Walking the ancient sandstone cliffs of the Mersey

It was our dog’s second birthday and a bright winter’s afternoon, so yesterday we decided to walk the first stretch of the Sandstone Trail, a path that follows the Central Cheshire Ridge – a range of sandstone cliffs which form a thirty-mile backbone running the length of the county.

The trail begins at Beacon Hill above Frodsham, and that’s where we started.  After crossing the golf course we descended the red sandstone cliffs at Dunsdale Hollow by the steep staircase of steps carved into the rock, known locally as Jacob’s Ladder.  The sandstone rocks 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 the layers in the sandstone that record the varying stages by which the deposits were laid down.

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 a stupendous panorama of the Mersey estuary from the Runcorn crossing down to Liverpool, with its two cathedrals visible on a clear day.

Looking east – 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.

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.

View of the Mersey estuary from Woodhouse Hill
On Woodhouse Hill

But, from here the path turns away from the escarpment and the din of the motorway, entering Snidley Moor woods following the Ridgeway, an old sunken lane.  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.

Areas of this woodland are recorded on the ancient woodland inventory, while and at Woodhouse Hill the remains of an Iron Age fort are visible, the most northerly of seven such forts strung out along the ridge through Cheshire – sites chosen for their commanding views over the plain.

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.

Fortunately, this woodland is owned and managed by the Woodland Trust, so is under no threat from the government’s plans to sell all English woodland along with nationally owned nature reserves. John Vidal, on his guardian.co.uk Environment Blog, noted the other day that until last week, barely any MPs – apart from Caroline Lucas of the Green Party – had shown great interest in the plans, despite more than 150,000 people having already signed the 38 Degrees petition, marches in the Forest of Dean and new protection groups setting up all over England.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

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.
– WH Auden, from Bucolics, II: Woods

Retracing our footsteps, we came to the edge of the woodland where, beyond a field of stubble, the condensation columns rose from Fiddler’s Ferry power station. (By the way, head over to Kathleen Connally’s always excellent photoblog, A Walk Through Durham Township Pennsylvania, for a proper photo of stubble)

As we reached the top end of the fairway again, we turned to look back the way we had come to see a fine sunset.

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