It was the day that the forecasters had said would mark a sudden change of season, with chill northerly winds arriving to disperse the warm, muggy weather we’ve had of late and remind us that it is, after all, October. It was the day that Bernie and I set off to walk the second leg of the Sandstone Trail, a walk begun in February.
We started at the car park at Gresty’s Waste, just along the busy A556 from Kelsall. I wondered about the strange name; the first part derives, apparently, from the Old English, graegstig, meaning a badger run, while the medieval concept of ‘the Lord’s waste’ or waste land on the edge of a manor or lord’s estate which could be used communally, explains the rest.
From the car park, the Trail drops down beneath tall pines into a valley called Hindswell Gutter, before crossing a small stream and rising again to reach Primrosehill Wood, a southern outlier of Delamere Forest. It was here that things started to go awry. Soon after entering the wood, we had come to a place where two paths diverged with no sign of which one to take. I joked about ‘the road not taken’. We didn’t know, but our choice would indeed ‘make all the difference’.
I didn’t think it was possible to get lost on the Sandstone Trail, with its clear and regular waymarking, but in Primrosehill Wood we did. We emerged from the wood to find that we obviously adrift, but unsure just where we were (lesson one: you do need an OS map, even on the Sandstone Trail). After asking for help, and adding nearly an hour to our trek, we got back to the Trail – and almost immediately got lost again (lesson two: the Trail markers are yellow, like Cheshire County Council footpath markers, but they have an additional footprint symbol, so always look for the footprint).
To cut a long story (that probably added three miles and nearly two hours to our trek) short, we eventually got back on the right track on Wood Lane outside the village of Utkinton, which we had been wandering around for a couple of hours. This was not the best part of the day: the wind had got up, bringing with it squalls that we could see approaching from the Welsh hills across the Cheshire lowlands. They didn’t last long, but left us soaked and didn’t exactly improve the experience of being lost.
South from Wood Lane we followed a lovely old green lane, known locally as Gypsy Lane. Lanes like this were worn by the feet of farm workers or villagers or the wheels of carts bound for local markets. The hedges looked centuries old, with a wide variety of different tree species – oak, hazel, holly and hawthorn among them. These hedges are rich in wildlife, offering food and shelter for birds and other creatures. It was somewhere near here that we stood, entranced for a moment by the vivid red, black and yellow colouring of a goldfinch as it fluttered along the hedgerow, always maintaining a distance of a few yards.
The Trail here crosses undulating Cheshire farmland, through huge fields carved from the landscape by modern agribusiness. Many fields had been planted with corn which grew tall, rising to above head height. There were yellow corn cobs on each plant, and Bernie wondered whether these were being grown as sweetcorn for human consumption; I thought it more likely the crop was destined for green silage to feed cattle.
As the Trail heads south here, some of the best panoramas open up as the distinctive mound of Beeston Crag, topped by its castle makes its appearance in the distance, rising up sheer from the flatlands around.
As we drew closer to Beeston Castle, the view ahead became ever more dramatic. Turning into the strangely named Pudding Lane, there were the distinctive black and white curved-topped iron railings that I remember from my own Cheshire childhood. I was surprised to read in the Trail guide that they’re a unique Cheshire feature, now being widely restored across the county.
Soon the Trail crosses the Shropshire Union Canal at Wharton’s Lock. Originally the Chester Canal, the canal was built in the 1770s to link the manufacturing towns in the Midlands with the River Mersey.
As well as the canal, we find there’s a river – the Gowy that rises in the hills here and flows twenty miles across Cheshire before meeting the Mersey at Stanlow – and the railway line from Crewe to Chester and onward to Holyhead which we now pass beneath. There was once a railway station at Beeston, serving this small agricultural community and the tourists coming to Beeston Castle, but it was closed by the Beeching axe in the 1960s.
Beeston Castle looms large as we cross the fields beyond the canal. This must be one of the most distinctive landmarks in Cheshire, perched on a crag over 300 feet high. Excavations suggest that there was a Bronze Age settlement and an Iron Age hill fort on the site long before Beeston Castle was begun in 1225. The castle was subsequently modified by Edward I as part of his major programme of building forts to enforce the final suppression of the Welsh.
Unfortunately, having lost time by getting lost earlier, we had to pass the castle without going in for a look around. I had visited with Rita on a hot August day three years ago. It’s a great place to visit, with superb views across the Cheshire plain to the hills where unruly Welsh could be spotted.
After skirting Beeston Castle another castle came into view, but this one is fake. Peckforton Castle is, in reality, a country house built in the style of a medieval castle. It stands surrounded by the woodland acres of the Peckforton Estate at the northern end of Peckforton Hill. The house was built in the middle of the 19th century as a family home for John Tollemache, a wealthy Cheshire landowner, estate manager, and Member of Parliament. The Tollemache family continued to live in the house until 1939. It is now a hotel.
It was after 4pm by now, and the best part of the day. As the wind increased, the cloud cover broke and we were treated to spells of late afternoon sunshine. Looking back, Beeston crag basked in the sunshine.
In Horsley Lane, just before we enter the Peckforton Estate, we see a fine example of a 17th century timber-framed house, part half-timbered and part built of brick. There are casement windows and fine brick chimneys.
We strode on, towards the deep shade and dappled sunlight of Peckforton woods. Here we’re walking the old lane to Buwardsley village, through deciduous woodland with the escarpment rising steeply on our left. Soon we are out of the woods and strolling down the metalled lane to our destination – the Pheasant Inn where, attended by a Polish host, we were served a perfect pot of tea. It seemed a bit ironic that copies of the Daily Mail were lying around for, as Nick Clegg pointed out on his radio show last week:
If anyone excels in denigrating and vilifying modern Britain it is the Daily Mail. Every time I do open it, it seems to be overflowing with bile about modern Britain. They don’t like working mothers, they don’t like the BBC, they don’t like members of the royal family, they don’t like teachers, they don’t like the English football team.
The list goes on …
Indeed: and it would no doubt include enterprising Poles who come here to join the hard-working people of Britain. I wondered how many of those living in Buwardsley take the Daily Mail, but see no incongruity.
As the day had worn on, the wind had got up, backing from the west to the north, and with that the temperature had begun to fall, even as the skies cleared for a bright late afternoon. Autumn had come, without a doubt.
- Walking back through time on the Sandstone Trail
- Walking the ancient sandstone cliffs of the Mersey
- On Bickerton Hill: the blue of distance
- Walking and marching
- Beeston Castle