We had joined the Sandstone Trail walking up from the village of Bickerton to the escarpment where we paused to take in the view out across the Cheshire plain, the last of the autumnal colours still lingering. We had got lost briefly in the winding Cheshire lanes, burrowing deep between hedgerows and fields, and I stood and thought about getting lost – really lost – the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s little book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I have just started reading.
Solnit is the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which I wrote a bit about last month. Lost is small enough to fit in your back pocket, so you could take solace from it, I suppose, if you did get lost – locationally lost, that is: her book is a meditation on getting lost in all senses of the word. ‘Leave the door open for the unknown’, she writes, ‘the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go’.
As I gazed out along the sandstone ridge, stretching away to a a distant, hazy blue horizon, I thought, too, of the beautiful words with which Solnit opens the first of four essays that punctuate the book, each entitled ‘The Blue of Distance':
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless, shallow water appears to be the colour of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the colour blue.
Walk the Sandstone Trail and you walk on a ridge of rock formed around 250 million years ago when layer upon layer of Triassic wind-blown sand and river-flood pebble beds were laid down in desert conditions. Climb the escarpment from Bickerton and you reach on of the highest and most dramatic points of the trail, chosen by Iron Age villagers as a suitable site for their fortified encampment.
Maiden Castle is one of a series of six forts on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, hilltop sites probably first enclosed in the Neolithic, around 6,000 years ago, to mark them out as special places. By the late Bronze and early Iron Age these hilltop enclosures had become increasingly defensive, possibly to protect and regulate important goods such as salt, grain and livestock.
Maiden Castle may have been occupied during the Roman period. To the west, looking out toward the Welsh mountains, the fort is defended by the natural cliff edge, while two semi-circular ramparts enclose the southern and eastern sides. These once stood two metres high and were made of dry stone walling with a core of earth and timber. The fort had an inturned entrance that strengthened the weakest point of the defences. Excavations at similar sites have shown that these forts were once bustling settlements with timber roundhouses, storage buildings, rubbish pits, trackways and enclosures for animals.
Bickerton Hill is one of few remaining areas of heathland in Cheshire, a seemingly timeless landscape where views from the hillfort across the heather and bilberry patches towards the distant hills have changed little through the millenia. Yet this is not actually so: the heath has seen a variety of land uses over the last century which allowed birch, pine and oak to grow and shade out the bilberry and heather that had flourished for centuries as a result of grazing which ended in the 1930s.
For a decade now, though, under the care of the National Trust, work has been ongoing to remove the encroaching trees and restore areas of the hill to heathland. Grazing has been reintroduced to recreate and maintain a mosaic of heath and woodland. These steps are being taken to halt the spread of birch trees (still the predominant feature along the trail) for, lovely as they as they are, they threaten the future of the rare heathland habitat on the hill.
Bickerton Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and provides a home for many rare or threatened animals and plants, including lizards, adders and birds of prey. The heath is considered to be the best of its kind in the county. Working with the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Project, the National Trust have introduced a herd of rare Welsh mountain ponies onto Bickerton Hill to help restore the lowland heath habitat that across the British Isles is disappearing faster than the rainforests. Nearly half of this type of habitat has vanished in the last 50 years. When grazing ended in the 1930s, pine, oak and particularly birch saplings were able to flourish, and the Trust wages a constant battle to keep the saplings at bay – which is where the Welsh ponies that we encountered in several places, munching on the vegetation – come in.
We had left Liverpool in sunshine, but soon after reaching the ridge the cloud cover began to thicken, threatening the rain that was forecast. But the day remained dry, though increasingly murky. Indeed, underfoot this was the dryest walk we’ve done for quite some time. We walked the ridge as far as Larkton Hill and Hether Wood, returning on one of the many alternative paths to the Sandstone Trail. On the lower slopes the silver birches predominated, but with occasional stands of larches, their delicately drooping needles turned autumnal gold.
At the highest point of the hill a huge block of sandstone has been turned into a memorial dedicated to the wife of the benefactor who helped the National Trust acquire the hilltop heathland. Known locally as the Kitty Stone, the memorial displays poems written by Leslie Wheeldon in memory of his wife Kitty.
As we came down off the ridge smoke from a bonfire curled up from the valley. A few trees still bore their autumnal colour, though most by now were stripped bare. A holly bush was dense with red berries – sign of a hard winter to come?
I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.… if one keeps on walking everything will be all right.
– Soren Kierkegaard
The dog thought so, too.
Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.
– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Back at the car, it was time to restore the body with lunch at the nearby Cheshire Workshops cafe: a bowl of home-made leek and potato soup did the trick.