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…..

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Cowpat Walks: 5 Shutlingsloe and Danebridge

It is over an hour’s drive from Stone to the Hanging Gate, an isolated pub on the minor road that runs from the A54 to the Macclesfield Forest. East of this road the farmland drops away before rising to Piggford Moor topped by the bulk of Shutlingsloe, our target for the morning, while to the west is the Cheshire plain, the view extending from the huge telescope of Jodrell Bank in the south to the distant silhouette of the Fiddler’s Ferry power station over thirty miles away.

Francis & Alison are ready to set off
The Hanging Gate, near Macclesfield Forest

The sun shone as we walked north to the Macclesfield Forest, first on the minor road from the Hanging Gate, then on an even smaller road past the hamlet of Hardings.


Reaching the forest we turned east through the trees, mainly larch, spruce and pine though with patches of beech and sycamore. Some areas have been clear felled - it is a commercial forest - and parts of these are being replanted with oak and ash.

Into the Macclesfield Forest

We could see the wide track we wanted rising steeply towards the moors, but our path seemed to be taking an eccentric route to join it, so we set off on a more direct, unofficial but apparently well-trodden path. It petered out, as these things often do, but we persevered, crashing through the underbrush and across a streambed. Ducking under the branches of a hawthorn bush, I came to an unexpected stop.  A sizable thorn had hooked my shirt at the back of my neck and I was left ensnared in the vegetation as Francis and Alison disappeared into the distance. For a while I wriggled ineffectually but, as Alison returned to see if she could help, I finally managed to unhitch myself. I had a large hole in my best tee-shirt (and I’ve only had it ten years) and the freed branch lashed across my forearm leaving several deep scratches. [Update August 2017: Leaving a scar I must now regard as permanent!]

We reached the path and slogged up it towards Piggford Moor. I am not entirely clear on our route as the paths on the ground failed to match those on the map, which is not unusual in forests. It mattered not as the relevant junctions were signed and we finally joined the single path across the moor towards Shutlingsloe.

Up towards Piggford Moor

Even on a fine day Piggford Moor is a desolate and boggy place. The National Park authorities have laid flags along the path to prevent erosion and keep it from spreading ever wider as walkers seek out firm ground. It also stops boots from trampling across the nature reserve. The moor does have an austere beauty, but I would seriously question the judgement of any species that chose to make it their home.

Onto Piggford Moor

Shutlingsloe had been out of sight since we started walking but now loomed up ahead of us. According to Wikipedia it is, at 506m, the third highest peak in Cheshire – was ever a hill so damned with faint praise? It sits on the ridge of Piggford Moor looking like a huge earthwork; only from close to is its rocky nature obvious. Constructed of alternate layers of mudstone and gritstone it has, like The Cloud in Cowpat 4, a cap of Chatsworth grit though, unlike the Cloud’s sloping cap, Shutlingsloe’s is, if not horizontal, at least a little flatter. The ascent is made up of a series of partly natural rocky steps, some of them large enough to require the use of hands as well as feet - at least for those with arthritic knees.


From the top there is a fine view across the Cheshire Plain, with the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks to the south, Macclesfield Forest to the north and Shining Tor (Cheshire’s highest peak!) to the north east.

The summit

Even on a fine day it is a windswept spot so we walked a few metres off the summit for coffee and I took the opportunity to wash my arm. The hawthorn scratch had left a thick smear of blood around my watch strap, suggesting to the casual observer that I was enjoying the day so much I had slit my wrist.

Coffee stop just off the summit

According to folk wisdom high flying swallows are a sign of good weather. I have difficulty believing that swallows are capable of meteorological forecasting, but if their altitude merely tells us that the weather is already warm, why bother observing the swallows? This has troubled me for years. A swallow flew past at head height, clearly flying low, four flaps further on it was 100m above the surrounding moorland, clearly flying high. What can this mean? Below us Francis spotted a kestrel gliding easily across the hillside scanning the ground for the slightest movement – some actions are much easier to interpret.

To the west the land drops directly into Wildboarclough making the descent both steeper and much longer than the ascent. Without my poles I would have struggled to make it down to the farm track, along which we made a gentle descent into the depths of the valley.....

Finally a gentle descent into Wildboarclough

... pausing only for the usual photograph of botanical interest.

Foxgloves beside the track into Wildboarclough

We reached Clough Brook, walking beside it for a while before crossing it to cut off a bend and then re-crossing it to reach a minor road which we followed south across the A54.

Clough Brook

Leaving the minor road we made for the confluence of the River Dane and Clough Brook.

Into the valley of the River Dane

Although there was only one path on the map the track split, an old sign pointing down the lower branch and a brand new one directing us to the higher branch. We followed the new sign, partly because its newness, partly because the map suggested we should keep high on the valley side. For a few hundred metres we followed the track in and out of the gorse, round (and through) a thicket or two and then it petered out.

In and out of the gorse....

Making a small downhill exploration Francis spotted a marker post a little lower in the valley and we made our way down to it. A very clear trail led downwards and Francis set off along it. A fainter track contoured along the valley side and Alison stood on that and wondered. I walked back to the marker post. The arrow pointed back the way we had come, but as there was no path there I suspected Alison was on the right track. Francis, though, was confidently striding down the most obvious path and as he is never wrong I shut up and followed him, and Alison joined us.

The wide, clear path led us several hundred metres along the side of the valley before coming to a full stop at a wire fence. There was nothing for it but to climb straight up the valley side, the abundant boot marks in the steep slope suggesting we were not the first to make this mistake.

It was ten minutes’ hard slog (well, maybe five but it felt like fifteen) up to the opening in the fence on the correct path. We followed the path high above the river to Bottomley Farm and then through a small wood where a footbridge crossed Hog Clough. We emerged in the village of Danebridge, a long way above the bridge but, more importantly, right beside the Ship Inn. After a long morning’s walk it was nearer to 2 o’clock than 1 and the pub was a very welcome sight.

The Ship

I have visited the Ship several times over the years on various walks – though none previously in this blog – and have often wondered why a pub as far from the coast as is possible in this island is called The Ship. We ordered sandwiches and soup and a couple of pints of JW Lees bitter and let Michael, the cheerful and informative landlord explain. Danebridge, he told us, was once a stopping point on a drovers’ road and shippen is a dialect word for a drovers’ shelter, a two story building with animals quartered below and people above. Over the years the ‘shippen’ had become 'The Ship', though the pub itself, built from stone recycled from the local monastery after dissolution in the 1530s, is far too grand a building ever to have been a shippen itself.

Michael, the cheerful and informative landlord
The Ship, Danebridge

The building's use as a pub predates the ship on the inn sign, partly hidden by vegetation, by two hundred years. This vessel is the Nimrod, Ernest Shackleton’s ship that was crushed by ice in 1907. The pub was once part of the estate of nearby Swythamley Hall, seat of the Brocklehurst family, and Sir Philip Brocklehurst, the second baronet, was on the Shackleton expedition. In the 1970s the Brocklehurst family- like several of our footpaths - petered out . The pub was sold separately from the Shackleton memorabilia it then housed, and the sign is now the only connection with early 20th century heroics.

The afternoon’s walk was appropriately brief, a mere 5km almost due north. It may have been short but the first 4km were almost all uphill – though not too steeply. From Danebridge at around 200m we reached a high point of 382m on the road south of the Hanging Gate.

We started with a gentle climb over pasture land, before dropping down to re-cross Hog Clough 400m upstream from our earlier crossing. It was a warm afternoon and the streamside vegetation clung on to the heat and exuded humidity. It was a relief to return to more open land climbing up to Hammerton Farm.

Towards Hammerton Farm

We continued along a small swale which led us onto more open land rising up to the A54. Across the main road the path rounding the low protuberance of Brown Hill before bringing us out on the road to the Hanging Gate.

Between Hammerton Farm and the A54

The walk finished with a kilometre and a half on tarmac along the ridge we had driven up at the start. Shutlingsloe came back into view, first poking its head over the farmland to the east.......

Shutlingsloe pokes its head above the famland

.......then gradually rising above it until finally, as we passed the high point on the road, we had a fine view of the hill and its surrounding moorland.

Shutlingsloe and Piggford Moor

Despite the heat I thought I was keeping up a good pace, but I started to lag behind Francis and Alison who reached the car about a hundred metres ahead of me. Then they had wait, because I had the keys.

I seem to be flagging

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Street Chess in Armenia, Bosnia and Vietnam

I am not much of a chess player. I can beat the computer on Microsoft Chess Titans at level 2 more often than not, which probably puts me at the level of a very average ten-year-old. Nor do I wander round the world looking for chess players to photograph, but when they fall into my lap......

Gyumri, Armenia

Armenia's second city Gyumri, formerly Leninakan (and before that Alexandropol, and before that Gyumri) is situated in the northern highlands some 130 km from the capital Yerevan. We visited in 2002, 14 years after the city was devastated by an earthquake that forced Mikhail Gorbachev to cut short his visit to London. Damaged buildings were easy to find and there were still people living in shipping containers. Worse, we saw several relief projects that had been abandoned when the money ran out, and there were signs that some foreign donors (Americans, to be precise) had been more interested in rebuilding churches than rehousing people.

A game of chess
Gyumri, Armenia
These chess players were sitting on a wall at the edge of a street near the city centre, completely absorbed in their game and oblivious to passers-by.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

This oversized chess board is in Trg Oslobodenja (Liberation Square), the centre of Sarajevo's Austro-Hungarian quarter. Whenever we went past a game was in progress and there was usually a large crowd of people watching - and advising. How they decide who gets to play we never discovered.

Trg Oslobodenja ,
Sarajevo, Bosnia
Sarajevo went through hell in the 1990s. The stylised, bloodless form of warfare that is chess is a vast improvement.

Can Tho, Vietnam

Chinese chess, or Xianqi, is a closely related game. Each player has a general and soldiers, advisors, elephants, horses, cannons and chariots who all have different moves. The 'board' is often made of cloth, plastic or paper and can be unrolled anywhere. The game is widely played and can be seen in any park or open space, and often in the street.

Chinese chess,
Can Tho, Mekong delta

Chinese chess is also played in Vietnam. These two were deep in concentration on a street corner in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong delta