There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Stone Circle: Part 1 Swynnerton to Fulford

Over a thousand stone circles survive in Britain and Ireland from the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. This post is about none of them. This Stone Circle is a 60 km circular walk centred on the Staffordshire town of Stone. We are indebted to Stone Ramblers, who designed and way-marked the Stone Circles Challenge, though Francis has planned occasional variations from their route to arrive at an appropriate pub at lunchtime or pass through an area of particular interest. Unintentional variations may crop up later, but navigation in Part 1 presented few problems.


Alison, Francis, Brian, David and Mike
preparing to set off, Swynnerton
After bacon and eggs at Dandly Towers we set off towards Beech. From the upper lane it becomes clear how exposed Swynnerton is, with no higher ground for many miles to provide protection from the prevailing westerlies. Unsurprisingly, we endure a dank and chilly microclimate. On a bright day the views are extensive with the Wrekin, 20 miles distant, in the fore ground and the Long Mynd, and even the Berwyns 50 miles away in mid-Wales clearly visible. So why does my photograph show Alison, Francis and Brian looking at Swynnerton’s Millennium Topograph rather than the view itself? Because on a clear day you can see all these wonders - on Saturday we could just make out a blurry lump in the mist where the Wrekin ought to be.

Looking at the topograph, not the view
Swynnerton Millennium Topograph

The path to Beech starts as a green lane between fields still bare in early March, though the hedgerow broom was beginning to flower. A flock of fieldfares wheeled beside us; according to Francis they should have already left for their summer residences in Scandinavia, but they had clearly not read the textbook. A pair of buzzards quartered the same field watching for small careless mammals. As the path dipped into the woods a flash of colour signalled the first of several jays we would see in the day.

Beech is small, even for a hamlet. We turned east down a metalled lane to approach the M6 bridge. Mike questioned if it was the right motorway crossing. ‘Shouldn’t we have gone through Beach first?’ he asked. It really is that memorable.



The M6 Staffordshire
We crossed the M6. I post the picture merely to put it alongside that of another road also designated as the M6 in its national classification. This M6 is the main road connecting Gyumri and Vanadzor, the largest towns in northern Armenia. And we complain about potholes.


The M6, Gyumri to Vanadzor, Armenia

We emerged on Winghouse Lane outside Tittensor by a large private duck pond. I have driven past it many times, but never stopped to look. Brian and Francis excitedly identified teals, pintails, tufted ducks and mandarins. When Francis spotted a smew joy was unconfined. Smew sounds like an ailment in a Victorian novel (Aunt Glegg, being severely discomfited by as nasty a case of the Smew as ever…), but is, apparently, a particularly handsome duck. I spotted none of my favourites, confit, Beijing and à l’orange.

Reaching Tittensor via a more natural but less well-populated lake, we enjoyed an unnecessarily long meander through the houses to locate and cross the A34. Beyond the village we descended to a footbridge over the River Trent. It is hard to believe this insignificant stream becomes one of England’s largest rivers. Mike said he once canoed the Trent from above here to past Stafford. On a warm day with the high banks restricting visibility, he said it reminded him of the Dordogne. I closed my eyes and squinted; I flooded the area with mental sunshine, but eventually had to admit that Mike has a better imagination than me – either that or he is delusional.

The Trent (or is the Dordogne?) near Tittensor

Across the water meadows we reached Barlaston and paused for coffee by the Trent and Mersey canal. The local mallards were doing what mallards do, which in spring is gang rape. I am sure no cultured smew on a duckpond would ever do of such a thing.

The Trent & Mersey Canal, Barlaston
Modern lines of communication, like the M6, power in and out of the Trent Valley at their pleasure, but the eighteenth century canal and the nineteenth century railway run side by side along the valley bottom. Walking a kilometre up the canal towpath took us from Barlaston Station to Wedgwood Station where we crossed the canal bridge and then the railway. The Wedgwood factory moved from Etruria to its current, somewhat improbable, parkland setting in 1940 and Wedgwood station was opened the same year. There are fewer workers now and those that remain never come to work by rail as no trains stop at either Wedgwood or Barlaston – though oddly neither station is officially closed.

Having zigged up the canal, we zagged back across the fields past Barlaston Hall. The Hall was built in 1786 as a manor house and was later home to the Wedgwood Memorial College. The College moved out when the building was seriously damaged by mining subsidence. After threats of demolition, the house was sold in 1981 to SAVE British Heritage for £1. Now restored it is again a private residence.

Barlaston Hall
Given the eccentricity of our route and the village’s elongated S-shape, we should not have been surprised that two kilometres after passing Barlaston station we found ourselves re-entering Barlaston. A quick stroll round the boundary at the cricket club took us out into the fields again where we deviated from the Stone Circles route, turning south towards Downs Banks.

We reached Downs Bank only after wading through a kilometre of country odours, first pig effluent then silage. The 67-hectare glacial valley was donated to the National Trust in 1950 by John Joule of Stone’s long defunct but still missed Joule's Brewery. A pleasing piece of countryside, it functions officially as a nature reserve, and unofficially as a dog-walking facility.

From the end of the valley we climbed to the village of Oulton with its collection of attractive brick buildings - Oulton Grange, Oulton Hall and Oulton Abbey - all hiding behind equally attractive but not so photogenic brick walls.

After a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ and a bite to eat at the Wheatsheaf we descended to the Stone/Meir Road, and climbed up the other side toward Moddershall. It was a stiff climb, the last part under the watchful eye of a young but sizeable bull who allowed us to proceed unmolested once he realised that we were not interested in any of his ladies.

Mike and Brian climb towards Moddershall

By the Boar Inn we entered the Idlerocks defile. There is nothing obviously indolent about the local geology, but the path at the valley bottom is narrow and the drainage ditch deep. Foot watching seemed important, but we did not miss the deer on the skyline observing our passing.

A Deer watching us from the skyline, Idlerocks

At the top of the defile the valley opens out and a moment’s map consultation was called for before proceeding up to Stallington Heath.

A moment's map consultation
Stallington Heath greeted us with a large padlocked gate labelled ‘Danger – do not enter’. Next to it was an open gate and a ‘public footpath’ sign. We followed the footpath through deciduous woodland, the floor carpeted with last season’s leaves. What was ‘dangerous’ about the larger parallel track was not obvious, unless the inhabitants of Fulford have taken to mining the approaches to their village. Our path became narrower and muddier and we walked along the very edge, pushing past rhododendrons just coming into bud.
Stallington Heath

Reaching a minor road, we strode into Fulford where Brian’s car had previously been parked.

It was a pleasant day’s walk with perhaps a little more tarmac and housing estates than the ideal, but warm enough for early March and, most importantly, dry (almost) all day. We walked some 18 km, though finishing less than 12 kilometres from where we started. That is the first third of the Stone Circle completed. Part 2 on the 9th of April.