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, 29 December 2012

Francis Crane M.B.E.


Extract from this morning’s New Year’s Honours List

Doctor Francis Gibbs Crane. Head of Geography and Duke of Edinburgh's Co-ordinator, Stafford Grammar School. For services to Education.

You could have knocked me down with a feather – I never knew his middle name was Gibbs!

Francis Crane M.B.E. lunches at the Ship Inn, Danebridge
Francis is the originator and organiser of most of the walks posted on this blog; he is also the map reader who is never wrong. Above is a picture of Francis in the pub (not exactly alien territory) as it is one of the few I have of his face. I have, though, hundreds of pictures of his back as I plod along behind struggling to keep up.

Francis, rear elevation
Francis and I both arrived at Stafford Grammar School in August 1989. I have retired, he is still there. I do not know if he introduced the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in the school, but he is entirely responsible for the huge success it has become. SGS is one of the smallest schools in the Stafford area but regularly gains the highest number of gold awards - in some years as many as all the other schools combined. Enrolment for the bronze award in Year 9 is entirely voluntary, though it is never far off 100%.

Francis turns left - well he is a Guardian reader

The time Francis has devoted to the scheme is mind-boggling. From the endless but ever efficient organisation, through the pre-expedition checks, six or more weekends every year for the expeditions themselves and countless hours chasing up unreturned tents and incomplete record books. And he gets to camp out in the Peak District in March. The reward for all this? The satisfaction of a job well done, the knowledge that hundreds (maybe thousands) of youngsters have had experiences and opportunities they would not otherwise have had, and the chance to drive into a cow in a Dartmoor fog. And that was all – until today.

Francis on Bredon Hill
Congratulations Francis, a well-deserved honour.  You now, though, lose the title of Unsung Hero – you just got sung.


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Cannock Chase in Torrential Rain: The (N + 2)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

The British climate can be described in two words – temperate maritime – the weather, though, is an entirely different matter. After the extraordinary cold of the Nth Chip Walk , and last year’s milder experience, this year’s Chip Walk was dominated by rain. And it was not just the day of the walk, the whole of the preceding week had seen persistent heavy rain.

Whenever I hear reports of flooding I comfort myself with the smug thought that I live on the top of a hill. This year I have been forced into a rethink; living on a hill, I have learnt, is a small step from living on an island. I have had to choose my routes from Swynnerton based on which roads are still above water.

To reach Cannock Chase, I detoured through Eccleshall, where the River Sow was still flowing under the bridge – if only just. In Stafford I crossed the little River Penk which had spread right across its flood plain, incorporated the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, and was doing its best to imitate the Nile (if the Trent can look like the Dordogne…..)

Staffordshire’s soil is largely clay – hence the pottery industry – but Cannock Chase is a pile of sandstone pebbles 100m high, so if anywhere is suitable for a walk on such a day at the end of such a week this is it.

The popularity of a wet day’s walking on the Chase can be seen from the photograph, but I eventually found a space in the Punch Bowl car park.

Here's my car squeezed into the last free space in the Punch Bowl car park
Lee and Francis arrived shortly afterwards. The Chip Walk was down to three people, which was how it started fifteen or more years ago. As we struggled into waterproof jackets and over-trousers we mused on the weakness of the others, though to be fair the shortage of walkers was more due to family commitments than fear of the weather, and I was the one who had been on the phone an hour before to see if anybody else wanted to cancel. ‘It’ll be the only exercise any of us will get over Christmas,’ Francis had said, and I found that a powerful argument.

We set off up the slope and turned left round Hart’s Hill to join the Sher Brook. Looking on the bright side, as one is apt to do after voluntarily setting off for a walk during a downpour, there was little wind so the rain was falling vertically rather than being blown into our faces.

Around Hart's Hill
We reached the stepping stones which were, I was surprised to see, still not submerged. I took the customary picture. It is not that I actually want anybody to slip and topple into the icy water, but if they did and I was standing there with camera raised, well….. Half way across Francis stopped. Lee did not walk into his back, though for a moment I thought he might. Francis turned round. ‘We’re not crossing the stepping stones, I only came here for the picture.’

Just for the picture
We continued up the Sherbrook Valley. What would normally have been a gentle uphill plod became an upstream walk as the Sher Brook (version 2.0) was flowing down the stony path.

The Sher Brook (version 2.0)

After 3½ Km we turned right to splash up the path that climbs out of the valley up to the Katyn Memorial.

Splashing up towards the Katyn Memorila

In places the water on this path was even deeper and flowed even faster.

Looking back 'downstream' into the Sherbrook Valley
According to the map there is no pond at the top of the hill, but I lacked the heart to explain it to the happily paddling mallard.

There is no pond here
We passed the memorial (for more information see Chip Walk(N + 1).)

The Katyn memorial, Cannock Chase

On the far side of the nearby road is the Springslade Lodge Café and after walking for an hour and a half it seemed reasonable to spend a short time under cover. We removed our outer clothing, sat in the warm, dry café drinking coffee and watching the rain splash down outside.

I was comfortable where we were, but lunch, and the fish and chips which lie at the heart of any Chip Walk, was an hour away, so we had to brace ourselves, replace our still damp outer garments and venture into the rain.

Lunch since Chip Walk 1 (nobody is quite sure when that was but I am confident that 10 < N < 20) has been at the Swan with Two Necks in Longdon. It once had pretentions to be a gastropub and produced exceptional fish and chips but has changed hands several times over the years and the food has usually been satisfactory rather than outstanding. This year, like so many other country pubs, the Swan with Two Necks closed. Consequently we were heading for the Chetwynd Arms near Brocton, a thriving pub beside a main road.

We headed out over Anson’s Bank......

Over Anson's Bank

.....and past Chase Road Corner, another popular car parking spot with hardly a vehicle in it, and turned left to descend the Oldacre Valley.

Into the Oldacre Valley

There is more top soil here, so it was distinctly squelchy underfoot as we splashed down towards Brocton Pool. ‘This has been a dry valley since the ice age,’ Francis remarked. I presume this was some technical geography teacher’s use of the word ‘dry’, it certainly had bugger all to do with the valley I was standing in.

The Oldacre Valley has been a dry valley since the ice age!

I am not sure what route we took round Brocton Pool, I never saw it, but we emerged on the minor road that leads to the A34 and the Chetwynd Arms.

This Chetwynd Arms is not to be confused with the Chetwynd Arms in Upper Longdon (which features in Cannock Chase: not for the first time) – and Upper Longdon should not be confused with Longdon, home of the defunct Swan with Two Necks!

The Chetwynd Arms, near Brocton

The fish and chips were satisfactory, if hardly memorable, but were pleasingly inexpensive (though ‘two meals for the price of one’ is not best exploited by three people eating together). The staff were friendly and efficient and it is clearly a well run business, even if it lacks the personal touch of an old fashioned village pub.

So its a Chip Walk.
Fish and Chips are compulsory (yes, Sue, that means you)
Leaving the pub we found that the rain had eased. We crossed the A34 and followed a narrow path round the back of some houses that leads, by way of a horse paddock and a playground, to the centre of Brocton village. We would rather have lunched in the pub on Brocton village green, but there isn’t one; the clichés of the English countryside sometimes let you down.

Brocton Village Green - a space crying out for a pub
We returned to the Chase, climbing up the Mere Valley...

Up the Mere Valley the tautologously named Mere Pool.

Lee passes the Mere Pool

From there it was a simple path round Hart’s Hill back to the Punch Bowl and the end of a short but relatively dry afternoon. Overall it may have been the shortest Chip Walk ever, but, despite the deeply unpleasant conditions we got out there and we did it, and I am glad we did. Tradition has been maintained.