Many people walk across England and Scotland, and the route alternatives are so well-known that they have a certain inevitability about them. One such is the Cotswold Way, followed by the Heart of England Way, so that people can miss out the big city of Birmingham and all the nasty bits of the Black Country.
My route does not. The last organisation I worked for had its principal office in Birmingham, not London, so I visited the city regularly and knew it had a fine and vibrant centre interlaced by canals. These could give me a route in to the city; and research showed a way skirting, but not entirely avoiding (nor did I wish it to), the post-industrial areas to its north. I would rejoin the Heart of England Way in the varied habitats of Cannock Chase, and then go to the fringes of the Peak district by the Staffordshire Way.
Through Birmingham, 2012
Stage 28, Friday 12 October 2012: Chipping Campden to Stratford-upon-Avon, 13 miles
Barbara and I made a short break of Stratford-upon-Avon, catching a play the night before and then a morning bus to Chipping Campden. And the first thing we did was to look for Heart of England Way signs. They could have taken us all the way to Stratford, but the second half of the stage would then have been on the old railway south of the town, dead straight, level, and shared with cyclists: just a plod really, and I would be doing enough of that in the next few days. Instead, after passing under the final Cotswold outlier of Meon Hill – such a shame there is no route over it – we left the Way in the village of Lower Quinton.
Not far from its pub, a bridleway cuts across farmland past the 16th century Radbrook Manor towards the Stour valley; not a fantastic path, perhaps, especially as the fields had been recently ploughed and so we had to skirt field-boundaries instead, but probably as interesting a route as can be found nevertheless. The compensation is the bijou village of Preston-on-Stour and its eponymous river, which brings in Shakespeare’s Way direct from the Globe on the Thames! Surprisingly though, this enters Stratford-upon-Avon by the left bank of the Avon; we chose the far more interesting right bank before cutting back past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and King Edward VI school (where I had done my main teaching practice nearly 40 years before) to our B&B.
Stage 29, Saturday 13 October 2012: Stratford-upon-Avon to Whitlock’s End, 21 miles
A beautiful sunny day for this long walk beside most of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal. Though easy underfoot, just the odd muddy patch or two, there’s always plenty of interest alongside canals to make up for the simplicity of the walking itself: the putter of the boats, the activity of the boatyards, embankment and cutting, acqueduct and overbridge, distant views and intimate corners, the complete absence of roads to cross. I took my first break at Wootton Wawen. Half way, at the little village of Lowsonford, I nudged off for a few yards to meet up with an old colleague, Carolyn Brown, and her partner – though with Essex roots, they lived up this way now, and it was great to be able to afford the time-luxury of a couple of hours in the decent Fleur-de-Lys pub.
This way in, Birmingham takes a long time coming: I took my last break at the Victorian church just off route at Salter Street, typical of those built to support city populations but with no discernible settlement nearby. Then, just before where I broke the route for Whitlock’s End station and the train back to the B&B, a rude shock: the absurd vainglorious development of Dickens Heath, just plonked there, no attempt to relate to its surroundings at all.
Stage 30, Sunday 14 October 2012: Whitlock’s End to Great Barr, 18 miles
Back to the Stratford canal for its last five miles, having taken the first Sunday train back up the line. At King’s Norton the canal joins the Worcester canal, which I followed for its final five miles. Busy it was too, with walkers and cyclists, enjoying the clear morning in Birmingham’s outer suburbs, and the trains of the soon-adjacent railway that runs beside the line. There are occasional hints of the industrial, but remarkably few: the principal factory still extant is the model home of Cadbury’s chocolate at Bournville, and the other flourishing site is that of Birmingham University.
Eventually, under a short tunnel, the canal enters Birmingham’s Gas Street basin, roughly equivalent to the city’s New Street station as the principal interchange point between the many converging lines. This was one of the areas I had known best from all my visits to the city in the 2000s – its industrial heritage cleaned up, undoubtedly, but imaginatively so, and a place of varied retreat for many city-dwellers. My aim was food and drink: plenty in the chains up the steps, but I found the Canalside Café and Bar, a friendly place where I could sit outside and enjoy good beer and fantastically cheap food.
The scenery changed after lunch. Here I was on the main line of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, a principal artery for Black Country industry and built on a far larger scale than either the Worcester or Stratford canals. Though I was back on National Cycle Route 5 – this had intersected occasionally ever since Stratford – there was far less traffic, whether by foot, bike or boat. I only had less than four miles to go however before following NCN5 up the zig-zags of the deep Smethwick cutting and into Sandwell Park, a large green space busy with families (but the café had just closed). Here I picked up the Beacon Way, and followed it the three miles to my overnight hotel at Great Barr.
Stage 31, Monday 15 October 2012: Great Barr to Gentleshaw, 19 miles
The 22 miles of the Beacon Way stretch from Sandwell Park to the edge of Cannock Chase, and for me it was the right route in the right place. Today was spent entirely on it. It is, in all honesty, somewhat mixed: the first few miles away from Great Barr are a good example. To start, one plays hide-and-seek with the M5 and M6; quite how I got to be in the right place after the latter I’m still not quite sure. Then, after the A34, there’s a delightful little wooded stretch of Merrions Park, part of it laid out by Humphry Repton, whose landscape work I had encountered while working on the Essex book. The local highpoint of Barr Beacon has all-round views, or at least there would be if conifer plantations didn’t keep getting in the way. Some attractive farmland follows, surprising for the edge of Walsall, but after my midday break at Rushall post-industrial grittiness sets in, a few canalside miles notwithstanding.
My OS map around SK020014 clearly showed a housing estate around Goscote. Except that it wasn’t there any more: or, the streets, the road-humps, the street lights had all survived, but not the houses. I became disorientated, as one might. And you look daft consulting the map in a place like this. A truck came up, reversed, and parked nearby. I remembered Spielberg’s ‘Duel’. Just move on, Peter. Nadir though was scrabbling around in bits of brush and drizzle to cross the M6 toll road, looking forward to a cup of tea at the Chasewater Railway – but it was Monday, and its café was closed. Road walking finished the day, though as I waited for my bus to accommodation, I was on the border of access land, and tomorrow promised better.
Stage 32, Tuesday 16 October 2012: Gentleshaw to Stafford, 15 miles
And indeed so it was. I’d always thought of Cannock Chase as something of a Midlands counterpoint to Epping Forest, and to some extent it is, though it’s well over twice the size and probably more varied in its habitats. The start, over Gentleshaw Common, is lowland heath; the iron age Castle Ring hill-fort, has its Epping Forest counterparts at Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks; and then there is much woodland, deciduous and coniferous, traversed in broad undulating rides on the Heart of England Way, which I had now rejoined. The café at the visitor centre was a useful late-morning stop, though not as tranquil as it might have been with glaziers reparing windows and a large community group taking lunch too.
Beyond, the landscape becomes more open, with a thrilling view over the Peak district just before the 194m trig point – one of those ‘turn points’ that tantalise with their glimpse of what was previously hidden but is next to come. From the trig point, I left the little ridge I had been following for a while and dropped down on my new best friend the Staffordshire Way into the Sherbrook valley, the ferns glorious in their autumn colours. There’s just one more little rise, over Cat Hill, before the village of Milford is reached.
There’s a perfectly good bus service from here into Stafford, and I might have used it (as I would be rejoining at Milford next year) if the weather had been dire, but there’s a perfectly good canal (the Staffordshire & Worcestershire) going the same way, so I didn’t. A shame though that the last mile, off the canal and on the Sow’s flood meadows, was abominably wet, and it needed some quick thinking at the local Asda to get hold of a large plastic bag in which my boots could be hidden both in the excellent Sun pub and on the train home.
Towards the Peak, 2013
The original plan had been to spend a week or so walking from Milford into the Dark Peak. However, I had picked up a niggling achilles injury earlier in 2013, so I cut my plans back to three days. It proved to be a wise decision.
Stage 33, Wednesday 11 September 2013: Milford to Abbots Bromley, 11 miles
A day on the Staffordshire Way, or mostly, after linking up with it by the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal just after its junction with the Trent & Mersey Canal, in Shugborough Park. Here, the canal takes a pretty route through the grounds of this grand stately home. Eventually though, just before Rugeley, it was time to leave the canal system which had carried me so far through the Midlands; there are, as they say, ‘no plans’ to re-encounter canals to any great extent. Colton was a fairly unmemorable sandwich stop in the drizzle before heading off to the Blithefield reservoir, a sailing destination for the area but unwelcoming in what was now rain. With a bus to catch, I was caught out by the Staffordshire Way’s deviation hereafter – I had expected to go straight across the dam – and later by a less-than-obvious approach to Abbot’s Bromley; I stayed on Goose Lane rather than have to hang around for a while in this village, pretty though it may be.
Stage 34, Thursday 12 September 2013: Abbots Bromley to Rocester (and on to Mayfield), 19 miles
Today the Staffordshire Way led me through the open countryside of Bagots Park and across rolling farmland – quite tricky to follow around New Thorntree Farm – into the market town of Uttoxeter, which was my base for these three days. One flood meadow later and the Way, despite its name, crosses the River Dove into Derbyshire, re-entering Staffordshire just before Rocester. Though little more than a village, Rocester is home to the JCB earth-moving empire; its training base is passed at Eaton Dovedale, and the firm have paid towards the splendid adaptation of a former mill to the local secondary school. The factory itself is just to the west of the village. I spent a few minutes in the churchyard, and from here took the Limestone Way into the Peak District.
Use + and – keys to zoom to toggle between large-scale and 1:50,000 mapping
Stretton House is one of many perfectly decent B&Bs in Stratford-upon-Avon that are central to the town. The Great Barr Hotel probably doesn’t get many walkers, though to me its location was ideal; it caters mostly for the business trade bolstered by theme nights. I had arranged a B&B just up the hill from Gentleshaw, but shortly before I left home they decided to forego my business; they suggested a nearby farmhouse which replied to neither e-mail nor phone message. Thankfully, Britain’s worst-named B&B, Lichfield’s Bogey Hole, stepped gallantly into the breach; a bus service runs from walk-end to city centre. In 2013 I stayed on the camp site at Uttoxeter racecourse, the only tent among dozens of caravans; I arrived just in time for the last two races of the day, but alas failed in my attempt to win back the cost of the break from the bookmakers.