The Heart Of England Way - Day Two

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day Two

Route: Burntwood to Drayton Bassett
Date: Sunday May 5th 2013
Distance: 14.2m (23km)
Elevation: 240ft (73m) to 482ft (147m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 725ft (221m) and 945ft (288m)

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GPS the long way …..

There would be three of us today so the morning routine had to be stretched a little to accommodate Bod, who had spent the night upon a self-inflating mattress on our lounge floor. We had warned him that Frankie, our resident greyhound, was extremely fond of visitors and would take great delight in leaping on any prone form he might discover first thing in the morning. Forewarned was forearmed, and Bod always managed to be up and on his feet before I came downstairs with the dog.
Trusting to my iPhone GPS I keyed in the morning’s first destination with half an eye, talking to my friends as I did so, and we set off; Colin travelling in my car with Bod following us. The logistics of having two cars often seemed to bamboozle Colin and I, but we managed to work out that the first destination had to be Drayton Basset (the end point of the walk) where we would leave a car before heading back to the Drill Inn at Burntwood to pick up the route. Simple enough. We rolled merrily northwards and Colin and I chatted about all sorts of interesting things. We reached Lichfield and wove our way through the outskirts of the city until Bod began to insistently flash his headlights for us to pull over. Bod wanted to know where we were heading and I told him, patiently, that we were on our way to Drayton Basset.
“Are you sure?”, he asked doubtfully. “Because we passed the turn off for that place before we got to Lichfield.”
Confident in the ability of my GPS I checked our destination, at which point my confidence took a slight dent.
“We’re heading back to yesterday’s start point at Milford Common,” I admitted sheepishly. “The GPS has thrown a wobbler.”
Bod has a habit of making you feel foolish without saying a word and so it was that, wordlessly, we followed him back to Drayton Basset where we left his car before heading back across Lichfield and to the Drill Inn.

Chorley to Lichfield with the leopards and the horses ….

The walk started in the bright sunshine which the MET Office had been forecasting for some time, promising warm sunny days ahead - a minor miracle given that it was a bank holiday weekend. We left the Drill and followed a bridleway where some sort of camp-site or garden centre or local shop (we never discovered which) was briefly visited. There were logs of wood stood on-end outside the office, and atop each one was the reclining form of a leopard, or a tiger, or some other species of big cat. At first I took them to be finely carved wooden sculptures, hand painted and fixed to the logs, but on closer inspection they looked more like stuffed toys, stained and matted by exposure to the elements. I took some pictures of them as we walked on, never discovering their true nature or purpose.
On the previous day we had found the guide book to be reasonably concise and clear in its instructions, but shortly after the bridleway we experienced the first of its many idiosyncratic passages (as the days went by we learned to treat the guidebook with deep suspicion, finding some of these directions ambiguous, some misleading, and some plain silly). We followed the wording in the book and walked a fair way along a country lane before we reached a junction which didn’t fit the scene that the book was describing for us.
HEW Day2 Pic 1

The Nelson Inn, Chorley, Staffordshire

Out came the GPS app, followed by the first of many episodes of back-tracking to where the route could be regained.
We passed an attractive pub called the Nelson Inn, perched on the side of a quiet country road, which we decided we would visit before we headed of home later in the day. We struck off across fields, traversing higher ground which allowed us some nice views across the countryside before us and through which we would be walking during the day. We found ourselves admiring some of the secluded properties tucked away in this corner of the county, concluding that ‘where there’s horses there’s brass’. This was certainly horsey country, with chestnut mares grazing in fields and horse-boxes lodged in many a sweeping driveway. As we descended into a shallow valley and started crossing paddocks we watched a group of fillies behaving in an agitated manner, neighing loudly and trotting back and forth by a far boundary hedge. The reason for this excitement became apparent as we dropped over a style and found ourselves in the middle of a Gymkhana event. Horses, ponies, horse-boxes, young girls wearing haughty expressions, fussing parents; the field was littered with all things equine. We edged around the event, watching the busy proceedings from a position of complete ignorance as to what a Gymkhana is all about but, as far as I could make out, the event proper had yet to begin and this was just the warming up period; ponies exercised gently to stretch their legs after confinement in their boxes and young equestrian nerves settled by tea and pep-talks. Judging by the tense and expectant expressions on the mums and dads faces I’m sure these events are every bit as competitive as your average Sunday league football match (perhaps with less foul language though).

Lichfield with all the history ….

Leaving this colourful scene behind we continued across a series of fields, crossing a lane to take another bridleway with views across meadows to our left. I was at first surprised to see the distinctive spires of Lichfield Cathedral, known as the Ladies Of The Vale, poking up above the tree-line but remembered that Lichfield was just three miles from our start point and we had made good progress for an hour or so. I stopped to take a photograph of the cathedral from this spot and a lady walking her dog approved of the picture I was taking, confiding in me that this was one of her favourite views of the landmark. She asked if we had far to go that day and when I said that we would finish at Drayton Basset her mouth made an ‘o’ of surprise.
“Ooo that’s a fair step!” she exclaimed.
I said that it was part of the Heart Of England Way which we going to complete by the end of the week.
“Yes I’ve seen the signs for it,” she nodded, “how far is that then?”
I told her it was about 100 miles.
“Oooo!” she exclaimed again (she was one of those ladies who are champion ooo-ers). “So how far do you walk in a day?”
I told her that it was around 12 miles a day on average.
“OOOOOO!” she retorted, really warming to her task. ”That sounds like hard work. Well you have a lovely time!”
I assured her that we would and she called her friendly little dog to heel and wandered off, leaving me feeling strangely uplifted at having met her.
HEW Day2 Pic 2

Approaching Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire

By now my two companions had strode ahead of me so I crossed the flat meadows before the town on my own, enjoying the sunshine and the pleasant cooling breeze which the fine spring morning had conjured up. As we reached the outlying buildings of Lichfield we crossed the edge of a golf course and I caught up with my companions. Colin was watching a woman walking her dog across one of the greens, pottering about with her pet and seemingly in no hurry at all to move on. A quartet of golfers stood in the middle distance, presumably waiting for her to leave before they could continue their game. Colin was shaking his head at her.
“Surely she shouldn’t be doing that!” he said to me as I drew level. I agreed with him but nobody seemed to be in a hurry to tell her.
I had been to Lichfield before, but it was a school trip long ago and my single memory of that day was my friend knocking on the door of Malcolm Beard – a formidable midfielder for Aston Villa in those days – and obtaining his autograph. People have lived in and around the area since Mesolithic times, but its early history is somewhat obscure. It came to prominence under the rule of King Offa and became the centre for all things ecclesiastical for his kingdom, having an influence from the Humber to the Thames. Its renaissance period was in the eighteenth century when it became an important stagecoach terminus and also hosted a number of famous celebs of the day including Samuel Johnson , David Garrick , Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward. The city centre still boasts over 230 listed buildings and has managed to avoid being marred by the influence of the industrial evolution. The name itself is open to interpretation but the most popular belief is that it is derived from “Letocetum” - Brythonic for ‘grey wood’ and the Old English "feld", meaning 'open country'.
HEW Day2 Pic 3

Lichfield Cathedral detail, Staffordshire

We headed towards the centre of this historic place, walking around the edge of the golf course by following a path which in turn led us through a large park, weaving between busy playgrounds alive with the sounds of families having fun. Eventually we left this green space behind us via a car park, turning first right and then left along a narrow street where, within just a few moments, we found ourselves standing before the impressive West Front of Lichfield Cathedral.
You can go here for a more detailed description but here is a potted history of the cathedral:
What we stood before was the third cathedral to be built on this site, the first being a wooden Saxon church erected around 700 AD by King Offa (he of Offa’s Dyke fame) to act as a direct rival to, and a restriction on, the influence of Canterbury far to the south. Although this northern diocese had papal approval it became a bone of contention within the English Church, causing much resentment with the powerful archbishop of Canterbury. This upstart bishopric lasted barely sixteen years, with power being reverted back to Canterbury upon the death of Offa.
However, once a cathedral, always a cathedral, and the wooden structure was replaced by a Norman cathedral made from stone which barely a hundred years later was replaced, starting in 1195, by the great Gothic cathedral which stands here today. It took 35 years to complete and is the only medieval English cathedral with three spires, the tallest being in excess of 250 feet. Built from local sandstone the walls actually bulge outwards slightly due to the colossal tonnage of stone used in the intricate and vaulted ceiling, something which the average visitor is totally unaware of as he stands at the base craning his neck upwards. The cathedral took a battering during the English Civil War as Lichfield became a tug-of-war between the clergy (who were for the king) and the townsfolk (who were for parliament). During three sieges between 1643-46 the main spire was toppled, all the medieval stained glass shattered (apart from a few precious examples which have survived through to today), and the roof destroyed. The last siege was broken by the use of the first mine deployed in an English conflict.
Although restoration began almost immediately it took over two centuries before the cathedral was fully restored, with the eighteenth century being largely a time of neglect for the old building, its West Front stripped of its ornate statuary and then covered with a layer of Roman Cement.
HEW Day2 Pic 4

Bod and Mark descend Gorsey Hill, Staffordshire

It is thanks to the Victorian gentleman Sir George Gilbert Scott that we now enjoy the fully restored West Front, complete with re-created statues based on original carvings. I was amazed by the skill and intricacy of the carvings on the West Front; not just the statues, which were of course magnificent, but also the details running around door lintels and columns, bearing beautifully carved oak leaf and floral flourishes. It reminded me of Wells cathedral save for the fact that the Lichfield statues are intact and relatively new whereas the statues adorning Wells cathedral are original and bear the scars of time, wilful damage, and accidental vandalism.
We admired this wonderful building for some time and Colin, who had been badly in need of a loo since we set off, wandered down a side street before disappearing in the direction of some conveniences at a local café. Bod and I sat in the sunshine under the Gothic splendour of the cathedral and waited – for quite a long time it has to be said. Just as we began to wonder whether he had died on the toilet a la Elvis he reappeared, looking much relieved.
The route now took us away from the cathedral and along a pedestrianized street of shops where lunch was purchased and ice creams consumed. A minor contingent of middle-aged Mods was gathered outside a churchyard, revving the tinny engines of their Vespas and Lambrettas noisily but leaving passers-by largely unimpressed. There’s not a lot of menace in a crowd of forty-somethings wearing parkas.
We left the commercial streets of the city behind and found ourselves in a maze of modern housing which the guide book seemed to struggle with. Rather than issuing clear and obvious instructions it lapsed into vague and ambiguous directions that soon had us scratching our heads and consulting the GPS. The author of our guide seemed to have his greatest challenge in negotiating his way through built up areas where, to make matters worse, the way-markers for the Heart Of England Way became scarce. However, we managed to find our way back on route and left Lichfield behind us via the busy A51 where the traffic whooshed by us and we enjoyed breathing in exhaust fumes for about a mile and a half. On this busy trunk road a car had broken down and was propped up on jacks with the prone form of a mechanic lying under its front. It was perilously close to passing traffic and there were no warning cones set up. It looked hair-raisingly dangerous to us.

Knox’s Grave and Gorsey hill in the sunshine ….

Thankfully the road walking was brief and we turned off along a bridleway which struck out across a wide field. Lunch was called. It was only when we sat still to eat our lunches that the chill in the breeze could be felt, particularly on such an exposed site. I lay prone for a while, staring up at the clouds and assessing my physical condition, which was surprisingly good. Neither Colin nor I suffered a single blister by the end of the walk, which is an unprecedented phenomenon, and for my part I’m convinced that the good old Ritual Of Foot Therapy played its part. I had some odd looks from my wife as I sat each morning carefully applying plasters to known trouble spots and then carefully winding Micropore tape around my feet, but I am determined never again to have to abandon a walk due to painful blisters. One tends to learn from bitter experience and the both the Kintyre Way and Offa’s Dyke certainly gave me that.
Perhaps because of the rather nippy breeze we didn’t stay still for long and, lunch consumed, we made off along the bridleway again, heading towards the 1,000 ft mast of the Lichfield transmitter, once used for ITV and Channel 5 analogue TV channels but now a conduit for FM and DAB radio services. This slender needle had been visible on and off ever since we started the walk and now I wondered how close we would get to it before it began to recede into the distance. The day brightened and the chilly wind dropped as we filed alongside the edge of a series of fields, heading towards a locale known mysteriously as Knox’s Grave. One large field appeared before us like a strange mirage, with a sheet of rippling water covering its surface, glinting in the sun. Only when we got closer did we see that the field was entirely covered by a sheet of polythene, protecting whatever precious crop lay underneath from predation.
HEW Day2 Pic 5

Near Knox's Grave, Staffordshire

After several fields we reached a trio of cottages and a barn and indulged in some more GPS consultation and a retracing of steps, aided rather ineffectually by a resident of one of the cottages. On our left, no more than a couple of fields away, the Lichfield transmitter reached into the sky. We were to get no closer to this structure but it remained in sight for the next two days, dwindling into the distance and marking our progress as we ate up the miles.
Knox’s Grave turned out to be just a name for a lane rather than anything more substantial (apparently Mr. Knox was a notorious highwayman of the eighteenth century and met his end via the hangman before being buried locally) and was a pretty section of the work despite its grim name. We passed through Bucks Head Farm and then reached the pleasant Bourne House with a lively little stream running through the bottom of its garden. After two days of relatively flat walking we now found ourselves at the feet of gentle hills, with their grass-covered flanks sweeping smoothly upwards and wide green valleys wending between them like Austrian meadow lands in miniature. We had to work out where to go next as once again the guide book faltered but a sign pointed out the way forward, a sign which amused Bod as the little stick man pointing the way up the hill was rather on the chubby side whereas the one pointing downhill was lithe and athletic.
“It’s the before and after,” he grinned, “He lost all the weight in going up the hill.”
The particular hill we had to climb was Gorsey Hill, and we took a path along a wide grassy valley which swooped upwards for a few hundred feet. It was hot work under the sun and we all arrived at the hill's crest a little breathless, but the reward was the 180 degree view the vantage point gave us. Behind us the land rolled away to where the spires of Lichfield Cathedral dreamed in the heat haze, barely discernible on the horizon. Before us lay the Tame valley – flat fields marching away into the blue with the white buildings of the Kingsbury Oil distribution facility standing out like tiny teeth away to the south.

Burton Dasset with the never-ending road ….

We recovered our breath and descended the other side of Gorsey hill passing White Owl Farm before turning onto Brockhurst Lane, a place of ancient hedgerow and elegant properties. Brockhurst Lane became Bangley Lane, via a couple of fields, and then we crossed the A453 to turn into Drayton Lane and our last section of the walk. Although this was a trek of no more than a mile and a half it was at the end of the day and we were all looking forward to sitting down with a pint of something cold. As a result the road just seemed to go on and on, with Bod striding ahead of us as he so often does, and the sun beating down on our necks (I think this is the part of the walk where I managed to burn the tips of my ears). However we eventually arrived at the car and then back to the Drill Inn. We had all decided to try the Nelson Inn for a drink and I asked them all to follow me, confident in my sense of direction. I took off in the car and down a lane which pretty soon came to a dead end. We had to perform six-point turns to get back out again and this time I followed Bod to the car park of the Nelson. It was rather an upmarket place, with modern décor and a young clientèle. It wasn’t what I expected from the look of the place on the outside, but the beer was cold and refreshing and we sat and enjoyed a half hour of resting tired feet before heading off back home.
We spent the evening watching the Star Trek reboot movie, manfully staying awake until 11:30 and sipping a few quiet beers before heading off for some much needed sleep.

Sheldon Takeaway Treat: Pizza.

For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here

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1 comment:

  1. Three years ago already? I was outraged by this fact. Still, an enjoyable day and Lichfield Cathedral was awesome.