Hiking the Sandstone TrailSaturday, February 10th, 2018
2007 saw me complete the Gritstone Trail but it took me until the summer of 2010 to follow up on its western counterpart by purchasing a guidebook. After that, it was not until December 2015 that I got to walking along any part of the Sandstone Trail. The 34 mile or 55 km length is similar to that of the Gritstone Trail it links Frodsham in Cheshire with Whitchurch in Shropshire by means of a crossing of the sandstone escarpment that divides Cheshire.
Getting There and Away
One of the things that forestalled any explorations of the Sandstone Trail for real was lack of knowledge regarding public transport arrangements. Other causes such as the wearying intrusions of life were responsible too but the transport arrangements puzzle was to be solved using Monday to Saturday bus services 41 and 41A running between Chester and Whitchurch. Calling points such as Tattenhall and Hampton Heath were to prove invaluable with the latter avoiding any need to set foot in Malpas, though it would make a pleasant spot to visit.
With the bus transport puzzle solved, the railways were to play their part. Frodsham, Delamere and Whitchurch are well served while Chester became somewhere from which to catch onward bus connections. For train travel, the Cheshire Day Ranger ticket proved invaluable for getting to my starting points from Macclesfield without having to depend on single tickets. Stations where changes of train were needed such as Crewe, Stockport and Manchester Piccadilly were covered, which added to any peace of mind.
A Purposeful Division
The length of the Sandstone Trail is such that it is possible to walk it in two long days if you are pressed for time. That makes it a possibility for a weekend though it hardly is best to be rushing a countryside hike. Runners proceed at a different pace and should be able to complete it in a single strenuous day and I know of some who have done the same with the Gritstone Trail.
My own pace is a much gentler one than this and it is curious that I walked the Sandstone Trail during autumn and winter. This meant shorter hours of sunlight and light had faded to darkness by the time some of my walks came to an end. It shows that possession of a head torch is no excessive load during such months.
Apart from the first piece between Delamere Forest and Frodsham that I completed on the first Monday in December 2015, the others were done on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the same week in 2017. That made travel connections a little bit easier and meant that I started during the last days of October and finished in early November. This also was the mid-term break for schools in the Cheshire West & Chester borough so there were family groups out and about in some parts of my route.
Strangely, the idea of walking south from Delamere to Whitchurch in one sweep came into my head but good sense prevailed and I left the trail near Peckforton to reach Tattenhall in the dark. The same thing happened with the next stretch that returned me to the trail from Tattenhall before better reason got me to the bus stop at Hampton Heath after a great day of elevated strolling. It was just as well since navigation needed care between Hampton Heath and the Llangollen Canal.
With my four part route splitting explained, I will describe the walks themselves. The first section preceded a time of unfulfilling work combined with much to sort in Ireland while the rest happened during a much needed career break. In its own way, the Sandstone Trail book-ended a tumultuous time in my life.
Delamere Forest to Frodsham
Towards the end of 2015, I have outstanding annual leave to use. The prospect of legal works in connection with my late father’s estate was the cause of my hoarding the remaining days and there were two separate weeks away from work as a result.
The first was in November and the days were used to facilitate an elongated weekend spent around Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath as well as a day trip to York. In between these, I had time to address such things as a mobile phone upgrade and the purchase of a new laptop computer. The second week facilitated a trip to Ireland and that was preceded by my first encounter with the Sandstone Trail.
It was a bright Monday after a run of grey days that saw me head to Delamere Forest Park by train. Still, sunshine was not ever present so it did not become a day for much in the way of photography. Passage through woodland limited things further as it so often does. Nevertheless, the need for a day away from ongoing cares overshadowed any possibility of disappointment.
On leaving the train, I made for the Baker Way. This took me past a cafe and one car park to reach a lane leading to another one. Once beyond the latter, I was following a forestry track with no chance of any encounter with motorised traffic. Even on this weekday, there were folk pottering about without their presence introducing any sense of intrusion.
In time, I reached the junction with the Sandstone Trail and turned right since I was destined for Frodsham. It was to be the most of two years before I was take the left turning for a southbound hike. That was unknown to me in 2015 so I continued north through the woods.
Blakemere Moss was passed unperceived but I do recall the subsequent road crossing. All was quiet but I been along the lane before while cycling from Macclesfield to Chester in 2010. That was of a Sunday and I still remember the sight of numerous parked cars. It showed that Delamere Forest Park is a well used amenity that must be valued by many.
There was more tree-lined tramping to come on the way to Manley Common. The route may have been rambling but good progress was made nonetheless. In fact, there was plenty of time around aforementioned collection of houses before I got some road walking out of the way before crossing a field to reach yet another road from which I was released around Simmond’s Hill. Just a little way along a lane let to some off road walking that continued after another lane crossing.
While pottering along the way past woodland surrounding Alvanley Cliff, everyday life intruded with a phone call from my solicitor in Ireland. Later in the week, I would need to meet him but that was pushed to the future as I continued on my way after surveying a touching sign on a bench that lay by the trail. It was getting late in the day and I needed to reach Frodsham.
After two more road crossings, I was under tree cover yet again. My journey was to take me through Snidley Moor Wood and around Woodhouse Hill. Feeling buried inside woodland, Frodsham felt much further away than it actually was. These are good places to linger since modern life appears so far away.
Though the map clearly showed the trail following the line of the escarpment, there remained scope for wandering off its line. Woodland can have this effect so it often is better to get your direction right and not worry too much about precision beyond that. It was an approach that would serve me well on the final stages of my walk.
Arriving at the War Memorial on Beacon Hill above Frodsham around sunset reduced any scope for photography but there remained pleasing views over Frodsham Marsh towards the Mersey and Weaver rivers as well as those of Helsby Hill to the west. After enjoying those, it was time to drop into the town and find its train station. All this was completed before light finally failed and my train home did not leave me waiting for too long. Though relatively gentle, the saunter had been a delight.
Delamere Forest to Tattenhall
Much of 2016 saw the continuation of important time-bound work in Ireland that often saw contacts made from over there late in the working day or even later than that again. Such intrusion often meant that resting after a day of work was not as easy as it once was for there was a continued sense of being on call. Seeing something at the end of the working week often felt dispiriting for having personal space at weekends was more sought than it ever was. Now that I look back at it, the problem was that my working life felt a chore anyway so leisure time was much needed while also being much reduced.
There was some such work ongoing during the autumn of 2017 too though it was far less pressured. Mainly, it pertained to paperwork though some improvements to a house in Ireland had been ongoing too. Maybe that is why I had been choosing Sundays for walks in the Dark Peak and the possibility of an Irish bank holiday was seized as an opportunity to take in another part of the Sandstone Trail.
It started with a return to Delamere Forest, much busier than it was on my previous visit. Because it was mid-term break time in Cheshire West & Chester borough, the woods were full of the exuberant sounds of children. During my reprise of the Baker Way from Delamere train station, an enquiry regarding the whereabouts of Go Ape came my way and I reckon that I sent them the right way though I stuck with continuing on my way without checking.
It might seem odd now but my quest was some peace and quiet. Simpler pleasures like walking in woods or through other parts of the countryside suffice for me so I have little need for activity-based attractions like Go Ape. Continuing away from noisier parts drew me to the junction with the Sandstone Trail where I turned left to pass Eddisbury Lodge.
Surroundings grew ever quieter as I continued towards a crossing of the A556. This was more like what I was seeking and I reckoned that the busy road would present a barrier to family groups too. More and more satisfaction was being earned all the while.
Getting across that road was a tricky manoeuvre that had me wondering if a bridge over it was in order like in other places. Fast moving traffic on a broad carriageway made the prospect feel more like crossing a motorway. Patience was much needed to find any opportunity for a crossing and fortitude then helped to complete the act. Doing so was passing a point of no return.
Though passage through pastoral countryside lay ahead of me, much of this was by means of holloways that left one detached from the surrounding fields within a cocoon of tree cover. At least, that is how it felt as I passed through Primrose Wood with only occasional other strollers instead of the perceived throng that I had met earlier in the day. The added detached from that circumstance was reinforced when I finally reached Tirley Lane.
Height had been gained too so views had opened out over the Cheshire Plain where other obstructions allowed. My lot was the following of a well waymarked trail around fields and woods while crossing from lane to lane. As well as being pastoral, the countryside also was tilled. It was a point that passage through muddy fields of harvested maize brought home to me and there was even a field that was being ploughed and I crossing it.
All the while, I enjoyed the afternoon while pondering transport arrangements. Arriva Northwest was experiencing a strike that was resolved later in the year so leaving the trail to reach such places as Tarporley was not an option. As the day wore along, any daydreams about continuing as far as Whitchurch met a similar fate.
Landmarks such as the A51 (thankfully easier to cross than the A556) came and went while conurbations such as Tarporley and Hand Green scarcely add themselves to memory. Near Hand Green, I crossed the Shropshire Union Canal and passed under a nearby railway line along which I often have travelled between Crewe and Chester. The countryside now was more familiar even if I had not trodden thereabouts before then. Beeston Castle lay ahead me after becoming more prominent as I got closer to it.
Though an English Heritage site, the hour of day meant that I was not stopping there. There was a halt though after my spotting a strand of wire left across my planned route. Uncertainty descended on me so I returned to the reassurance of a signpost. In the meantime, the reason for the obstruction became apparent. Young cattle were being driven from a farmyard into a field. The farm moving the animals shouted a “Thank you” in my direction so my discretion was rewarded. From my own upbringing on a farm, I know how the presence of a stranger can mess up such operations so staying back is best.
With the wire removed, I continued on my way to the lane that led me around the foot of hill on which Beeston Castle is built. Soon enough, that was left too and I was planning how to end my walk once I had got as far as the foot of Peckforton Hills. It was near there that I left the Sandstone Trail after me.
Staying on the lane and the the subsequent track took me all of the way into Pennsylvania Wood where I should not have gone by rights. In my gathering haste, a sign had been misread and a friendly estate worker helpfully put me right after asking where I was headed. Continuing into the wood brought me to another right of way that conveyed me to Wood Farm. Pheasants were roosting for the night so it was not ideal but I had permission to continue and was soon away from where I was spooking any nearby birds. Hopefully, they settled after my passing.
More careful navigation got me onto Wood Lane so I was on tarmac again and would be road walking for the rest of the way to Tattenhall. What was gathering in my mind was a sense of irritation at my earlier lapse of concentration. More pressing, light was failing so a head torch was needed to light much of the way.
From Wood Lane, I turned left onto Birds Lane before eventually right onto Burwardsley Road for the final approach to Tattenhall. Despite the growing darkness, I still could track my progress and satisfied myself that I would be in time for the next bus to Chester. Thankfully, roads were not so busy either and I made my bus with time to spare. The walk had been a good one and any sense of embarrassment and bewilderment following my navigational faux pas was turned into impetus for finishing the trail.
Tattenhall to Hampton Heath
It was a sense of annoyance at Monday’s misnavigation that caused me to return to Tattenhall on Wednesday. There may have been emails flying around about tax affairs but there was space between these for attending to other things. An irritation had to be salved and a repeat visit was the cure. Episodes of sunshine were to brighten my mood as much as regaining a lost sense of navigational competence or being delighted by hilly surroundings.
The start was where the previous walk ended and, this time, I avoided road walking as much as I could. The advantage of having bright daylight meant that only map reading stood in my way and a first field crossing eased any nerves. Several more of these were needed before Dark Lane was reached and many had views of Beeston Castle as if to confirm that I was heading in the right direction. Crossing Burwardsley Lane brought me more field tramping until I reached Carrs Lane. My boots were well wet after all the plodding through damp grass and there could have been a blunder if attention had not been maintained for crossing from one side of the hedge to another was in order.
The day was passing quicker than was ideal while all this was done so I did not delay along Carrs Lane, Birds Lane and Wood Lane. Leaving tarmac behind me, I again frequented where I had gone the previous time. This time around, I skirted Pennsylvania Wood rather than passing through it like before. Passing where I made my previous error, I retraced my steps to reach where I had left the Sandstone Trail only two days before.
Rejoining it, I went through gates into the Peckforton Estate and enjoyed following a clear track with all the annoyance of Monday’s slight misadventure being exorcised. There were others ahead but they stopped to consider their plans and I overtook them. Height was gained and rewards enjoyed in the form of westward views over the surrounding plain. That added altitude was to be retained as I continued along the edge of the Peckforton Hills.
Bulkley Hill was the first of two National Trust properties that I crossed and it had collected more folk than I had encountered up to that point. Exactitude with route finding was overlooked in favour of keeping near the edge of an escarpment that offered eastward views over the Cheshire Plain. Tree cover was plentiful so paths were not so distinct.
Leaving Bulkley Hill brought me out into more open countryside before I again reached a slither of tree cover that would accompany me to Raw Head, the highest point of the whole trail where I tarried a bit in spite of both the time of day and much farther I was to travel. Soon enough, I continued on my downhill way towards the A534 after which more road walking took me to my second National Trust property, Bickerton Hill.
Light was growing more golden by now as the sun lowered towards the horizon. That added to the enjoyment of my surroundings once more height was gained. Again, more folk were out and about but they were soon lost when I dropped down to pursue a course that would take me around the base of the hill. In between all of this, I passed plaques memorialising the lady whose loss caused her husband to give this land to the National Trust. These too were touching affairs drawn from fond memories.
Before I left woodland for pasture, there was a call from my solicitor about some business but it was no intrusion. The timing was as impeccable as my location and it was good news too. Crossing a field afterwards lost more height before a lane crossing saw me continue around by Larkton Hall and Manor House (with its own horse training facilities that needed negotiation) to reach Shay Lane.
Scotching a daydream about torch-lit continuation to Whitchurch, I again left the Sandstone Trail to get to where I could catch a bus. Malpas was in my mind as a plausible destination but I was to do better than that. Staying on tarmac, I followed Shay Lane and then Cholmondley Road before making a careful crossing of the busy A41. To my surprise, I was to find a bus stop that saved me needing to go to Malpas. Taking a calculated risk, I waited there in the knowledge that there was a later bus if my gamble did not pay off. In the event, it did and I was on my way home after a satisfying hike along one of the best parts of the Sandstone Trail.
Hampton Heath to Whitchurch
Though that Friday looked dull and largely stayed that way, the prospect of completing the Sandstone Trail proved too strong. From looking at my map, I knew that I would be walking through pastoral countryside anyway. That meant that there would not be so much to occupy my camera so the absence of sunshine would not cause much in the way of irritation.
After arriving at Hampton Heath, I found a better crossing point on the A41 so that proved easier than the one before it. Then, it became a matter of following lanes until I reached where I left the trail only two days before. Though I had intended otherwise, I ended up reaching Shay Lane by way of Ashtons-cross and it was not to matter much.
Once I was travelling how I wanted, Hampton Green was only a few field crossings away. A ploughed field made the way across it look less clear so my adherence to the intended line was less exact than I would have liked. As well as having a machine working there, there was a farmer inspecting the work so I set aside any inclinations towards exactitude and continued on my way. In any event, the farmer paid me no heed even if tried a quiet greeting so I got the impression that I was unwanted so I kept going.
Straight line progress conveyed me to the next lane crossing from where I went around Bickley Hall Farm on the way to Chads Farm where maize harvesting was in progress. Though the trail goes right through the farmyard, I opted for a diversionary concessionary path given how busy it was there and how I dislike passing through other people’s yards anyway. There may have been some reproach in my mind for doing this but that faded, partly because route finding took a little more effort and convinced me that attempting this in the dark might not have been the best of ideas. The undulating nature of the terrain and the weaving line of the route saw to that.
Once I got across Willeymoor Lane, it was not long before I found myself nearing the banks of the Llangollen Canal. Navigation duties were relaxed as I merely turned in the right direction and kept going. Shropshire was not so far away now and sunlight momentarily relieved what had been a grey November day. Others were out strolling too and increased in number, the nearer I came to Whitchurch. Each landmark was ticked off in an effort to assess progress as signage became more sparse. In fact, signs for the Shropshire Way were to take precedence over those for the Sandstone Trail.
Even so, I found my way from the canal into Whitchurch easily enough even though I did not find any indication of the end of the trail that I had been following. Having had my fill of walking, I resolved to continue into the town centre and find the train station from where I made my way home. News came from Ireland that some business was completed over there before the train arrived so that was another cause of satisfaction.
Possible Future Encounters
When I completed the Gritstone Trail in 2007, it did not stop me traipsing the countryside in its vicinity. In fact, some parts are so near my home that such a thing would be impossible. Following the entire length of the Sandstone Trail could have something similar because there are parts that are worth seeing again. Trekking along a route sometimes limits how long you stay anywhere and I would like to revisit Beeston Castle, the Peckforton Hills and Bickerton Hill again. Shorter strolls that allow more time for photography would be a bonus around these parts. Seeing more of Delamere Forest and the wooded escarpment near Frodsham would pay their dividends. Often, an initial encounter makes for future visits and this may happen yet with these locations. Much good walking was enjoyed in an area that was largely new to me and that is how good memories get made. There is much continual need for them.