As this was the very last section to complete, I decided to travel in style, first class. Dave gave me a lift to the station in time to catch the 7.15 am train to Wolverhampton. The journey was relaxing, with free coffee and snacks. In no time at all I was making my way to the bus station for the no. 9 to Trescott.
The Monarch’s Way heading northwards was directly opposite the bus stop at Trescot, so I was soon on my way. However, the short-cut I took was not a good idea, leading to a padlocked gate with barbed-wire along the top. Although my path was just the other side, I did a risk assessment, decided the possibility of injury was too great, so back-tracked through nettles, brambles then over a ditch onto the Staffordshire Way.
Reaching the lane, I went through the small village of Nurton. Coming towards me was a tiny girl with flaxen hair and a broad smile, riding a miniature Shetland pony being led by her father. She proudly informed me that the pony’s name was Ben.
The lane became a path along field edges. Two young women were coming the other way, walking their dog. When I told them that I was going to Brewood, they told me the correct pronunciation was ‘Brood’.
Soon my route entered the formal grounds of Wrottesley Park then went along a quiet lane to Oakham. Here I re-joined the Staffordshire Way, passing an open area on the outskirts of Codsall where I had my lunch on a convenient bench.
In Codsall I had a coffee at the Station Inn before continuing my way northwards, passing over the M54 then shepherding a bevy of young pheasants along the track in front of me for some distance. They kept trying to get away, but there was no escape to left or right through the hedge.
Joining a lane, I branched left towards Chillington Hall, home to the Giffard family since the 12th century. Their ancestry can be traced back even further.
Gautier Gifford was hereditary standard-bearer to the Duke of Normandy. In 1066 he and three other amply-jowled members of the family accompanied the Duke to England. By defeating the Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, the Duke became ‘William the Conqueror’.
(Giffard translates to ‘Jouffle’ or ‘chubby cheeks’ in Norman-French).
From the Hall I walked along the quiet lane parallel to the mile-long avenue of oak trees leading to the eastern gates of Chillington Hall at Giffard’s Cross. At one time this would have been the grand entrance.
After passing through another belt of trees I made a steep descent to the towpath of the Shropshire and Union Canal. Several canal boats passed, the helmsmen giving me a cheery wave. There was also the occasional dog-walker and jogger.
A narrow path led up from the canal bank towards the lovely old village of Brewood. Here I had a difficult manoeuvre getting around a horse’s head which was cropping grass on my side of the fence. I was worried that if the horse raised her head suddenly she would knock me flying! Luckily this didn’t happen.
The first thing I noticed as I entered Brewood was the towering spire of the parish church of St. Mary and St. Chad, dating from the 13th century. The buildings in the market place were mostly Georgian in appearance with the Lion Inn, where I was to spend the night, dominating the scene.
Brewood had been an important centre from Roman times until the 18th century. Henry II, King John and Edward I all came to hunt in the surrounding royal forest and subsequent deer park. With the old roman road of Watling Street only a mile to the north, Brewood became a regular staging-post for coaches. In the early 19th century the London to Liverpool stagecoach, the ‘Emerald’ made daily calls to the Lion Inn.
Today, the Lion is still a popular venue for travellers and diners. I had a comfortable room which had a gabled ceiling with exposed beams. The dining areas were crowded but they managed to squeeze me in for my evening meal. Afterwards I had a stroll around the village before relaxing for the night.
Next morning dawned bright and clear. After breakfast I made my way to the Shropshire and Union Canal, passing 18th century Speedwell Castle on the way.
This ‘delectable folly’ was built using money won from betting on ‘Speedwell’, the Duke of Bolton’s horse.
Soon I was back on the canal towpath. The varied woodland canopy was starting to show the first of the autumn colours which reflected in the still water below. A few joggers and dog walkers were out enjoying the sunshine and two canal boats passed, one in each direction.
The canal crosses Watling Street, now the busy A5, over Thomas Telford’s ornate cast-iron aqueduct, built in 1832. Watling Street was originally an ancient trackway connecting St Albans and Canterbury with London. When the Romans came it was paved and extended to Wroxeter.
On the other side of the viaduct the canal goes through the Stretton Spoil Banks. Earlier canals tended to follow contour lines, using locks when this wasn’t possible. Better engineering techniques enabled Telford to take short cuts by cutting straight, level channels through the surrounding earth and rock. The Stretton Spoil Banks are a good example of the scale of the earthworks undertaken.
Soon after passing through the Spoil Banks the Staffordshire Way left the canal on a good track to another roman road which branched off Watling Street. From here a short path along a field edge led me to Lapley church. A small congregation was just leaving. I was shown where the path crossed the churchyard, but was warned that two horses ‘with attitude’ in the next field had caused problems with walkers. Coward that I am, I decided to keep to the quiet lane through the village, passing Lapley Hall with its ornate chimneys, then the boarded-up pub, no longer providing succour to weary travellers. But it was pleasant walking along the lane, as it kept to the comparatively high ground with pastoral views all around. The birds were singing in the trees, proclaiming that all was right with their world.
Just before the tiny hamlet of Bickford I took an untrodden but passable bridleway, hoping to link up with the Staffordshire Way again. Unfortunately, the bridleway petered out before reaching it. Rather than waste time looking for a bridge over the stream in the undergrowth, I returned to the lane, continuing to the Swan at Whiston where I had a welcome bowl of soup.
Just down the road there was a footpath that, on the map, connected with the Staffordshire Way. All started out well; there was a footpath sign, a serviceable stile and a wide track. Unfortunately, my luck soon ran out. After the track ceased to exist, a helpful arrow indicated that the path continued between a hedge and a fence. It was completely overgrown with nettles. Chiding myself for my cowardice previously, I decided to plough on. After all, it wasn’t very far. My trousers proved not to be nettle-proof and before long my legs were tingling. When I reached the stream, the way was barred and there was no bridge. Retreating, I reached the track again where I plastered my legs with anti-histamine cream before returning to the road, retracing my steps to the pub then continuing to Whiston Mill. Here there was another footpath to the Staffordshire Way.
As I was crossing the stile into a field I was caught in a sudden downpour. As well as not being nettle-proof, my trousers weren’t rainproof either. BUT, there was a thin line of a path through the wet grass which led to a substantial bridge across the stream. The Staffordshire Way along Preston Vale Lane was finally reached at the next field corner.
The sun came out as I stepped onto the tarmac. My wet trousers were soothing to my tingling legs. Light refracted through the droplets of rain on my glasses forming little multi-coloured discs. For the last mile and a half into Penkridge I was seeing the world, not through rose-tinted spectacles but rainbow-coloured ones.
After checking-in at the Bridgehouse Hotel I had a short walk around the older part of the village. As a charity shop was open I went in to buy a small umbrella which would possibly come in useful at a later stage.
The carvery was in full swing at the hotel when I returned so I had my first Christmas dinner of the year, roast turkey with all the trimmings.
Next morning, the dining-room was deserted so I ate my breakfast in solitary splendour. Soon I was on the towpath of another canal, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, which ran alongside the M6 motorway before passing underneath it. The noise of the traffic seemed to be in a completely different world, far away from the peace and tranquillity of the canal.
At Parkgate lock the Staffordshire Way left the canal, gradually gaining height through Teddesley Park then the quiet little village of Bednall, which has a church, but the post office and shop has recently closed. The path continued to climb towards Cannock Chase, with far-reaching views across the farmland to the east.
The Chase has survived as an open space mainly because the gravelly soil on the plateau is poor quality for agriculture. It has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with plantings of Scots and Corsican pines interspersed with tracts of heather, bracken and hair grass.
The route passed close to the ‘glacial boulder’ mounted on Triassic stone at a high point on the ridge. This granite erratic is thought to have broken away from an outcrop in the Southern Highlands of Scotland. In the last ice age it had been slowly carried by the glacier before being finally deposited on Cannock Chase.
I had my lunch on a low-lying branch of a tree which made a natural seat, then wandered through the heathland, enjoying the change of scenery. The bracken and some of the trees were just beginning to show their autumn tints. Here and there were patches of late-flowering heather.
The Staffordshire Way descended to the Sherbrook Valley then headed north to the Devil’s Dumble stepping stones where I left it, crossing the stones and continuing along the valley to the picnic area. Signs all along the way warned of unprotected mine shafts in the area, requesting visitors to keep to the paths.
After crossing the main road, the railway, the River Trent then the Trent and Mersey canal, I was soon in Little Hayward. While waiting for the ‘general stores with B&B’ to open, I went to look at St Mary’s Abbey, where a closed order of St Benedictine nuns is in residence. Dating from the 18th century the abbey has been rebuilt in the Gothic style.
My accommodation was in ‘the cottage’ behind the shop. No effort was spared to make me feel at home. After a luxurious hot bath, I mentioned to my landlady that I would be eating in the pub. She informed me that the pub didn’t do food, but if I would like to share some of the spaghetti bolognaise they were having for supper I was more than welcome. In due course I was presented with a steaming bowl of the bolognaise which was scrumptious.
After a leisurely breakfast, supplemented by goodies from the fridge, I left my friendly hosts to retrace my way back to the canal. My next stop was in Colton, less than five miles away, so I had plenty of time to kill.
It was a beautiful morning and everyone I met along the canal had a cheery word. At Wolsley Bridge I left the tow-path, crossing over the River Trent to visit the Wolsley Centre, a nature reserve. There were lovely walks beside the River Trent and around the lakes, where the trees were reflected in the still water, not a ripple disturbing the scene.
After a relaxing morning pottering about, I had a snack at the adjacent Garden Centre before continuing my journey along the canal for another mile, where the Staffordshire Way branched off towards the pleasant village of Colton.
Ye Olde Dun Cow Inn was situated up the hill at the far end of the village. I supplemented the snack I’d had earlier with a bowl of soup before being taken up to my room. This must have been the master bedroom with a king-size bed and a separate bathroom with a king-size bath. After a luxuriously lazy afternoon I feasted on delectable roast lamb with mint sauce, accompanied by a glass of wine, followed by Eton mess with lemon sorbet. Afterwards, my super-sized bed was super-comfy too. I said ‘goodnight’ to the cows in the picture on the wall and snuggled down for the night. This is the life!
Navigation was expected to be tricky on the next leg of my walk so I made a prompt start. The quiet back lane out of Colton joined the Staffordshire Way at Stockwell Heath following tracks and field edges to a high point overlooking Blithfield Reservoir. House martins were gathering on telegraph poles, getting ready for the big migration southwards.
South Staffordshire Water who own the reservoir are very particular about protecting it, so the route round the dam was rather convoluted. It was well-signed though, and caused no problems. Not so the next section. The Staffordshire Way favoured wet fields churned up by cows. I favoured the lane, but then there were more muddy cow fields to negotiate before I eventually escaped through the churchyard of St Nicholas in the historic village of Abbots Bromley.
The village is well known for an ancient ritual, the annual Horn Dance, which takes place in the first half of September. Starting early in the morning the dancers complete an eight-mile circuit of the surrounding countryside before returning to dance under the 14th century Butter Cross until dusk. The six sets of reindeer horns used in the dance are kept in the church and have been carbon dated back to the Norman Conquest.
I left Abbots Bromley along School Lane, not branching off across the fields again. This turned out to be a good choice, the lane soon becoming no more than a track with grass growing along the middle. Birds were singing lustily in the hedgerows under which grew a large variety of wild flowers.
The track reached a spot height of 436ft where it joined the Staffordshire Way again. Navigation became difficult as I descended by a tortuous route to the Storey Brook. The countryside seemed bereft of human occupation. I had a feeling of solitude which was overpowering; also, a little scary. The going got easier once I had located the brook. A tractor had marked the way through the wide-open spaces of Baghot’s Park which was very reassuring.
A short section of deep mud, brambles and nettles alongside Hill’s Wood led to a track which eventually joined Hobb Lane. Here, I turned my back on the Staffordshire Way, preferring to take a longer way along the country roads. I had already climbed fifteen stiles which was quite enough for one day.
After Gorsty hill the undulating lane headed north, reaching a height of over 400ft in several places with sweeping views across the countryside. The drivers of the few cars that passed acknowledged me as I stepped aside to let them pass.
The junction with Moisty Lane was at a high point. After that it was downhill all the way to Uttoxeter, passing the golf course, then the racecourse. My B&B was a busy one on the main road with its own car park, used by business men and visitors to the racecourse. I was in a wooden shack on the far side of the car park. It was big enough for a family and had everything I needed, including an excellent shower.
The nearest place to eat was a Wetherspoons where I had chicken wings with salad before returning to my shack. There were a lot of comings and goings outside with car doors slamming, but none of it disturbed me.
I presented myself for breakfast at 7.45 am to find myself the last one eating. The business men had long since departed. Rain was forecast for today, but it was still dry when I left at 8.30 am. The Staffordshire Way across the water meadows was muddy in places; at one point I was edging along a barbed-wire fence to avoid the worst of it. Soon I was crossing over the River Dove into Derbyshire on the cycle track beside the busy A50, which was heard but not seen behind a bank of autumn-tinted trees.
Again, choosing the lanes in preference to the muddy riverside, I continued to the little village of Doveridge then headed north across the main road, on high ground at first with good views to the east, and west across the Dove Valley. There were only a few farms and the tiny hamlet of Waldley before I reached Roston, which was not much bigger but did boast a pub.
As I approached Norbury it started to drizzle so I made use of my newly-acquired umbrella. Looking for somewhere dry to have my lunch I went into the churchyard of 14th century St Mary and St Barlock. A massive yew tree stood before me, the Norbury Yew. With a girth of over eleven metres this splendid tree is thought to be over 2,700 years old. More importantly, the ground underneath was completely dry, so I could eat my snack in comfort.
Suitably fortified, I continued along the country road above the River Dove until a bridleway crossed the river into Staffordshire again. With only half a mile to go the rain came down in torrents. My trousers were soaked; the umbrella was completely useless, getting caught in the brambles every time I crossed a stile. The presence of cows became ever more obvious. I finally met up with them in a large field, at the far end of which a stile led to the main road, just short of the Rose and Crown.
Feeling rather conspicuous I dripped into the bar to announce my arrival. I was shown a back way to my room, which luckily was warm with plenty of drying space. After making myself respectable I went downstairs for a very welcome bowl of soup.
In the early evening my husband, Dave, arrived with Rosalind and our dog, Tyson, having had a frustrating journey, with the usual hold-ups and traffic jams on the M5 and M6. We all met for our evening meal at the Okeover Arms in Mappleton, where Dave and Tyson were staying. It was a popular pub, with good food and friendly service. Our chauffer then took Rosalind to her B&B in Thorpe then me back to the Rose and Crown (in opposite directions) before his tasks for the day were over. It’s a good job he’s got a lot of energy.
Next day dawned fresh and bright after the rain. A couple from Germany had arrived late the previous night and we chatted over breakfast. They had relatives in the area and often stayed at the Rose and Crown while visiting them.
The first part of my walk was straight-forward, up Halls Lane, passing the oldest building in the village, Holme Farm, then along Slack Lane to Upper Mayfield. Here I joined an overgrown bridleway which led to an uncut cornfield with no obvious way through. Luckily, on my right, there was a track to the lane on the other side of a gate which was easy to climb, so I made my escape. The lane was unfenced after a cattle-grid as it passed through the open spaces of Okeover Park. Sheep were peacefully grazing by the wayside.
Reaching the road junction by the mill I made a slight detour to see the famous Okeover Bridge. On New Year’s Day, teams of hardy men and women complete a 700-metre boat race before jumping off Okeover Bridge into the freezing water 30ft below. After swimming to the bank, they run 500 metres to the finishing line at the Okeover arms. The fastest man receives the Brass Monkey award!
After touching base with Dave and Rosalind I continued my walk. I had wanted to go across Okeover Park to the viewpoint at Marten Hill, but the path was indistinct and I had limited time. Instead I went up the lane past Okeover Hall, branching off on a footpath that was ‘on the ground’. This soon petered out, however, and I made my escape along the driveway of Lee House Farm.
Rosalind, Dave and Tyson met me at the 695ft spot height and together we walked down the track from Coldwall Farm to Coldwall Bridge, with lovely views over the Dove Valley. The bridge dates from 1726 when there was a major coach road between Ashbourne and Cheadle. The route fell into disuse with the coming of the motor age as the gradients were too steep for the early cars. The milestone attached to a gritstone post informs the traveller that Cheadle is eleven miles away.
After crossing the bridge into Derbyshire, we walked along the rather wet path beside the River Dove. It was tricky-going in places, but we took our time, stopping for lunch and a rest when a suitable spot presented itself. We then continued between the limestone outcrops into the beautiful wooded ravine of Dovedale with its famous stepping stones, our journey’s end.
After taking the necessary photos, we sat on a rock to watch other people crossing the stones, posing for photographs. One woman even managed to fall into the river. The landlady from Rosalind’s B&B passed us on her way up Thorpe Cloud with her husband. She congratulated us on our achievement.
Dave with Tyson went to bring the car down to the car park, Tyson sure-footedly skipping across the stepping stones with enthusiasm. After a rest Rosalind and I made our way back to the car park with time for a drink before our chauffer arrived with the car.
In the evening we all dined at the Okeover Arms again.
In 1995 we had started the Dovedale to Cheedale section of the walk from the top of Thorpe Cloud, so it was necessary to climb it this time. Rosalind decided it was a hill too much so Dave, Tyson and I made the ascent. The path rose gradually at first, with a few muddy patches and rocky steps, then more steeply onto rock. We enjoyed the view, then Tyson and I posed for the summit photograph before making our way down to the valley where Rosalind was waiting.
By chance, I didn’t miss the view from Marten Hill. The first part our journey home went along the lane, little more than a cart-track, which led across the unfenced pasture. There were sweeping views to the south and west. Cows were unperturbed about our presence, taking forever to get out of the way. It was a pleasant farewell to a beautiful area.