton Hall) in the 17th.  It passed to the Boughey family in the late 18th century, was rebuilt again and then, in 1910, burnt down. The current hall, constructed in 1930, is hidden from the curious passing walker.

 Beyond the lake we studied the map and our watches and decided a direct route towards lunch would be appropriate. We turned north, through the woods and then over fields to the interestingly named Guild of Monks Farm, once the property of the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury. From there we followed the Humesford Brook and then crossed more fields to the lane below the Shropshire Union canal.

The little valley of the Humesford Brook

The canal here runs along a high embankment. We could have walked along the tow path, but did not fancy the upward scramble. Eventually the road ducks under the canal before rising to canal level at Norbury Junction.
Narrow boats moored at Norbury Junction

Norbury Junction no longer lives up to its name, the ‘Newport arm’ used to head off eastwards from here, but is now the dry canal we had crossed at Meretown. It remains busy though, dozens of narrow boat, some of them permanent homes, are moored along the canal, while the junction itself is a crowded marina. Few narrow boats are hired out in January, but there is cleaning and painting to do, so there are enough people about to justify the continued existence of the Junction Arms, which fed us an excellent sausage baguette and a couple of pints of Soggy Bottom (a Jennings Brewery offering from the soggy bottomless pit of ridiculous beer names)

Norbury Junction

It felt colder when we left the pub, but maybe it was just the effect of going outside. We considered taking the direct route to Sutton, but decided that would be lazy so, despite the threatening clouds, we re-crossed the canal and took the path towards Norbury manor. The right-of-way runs along a private road as far as the current Norbury manor with its neat outhouses and barn conversions. A little further on we passed the moated base of the original manor.

The moated base of the old Norbury Manor

Built around 1300 the manor was acquired by Thomas Skrymsher – yes, them again - in 1521. To see an engraving of how this spot looked in 1686, click here. Later acquired by the Anson family of Shugborough, the manor gradually became a ruin and was demolished in 1838. Its stones were used in the construction of the present manor, visible in the background in this picture.

The old and the current Norbury Manor
The path, now a farm track, rose steeply to join the A519. The threatening clouds had dispersed and it was even possible for an optimist to discern a little blue in the sky. We again crossed the canal, here in a deep cutting, and after a couple of hundred metres of traffic fumes, we thankfully turned down the lane to Norbury.

The poet Richard Barnfield was born here. He was an associate of and occasional collaborator with Shakespeare, though Barnfield’s poetry is more notable for its openly homosexual content than its quality.
Looking south from Oulton

From Norbury we crossed the fields to the hamlet of Oulton on the edge of the ridge. We descended and turned west heading towards the distant Wrekin. More field paths brought us back to the lane below Sutton, joining it where it meets the Via Devana, the Roman road from Colchester to Chester. The lane is remarkably straight where it coincides with the Roman road, but where it turns to gently ascend the ridge, the Roman road marches straight up it. There is nothing currently above ground to show the presence of Roman engineering.

Two hundred metres along the lane brought us back to our cars with an hour or so daylight left, a temperature still above zero and the rain still holding off. All in all, a good day out.


  1. You would have been very lucky to see reed warbler and osprey at Aqualate in January - they are both summer visitors!

    You seem to have had a good day!


  2. I was aware of this - if only because it said so on the board at the entrance to the nature reserve. On the other hand, I stand by what I wrote 'we did not see bitterns, osprey or reed warblers.'