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, 20 December 2014

Cannock Chase Through Fresh Eyes: The (N + 4)th Annual Fish and Chip Walk

In the time honoured, if not quite yet ancient, tradition, a coalition of the willing met on Cannock Chase for yet another annual Chip Walk.

As in 2012, we started from the Punch Bowl, but this time not in torrential rain but on a mild December day that started overcast, though sunny spells were promised later. Everybody else looked cheerful, but I was worried - this was (roughly) the fifteenth chip walk and (exactly) the fifth to appear on this blog. How could I possibly find anything new to write?

As before, we made our way round Hart's Hill and veered left towards the Sher Brook. Most of the usual suspects were present, Francis and myself as ever-presents, Brian, just back from Hong Kong (as usual) and Alison C, up from Cheltenham for her first Chip Walk since 2011. We were also joined for the first time by Anne. Lynne (my non-walking wife) met Anne when they were colleagues in Warwickshire in the late 1970s and began a friendship which has endured for well over thirty years. Anne now lives in Cardiff and had stopped with us en route from Cardiff to County Durham for Christmas especially to take part in the Chip Walk.

Round Hart Hill, Cannock Chase

We reached the Sherbrook Valley and set off up it, passing the stepping stones. Having photographed them the last three years, doing it again seemed otiose.
The Sher Brook, but not the Stepping Stone, Cannock Chase

It was the first time Anne had been to the Chase and she was looking at it through fresh eyes. Brian and Francis live nearby and value having so much open country on their doorsteps. I live a little further away and visit the Chase a couple of times a year, regarding it as somewhere to go when alternatives are unavailable or unattractive - Staffordshire clay does not make for good winter walking, but a hundred metre high pile of pebbles inevitably remains well drained. In my head Chase walks involve straight forestry roads through ranks of dark conifers, but having Anne there as a visitor made me look at it again - and I discovered it isn’t like that at all.

I know that the Punch Bowl is an area of older, non-coniferous trees, but I had not realised, or had forgotten, how large that area is. We walked up the winding Sherbrook surrounded by silver birches.
Silver hair and Silver Birches, Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase

The valley flattens out as it reaches the plateau that tops off the western end of the pebble pile. 'It's different again,' Anne said as we crossed the open moor-like ground.

Near the top of the Sherbrook Valley, Cannock Chase

A swing right brought us in sight of the first conifers of the day, though we certainly were not walking through them. Views opened up to the north-east over the Trent Valley as a shaft of sunlight penetrated the clouds.

Continuing towards the minor road we reached the German War Cemetery, one of Cannock Chase's several oddities. During the First World War the Chase was used for training camps and also for a prisoner-of-war hospital. Those who died there were buried nearby and in the 1950s the graves of most German military personnel killed on, around or over British territory during both world wars were moved here, to a site administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in collaboration with their German equivalent. This year I photographed the outside....
The German Cemetery, Cannock Chase

.....but in the past I have photographed the inside. There are some 5000 graves, split almost equally between the two wars. There are is one Field-Marshall, a General and the crews of four airships downed in 1916 and 1917.

German Military Cemetery (Dec 2012)
I have visited the German Cemetery before, but I was oddly unaware that there is a Commonwealth Cemetery a little further on. In the spirit of the Christmas truce of 100 years ago Francis suggested we kick a football from one to the other; a good plan but with a fatal defect – we had no football. There are some 150 graves here, 50 of them overspill from the German Cemetery. There is a sad row of graves of men who died on the 8th and 9th of November 1918 - so near and yet so far - but the largest group are from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade who were stationed here and died not in the war, but from influenza. Anne pointed out that Phormium (New Zealand Flax) was prominent among the flowers between the gravestones.
Commonwealth War Cemetery, Cannock Chase

The flu pandemic, starting in January 1918 and lasting into 1920, killed more people than the war, some 50 to 100 million world-wide. The deaths were disproportionately among those who were young, fit and previously healthy, like the unfortunate New Zealanders here - and indeed Lynne's great-great uncle who survived the fighting, but still ended up in a military cemetery in northern France.

We drank our coffee sitting on the steps outside the cemetery, then walked down the other side and found, hidden behind the two cemeteries, a couple of benches that would have been far more comfortable than the cold marble steps.

We headed north towards the Katyn Memorial, for the only time in the day on an unfamiliar track. ‘I wondered where this path came from,’ Francis remarked as we approached the memorial. Staffordshire has had a sizeable Polish community since the end of WW2, long before the recent influx, but I still do not fully understand why they choose this spot to commemorate a massacre that happened a thousand miles away. Nonetheless here it is, and here is another photograph of it – very similar to the pictures I posted in 2012 and 2011.

Katyn Memorial (again), Cannock Chase

From the memorial there is only one route to the Chetwynd Arms, our fish and chip providers for the last three years. We crossed the lightly wooded Anson's Bank and turned down Oldacre Valley. The valley has more topsoil than most of the Chase and can be relied upon to provide some mud - soft and black rather than the sticky grey stuff Brian and I slogged through in the Churnet Valley earlier this week. I do not recall if Anne remarked on this further change of aspect, but if she did it could not have been with pleasure - this is nasty stuff.

The muddy Oldacre Valley, Cannock Chase

The bottom of the Oldacre Valley is a place where the footpaths on the ground do not match those on the map. As usual it took us a zig and a zag to find our way past Brocton Pool and down to the road.

Anne passes Brocton Pool

We reached the Chetwynd Arms and Lynne arrived to share our repast - though without having done the work to earn it. I have long considered it unfair that she takes little exercise yet remains so trim while I ….. (see the well-nourished individual, left of next but one picture!)
The Chetwynd Arms, Brocton

It was the Fish and Chip Walk so everybody had fish and chips, except Lynne had scampi (which is acceptable) and Alison had gammon. With a medical reason for avoiding battered fish, this was forgivable - unlike Sue's perfidious bowl of chicken and pasta a couple of years ago. Whenever a group of over sixties get together there is always someone with a new medical condition to discuss. A day will come when we no longer bother with the walk, just meet in the pub to compare operations. Oh, the joys of getting older.

Me, Brian, Francis, Alison, Anne
Chetwynd Arms, Brocton (and Lynne took the picture)
We returned to the Chase via a track between houses and a field followed by an excursion round the back of Brocton where a grey wagtail was hopping from stone to stone in the stream. In the field we had spotted the first spring lamb of the year, though other signs of spring were conspicuously absent. It looked cute, as all new lambs do, but I suspect its life will be short and cold.

The climb up Tar Hill seemed easy, despite having to carry fish, chips and a couple of pints of Banks's Bitter to the top. The sun again peered out from behind the clouds, sparkling on the Argos distribution centre at Junction 13 and its mirror image at Junction 14. Sadly, they bracket the view of Stafford and rather define the town, though today the light also gave prominence to the small hill topped by the remains of Stafford Castle, the reason this unlikely, marshy spot had once been chosen for a settlement. The Wrekin was, as ever, a distant landmark, whilst, much further away, the bulk of the Long Mynd was clearly visible against the horizon. Unlike last year, I chose to point my camera into the near distance and at the gentle folds of the hill’s sparsely wooded summit.

Near the top of Tar Hill, Cannock Chase

The Chase is home to some 800 Fallow Deer, but so far we had seen none. Approaching Coppice Hill we glimpsed a small herd on the bank above us [As Brian points out in the comments, these were Roe Deer]. For the next kilometre or so there were deer in the forest on either side, dozens of them, always half hidden, but feeling little need to run; they are used to humans and do not expect to be harmed by them.

Deer on Coppice Hill
(I know its not a good picture, but it was the best I got, sorry)

A little further along we paused at a bird feeding centre. The trees were alive with a multitude of tits and finches, including a splendidly self-important bullfinch. 'All Britain's woodland birds in one place,' Francis remarked. We (or rather Francis and Brian) had earlier seen fieldfare and waxwings - though the mild Scandinavian winter has meant few have bothered to make the journey south this year - and a redwing or two. As we moved on, an ingot of goldfinches (no that is not the correct collective noun, I just made it up) fluttered busily past.

As we strode on towards Mere Pool the sun in the rapidly clearing sky brought out subtle colours in the bare tree trunks.

Subtle colours near Mere Pool, Cannock Chase

After the pool we turned right and descended back to the Punch Bowl and our cars, arriving just before the sun set at five to four. It had been a lovely day's walk. Anne had seen the Chase for the first time and her frequent remarks about how the landscape changed as we moved across it helped me look at the Chase with refreshed eyes. I am grateful; it is a beautiful place, and I have been undervaluing it.

Back down to the Punch Bowl, Cannock Chase

And that was not quite all. As we drove home under a clear blue sky, the light lingered long after the sun had set giving a summer-like twilight. From tomorrow the days start to lengthen promising that eventually summer will return. I look forward to it.


  1. Sounds like I missed a good one. A fresh pair of eyes is always a good idea now and again, or doing the walk in the opposite direction - but that would be away from the fish and chips - breaking with the tradition. Thought you did a great job David - a fresh narrative!

  2. A good walk as always! I am pleased to read of your renewed enthusiasm for the Chase, as you say, it is particularly good when other areas are so muddy. You said Fallow deer, I said Rowe deer at the time, have you checked up and corrected me? We did not see any waxwings we only talked about seeing them in the past! Brian

    1. I stand corrected on the waxwings.
      My statement about a herd of 800 Fallow Deer comes from (the not entirely infallible) Wikipedia, and I assumed..... Having looked at some pictures I accept that you were right and we were looking at Roe Deer. We have seen stags with impressive antlers in the past, so they were probably Fallow - on the other hand other sources tell me there are Red Deer on the eastern part of the Chase, so perhaps we have seen them.

  3. An excellent narrative of another good walk and lunch; well done! There was a little confusion over the birds; the thrushes we saw were fieldfares and redwings but even these were in much lower numbers than is usual due to the mild winter we've had so far.