A business meeting in Cannock gave me the opportunity to fit in the walk around Cannock Chase I have been wanting to do. The meeting was on Monday, so the plan was to come up on Saturday, stay at the Camping and Caravanning Cannock Chase camp site Saturday and Sunday nights, and do a full day walk on the Sunday.
The walk has the following highlights: Castle Ring, RAF Hednesford, Katyn Memorial, Glacial Boulder, Sherbrook Valley, Shugborough Park, Essex Bridge, and Wolseley Arms.
|Date||20th April 2008|
|Time Taken||8.5 hours|
|Average Speed||2.4 mph|
|Dogs||Angel & Rolo|
|Map||Explorer 244 (Cannock Chase & Chasewater)|
When I sat down and planned this walk, I tried to encompass as many interesting parts of the Chase as I could – the one thing I could not fit in was the Castle Ring (map 1), so after popping into the visitor’s centre, I took the dogs up to the Castle Ring to give them a chance to stretch their legs before heading to the camp site.
The Castle Ring is an iron age hill fort situated on the highest point of Cannock Chase – 244m above sea level. The fort is believed to have been occupied around 50 AD by the Celtic Cornovii tribe. You can still see the perimeter earthworks, but not much else, although there are some fantastic views across the Chase and the Trent Valley (including a lovely power station).
Whilst at the visitor centre, I picked up a copy of “Exploring Cannock Chase” by John Roberts. This book has lots of useful information about Cannock Chase, and contains nine linked walks crossing throughout the chase – these walks are 5-6 miles long and might be of interest for people for prefer shorter walks.
It turns out there was a CaniX dog running event on the Sunday, so the campsite was full of dogs – fortunately both dogs were fairly well behaved…. after a fairly uneventful night with me and both dogs crammed into a small pop-up tent, and a hearty cooked breakfast, I headed off into the forest.
The first part of the walk follows the Heart of England Way westwards through the forest (map 2). Cannock Chase is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – a mixture of natural deciduous woodland, coniferous plantations, open heathland and the remains of early industry. Follow the Heart of England Way through the managed forest and past Seven Springs. Carefully cross the main road and the railway (map 3), and follow what seems to be an old road up the hill.
As you follow the track (Kit Bag Hill), on the left hand side through the trees you will start to see the remains of RAF Hednesford, the No. 6 School of Technical Training. Here several thousand men (and a few women) completed their basic training, focused on the maintenance of the air frames and engines of the RAF planes. Under a different title the camp continued until the end of 1956.
I had hoped to avoid the “running with dogs” runners, as although both Rolo and Angel generally well behaved, they can be a bit annoying on the lead (Rolo wants to play, which sets off Angel growling – and noone wants a German Shepherd growling near their previous dog!). Unfortunately I met them whilst they were having their briefing in the middle of the path!!
After eventually making it through all the dogs, we continued following the well marked path. The route starts leaving the trees and entering the heathland (map 4). A large proportion of the Chase is owned by the Forestry Commission who, until recently, were tasked with producing timber commercially – hence the huge managed areas of Scots and Corsican pine, were the tress are planted very close together. Nowadays leisure is also a key task of the Forestry Commission and over time more of the heathland is being recovered. A scheme “Saving Cannock Chase” is trying to drive this forward.
Just before the Heart of England Way turns sharply northwards, you reach the Katyn Memorial (map 5), which commemorates 14,000 Polish soldiers and professional people murdered in the Katyn Forest in 1940 on the orders of Soviet authorities. For anyone who wants further information, Wikipedia has a huge amount of information on the massacre and this site has a lot of information on British documents regarding the tragic events. The memorial is a very moving place to visit.
From the Katyn Memorial, continue to follow the Heart of England Way, this time heading north through heathland, to the Glacial Boulder (map 6). The heathland feels like a completely different place to the forest areas – you are unprotected from the weather and, despite it’s fairly small size, you start to feel like you are lost in the wilderness. The Glacial Boulder, weighing about 2.5 tonnes, is disappointingly small – it marks the southern limit of the northern ice sheet that carried the boulder from Criffel in southern Scotland to Cannock Chase.
After a photo opportunity at the trig point next to the Boulder, rejoin the Heart of England way – look out for a crossroads where the way crosses the Staffordshire Way, at which point turn right onto the Staffordshire Way. The route is extremely pleasant as it drops down into Sherbrook Valley (map 7), back into the tress, and follows the river. Follow the route, past the Stepping Stones (map 8), take the right turn around Harts Hill until you reach the main road. The next stage really annoyed me – despite being a national route, you then have to walk along the verge of a major and very busy road for about 1km before finding a pavement to walk on – outrageous and very dangerous with two stupid dogs!
Take the first footpath on the left into Shugborough Park (map 9), a rare survival of a complete estate, with all major buildings including mansion house, servants’ quarters, model farm and walled garden. Unfortunately, with the dogs, it wasn’t possible to visit any of the buildings, so I was stuck following the tarmac path through the park. The following story amused me:
“The deep cutting and the grand, classical tunnel portico were demanded by the landowner, the Earl of Anglesey, to protect his Shugborough Hall from the vulgarities of steam travel.” – Exploring Cannock Chase by John Roberts
At the far side of the estate, cross the Essex Bridge (map 10)- a Grade 1 listed packhorse bridge over the River Trent, despite being the longest surviving packhorse bridge, it is a fraction of it’s original size – only 14 of the original 40 span arches survive! The bridge was built in 1550 by the then Earl of Essex for Queen Elizabeth I.
On the other bank, bear right and start following the Trent and Mersey Canal. Now with hindsight, I would have tried to find the pub in Little Haywood, but instead I trekked further down the canal to the Wolseley Arms (map 11). The pub is a destination food pub, and was extremely busy, however the food was lovely – I shared a huge plate of roast beef and vegetables with the dogs.
Trek back along the canal, and head down the road at Little Haywood back towards the chase. Cross the road to Seven Springs (map 12)- At this point I would recommend (ideally with GPS, but compasses still work ;)) exploring this area, rather than following the popular paths. You need to get to Rifle Range Corner (map 13), pretty much directly South – I tried to avoid the danger area, as I wasn’t sure their current status. There are plenty of tracks you can follow – I had the amazing experience of rounding a corner to find a herd of deer cross the path!
At this stage my feet started hurting quite badly, so please excuse the rushed description as I can’t remember too many details! From Rifle Range Corner, cross the road into what is probably a very busy car park in peak season. Rather than cutting back down to the Heart of England Way, I again followed some smaller paths – past Fairoak Lodge, down to the Stonybrook Pools (map 14) (watch out for the cross country bikers) to Smart’s Buildings. Cross the road, follow the footpath and eventually rejoin the Heart of England Way – retrace your steps back to the campsite (map 15).
Except for my feet, I thoroughly enjoyed my walk on Cannock Chase – I imagine it would also feel like a different place in the Summer (albeit very busy). The one thing that really struck me was the huge variety of users, from dog walkers / runners, walkers, families, horses, cycles, mountain bikers etc – it really shows how different user groups can really enjoy an area together. Perhaps the only absence was (sensible) off-roading, as I believe that due to misuse all the off-road routes have been closed – and you can easily spot the existing evidence of illegal off-roading (the minority again letting the side down).