Walking the Sandstone trail: three characters in conversation

Walking the Sandstone trail: three characters in conversation

Sandstone 17

In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit characterizes walking as, ‘a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord’.  Solnit’s ‘three characters in conversation together’ describes pretty well the walk which saw (more or less) the completion of a project my good friend Bernie and I embarked upon many moons ago – to walk the length of the Sandstone Trail through Cheshire.  We were accompanied on this leg of the journey by Tommy, a freshly-retired former work colleague. Our aim was to pick up where Bernie and I left off nearly a year ago and walk the final 16 mile hike that begins with most dramatic section of the Trail before it ends with a sigh, winding its way across the fields and meadows of the Cheshire – Shropshire border, then joining the Lllangollen canal for the last lap into Whitchurch.

Sandstone 1

Tommy and Bernie stride out

After leaving a car at either end of the hike (rural bus services being virtually extinct in this neck of the woods), we set off from the Pheasant Inn at Higher Buwardsley up Hill Lane, an ancient packhorse route and salters’ way – a short cut over the sandstone ridge linking the Cheshire salt-mining towns of Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich with the old crossing-points over the Dee to Wales at Farndon and Chester.  Salt was a very important commodity at the time, used not only as flavouring but, more crucially in pre-refrigeration times, for the preservation of perishable goods such as meat.

Hill Lane is only one of many such ancient paths and lanes which the Sandstone Trail now follows, a reminder of the importance of these trails in times past, worn by walking feet and the hooves of cattle and horses.  As the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark observes in In Praise of Walking, ‘always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with
paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

There are walks in which we tread in the footsteps of others,
walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed,
while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along
the way.

We press on, treading ‘in the footsteps of others’, and soon reach the spine of the sandstone ridge that rises out of the Cheshire plain.  Here, at the southern edge of Peckforton Hill, we pass the Lodge, a picturesque sandstone gatehouse belonging to the Peckforton Estate.

Peckforton estate gatehouse

Peckforton Lodge

Peckforton Lodge is a reminder of the days when a monied man could buy up an extensive tract of land, with two villages thrown in: both Peckforton and nearby Beeston were part of an estate purchased by John Tollemache, 1st Baron Tollemache, in 1840. Between 1844 and 1850, Lord Tollemache had Peckforton Castle, a Victorian replica of a medieval castle, built from sandstone dug from a ridge-top quarry, now lost among the trees on the Peckforton Hills.

Local quarries exist all along the Trail, where sandstone was cut to provide building stone for houses, farm buildings and walls throughout this part of Cheshire.  I feel at home on sandstone.  It is the rock that reared up from the Cheshire plain at Alderley Edge, a few miles from where I grew up, and also the familiar bedrock of the place where I have lived these last fifty years: a city rose-red as Petra, Liverpool was founded on a sandstone bluff at the northern end of the ridge of sandstone which ruptures the Cheshire plain, and along which we now walk.

Bulkeley Hill (Wikipedia)

Bulkeley Hill (photo: Wikipedia)

Following the ridge the Trail leads to Bulkeley Hill, where the National Trust maintains a stretch of ancient woodland.

Bulkeley Hill

Bulkeley Hill

The name Bulkeley is first recorded as Bulceleia in 1086 and is from Old English bulluc and leah, meaning ‘pasture where bullocks graze’, suggesting that this was common land to which local villagers would bring their animals to graze.  Thinking back, I remember that the primary school I attended, about ten miles or so from here, was on Bulkeley Road

Sandstone 2

Name Rock viewpoint

There’s a popular viewpoint, up here on Bulkeley Hill, from which on a clear day it’s possible to look west and see the Welsh hills.  But not today.  Warm and dry it may be – weather we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of September – but, as luck would have it, today, after two days of azure skies, it’s cloudy and dull, the distant hills shrouded in haze.

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Through sandstone to Rawhead

So, no sight of the Welsh hills today as we make our way along the steep western escarpment towards Rawhead, the highest point on the Trail where we might have expected panoramic views.  Still, we found plenty talk about, we three ‘characters in conversation’.  The Scottish referendum was good for a mile or so, and provoked some pretty intense debate. (For myself, I’ve felt for some time that a Yes vote could be liberating for other places – like Liverpool – remote from Westminster and chafing under merciless policies they have not chosen.)

Sandstone 5

The murky view from Rawhead

Walking also led us to ponder the distances walked by individuals before the motor car arrived.  I have been re-reading David Copperfield in which Copperfield (like Dickens himself) walks considerable distances as a matter of course. There is, for instance, a period in which, by day, he works as a legal clerk in central London, then walks out to Highgate to assist Doctor Strong with his dictionary project before walking to Putney to spend time with his fiancée, Dora, then back to his home near St Paul’s. On another occasion he walks the 16 miles from Dover to Canterbury, arriving at his destination in time for breakfast.

Then there’s the early chapter in Wuthering Heights where Mr Earnshaw walks from Haworth to Liverpool and back – 60 miles each way – staggering into the kitchen at Wuthering Heights at 11 pm on the third day. But, as Rebecca Solnit described in Wanderlust, William Wordsworth beat that with an amazing walk in 1790 when, with fellow-student Robert Jones, he walked across France, over the Alps and into Italy before arriving at Lake Como in Switzerland.  They had covered a steady 30 miles a day.

That morning I’d read a review of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, in which she argues that the climate crisis is fundamentally not about carbon levels in the atmosphere, but about the extreme anti-regulatory version of capitalism  that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality – that ‘our economic system’ is at war with life on Earth. Epic walker Wordsworth also had things to say about materialism and losing touch with nature or ‘getting and spending’ as he expressed it in his poem, ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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Rawhead triangulation point: the highest point on the Trail

Beyond Rawhead the path follows a precipitous course along the edge of sheer sandstone cliffs, before dropping down off the ridge to cross the busy A534 Wrexham-Nantwich road (also known as Salters Lane, so we know what the traffic would mainly have consisted of two to three hundred years ago).

Sandstone cliffs at Rawhead (Wikipedia)

Sandstone cliffs at Rawhead (photo: Wikipedia)

At Bickerton women were decorating the church porch and gateway with astonishingly intricate plaits of white flowers: a wedding, or maybe harvest festival, in preparation, perhaps?  It looked like a scene from another time; I wish I’d taken a photo.


Holy Trinity Church, Bickerton (photo: Les Needham)

Past the church we headed up the lane and back onto the ridge.  This is Bickerton Hill, owned and managed by the National Trust, a geological SSSI for its exposed Triassic sandstones, and a rich mixture of open woodland and lowland heath. Beneath the scattered birches, purple heather was in bloom, there were bright splashes of yellow gorse, and we tasted jet-black bilberries.

Bickerton Hill is one of few remaining areas of heathland in Cheshire, but it hasn’t always been so: the abandonment of grazing in the 1930s allowed birch, pine and oak to grow, shading out the bilberry and heather that had flourished for centuries. But, for a decade now the National Trust has been working to remove the encroaching trees and restore areas of the hill to heathland. Grazing has been reintroduced to halt the spread of the birch trees which have threatened the rare heathland habitat on the hill.

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Bickerton Hill: birch, purple heather and bilberries

There were toadstools, too – the iconic ones, bright red with white markings, and familiar from childhood story books. Fly Agaric they’re called, apparently a reference to their use as an insecticide, crushed in milk to attract and kill flies. They also have hallucinogenic properties, and there is a long history of their use in religious and shamanistic rituals across northern Europe.

Sandstone 9

Fly Agaric: hallucinogenic if consumed

This was where we paused for lunch, with me handing round tomatoes fresh from from the greenhouse on our allotment. (What a summer it’s been for growing: we’re currently overwhelmed with tomatoes, and courgettes that seem to grow as soon as you turn your back.  This week we have gathered the first figs from a tree we planted three years ago.)

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Taking in the view

We sit on a log and take in the stunning views across the plain towards the Welsh hills.  The haze is lifting a little and some sun breaks through, brightening the scene.

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

– ‘A Walk’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

Sandstone 11

The view from Bickerton Hill

It’s difficult to believe, looking out at the tranquil rural view, that this was once a mining district.  But, as at Alderley Edge, further to the north and a few miles from the village where I grew up, the vein of copper that runs along the sandstone ridge was mined beneath the Bickerton Hills from the 17th century onwards. Nearby is an engine house chimney, all that remains of mine buildings demolished in the 1930s.

Up here on Bickerton Hill there is older evidence of human intervention in the landscape.  The Sandstone Trail crosses the ramparts of Iron Age Maiden Castle, one of a series of six forts on the 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.

Packing away the remnants of our lunch, we press on – past the memorial called Kitty’s Stone; placed at the highest point of the hill, it was placed here by Leslie Wheeldon, the benefactor who helped the National Trust acquire the hilltop heathland, and displays poems written by him  in memory of his wife, Kitty.

Sandstone 12

Down off the ridge and through Cheshire farmland

The Trail drops down through Hether Wood to emerge at the end of southern end of the sandstone ridge, close to Larkton Hall Farm. Now we are walking through a classic Cheshire landscape of undulating  meadows and hedges, the fields grazed by the black and white cows that seem as much part of the landscape here as the grass and the trees.

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Undulating meadows – and a lone hawthorn

Sandstone 14

Manor House Stables with Bickerton Hill beyond

We pass Manor House Stables with its extensive white-railed training course.  Tommy, who ‘laid his first bet when he was five’, fills us in on the details.  It’s operated by Tom Dascombe, who is gaining a reputation in the racehorse training world, and owned by Michael Owen, the former Liverpool and Manchester United footballer. It’s a multi-million pound investment and looked it: new buildings that appeared to house luxurious reception facilities for humans, as well as, apparently, state-of-the-art facilities for the horses, including an equine pool, ice bath and veterinary centre

Sandstone 15 Sandstone 16

Through the fields

Now the Trail took us through fields, some where maize had been freshly-sown, some golden with the stalks of recently-harvested grain. At Bickley Hall Farm, belonging to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, we encountered a herd of pretty fearsome-looking (but docile) longhorn cows, part of the Trust’s herd of Longhorn and Dexter cattle, and Hebridean and Shropshire sheep. The Longhorns are the Trust’s ‘living lawnmowers’, a natural way of managing wildflower meadows, heathlands and peatbogs for the benefit of wildlife.

Bickley Hall Farm longhorn (photo Tom Marshall)

Bickley Hall Farm Longhorns (photo: Tom Marshall)

Sandstone 18

The winding path

‘The traveller that resolutely follows a rough and winding path will sooner reach the end of his journey than he that is always changing his direction, and wastes the hour of daylight in looking for smoother ground and shorter passages.’ That was the view of Samuel Johnson, and he was surely right.  It was late in the afternoon and, as the Trail wound its way across one field after another, at each hedge or stile we hoped to see the long-anticipated Llangollen canal which would signify the final leg of our journey.

Sandstone 19

Willeymoor lock – and the landlady’s bridge

Then, over a stile and long a hedged path, suddenly we were there on the canal side, at Willeymoor Lock, one of those greatly-anticipated stages of a canal journey where a pub  invites a pause.  Certainly, for several miles now, what I had been imagining was a significant pause at the waterside with a pint of good beer.  But the pub was closed – it would open again at 6pm.

Sandstone 20

Taking advantage of the outside seating, we nevertheless sat and rested our feet.  This is the Llangollen canal, a branch of the Shropshire Union, that runs for 46 miles between Hurleston on the SU and the river Dee above Llangollen.  As we sat, the pub landlady appeared and explained in a matter of fact manner that she had run the pub for more than thirty years and felt entitled to a break in the afternoons.

We fell into conversation, and she explained that for several years after taking over the pub she had been unable to cross to the far side of the canal via the lock gates, suffering from a degree of vertigo even more serious than mine. So she had her own bridge built, offering easy access to the far bank and the A49.  But then she discovered that British Waterways was entitled to make an annual charge for the convenience!

Sandstone 21 Sandstone 22

Navigating the lock

By this stage we had realised that we couldn’t walk the last threee miles into Whitchurch since one of our party had acquired fairly painful blisters.  While we waited for a taxi, a barge appeared, navigated by a couple, and we watched (the way you do) as the Canadian half of the crew manipulated the key that opened the lock gates while her partner steered the craft into the lock.

Then it was a brief taxi ride back to our waiting car in Whitchurch, and a surprisingly lengthy drive (had we really walked all that way?) back to our staring point, the Pheasant Inn at Buwardsley. Now, sitting on the pub’s terrace looking out across the Cheshire plain as the clouds lifted sun finally broke through, I was able to savour an excellent local beer – a pint of  Weetwood’s Best Bitter, brewed not far away in Tarporley.

Later, driving back towards Liverpool, the western sun shone golden on the ridge of hills we had walked that day. And I thought about the pleasure of walking – something captured in the words of a poem by Thomas Traherne, a 17th century mystic and contemporary of Milton.  Born about the year 1636, probably at Hereford, Traherne was the son of a poor shoemaker, and – according to his biographer Gladys Wade, was a happy man:

In the middle of the 17th Century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness. He lived through a period of bitterest, most brutal warfare and a period of corrupt and disillusioned peace. He saw the war and the peace at close quarters. He suffered as only the sensitive can. He did not win his felicity easily. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls or the seeker for hidden treasure in a field, he paid the full price. But he achieved his pearl, his treasure. He became one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known.

Most of his poetry is mystical and religious, but in ‘Walking’ he wrote a paean to the secular act of walking

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
         Else may the silent feet,
                Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
         Nor joy nor glory meet.
Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
         The glory that is by;
                Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
         Yet not behold the sky.
And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
         The bliss in which they move;
                Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
         Yet never see nor love.
To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
         To mind the good we see;
                To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
         How choice and rich they be.
To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
         Admire each pretty flow’r
                With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
         The marks of his great pow’r.
To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
         To cull the dew that lies
                On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
         Our minds, as they their thighs.
Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
         The fructifying sun;
                To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
         For us his race to run.
A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
         May rich as kings be thought,
                But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
         To which we shall be brought.
While in those pleasant paths we talk,
’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
         For we may by degrees
                Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
         From viewing herbs and trees.

See also

Richard Thompson at Gawsworth Hall: Mock Tudor? No, the real thing

Richard Thompson at Gawsworth Hall: Mock Tudor? No, the real thing

Gawsworth 1

I Can’t Wake Up To Save My Life

On Wednesday I drove across Cheshire, through the fields and lanes of my childhood, to Gawsworth Hall, a Tudor half-timbered manor-house just south of Macclesfield. There, on the lawn below the rose garden, a stage and covered seating had been erected – an idyllic setting on a warm summer’s evening for a Richard Thompson gig.

Gawsworth Hall is the real thing: grade 1 listed Tudor black and white, one of the many that adorn the Cheshire countryside, telling of a wealth and confidence that persists in this corner of the north west.  In 1999, Thompson released a portrait of suburbia called Mock Tudor, and at Gawsworth he sprinkled his set with three tunes from that album. He made no reference to this on stage, but knowing something of his dry sense of humour, I’m sure it wasn’t accidental.

I arrived in mid-afternoon so I had time to look around the house and gardens before the concert. The house is a home, lived in by Timothy and Elizabeth Richards and their two sons who, each summer, organise a season of theatre and music on a stage erected on their back lawn.  Apparently, the Richards have been trying to book Richard Thompson for one of their summer shows for years, and only managed to do so this year at the last minute. Timothy gave a personal introduction to the concert, while later, as we filed out after the performance, Elizabeth wished everyone goodnight.  Free parking was provided, and the catering was a family affair, too – delicious home-made cakes and excellent yet low-priced wine in the cafe.

Gawsworth 2Gawsworth Hall: gardens

Picnics on the lawn

Another sign of the Richards’ hospitality was the invitation to bring a picnic, and  the lawn that stretches from the house down to the fishponds soon filled up with groups of picnickers, some having brought all the accoutrements – coolboxes, garden chairs and tables, even gazebos.

I spent some time exploring the grounds and looking around inside the house.  There has been a manor house on this site since Norman times, when the de Orreby family built an earlier hall in 1130.   The present house was built between 1480 and 1600 and owned by the Fitton family util 1662.  Theirs is a story of vaunting ambition, followed by disgrace and bankruptcy.

Mary Fitton was the daughter of the third generation of the Fitton family to live here.  She became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and is reputed to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  She certainly put herself about, having affairs with a succession of men at court, culminating in William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (perhaps the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

When she became pregnant with his child, Mary was ejected from Elizabeth’s court and sent home in disgrace.  For the Fittons the scandal meant social ruin, though Mary did not seem as abashed, having affairs with several more men.  She died in 1647 and is buried in Gawsworth.  By the time of her death the Fittons were ruined financially, too. Before the scandal they had spent vast sums on their property in the hope of inducing a visit by Queen Elizabeth. It has been estimated that some £10 million in today’s money was spent on creating a lavish Elizabethan pleasure garden with five lakes, avenues of lime trees, and a a tilting ground for jousting.

Gawsworth Hall: gardens

The rose garden to the rear of the house

Leaving the house, its fine rooms and its history, I emerged into the afternoon sunshine to hear Richard Thompson starting his sound-check.  Though we had been temporarily barred from the performance area I was able to enjoy a crystal-clear, note-perfect cover of  ‘Going Back’, one of my favourite oldies.  As the sound-check continued, I lay down in the sun with my own picnic, a glass of Rioja and Donna Tartt’s engrossing Goldfinch.  Perfection.

Gawsworth 3bGawsworth 3

I might try this in our back garden…

Soon, though, 7:30 rolled around and support band The Rails took to the stage. The Rails are a folk-rock duo comprising Thompson’s daughter Kamila and her husband James Walbourne, who is one hell of a guitarist. Kami is a fine singer whose voice at times held echoes of that of her mother, Linda.  The pair played a mix of traditional and original songs off their first album Fair Warning that featured gorgeous harmonies (think Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) and outstanding guitar by Walbourne.  Nick Hornby once proclaimed that ‘Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time’.  So no reservations there.

The Rails

The Rails

There were tracks from the debut album like ‘Breakneck Speed’, ‘Panic Attack Blues’ and ‘Send Her to Holloway’  (described by Kami as ‘songs so icky, and potent, and heart wrenching, they could have been written 500 years or 10 minutes ago, it doesn’t matter’), but for me the highlights of the set were their first single ‘Bonnie Portmore’ and ‘Lonely (Left Me)’, a song from a forthcoming Thompson ‘family album’ that will feature Richard,Teddy, Kami, James and Kami’s mother Linda.

There’s a great video on the Clash magazine website of The Rails with a few friends on a recent pub crawl. Kami and James are joined by Ed Harcourt and Linda Thompson, performing in two traditional London pubs: Notting Hill’s The Cock & Bottle and Gospel Oak’s Southampton Arms.  The video was filmed in two parts; part one can be seen now at: The Rails Head Out On A Pub Crawl. The second part will be premiered next week.


Richard Thompson: beret present and correct

The light was beginning to fade as swallows swooped  and dived above the stage when Richard appeared, looking trim and dapper in the trademark military style black beret.  He got down to business right away with a spirited account of ‘ Valerie’. Thompson is touring to promote his new album, Acoustic Classics, a selection of re-recorded favourites from his extensive back catalogue.  On the album there are several tracks – like ‘Valerie’ – that first appeared in electric band versions. The new recordings retain much of the power and attack of the originals, despite being performed solo on acoustic guitar.  That’s the brilliance of RT, revealed many times during the evening: he can generate as much dynamism from the strings of one guitar as can a roomful of musicians.

RT 2  Chris Bates

As much energy as a roomful of musicians

Thompson reprised a few of the classics from the new album – ‘Walking On A Wire’, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and ‘Persuasion’ – but, surprisingly perhaps, there was no ‘Beeswing’ or ‘Galway to Graceland’.  Instead there were three songs from Mock Tudor – ‘Hope You Like the New Me’, ‘Bathsheba Smiles’ and ‘Dry My Tears and Move On’.

Thompson’s dry humour and acerbic wit were, as usual, much in evidence – both in the lyrics and in the repartee between numbers (an exchange with an over-excited female in the front row concerning talcum powder, and a put-down for another audience member who had cracked a joke: ‘why don’t you come back for Ken Dodd tomorrow night?’)

‘Johnny’s Far Away’ was introduced as a song about ‘what musicians get up to on the road, and what the spouses get up to at home’ – ‘a bit of a sea shanty’.  ‘You have a sea shanty tradition here, don’t you, living so near the ocean?’ Then there was ‘Fergus Lang’, a bitter and twisted  song about a developer called Fergus Lang, a thinly-disguised Donald Trump.  It features the line, ‘Fergus Lang, he builds and builds/Yet short is his erection’, and another about Fergus Lang having a fine head of hair, ‘but only if the wind is blowing in the right direction’.

Thompson expressed his surprise at his new album being number 9 in the UK album charts (the first time he’s ever penetrated the top ten), and then, introducing ‘Good Things Happen to Bad People’, he observed that the song had been nominated  for best song at last year’s Americana Awards.  But had lost.  ‘So, here: listen to a loser’.  One song that is certainly no loser is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, in my view just possibly RT’s most accomplished song (though it’s a difficult call). There’s a new recording of it on Acoustic Classics, and he gave us a marvellous version at Gawsworth, decorated with filigree guitar work.  Here’s a great account of the song, captured four years ago on YouTube:

‘I used to be in a band, you know.  Paul McCartney used to be in a band, too’.  Back in the sixties that was.  Thompson noted that, looking at us, a mere 10% of the audience looked like they had missed the sixties.  For them he sang ‘Genesis Hall, his song about a hippie squat in an abandoned hotel in London’s Drury Lane.  Police evicted the squatters, and smashed up the building. At the time, Thompson’s father was a member of the London police force. The song, said Thompson, ‘tells you all you need to know about the sixties’:

My father he rides with your sheriffs
And I know he would never mean harm
But to see both sides of a quarrel
Is to judge without hate or love …

You take away homes from the homeless
And leave them to die in the cold

Another song that spoke to the experience of the generation making up the bulk of the audience was ‘Read About Love’, which perfectly captures the misinformation and confusion about sex experienced  by those who grew up in the fifties:

Asked my daddy when I was thirteen
Daddy can you tell me what love really means?
His eyes went glassy, not a word was said
He poured another beer and his face turned red
Asked my mother, she acted the same
She never looked up, she seemed so ashamed
Asked my teacher, he reached for the cane
He said, don’t mention that subject again
So I read about love-read it in a magazine
Read about love – Cosmo and Seventeen
Read about love – In the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler
So I know what makes girls sigh

Thompson had obviously been absorbing Gawsworth’s Shakespearian connections, pulling from his 1000 Years of Popular Music project Frank Loesser’s 1940s hip-jive ‘Dog Eat Dog in Denmark’ in which Hamlet is reduced to a four-minute smile.  As Thompson said, ‘You have to wonder whether Shakespeare overdid the padding.   Was he being paid by the line?’

Hamlet was the prince of a spot called Denmark
There never was such a frantic guy either before or since
He was a dreamboy, and like a hole in the head Denmark needed that prince

He bumped off his uncle and he poisoned his mother
And he drove his girl to suicide and he stabbed her big brother
Cause he didn’t want nobody else but himself should live
He was what you might call uncooperative …

That was followed by a more sober interlude: three short pieces about World War 1 derived from letters home written by soldiers at the front. Thompson has set the words to music for a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW, due for completion in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  They sounded very much like a work in progress.

Towards the end of the concert Thompson invited ‘an old friend’ to join him on stage, and across the lawn came Christine Collister who served as a member of the Richard Thompson Band in the late 1980s, taking the part on many songs previously filled by Linda Thompson before the separation.  Together, Collister and Thompson sang ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, followed by ‘Ghosts in the Wind’ from the 1992 album, Across a Crowded Room.  Thompson’s shivering guitar and Collister’s vocals made this a tremendously atmospheric version of a song that conjures images of a building that shifts and creaks, as if stirred by the memories locked inside its walls (again, maybe, when drawing up the set list, Thompson was influenced by his surroundings):

Now this old house moves
This old house moves and moans
The tongues of the night
The tongues of the night stir my bones

I’m empty and cold
I’m empty and cold like a ruin
The wind tears through me
The wind tears through me like a ruin

Thompson and Collister next collaborated on a spine-tingling ‘Wall Of Death’ (there’s a YouTube video, made some time in the late eighties, of them doing the same number):

Finally, they were joined on stage by The Rails to perform another song from that forthcoming family album, called ‘That’s Enough’.  Uncompromising lyrics about us ‘still falling for the same old lies’ echoed across leafy, plush, comfortable Cheshire as a thousand voices were urged to join the chorus:  ‘Times are tough …that’s enough’.

Richard Thompson tour poster

Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics tour poster

Gawsworth gallery

See also

Autumn arrives on the Sandstone Trail

Autumn arrives on the Sandstone Trail

Sandstone trail 10
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.

Sandstone trail 1

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.

Sandstone trail 2

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.

Sandstone trail 3

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.

Sandstone trail 4
Sandstone trail 5
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.

Sandstone trail 6
We were crossing another huge field, this one recently sown with something that looked remarkably like the ryegrass I sowed for green manure a week or so ago on the allotment.

Sandstone trail 7

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.

Sandstone trail 8
Cheshire railings
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.

Sandstone trail 11

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.

Sandstone trail 12

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.

Sandstone trail 13

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.Sandstone trail 14

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.

Sandstone trail 15

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.

Sandstone trail 16

Sandstone trail 17

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.

Sandstone trail 18

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.

Sandstone trail 19

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.

Sandstone trail 20

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost

See also

Walking back through time on the Sandstone Trail

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.

See also

On Bickerton Hill: the blue of distance

On Bickerton Hill: the blue of distance

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.

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.

Beeston Castle

August Bank Holiday and, remarkably, not a cloud in the sky.  We left Liverpool, where tens of thousands were congregating at Mathew Street and Creamfields and arrived at Beeston, where, in the castle grounds, a village church fete was in full swing – families picnicking, acrobats, barbecue, home-made cakes and lemon curd, bookstall, men peering into the innards of vintage cars.  All over England, under belated skies of blue, the same gatherings.

The castle occupies a fine position on Beeston crag, part of the sandstone ridge that stretches across the Cheshire plain. There is evidence that the site of Beeston Castle has been inhabited since prehistoric times.  The crag was an important site for metalworking in the Bronze Age – a number of bronze objects have been found on the site.  Occupation contiinued into the Iron Age, and the banks and ditches of a substantial Iron Age hillfort lie beneath the medieval structures.

The medieval castle was begun in the 1220s by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, one of the greatest barons of Henry III’s England. A defence against his aristocratic rivals and a striking proclamation of Ranulf ‘s power, his fortress is approached via a ruined gatehouse in a multi-towered outer wall, defining a huge outer bailey climbing steadily up the hill.

At its summit is the inner bailey, defended by a deep rock-cut ditch and a mighty double-towered gatehouse. There is a castle well, over 100 metres deep and one of the deepest in any English castle.  The best-preserved part of the castle, the inner bailey, commands extensive views across eight counties, from the Welsh Mountains to the west to the Pennines in the east. Today, with clear skies and no heat haze, those views were outstanding.

Beeston Castle experienced a final blaze of glory as an important English Civil War stronghold, which finally surrendered to Parliament in November 1645 after a long and eventful siege. Thereafter it became a ruin –  highly valued in the early 19th century as a site of picturesque beauty.  As such, it caught the eye of JMW Turner, who painted the scene in 1809.

During the 18th century, quarrying was carried out in the castle grounds, and the gatehouse leading into the outer bailey was demolished to build a track for the stones to be removed from the site. In 1840, the castle was purchased by John Tollemache, at that time the largest landowner in Cheshire, as part of the Peckforton estate. Between 1844 and 1852 he spent a huge amount of money having the mock-medieval Peckforton Castle built on the hilltop across the valley. Tollemache promoted Beeston as a tourist attraction, even stocking its grounds with kangaroos.

Today the castle is owned by English Heritage, and is still a great tourist attraction. In the early 19th century the tradition was established of holding the annual Bunbury Fair in the grounds, attended by thousands of visitors.  After 1945 the current Beeston Castle fete was established, held every year on August bank holiday.  It was this that we had stumbled upon.

After looking round the castle remains and admiring the views, we followed the woodland walk that circumnavigates the outer bailey. The trail winds through almost 40 acres of woodlands surrounding the castle which have recently been restored in an ambitious woodland management project.

The path provides glimpses of the castle above, and passes animal sculptures created from willow branches, before reaching sandstone caves. Lasting an hour or more, the walk also takes in previously hidden sections of the castle moat and ruined walls.

Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall

On the way down to Uttoxeter today, we called at Little Moreton Hall, near Congleton – a stunning fantasy of a Cheshire black-and-white timber-framed house, complete with moat, long gallery and knot garden.

Started by Sir Richard de Moreton, a local landlord and tax collector, the oldest parts of the building dates back to the 1440s. It was gradually extended over the next 130 years, culminating in the south range and magnificent Long Gallery added by John Moreton in the 1560s.

It is one of the finest examples of timber-framed domestic architecture in England, owned by the National Trust. It is a Grade I listed building and protected as a Scheduled Monument. So picturesque is the house that it has been described as “a ginger bread house lifted straight from a fairy story”.