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, 11 January 2014

Cannock Chase in Winter Sunshine: The (N + 3)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

The Annual Chip Walk started sometime in the 1990s. The idea was for a small group of like-minded pedagogues to celebrate the end of the school term and take a lungful of fresh air before the Christmas festivities began in earnest. Other regular walks involve a lunchtime pint and a sandwich, but this one has always been different. The Swan with Two Necks in Upper Longdon - a gastropub before the word was invented – did something special with fish and chips and that became first an attraction and then the focal point of the day. The people who made the ‘Swan’ special moved on long ago, and in 2012 the pub went the way of so many country pubs and closed. Reluctant to change tradition too much, the walk stayed on Cannock Chase but shifted its focus to the Chetwynd Arms in Brocton.

There has been a Chip Walk blogpost every year since 2010, but what happened to 2013? Perusal of the December archive shows only one post and it was about North Korea, not Cannock Chase.

The walk was scheduled for Monday December the 23rd, but the big scheduler in the sky had other plans and sent along the deepest Atlantic low in living memory. Driving rain we can cope with, but when winds are gusting to over 100kph wandering around among large shallow rooted trees seemed less than sensible.

The Bank above the cutting, Cannock Chase
Rescheduling for January the 11th had the happy consequence that Brian had returned from Hong Kong and Mike and Alison from Leeds, so it was the largest chip walk for some years. Six people gathered at The Cutting car park beside Milton Common before setting off up the cutting towards Mere Pits, or, as the cutting was rather muddy, across the top of the banks.
Through the cutting 2010

The Cutting was dug in 1914/15 to provide railway access to the military training camps on the Chase. Later one of the training camps became the headquarters of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, the other a German Prisoner of War camp and the Cutting is still sometimes known as The German Cutting. Little remains of either camp, or of the railway that served them.

The Chetwynd Arms is hardly more than a kilometre southwest of Mere Pits, but our plan, insofar as one existed, was to turn northeast, descend into the Sherbrook Valley and approach the pub via an extended loop around much of the western part of the Chase.
Down into the Sherbook Valley
Brian (half hidden), Lee, Francis, Alison. Where is Mike?

Lunching at the ‘Swan’ dragged us over to the eastern side of the Chase, but since changing to the Chetwynd Arms we have tended to stay on the west. This matters little as the Chase, even its most ardent admirers would admit, is a bit samey. Few, if any, of the paths we followed this year were new to the Chip Walk but what makes the walk fresh every year is the weather. In 2010 the ground was covered with snow, the trees hung with hoar frost and the day’s high was -6. 2011 was what I think of as ‘normal’ winter weather, grey and overcast with drizzle in the wind, but 15 degrees warmer. The 2012 walk was not entirely conducted in rain, but followed ten days of torrential downpours while 2013 was postponed because of high winds.  Its January 2014 replacement was conducted in brilliant sunshine. It was a cool day – and the following night would be seriously frosty – but in a sheltered spot in full sunshine there was enough warmth to hint at better days to come.

Hoar frost above the Sherbrook Valley, 2010
At the bottom of the valley we crossed the stepping stones, climbed up the other side and headed towards Seven Springs.

Crossing the stepping stones
Sherbrook Valley

Swinging right before the car park, we ascended Abraham's Valley. There is a shooting club near the bottom and the sunshine must have brought out the shooters - the clays were taking a hell of a pounding.

There's something in the tree
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Will they shoot it?
The weather also brought out the mountain bikers, and wherever we went there was the danger of being run down from behind. Abraham’s Valley is not steep – although there is a steeper section near the top, but it is a long and tiring upward slog.  In low gear the cyclists pedal like fury but advance so slowly they sometimes lose balance,
Up Abraham's Valley
Cannock Chase

Abraham's Valley 2010
At the top we had intended to sit round the trig point for coffee but the spot was occupied by a couple of birders with impressively large cameras. They were particularly uncommunicative ‘just checking out the tripods’ one grunted when asked if they were looking for anything special. I am not sure what there is to check out on a tripod, so I was unconvinced. Either they were hoping for a lesser spotted albatross or they were MI5.

We turned left towards Rifle Range corner and drank our coffee perched on a large log. The spot gave us the regulation ‘View of Rugeley Power Station’ which is an integral part of every chip walk.

The obligatory View of Rugeley Power Station
The Rifle range is another relic of the Great War, but there is little to see now. From Rifle Range Corner we turned right onto the Heart of England Way and followed it back into the Sherbrook Valley, though this far up it is more of a slight dip than a valley, before taking the path up towards the Katyn Memorial. Last year this path had been a stream with several centimetres of fast flowing water.
Paddling up to the Katyn Memorial, 2012

We missed the Katyn Memorial (see (N + 1)th Chip Walk), turning right over Anson’s Bank and down to Chase Road Corner.

Anson's Bank
Cannock Chase
A couple of hundred metres later we left the minor road, turning into the top of the Oldacre Valley.  Last year Francis caused some hilarity by mentioning that it was a dry valley as we splashed down the middle of what seemed very much like a stream. This year it was muddy, but stream free and we rounded Brocton Pool, made our way down to the road and up the Chetwynd Arms.
The 'dry' Oldacre Valley, 2012

Hilary joined us for the traditional fish and chips. Brian had given her a call and she volunteered to make an up even number to best take advantage of the pub’s BOGOF on meals. But we already had six people, did we not? Yes, but as part of my January penance I was abstaining from both fish and chips and beer, though I thoroughly enjoyed two bottles of slimline tonic water. A couple of years back I had a go at Sue for eating pasta on a fish and chip walk. It was my turn to take some stick, though it would have been (justifiably) worse had Sue been there. My slice of humble pie, though not very nourishing, gave me some perverse satisfaction.

Brian, Francis, Hilary, Alison, Mike, Lee
Six Fish and Chips and a slimline tonic
I am sure the management of the Chetwynd Arms would like me to point
out that other menu options are available

After lunch we walked into Brocton, following a path beside a stream around the village centre.
Around Brocton
I found the climb up Tar Hill hard work, but still easier than it would have been dragging a portion of fish and chips and two pints of bitter up there.
Mike and Alison reach the top of Tar Hill

From the top we could see across Staffordshire to the Wrekin and the Long Mynd beyond. The county town looked particularly lovely bathed in sunshine, the roof of the Argos distribution centre sparkling in the sun at Junction 13 and the Junction 14 industrial park being two particular highlights.
The Wrekin from Tar Hill, Cannock Chase

 We followed the path round the hill and then the minor roads to Coppice Hill where a decision had to be taken.

To Coppice Hill
Alison was keen on turning left and following the path straight back to Mere Pits and the Cutting. Other voices suggested a further loop into and out of the Sherbrook Valley. I stayed silent - I really wanted to follow the direct route, but I was reluctant to admit it, even to myself. I was relieved when Alison’s view carried the day and twenty minutes later it was all over. Three and a half kilometres hardly counts as an afternoon walk, but as Francis had measured the morning at 14km we had probably done enough – anyway my feet were sore.

Silver Birch, Coppice Hill
So ended the (N + 3)th Chip Walk. Who knows what the future holds, but maybe 2014 will be a year of two Chip Walks. We will find out in December.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Reeth, the Arkle Beck and the River Swale

Some places make you feel better just for being there. Everybody has a personal list, but mine includes the Mekong Delta, the Backwaters of Kerala, Corsica, the Algarve and the Yorkshire Dales.

Like everywhere else, these places look their best in the sunshine. We arrived in the Dales on Wednesday, a midwinter day when the rain had been continuous and daylight hardly bothered to put in an appearance.

Reeth is the main centre of population of Upper Swaledale. It has 750 permanent residents, but seemed much busier this week as the village’s plentiful supply of holiday cottages were doing good business. Presumably, it will be even busier in the summer, but the next few weeks may be quiet indeed.

Francis had rented Fellsman Cottage and we joined him there along with Trevor and Mike and Alison. The cottage is a mid 20th century link built between two older buildings, but we only knew that because it does not exist in the 1920s photograph on the cottage wall. It looks tiny, but so does the TARDIS, and it accommodated 6 adults in reasonable comfort.
Lynne outside Fellsman's Cottage, Reeth

Like many Dales villages Reeth is built round a large village green, which would make it difficult to photograph even if the green was not a sloping plateau and the roofs of the houses on our side were level with the basements on the other.
Reeth Village Green
A firework display filled the green on Wednesday evening. The rest of the world had set off fireworks the previous night to welcome the New Year but Reeth preferred an early evening show on the 1st. I had watched them setting up in the afternoon drizzle and feared the event could be, literally, a damp squib, but when the time came the rain eased and the whole village turned out to watch half an hour of loud and colourful pyrotechnics.
Fireworks, a day late but dodging the rain
Reeth is barely bigger than Swynnerton, but where we have a post office and a struggling pub, Reeth has a post office, three pubs, two general stores, a gift shop, an outdoor shop and a Christian bookshop, not to mention a café and museum, though they were closed for the winter. One end of the village green even forms a mini central business district.

Reeth 'Central Business District'
Of the pubs, we selected The Buck for dinner on Thursday, though largely at random. Trade was roaring, as was the log fire. The fare was standard pub food, but done as well as it can be and very reasonably priced. Gammon steak, fish and chips and sausage and mash count as comfort food (see Dandly’s personal, idiosyncratic, unscientific and deeply prejudiced food classification system.), Mike’s Thai fish curry might be sliding towards pretentious but was redeemed by evident customer satisfaction and Lynne’s steak and ale pie, completely encased and cooked in short crust pastry, ticked the boxes for good food. It was substantial and she needed a little help to finish it. I didn’t mind.

Dinner at the Buck Inn, Reeth
Alison, Francis, Lynne, Mike & Trevor
There was a market of sorts on the green on Friday morning. Only three stalls, but at the butcher's half a dozen substantial slabs of local lamb looked perfect for our dinner while the greengrocer provided the wherewithal for an accompanying salad. The cheese stall offered a range of cheeses from across Europe as well as local favourites. Although my preference is for strong flavours, I appreciated the subtlety of the Wensleydale. Alison said that as pale, mild, crumbly cheeses go she preferred Cheshire, though there might be an element of native pride in that judgement – and why not (and I’ll put in a word for Caerphilly, the mild, crumbly cheese from Lynne’s native heath). Despite a willingness to appreciate subtle flavours, the Swaledale goat’s cheese – even paler than the Wensleydale – convinced nobody that it had anything to offer beyond a pleasing texture.

The Little Yorkshire Cheese Stall at Reeth
On Thursday, as storms and huge seas battered the west coast, Swaledale awoke to a morning of watery sunshine. We donned our boots and headed for Arkengarthdale, the most northerly of the Yorkshire Dales which conveniently joins Swaledale at Reeth. Arkengarthdale is a wonderful word, somehow capturing the essence of Yorkshire in four syllables.
We walked to the edge of the village where a used car showroom (or more accurately showfield) stands incongruously beside the fine old stone bridge over the Arkle Beck (for photo see end of post).

Crossing the river, we walked alongside the beck which rises at the head of Arkengarthdale and discharges into the Swale a few hundred metres downstream from the bridge. According to the map there are several paths which make their way up the dale, but few seem to be signed.
Lynne and Francis beside the Arkle Beck

We soon realised our path beside the river – or fallen into the river at one point – was too low, so we climbed the valley side. At this point the sole of Francis’ left boot detached itself. The boots - expensive and of a well-known brand - were not that old and he was less than delighted. The leather casing, though, continued to keep his foot dry and he decided he could press on despite one leg now being a centimetre shorter than the other and with no grip on the slippery mud.
Higher up the valley side, Arkengarthdale

The sky above us was blue, but clouds hung over the far side of the valley and waves of drizzle were blown across our path. We came as near to the end of a rainbow as I have ever been, but nobody wanted to bother searching for the pot of gold.
Nearly at the end of the rainbow, Arkengarthdale

Today, agriculture and tourism support the dale’s small population, but things used to be different. The population peaked in 1811 at around 1500 when coal and lead mining were thriving. Lead has been mined here since Roman times. An ingot stamped with the name of Hadrian was found in the early 19th century and given to the British museum, who have subsequently lost it. Lead mining was conducted by 'hushing'; dams were built on the hillside and when sufficient water had collected they were broken causing a deluge that stripped off the topsoil and exposed the deposits below. The results can still be seen on the valley side. Lead mining ended in 1914, but a little small scale coal mining continued until 1940.
The effects of hushing can be seen on the top of the hillside opposite

There was some suggestion we might take the bridleway up to Langthwaite near the head of the dale where the pub may or may not still be functioning, but to the relief of some (Lynne notably) the plan began to fade as we kept losing the path and having to track up and down the valley side to find it. Eventually even Francis admitted he was unsure where we were and after spotting a footbridge we made our way down to the beck. After some discussion we decided which bridge we were at, crossed it and climbed up the less complicated side of the valley to the minor road. We then discovered we were not at the bridge we had thought; our wandering up dale and down dale meant that in an hour and a half’s walking we had made remarkably little progress along the dale. The walk down the minor road back to Reeth took much less time.
Francis plods up the 'less complicated' side of Arkengarthdale
Friday afternoon seemed an appropriate time to make the acquaintance of Reeth’s other river. The River Swale rises at the head of the dale and has been joined by a multitude of side streams by the time it reaches Reeth. The name derives from an old English word for ‘rapid and liable to deluge’ and the river lives up to its name being capable of rising as much as 3 metres in 20 minutes. The village is set well above the flood plain and we walked some way to reach it. There was no rain, but it was bitterly cold with a biting wind.
The flood plain of the Swale, Reeth

The river occasional changes its route across the flood plain, and the tumbling mass of water resulting from the week’s downpours seemed to be busy seeking alternative channels to the current overworked mainstream.
The 'Swing Bridge', Reeth

A couple of hundred metres upstream is a footbridge. The ‘Swing Bridge’ as it is called for no obvious reason, was first built in 1920. It survived many floods but in 2000 was demolished by a large tree carried down in a torrent. The new bridge is identical to the old one.

Mike crosses the 'Swing Bridge', Reeth

Over the river we crossed the flood plain to a path on higher ground. Here it was sheltered and felt much warmer. Francis was making good progress in his wellies, but Trevor slipped over and dived gracefully into the mud. I had my camera raised, but waited for him to get up, I am far too much of a gentlemen to take advantage of a temporary loss of dignity – though not so much a gentlemen as to overlook it entirely.

Trevor is back on his feet

Just over a mile later we reached Grinton with its fine stone bridge over the Swale, welcoming pub, which we did not visit, and its long low sturdy church.
Past Grinton Church to Grinton Bridge

Once over the river we took the path across the flood plain back towards Reeth. Some of this path was above water, some of it not and various approaches were taken to deal with this.
One way to deal with damp conditions

We soon found ourselves walking along the bank of the Arkle Beck, which had joined the Swale between the Swing Bridge and Grinton Bridge.
Back to Reeth beside the Arkle Beck
Reaching the road we re-crossed the Swale over another of the stone bridges which are so plentiful in the region and made our way back to Fellsman Cottage. Nothing else remained of our New Year break other than to cook the excellent slabs of lamb and make a small but determined dent in the world’s wine lake. Saturday offered only packing up and the long drive home.
The Arkle Bridge, Reeth
A good time was had by all, and some thanks are due:
to Francis for organisation
Mike for cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast every day
Alison for ‘The Boer War’ and an excellent dessert
Trevor for the mud-surfing exhibition
and Lynne for the clean-up while the rest of us were walking along the Swale..