Walking back through time on the Sandstone Trail

Old Pale

It’s as if a lid lifted to let in the light: days of spring sunshine and blue skies (blue sky!) have arrived to banish the rain-sodden, ‘gale-battered, winter-worn‘ sensation that’s been clinging on for what feels like months.  So when I set off with my old friend Bernie to walk the first ten mile stretch of the Sandstone Trail on Friday – a date plucked at random from the calendar a couple of weeks ago, the spring-like weather felt like a lottery win.  It was to be, as Bernie remarked later, a ‘seamless’ day – the pleasure of fine spring weather boosted by the synchronicity of our timings with linking buses and trains.

The Trail follows the Central Cheshire Ridge – a sandstone escarpment that forms a thirty-mile backbone running the length of the county. I’ve walked sections of it many times before – short family walks when our daughter was young or more recently after our retirement – so the route we were going to take was familiar, but only known piecemeal previously. Today’s walk would also provoke thoughts of another, very different, walk ten years ago to the day.

Coming out of Frodsham station we turned right, when we should have gone left.  But that was OK, because we were soon standing in front of the obelisk that marks the northern end of the Trail.  It stands outside the Bear’s Paw, a pub that is a grade II listed building, constructed from sandstone in 1632.

Sandstone trail marker

The obelisk outside the Bear’s Paw marking the start of the Sandstone trail

Making our way back up Church Street we passed another grade II listing: a telephone box.  But this is no ordinary telephone box: it’s a rare example of the K4 telephone box, introduced in 1927 and designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (who also designed Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral. The K4 telephone box was a mini post office, incorporating a post box and stamp-dispensing machine. Only 50 of them were ever built and, according to English Heritage, only 4 remain in operation today.

Frodsham Scott phone box

Gilbert Scott’s phone box dispensed stamps off a roll

It’s a steep climb from Frodsham town centre up to the sandstone ridge – first along the village streets and past the attractive-looking Ring O’Bells pub, then along a steep path and up steps until you reach the War Memorial that stands on the sandstone cliff overlooking the town.  Here we stood to take in the impressive views across the Mersey estuary, with the distinctive Liverpool skyline in the distance, as a pair of buzzards circled lazily in the air above.

Bernie negotiates the path up to the ridge

The War Memorial

The M56 with Fiddler’s Ferry power station beyond

The Manchester Ship Canal curves around Weston Point chemical works

From the War memorial, the Trail skirts a series of sandstone outcrops, steep slopes clothed in birch and oak woodland and carpeted with bracken. There’s a sharp descent into Dunsdale Hollow – I remember when Rita and I used to come here with our young daughter, you made your way gingerly down Jacob’s Ladder, a steep staircase carved into the sandstone.  Now, in the age of risk assessment, there is a much safer route down a steel staircase that’s known as Baker’s Dozen, named after Jack Baker who was instrumental in devising the Trail.

Jacobs Ladder

Jacobs Ladder: the old way down before risk assessment

The sandstone rocks here were laid down in the Triassic, 300 million years ago, when Cheshire was a desert basin.  These same sandstones outcrop elsewhere along the Mersey valley and again in many parts of Wirral.  They also underlie Edge Hill in Liverpool, as anyone who has entered Liverpool by train through the deep cuttings there will know.  In Dunsdale Hollow you can see layers in the sandstone: a record the varying stages by which the deposits were laid down.

Red sandstone in Dunsdale Hollow

The trail climbs out of Dunsdale Hollow by another series of rock steps, known as Abraham’s Leap.  Just beyond, the path opens out on the cliff edge at Woodhouse Hill to offer another stupendous panorama of the Mersey estuary from the Runcorn crossing down to Liverpool, with the two cathedrals visible on a clear day. It is a tremendous view, though these days there is a constant roar from the endless traffic on the M56 motorway that, like the railway and Ship Canal, follows the level floodplain in the middle distance, with the industrial landscape of Ellesmere Port to the east.

Looking west towards Helsby crag and Ellesmere Port

Looking north – across the river to Speke and Hale

I had always been puzzled how a river of fairly modest size at Stockport, only 30 miles away, could have produced such a large estuary.  The answer is provided by an information panel at the viewpoint: the Mersey estuary is a valley scoured and over-deepened by a glacier. Following the last glaciation, rising sea levels flooded the valley to form the estuary.  The present outline of the estuary was established roughly 3,000 years ago.  Occasionally along the way you will see large boulders, not of sandstone: these are erratics, deposited here by the retreating ice and identified as having originated in the Lake District and Southern Uplands of Scotland.

On high ground just off the path lie the remains of Woodhouse Hill Fort, the most northerly of six Iron Age earthworks along the sandstone ridge.  Trees would have been much easier to clear from the ridge than from the plain below and several Iron Age families would have lived in huts within the fort, built to take advantage of the commanding views.

Birches in Snidley Moor Wood

From here the path turns away from the escarpment and the din of the motorway, entering Snidley Moor Wood following the Ridgeway, an old sunken lane that is a reminder that the sandstone ridge formed an important trading route leading south from the Mersey from prehistoric times. The ridgeway would have formed a drier and safer way to travel than through the wet and densely wooded Cheshire plain.

There are three woods here on the sandstone escarpment – Snidley Moor, Woodhouse Hill and Frodsham Hill Wood, collectively managed by the Woodland Trust and forming the second largest continuous block of broad-leaved woodland in the county.  Volunteers clear some of the rhododendron each winter and replant the banks with oak and other native trees.

The Ridgeway through Snidley Moor Wood

Soon after entering Snidley Moor Wood there is an old, gnarled silver birch tree which is estimated to be at least 100 years old – a considerable age for a silver birch. Tucked into a crevice in the trunk is a book left by the Tree Officer, in which passers-by leave their thoughts and memories of the woodland, to be collect in a Tree Book.

The oldest silver birch

The oldest silver birch plaque

Last time I passed this way, in January 2011, I noted that, being owned and managed by the Woodland Trust, this woodland was under no threat from the government’s plans to sell all English woodland along with nationally owned nature reserves. Now, following a huge public outcry and successful campaign, the government has done a complete U-turn, recently announcing the decision to place England’s public forests in trust for future generations, to be managed by a new independent authority.  If, as Auden wrote in ‘Bucolics, II: Woods’, ‘a culture is no better than its woods’, then perhaps the successful campaign against the privatisation of a national asset is a good sign.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

Stubble and power station vapour columns

For a while we walked along with John, another member of the retired fraternity free to wander country tracks and lanes while others remained tied to their desks. He had grown up, gone to school and worked within sight of the sandstone ridge, and had walked the footpaths of north Cheshire for years. On this particular day he was following one of the many circular walks that follow the Trail for part of the way.  We separated at the edge of the woodland where, beyond a field of stubble, we could see the condensation columns rising from Fiddler’s Ferry power station.

Bernie and I pushed on further down the Trail on rising ground with distant views of the Mersey estuary, following the edge of  woodland towards Alvanley Cliff.  As we walked, we talked, recalling that ten years ago to the day we had been also walked – part of the estimated two million who joined the largest ever political demonstration in the UK, marching through central London in a vain attempt to dissuade the British and American governments from plans to invade Iraq.

It was the largest protest in history: on 15 February 2003, over 15 million people marched against impending war in over 800 cities around the world.  New York Times writer Patrick Tyler wrote that the scale of the protests showed that there were ‘two superpowers on the planet – the United States, and worldwide public opinion’.  What was striking about the London protest in our memory was not just its scale, but the fact that it was not comprised solely of those whom a cynic might dub ‘the usual suspects’.  Here were people of all classes, parties and faiths.  There were socialists and conservatives, Quakers, Muslims, and Catholics, children and elderly people, and many, many who had never been on a demonstration before.  There were the Welwyn Hatfield Individuals Against the War, and many others with simple, home made banners.  I tried to capture a sense of this in the photos I took that day, which can be viewed in the gallery at the end of this post.

As we walked on, we chewed over whether the protest was a failure.  It looks that way, of course, with the invasion coming just a month later. Understandably some said ‘We marched in unprecedented numbers and still they went to war, still they ignored us – so what’s the point of marching again?’  To which one answer might be that consequences often ripple out from such protests over the long term: echoes, perhaps, in other global actions, such as Occupy or the One Billion Rising protests of the previous day.

A second response has to be that not protesting in such circumstances seems unthinkable: those, like Blair and Bush, who lie and deceive while pursuing immoral and illegal policies that lead to suffering and destruction would be left free to do what they liked. It’s a matter of conscience .  Not in My Name.  And, anyway, the objections to the war have been proved right: there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the invasion was a disaster, bringing massive violence and suffering to Iraq, a country that remains unstable and traumatised.

4,421 American soldiers killed and almost 32,000 wounded. An estimated 106,348 civilian Iraqi deaths.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz put the cost of the Iraq operation at $3 trillion. The International Organization for Migration estimates that in the civil war that followed the invasion, as many as 1.6 million Iraqis were internally displaced, representing 5.5% of the population.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, following Dave Eggers’ recommendation in a Guardian interview recently.  Filkins is a reporter for The New York Times, and the book is a collage of memories of time spent in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, during the period of Taliban rule, then covering the American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and culminating with his experience  in Iraq in the years following the American invasion. Filkins doesn’t provide any analysis, or even a chronological narrative; instead he offers a series of visceral anecdotes and impressions, rooted in vivid portraits of individuals – Iraqi civilians, insurgents and American soldiers – caught up in escalating cycles of horrific violence.  He draws no conclusions, offers no morals: but the overall impression left after reading is of the futility and terrible waste of it all (both in lives and money), both for Iraqis and Americans.

There’s another thing that resonates across the decade since 15 February 2003: the spectacle of virtually the entire political class ignoring declared wish of the British people, expressed both in the scale of the protest and in opinion polls.  Subsequent events from the scandal of MP’s expenses to the scandal of bankers’ bonuses, tax evasion and more have not done much to reinforce confidence in democracy, politicians or the rest of the elite that rules over us.

One thing I remember about that day is that before joining the march I visited the Annely Juda Gallery off Oxford Street to see the David Hockney exhibition, Painting on Paper (critically reviewed at the time in The Guardian by Adrian Searle).  Hockney’s latest wheeze at the time was painting portraits and large landscapes in watercolour. I bought a couple of posters – including this one of a cherry tree in full blossom.  Rolled up in a long cardboard tube I thought they might be construed as an offensive weapon if I carried them on the march, so I asked for them to be posted home.  I needn’t have worried: the protest, given its size, was policed remarkably lightly.  I recall coming out of the gallery into eerily empty streets – blocked off by police in readiness for the march.

David Hockney Cherry Blossom, 2002

David Hockney Cherry Blossom, 2002

So, anyway, Bernie and me are walking along this ridge of Triassic sandstone, laid down in desert conditions between 225 and 195 million years ago.  As the Trail turns south along Alvanley Cliff, the sky id deepest blue and the views, first across the Mersey estuary and then towards the Welsh border, are crisp and clear.

From Alvanley Cliff

Looking back to the Mersy estuary from Alvanley

Years ago, when I first walked the Trail with Rita, as we passed this way we would see a typical timber-framed Cheshire house in the process of being being restored.  This was Austerson Old Hall, and it had actually been moved across the county to be re-sited here, looking west towards the Welsh border.  The timber framed hall is a Grade II* listed building and was brought 27 miles from Austerson, a hamlet near Nantwich, and reassembled here between 1974 and 1986 by a local architect.

Austerson Old Hall

At the southern end of Alvanley Cliff the trail is forced to detour onto the busy road past Manley village school on one side of the road and several extensive properties on the other.  We both became exercised about the way that the rich can infringe the right to roam. I mused that this is what the total triumph of private ownership would be like – walking forever along the road, with 4X4s roaring past.

Well, the fields belong to the farmers
And the forests belong to the king
These days our pleasures are all behind fences
We have to pay for everything
- Billy Bragg, ‘The Beach Is Free’

Manley Common

The trail follows the road under the continuation of the sandstone ridge, here called Simmonds Hill, before turning off across the fields towards Manley Common. In 1860, Manley was described as ‘a wild bleak and scattered township’.  Today, it pleasant, attractive and comfortably Cheshire.  Potatoes are traditionally grown in this area, handy for local markets, and we would often buy a sack of Cheshire reds from the farm shop in the village.  I had forgotten that there is a sort of cafe here, with tables and chairs outside.  As we passed a sign told of fresh vegetable soup on offer, but we had had packed sarnies so we walked on.

All along the sandstone ridge, there were once sandstone quarries that produced the stone used in many local buildings. There was one here at Manley: in 1870-72, John Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Manley as having had, in 1851, a population of 395, which had fallen by 1861 to 294. ‘The decrease of population was caused by discontinuance of employment in stone quarries’.

Manley Common and Simmonds Hill

Leaving the Common,surrounded by early 19th century cottages, the path heads due east towards the looming bulk of the Delamere Forest conifers.  Looking back, there are fine views of the sandstone ridge at Simmonds Hill.

Entering Delamere Forest: mud!

Last year was reported to have been the second-wettest year in England for at least a century: certainly, I can’t remember the ground being so saturated.  As we walked, we were constantly negotiating our way around or through expanses of mud.  We looked out across fields sheets of water still stood from this winter’s rains.  We encountered a particularly muddy patch as we entered Delamere Forest.

The Forest is a vestige of the Norman hunting forest of Mara and Mondrum, which by the 14th century stretched from the Mersey at Frodsham down to Nantwich, and from the Gowy across to the Weaver.  The name came from ‘foresta de la mara’, the forest of the mere or lake. Hunting was forbidden except for the privileged few; and there were big fines for the illegal extraction of timber, or cattle grazing.  The Master Forester lived in a sandstone lodge on top of the Old Pale which lies just off the Trail.

The Forest is managed now by the Forestry Commission: this would have been one of the areas of woodland threatened by government plans (now abandoned) to sell off publicly owned woodland.  Delamere is an area of mixed woodland, encompassing meres, bogs and mosses, and criss-crossed by innumerable footpaths and cycle tracks: here it’s crucial to keep looking for the yellow footprint signs marking the Sandstone Trail.

In Delamere Forest

Delamere Forest is Cheshire’s largest remaining area of woodland, some of it coniferous, but a good proportion deciduous – primarily silver birch that colonise the ground that is too wet for conifers to grow.  The stands of birch always remind me of paintings by Peter Doig.

Delamere Forest: silver birch and conifers

Silver birches in Delamere Forest

Silver birches in Delamere Forest

Another predominant feature of the Forest are the many meres and marshes. Around 18,000 years ago, Cheshire marked the southern edge of the last glaciation, and as the ice retreated great meltwater lakes or meres flooded parts of the Cheshire Plain.  Most of these lakes later dried out, leaving the many peaty hollows or mosses that marked the Cheshire landscape until fairly recently, when most outside the Forest were drained and ploughed for agriculture.

A Delamere moss

A Delamere moss

In Delamere Forest, some mosses have been allowed to reflood, while a few original glacial meres still survive.  On a bright sunny day like last Friday, the stands of silver birch were crisply reflected in the waters of  one of these.

Delamere: reflections of silver birch

Delamere: reflections of silver birch

The Trail follows a wide loop through the Forest before it straightens up and heads south.  We made a detour up to the Old Pale, one of the highest points in Cheshire, which has become one of my favourite places since we discovered it a couple of years back.  It’s a fantastic site, especially on a clear day like last Friday when the views are spectacular.

Approaching the Old Pale

Approaching the Old Pale from the Trail, the first thing that you see is the 21st century: three tall telecommunication masts.  But when you reach the summit, you are drawn into the past.

In terms of public access, this is a new site.  Before the Forestry Commission purchased just over 338 acres of land here on the southern edge of the Forest in 2000, this was densely-wooded high ground off limits to the public.  Since then, the Commission has cleared the summit and planted the area with a mixture of broadleaved and coniferous trees.

The summit of the Old Pale

At the summit, a stone plinth sits atop a circular toposcope that delineates the landscape features of nine counties which can be seen from this vantage point.

The circular toposcope on Pale Heights

From Pale Heights you look out over the Cheshire plain – towards the west rise the hills of the Clwydian Range and the peaks of Snowdonia; to the north lies the Mersey; to the east, Manchester and, beyond, the distant Pennines.  Beyond the Cheshire lowlands – as stone markers positioned around the summit reveal – you can see as far as Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Lancashire (for some reason Merseyside is omitted).

One of the stone county markers

The plinth at the summit of Old Pale

On the plinth is an extraordinary plaque: in words more lyrical than those usually found on such interpretative panels, it offers an overview of 220 million years of the Old Pale story:

About 220 million years ago, right on this spot, sand drifted on the wind and danced in streams. Red marl was deposited from rising tides and, after the earth’s crust split and rose up, Old Pale, the highest point of the sandstone ridge, was formed.  Later, ice blocks broke from retreating glaciers and melted into shining meres that shimmer and sparkle before you.

First came bog myrtle, birch and pine.  Hunter gatherers followed, building sophisticated settlements on the high ground around Old Pale.  Our links with them are the axes unearthed from beneath your feet and the ‘barrows’ of bones, now sadly gone.

During the Iron Age, between 200 BC and the Roman conquest, a hill fort encampment around Old Pale afforded refuge and defence against marauding tribes.  Then, when Roman legions marched, their swords glinting and flashing, they ousted the settlers and used the strategic height as a signalling station.  They built the road from Chester to Manchester and transported salt and armies, their chariots gouging ruts still visible today in the sandstone bedrock near Delamere school.  Later, this road carried carters and their goods, noblemen on horseback and villagers on foot, all hoping to avoid the cry of the highwayman and flash of his pistol as he thundered out of the gloom of the forest.

Through the Dark Ages, shafts of misty sunlight filtered through the dense woodland of oak, ash, pine and birch.  Ethelfleda, Arthur the Great’s daughter, built her fortress on the old Iron Age fort site on Eddisbury Hill as a defence against northern armies.  When the Normans invaded, the fort was abandoned;  only ditches and low earthen embankments remain.  But look carefully as dusk approaches and through the mist imagine the parapets atop these slopes.

The Normans introduced sheep, cattle and foraging pigs along with place names that have endured.  Old Pale was born from the wooden palings built to enclose the deer that peered from the forest shadows, grazed on the grasses and provided sport for the King.  As the 19th century began, the Crown took the Pale farms under the enclosure awards.  They enriched the arable lands with marl and the corn grew straight and tall, plumes waving in the breeze.

Today, dragonflies, nuthatches, treecreepers and crossbills flit between Scots pine and European larch.  Newts and beetles paddle in the meres and mosses, and adders slither among the ferns.  When all is dark and the visitors have walked the paths and cycled the trails, owls perch aloft and gaze down into the forest glades where trees gently creak and badgers and foxes hunt for mice and voles.

The plinth with its explanatory text

We come down from the Pale for the short last section through Nettleford Wood to the A54, where we plan to catch a bus into Chester, then a train home. In Nettleford Wood we spot this Wild Boar Sculpture, made by Stephen Charnock.

Wild Boar sign

Just before the A54 the Trail crosses Watling Street, the Roman road along which salt was transported from Nantwich to Chester.  The modern A54 follows the old Chester to Nantwich turnpike road. Travellers would have paid their tolls at the cottage at Gresty’s Waste, just near where the Trail crosses the busy road.

This is where we make our serendipitous connection with the Chester bus – arriving at the bus stop in the village of Kelsall just as the bus rounds the bend.  It takes us into Chester, where we step onto a train to Liverpool just as the guard blows her whistle.

Watling Street near Old Pale

Crossing Watling Street near Old Pale

It might have been the sense of Deep Time inspired by the words of the plaque on the Old Pale, or the news that a meteor falling to earth in Russia that morning had created a sonic blast that wrecked buildings and injured more than a thousand people: whatever it was, our conversation for the last mile turned to the whole 14-billion-year span of time itself.

The day before, I had heard Melvyn Bragg and his guests on In Our Time discuss ice ages, and learned with some surprise that, although the term ‘ice age’ is usually associated with prehistoric eras when much of northern Europe was covered in ice, we are in fact currently in an ice age which began about 40 million years ago.  Surprising as well was the revelation that during the geological history of the Earth the planet’s climate has fluctuated between Greenhouse and Icehouse states – and that the Earth has been in a Greenhouse state (when there are no glaciers, and levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases  are high) for roughly 80 percent of its history.  The most recent switch from Greenhouse to Icehouse began around 50 million years ago and culminated around 34 million years ago at the Eocene – Oligocene boundary with the rapid growth of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The discussion on In Our Time inevitably led to the issue of climate change today, the burning of fossil fuels in the last 150 years, and rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.  There was a consensus on the panel that all the evidence now points to CO2 levels reaching values typical of the Greenhouse world of the Eocene by the end of this century.

As we walked on we tried to work out what this meant in terms of the politics of climate change.  Does it validate the arguments of those who deny global warming is happening?  Clearly not.  But what about those who argue that it doesn’t matter – that either the Earth will regulate itself (as James Lovelock postulates in his Gaia theory), or that technology will come up with a quick fix? The response to those arguments might be to emphasise the tragedy of human actions and behaviour bringing about suffering and disruption in the next century that could have been avoided.  Because it is probably too late now.  As Richard Mabey expressed it in a Radio 3 essay last week:

Only the wilfully blinkered or economically compromised deny global warming is happening, and that human activity has a major role in it. But maybe a similar kind of denial, a refusal to accept extremely uncomfortable likelihoods, is blinkering those who believe we may be able to halt it. The last 20 years have seen nothing but missed targets and repeatedly postponed agreements. Politicians are too self-interested, corporate business too greedy, scientists barely able to grasp the complexity of what is happening, and the rest of us, the buckpassing public, too irrevocably wedded to our high-consumption lifestyles. And though it would be good to think we were mature enough as a species to do better than this, I wonder if we could tolerate the authoritarian governance and high-risk planetary engineering that would be necessary even if we were to find a solution.

Meanwhile, we will doubtless continue with our tragicomic street theatre of daily coping. Parishioners will rope themselves to favourite trees to try to keep them upright in gales. Policeman will improvise giant snowballs to block off sliproads on iced-up motorways. Crowds at sporting events will sing uproariously to frighten away the rain. And all the while we will say to each other, while both waving and drowning, “It’s turned out nice again.”

In the long view, across the deep time of Greenhouse and Icehouse, it is immaterial, and humans – if they survive – will have to adapt, as our forbears did. In her recent collection, Kathleen Jamie has a poem, ‘Materials’, which begins,

See when it all unravels – the entire project
reduced to threads of moss fleeing a nor’wester;

In the poem she ponders gannets gathering scraps of nylon fishing net and other rubbish with which to line their nests.  She concludes:

And look at us!  Out all day and damn all to show for it.
Bird-bones, rope-scraps, a cursory sketch – but a bit o’bruck’s
all we need to get us started, all we’ll leave behind us when
        we’re gone.

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7 thoughts on “Walking back through time on the Sandstone Trail

  1. You have covered a lot of ground here Gerry! I enjoyed the In Our Time ice age discussion and the Richard Mabey too, and was fascinated by the meteor fragments. It was a quite cataclysmic sort of week in all. At least we are still here to think about it! Delamere Forest looks beautiful – I have heard of it but never been.

    • Yes – I was trying to combine an account of the external features of the walk with what we were talking about and what was going on in my head. I don’t know how readable the result was, though!

    • Stephen – thanks for the information. Didn’t realise you did the Bears Paw obelisk, too. I really think that works like this add something to the experience when you’re out walking. So thanks for your efforts!

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