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Monday, 1 July 2013

Sandstone Trail Tale

I didn’t want to walk through Manchester. I guess I will be corrected by certain bloggers, but the thought of finding myself, late in the day, wandering around the murkier environs of this gun-crime city looking for accommodation worried me, especially as advancing years are in inverse proportion to the ability to defend oneself, and in consideration of weight I only planned to wear trekking shoes not boots.

Following the River Weaver to Frodsham seemed like a romantic plan, but continuing with the Sandstone Trail may have been unwise after my woeful performance in the south east some weeks ago.

The Weaver was majestic with noticeably more bird life than the canals, and worth seeing, but its pathways were a mixture of good cycle tracks and appallingly overgrown riverbank paths; even so I battled through and was glad I had taken it on.

I naively pictured Frodsham with a nest of welcoming bed and breakfasts, and quaint pubs. The first pub extinguished such thoughts. I was informed there was nothing but one hotel half a mile down a steep hill. The thought of walking there sharpened my weary mind and I used my phone. They were full.

It was time to use my staying-put-and-not-saying-much technique, which usually triggers deeper thought from the pub’s occupants, and this worked. A regular told me of a camp site a mile south east of Frodsham on a busy B road, (the Sandstone Trail heads south west out of Frodsham). Halfway to the camp was the Travellers Rest where I could eat. I would need to walk to the camp site, walk back to the pub to eat, walk back to the camp site, and back into Frodsham next morning, to start the trail.
Although the Sandstone Trail is marked on the OS map, I had a blinkered notion that I needed the guide. One would have thought that Frodsham retailers would recognise the trail as an asset and keep a good stock. I wasted a lot of time visiting two private newsagents, W.H. Smiths, the post office, and the town hall out in the middle of the local park. They were all stockless. By the time I started walking it was 10:45. 

The Sandstone Trail proved to be flawlessly waymarked, and despite my ability to get lost between my house and the shed at the bottom of my garden I never put a foot wrong.

A steep climb out of Frodsham to the sandstone outcrop overlooking the town was tough after months of flat canal and coastal walking - my knees were grumbling. The views north revealing the unbelievably extensive chemical industry of Widnes, Runcorn, the Mersey and the Dee estuaries were breathtaking. Even though this is nature despoiled one can only wonder at man’s capacity for such massive and intricately technical development which has been going on since the digging of those huge ring ditches and hill forts.

Continuing along the ridge, sometimes on top with  great views, and sometimes steeply up and down through attractive sunlight dappled mature woods, I was conscious of being in a rare environment with the strangely red sandstone, silver birch, old pines and heather. We have a few unique places in England like this including Cannock Chase and The Broads, and it is only by walking that you properly appreciate them. After the ridge a short road section followed by a field shortcut led to a surprise farmhouse offering refreshments. I had a pot of tea and a buttered scone sitting outside in the sunshine. The lady took a photo for me, and only asked for two pounds which was ridiculous - I gave her double that, spoiling the market for any impecunious or stingy followers, but I didn’t care.

My destination,  Delamere Forest, is another special environment and a joy to walk through and absorb. This had been a good nine mile walk through rare scenery in enjoyable sunny weather.

I asked the warden at The Camping and Caravan Club site to charge up my iPad Mini and my iPhone still leaving my Mili iPhone sleeve charger to be done. At 4:55 before the office closed the warden was concerned because the plugs had become very hot - heavens above, I didn’t want to be responsible for burning down the Camping and Caravan Club’s site, and perhaps the whole of Delamere Forest. However I persuaded her to accept the Mili for overnight charging, this item being slower, and maybe safer to charge. That meant waiting until 9:00am in the morning preventing an early start, but I was also told the station café next door opened at 9:00 so at least I could get breakfast as well.

Fellow blogger JJ who I had only met two days before when we walked together with Mick and Gayle on the Cheshire Ring, had sent me text messages aware that if I stayed at Delamere there was nowhere for an evening meal. JJ invited me to join a music train passing through Delamere on which he would be performing.  I boarded the 7:20, (second coach), and music was in full swing: JJ on squeeze box, a violinist and two guitarists, one a lady, and all playing and singing an endless repertoire of mainly sea related folk songs all to a high standard. Music continued at the pub in Plumley where I also ate, and we had more music on the return trip. I have never seen a group of musicians play continuously for so long. Afterwards I had a text from JJ saying my walk had been the talk of the train; I thought it much more likely to have been my tramp-like appearance and my out of tune contributions during the choruses.

In the morning I retrieved Mili from the warden at 9:00 then found the station café didn’t open until 9:30 - one tries to be philosophical about misinformation like this. I marched another kilometre to the visitor centre to breakfast, but it was 9:45 before I left, putting in  jeopardy arrival at Bulkeley, from where I could comfortably complete the walk in one day.

Rain started at 12:30 and never stopped all day and during the coming night. The delays and conditions restricted my walking to ten miles. Early on I climbed again onto the attractive sandstone ridges at Hangingstone Hill and Primrose Hill, but the plains below were shrouded in mist and drizzly rain. After that it was back to cow trodden fields, crop field boundaries ploughed out with no footpath, and grossly overgrown with long wet grass. I climbed so many stiles my knee felt as though it had gone through one of those repetitive stress tests that manufacturers use for a product representing the whole of its ten year lifespan in a few hours.

I quit the day at the canalside Shady Oak, which I mistakenly christened the Dusky Oak in a post. That may have been more appropriate; its only merit was the camp site, but even that in foul rain and with no other occupants was uninviting, and just far enough from the pub to make the trek in the rain off-putting.. The pub appeared to have been furnished from several differing house clearances, and was so remote that it had no land line telephone, hence no credit card facility. I paid for my meal with cash.

Lying in the tent afterwards with rain spattering forcibly on the outer fabric I pondered.

What were my options in the light of the continuing rain forecast?

I could continue, but that would mean finding another night’s accommodation and suffering increased dampness. Although the Terra Nova is brilliant and never failed in any way, in these conditions you fight a loosing battle against dampness.

I could hitch-hike to Crewe for the railway station, but the location was so remote there maybe only one car an hour. 

I could pass time in the tent and the pub for all next day hoping for improvement in the weather.

Feeling low in spirit I thought I would opt for the hitch-hike and posted to that effect on the blog.

Next morning it was still raining. I normally walk along the road when hitching, this being a mixture of relieving boredom, and fighting against the guilt of being a pauper spirit. With that in mind I thought I might as well walk on the Sandstone Trail itself, and decide on the desirability of starting to hitch whenever I crossed one of the few roads. It was now that ending the walk in the day filtered into my mind as a remote possibility, but I had worrisome doubts about that. Having packed up the wet tent I was off to a satisfyingly early start at 6:45 am clad in waterproofs.

I passed the potentially interesting Beeston Castle far too early to view, and then ruefully noticed its closed café. I had eaten my  three remaining Spar Shop fruit shortcake biscuits before departure. Another section of the sandstone ridge followed with the Peckforton Hills, but I was now marching hard through the rain and fighting for survival.

Now it was back to agriculture, and at one point I was faced with a dish shaped swamp field consisting of cow muck with that oily, rainbow, chocolate brown glistening on the surface. I was forced to wade through this gloop for fifty yards at knee depth nearly loosing footwear as I tried to extricate. I found a galavnised cattle trough of water and stood in it, shoes and all, but even so it didn’t bode well for anybody next to me on the train if I managed to get that far. By now that was looking like a possibility.

Quite suddenly I emerged on the Llangollen Canal towpath at a lock where I chatted with a passing narrow boat captain and his wife. They were self employed, delivering boats for owners. It was now only five kilometres to Whitchurch, the end of the Sandstone Trail and the railway station. Two kilometres from Whitchurch a café appeared. I had a buttered scone and a pot of tea for two, my first food since 6:30.

At 5:30 pm I was at the station having walked for nearly eleven hours covering nineteen miles, the longest I have done since I walked round the Welsh boundary in 2011 which was responsible for destroying the last shreds of cartilage in my knee joint necessitating replacement surgery. 

On the River Weaver

Frodsham and the chemical industry sprawl beyond

The only rest on the first day of the S. Trail

JJ (left) and fellow musicians on the music train

In the pub

Sandstone ridge scenery


Anonymous said...

Glad that you have come clean and have shown some reflective appreciation of THE SANDSTONE TRAIL. One of the best short long [I see the illogicality!] distance walks I've completed,see my recent posts, didn't want it denigrated in any way.
That aside I think you showed remarkable fortitude to complete it in your circumstances of weather and knee anxiety.
By the way I think your apprehension about Manchester gangland may be misplaced and I suggest we join forces [not literally] to walk the stretch you missed from Frodsham to Marple sometime.

Sir Hugh said...

Bowlandclimber - I would certainly recommend the S. Trail. I think it is difficult to find a walk in England of that sort that doesn't have a proportion of field bashing other than coastal or canal.

Your suggestion is interesting. My calculations say the part I haven't done is 43 miles. Are you aware that it passes through:

The edge of Runcorn

I would be delighted to complete the thing in your company. I think it would need two night stopovers. I'll give you a call.

welshpaddler said...

Hello Conrad,

My brother in law, who lives in Chester, and I have walked parts of the Sandstone Way and it is quite picturesque.

You might now have made a few ladies all of a tither with your shapely calfs on view! Or is a plan to ensure invites for overnights on future excursions.

Anonymous said...

welshpaddler - naughty!

James Lomax said...

You're well advised to avoid the gun crime city.

You might not be mugged or shot but you will certainly be assaulted with abundant evidence of urban nastiness, relative to surrounding countryside.

Sir Hugh said...

WP - no offers so far.


J.L. - Hi. It's good to have a new commenter. I hear what you say, but many photographers have ingeniously found beauty and interest in such surroundings. Despite my forebodings I hope I will be able to go and have a look along with BC.

Roderick Robinson said...

I'd have divided this up with cross-heads or shoulder-heads, (it's very long) but never mind, your selectivity is improving enormously. Throwing in literary allusions too ("pauper spirit"), a phrase that re-tempted me just recently. Having read the piece glancingly in the conventional way I re-read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph. Because of its episodic nature it was just as enjoyable, proving that there's no need to be burdened by strict chronology.

As your knees worsen, your other powers are being heightened. Try sitting at your breakfast table at home, ignore all that OS splendour, and put together something on the minutiae of what's visible. Plus your relationship (including irritations) with that view. If you want to reflect sadly on the fact that you aren't, at that moment, struggling against the terrors of cattle-gloop and unavailable accommodation, do it in terms of the items of equipment you've lovingly assessed and bought over the months.

Roderick Robinson said...

Say the word "forebodings" out aloud several times. I promise you'll never want to use it again.

Mark said...

Hi Conrad,
Considering the fact that I worked in Cheshire for a couple of years, I'm alarmingly ignorant of what it has to offer. I have been to Beeston Castle and although there isn't a great deal of actual castle, it is definitely worth a visit. The Northern escarpments of the Sandstone ridge always intrigue when seen from the motorway on the way to North Wales. I can see that someday I shall have to investigate.

Sir Hugh said...

Mark - The Sandstone Trail is certainly a good walk, especially the bits that traverse the obvious sandstone outcrops. The trail is marked on the OS map and it would be easy to cherry pick if that suited.