The Heart Of England Way - Day One

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day One

Route: Milford Common to Burntwood
Date: Saturday May 4th 2013
Distance: 11m (18km)
Elevation: 331ft (100m) to 797ft (243m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 1,119ft (341m) and 942ft (287m)

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Dietary dilemma ....

The first day of the Heart Of England Way trek dawned with inauspicious weather and a certain degree of dodging and weaving. My wife Sue had very kindly agreed to having additional people staying in our not overly-large house. She was of course used to her morning routine so throwing Colin into the equation meant that we had to time our bathroom ablutions and breakfasting to a nicety. As it happened we quickly eased into a routine which minimised any hopping about outside an engaged loo or queuing for the kettle and it was a routine which worked well throughout the week even with the addition of our friend Bod for a few days. The only stipulation Sue made was that she didn’t intend to act as chef for us all week so we would have to buy in our evening meals. The borough of Birmingham that I call home is well catered for in terms of fast food, so we were able to sample the delights of Sheldon’s many and varied takeaway offerings throughout the week. As a result I was pretty sure that we would be taking on more calories than we could ever walk off during each day (not to mention the inevitable beer\wine each evening) but our rationale was that it was first and foremost a holiday and any fitness benefits were secondary, and even though I actually gained weight by the end of the week I still stand by that philosophy.

Cannock Chase with the birds, the heath, and the rain …..

The sun shone as we made our way northwards, passing the impressive cooling towers near Kingsbury along the way, but by the time we parked at the start of the route clouds had gathered and the world was a somewhat gloomy place. As far as I could tell, the Heart Of England Way started (or ended) at Milford Common on the edge of Cannock Chase, and we pulled into the common’s relatively empty car park more or less on schedule. Milford Common is situated in Staffordshire (which would be the first of three counties that we would traverse during the week) just a stone’s throw from Shugborough Hall and a short crow–flight from the county capitol of Stafford town. My last visit to the place had been several years before on a hot summer afternoon, a memory of ice-cream vans, excited children, and posturing teenagers. By contrast on this dull spring morning there were just a few locals wandering about exercising their dogs.
HEW Day1 Pic 1

The first (or last) way-mark of the
Heart Of England Way

As we started to stretch our legs and tog up for the walk a gentleman emerged from a nearby car and informed us rather curtly that the ticket machine was locked. He was a man of certain years and was almost comically rotund. As if to emphasise this he wore a tight fitting black leotard with a ribbed band around the midriff and I was immediately put in mind of a life buoy. The ticket machine was indeed locked and the gentleman kindly offered us pen and paper so we could leave a note in our car, saving us the princely sum of £2.50 for a day’s parking. He then pulled out a fold-away bicycle and began to busily prepare for his cycle ride and so I left him to his task, wandering off to look for the first way-mark of our route. I found it attached to a post at the top of a flight of rustic steps leading into woodland and I pulled out my camcorder to record this landmark. As if on cue the rain began to fall and we were forced to pull on waterproofs before we set off.
“Look out for the Glacial Boulder!” the odd gentlemen called to us, rather cryptically, from behind his car.
I remember taking my first step and remarking to Colin that this would be the first of many (I have done the maths now and I reckon we took around 180,000 steps to complete this walk) before walking almost immediately uphill and into Cannock Chase. The rain became heavy for a while and we passed a couple walking their dog.
“It’s sunny in Rugeley!” she informed us rather unhelpfully.
Mixed woodland surrounded us for the first mile or two and as it was springtime the trees were alive with birdsong. One of the many pleasures about walking with Colin is his ornithological knowledge. He has had a fascination for our native birds ever since he was old enough to read and as we strode along he began to identify various species to me. As the week went by I began to learn from him and by the time we reached Bourton-on-the-water I could tell a Blue Tit from a Songthrush and a Greenfinch from a Robin. I’ll never be in Colin’s league however, and as we walked he started picking out Reed Warblers and Nuthatches and other birds I’d never heard of. He had an app on his iPhone which played songs-snippets from all of the birds one might see in the UK and he often wandered off the track a pace or two to identify the more challenging tweets and warbles that emanated from the hedgerows.
HEW Day1 Pic 2

Trees against a stormy sky on Cannock Chase

The rain fell intermittently as we weaved in and around the woodland paths, and we noticed a distinct drop in temperature when the clouds rolled in, until finally we emerged onto more open ground which provided great views across rugged heathland, criss-crossed with wide bridleways and studded with stands of Birch and Rowan. The last of the rain-showers passed overhead with its bruised and moody cloud-cover shifting westward and behind it a swathe of blue sky followed, allowing bright sunshine to break out. We stopped to remove our waterproofs and to take some pictures as the cackle of a Green Woodpecker erupted nearby, seeming to celebrate the sudden upturn in the weather. The dark mass of the departing weather-front along with the sudden bright sunshine created a rather amazing effect, turning the spring green leaves of distant trees into glowing emeralds, thrown into stark relief against the cobalt blue of the storm-clouds. We took video and pictures of this atmospheric scene not expecting to recreate its beauty, but in fact the pictures do it fair justice.
We carried on, making good time and enjoying the remoteness of Cannock Chase which totally belied its location within the industrial heartland of the Midlands. Walking across the wild heathland gave us the same feeling of isolation as Exmoor and for a short while the sun shone, the trail was easy to follow, Colin munched on his trail mix, and all was good with the world.

Cannock Chase with the monuments, the cyclists and the rain ….

Our first moment of doubt came as we reached a crossroads and a café where we lost the Heart Of England signs. Making an educated guess we crossed the road and headed off on a likely looking track. The rain clouds came back as we entered gloomier stands of pine forests and soon we came to the edge of a large paddock where our intuition kicked in and we realised we were off-route. It took a certain amount of dithering up and down various trails, consulting the GPS app, before we realised that we had to head back uphill to the crossroads to sort ourselves out. We discovered that we should never have crossed the road and we located the Heart Of England Way sign that somehow we missed the first time around and set off back through broadleaved forest. Almost immediately we came across a black marble edifice called the Katyn Monument, which bore evidence to the murder of many Polish citizens at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1940. It was a beautiful and imposing monument but we were puzzled as to why an atrocity that had taken place long ago and in in another country be marked so pointedly in the middle of Cannock Chase.

A little research: Staffordshire has a large Polish community and they campaigned for many years to erect the memorial. The Soviet Union did not want the Katyn massacre to be remembered, and demanded that the British government prevent the erection of any monuments referring to it. The British government did not want to antagonize the Soviets, and the construction of any monuments were delayed for many years. The words on the Katyn monument read:
“In memory of 25,000 Polish prisoners of war and professional classes who were murdered on Stalin’s orders by the Soviet secret police in 1940 at Katyn Forest, Kharkov, Miednoye, Kozielsk, Starobielsk, Ostaszkov, and elsewhere. Finally admitted in 1990 by the USSR after 50 years of shameful denial of the truth”

We gave the monument the respect it deserved and then continued on through woodland trails, with the ever–present aroma of horse manure keeping us unwelcome company (despite this overwhelming evidence I can only remember seeing one horse throughout the length of Cannock Chase that day) until we reached a long straight track that soon became a metalled road. This was Marquis Drive and as we turned onto it we enjoyed another rain shower.
HEW Day1 Pic 3

Alongside Gentleshaw Water Works

There were many cars parked along the first stretch of Marquis Drive disgorging mountain bikes and their Lycra-clad owners (we assumed that some sort of event was taking place as many of the cyclists were in fancy dress). The presence of mountain bikers persisted for the next few miles and while I have no problem with people enjoying outdoor pursuits I was glad to leave their excited yells and whoops behind, not to mention having to watch out for the sudden emergence of a group of hurtling cyclists from around a bend. However it was to be a while before we left the Lycra Army behind us and we shared Marquis Drive with them for quite some time, passing what we momentarily thought was the Glacial Boulder the gentleman at Milford Common had referred to, but was the in fact a memorial to RAF Hednesford, a training camp in use right up to the mid-fifties before being demolished in 1970. We never did see the Glacial Boulder and we may have never even come close to this landmark. By all accounts it is a grey boulder set on a plinth. Much more than that I cannot say. Even the internet treats it with a degree of brevity:

“The "Glacial Boulder" on Cannock Chase is a well known local landmark. Originating from Scotland it was placed here in the 1950s. The concrete base dates from the First World War when this area was a large military camp.”

And this is what it looks like
I’m not terribly upset that we missed it.

Cannock Chase with the woods, the distant past, and the path to Burntwood …

At this point in the walk I was experiencing the usual hip\groin pain that always seems to afflict me on the first day of a long walk as my wizened old ligaments get put to the test. It was a like having a toothache in each hip joint and for a while every step was irritatingly painful. I swallowed Paracetamol and hoped for the best, knowing from past experience that this particular ailment would pass and I would not be troubled by it for the remainder of the walk. It was to be a relatively ailment-free week and this was probably the most discomfort I felt throughout the eight day hike. Colin had a bird-watching champagne moment as he identified three different kinds of warbler all within sight and sound. I’d like to recount what sort of warblers they were but I am a little deficient on warbler knowledge. Sedge Reed and Garden is my guess.
We climbed to a higher plateau of the common, away from the hordes of mountain bikers and into the hushed greenery of ancient woodland. The guidebook mentioned that a climb to the highest point of Cannock Chase was imminent and looking ahead I spied a forest path that, from a distance, seemed to climb almost vertically up through the ranks of trees. I pointed this out to Colin and we both agreed that lunch was required before we tackled it. We broke for lunch seated upon the bole of an old Sycamore tree, next to a huge log that was decaying quietly into leaf mould. We guessed that the great tree must have been well over 150 years old when it keeled over and the log itself must have lain in that spot for several decades. Colin removed his boots and socks and waggled his bare toes contentedly in the cooling breeze. Notwithstanding this view I enjoyed my sandwiches and gurgled my sports drink as the only horse we saw all day trotted by – a giant chestnut mare being chaperoned by the world’s smallest Jack Russell. The lady atop the horse waved gaily at us as she clopped by. After that there was a return to the expectant quiet of the woods, punctuated by the trills and arpeggios of its birdlife.
As we prepared to leave a middle aged couple appeared and asked us where they were in relationship to Castle Ring Fort. As I was demonstrating the benefits of my GPS app their dog, a large German Shepherd, decided that she wanted to say hello and lumbered clumsily forward, head butting me expertly in the crown jewels. I stifled a grunt and continued with my instructions with a slow familiar pain spreading through my nether regions.
“I’m so sorry,” offered the man' “she just likes you.”
“That’s ok,” I assured them through slightly clenched teeth, “I have a dog myself, so I know how it goes.”
We started up the steep path we had spied from before lunch as a couple of girls walked towards us with a dog trotting along in front that was hard to identify as a breed, smothered as it was in a thick coating of chocolate-brown mud. On closer inspection it turned out to be a Labrador which seemed very pleased with his appearance. I fervently hoped that this dog wouldn’t also decide to greet me with a nut to the rattlers, but it passed us by with a purpose. I smiled at the girls and told them I was glad it wasn’t my job to clean him off.
“Oh he does this every single time,” she replied. “There’s a stagnant old creek off in the woods and he loves a good wallow. He’s heading for the fish ponds now to clean off.”
I couldn’t help thinking, that mud or no mud, the dog would still not be the ideal air freshener for its owners home.
Oddly, the path looked steep but offered only a modest challenge as we plodded upwards. I took measured paces and controlled my breathing and made the summit with no real difficulty at all. I’m not sure whether I am fitter now than I used to be, or perhaps I have found a method of hill climbing that suits me, but none of the hills on this route forced me to pause and gasp for breath. True enough, they were not on the same par as the hills of Offa’s Dyke or the West Highland Way but that said there’s a definite improvement in my stamina.
I lost Colin momentarily as we reached a convergence of paths near to the top of the climb but we more or less reached the reached the crown of the hill together at what, so the guide book informed us, was the highest point of Cannock Chase, some 800 feet above sea level.
HEW Day1 Pic 4

I enjoy a pint at The Drill Inn

The ‘fort’ has little left to boast about save for an earth embankment of perhaps ten feet in height encircling a wide depression with a diameter of several hundred feet. Occupied over two thousand years ago it housed several acres of pens and dwellings and afforded open views across the Midlands (the trees that now crowd about the place would have been kept at a distance in those days) as far as the distant fort at the Wrekin in Shropshire over twenty miles away. Nobody knows for sure why the fort was abandoned circa A.D. 50 but the Romans, who by now occupied Britain, probably had a say in the matter. Today it serves as a place for grand views and for dog-walking and also as a place for tired walkers on the Heart Of England Way to start thinking about a pint of real ale and a place to sit down.
However we still had a way to go and so we left the fort via a car park, and by inference the main body of Cannock Chase, and filed through the tiny hamlet of Gentleshaw, crossing a lane to take a fenced-in path that passed by the strange Gentleshaw water pumping facility with its quasi-gothic pumping stations and sculpted mounds and slopes all covered in neat turf. It reminded me of Telly Tubby Land.
The last leg of the walk had us following Common Side lane as it wound down onto the outskirts of Burntwood. We walked along the eastern edge of a large common which may, or may not, have been the last wild outpost of Cannock Chase. The sun now shone warmly from a sky studded with fluffy white clouds and it was a pleasant and gentle end to the day. A few short fields and we turned into a lane to find ourselves taken almost unawares by The Drill Inn and the end of the walk. We seated ourselves gratefully and had the first pint of the week, waiting for a taxi that would take 45 minutes to arrive, and people-watched - picking out accents which to us seemed to be more Black Country than Staffordshire.

A little research: Burntwood, being in the extreme south of Staffordshire is indeed heavily influenced by the Black Country area of the West Midlands. Perhaps its current claim to fame is that a local man discovered the stash of Saxon gold knows as the Staffordshire Hoard; a treasure trove of national significance with a price tag of 3.25 million pounds.

Back home, first evening …. ....

Eventually the cab arrived and we drove back to Milford Common – a route which by car is far longer than by foot as the great expanse of Cannock Chase has to be circumnavigated. The cabbie was a chatty sort of man but couldn’t seem to grasp the enormity of what we were attempting to do, as his series of questions seemed to indicate:
“So you’re walking 100 miles?”
“Have you had to book today off as a holiday?”
“How long will it take then?”
“How many miles have you walked today?”
“So you’re taking the week off then?”
“So how far is it?”
Along the way he pointed out the house of a local footballer made good. The resident is a well-known premiership journeyman but frankly his castellated mock-gothic house was a bit of a monstrosity, sited amidst acres of featureless lawn and protected from the Great Unwashed by high walls and electric gates. It screamed wealth but said little about good taste.
Milford Common had come to life in our absence and families were out enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, one of which owned the obligatory Incessantly Screaming Kid. An ice-cream van had appeared so we bought cornets and watched a young lady training her dog on the common before hoisting our gear into the back of the car and making off.
As we arrived home our friend Bod called to say he was five minutes away and by the time he arrived we were all debating about which take away delight we might sample for our dinner. Bod usually arrives with some ailment at the start of a walk and, true to form, he owned up to a stiff neck. We suggested that a few beers would provide relief and he readily agreed. Colin disappeared for the evening, firstly to avail himself of our parents bathroom facilities, and secondly to see off a relative on a sabbatical to Spain. With Colin there’s always the tantalising prospect that things might not run according to plan, perhaps with him returning very late indeed, or calling us in the wee small hours to say that somehow he had woken up in Southampton, but this time he came home more or less on schedule and we all took a early night in readiness for the second days walking.

Sheldon Takeaway Treat: Harvester Burgers.

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