First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A fine morning of blue sky, a brisk north wind, and the vast open spaces of the Cheshire plain soaking up the early autumn sunshine. Warblers sang loudly in the woods above Higher Burwardsley as Jane and I set off from the very hospitable Pheasant Inn to explore the heights and the breathtaking views along the Sandstone Trail. This splendid three-day path hurdles the upthrust of Cheshire’s backbone, a sandstone ridge that runs from the River Mersey south to the Shropshire border.
In the oak and birch woods of Bulkeley Hill, sandstone steps gleaming with mica chips bought us quickly up to the ridge. Following its east-facing lip, we looked out between twisted old sweet chestnuts over the steep 300-ft plunge of the escarpment to chequered farmlands lying in the sun and the shadowy rise of the Pennine hills on the far horizon. A set of narrow gauge railway lines plummeted away down the incline; installed 60 years ago by water engineers, and long disused, they still cling precariously to the slope.
A succession of viewpoints claimed our tribute of gasps and whistles – Name Rock incised with names of walkers and lovers, overlooking Bulkeley village; Rawhead, the highest point on the Sandstone Trail at 746 ft, facing west towards the loom of the Welsh hills; the Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle, looking south to the rise of the Long Mynd in distant Shropshire. Below the heights, the soft sandstone ridge had been scooped by wind and weather into caves and hollows – the damp ferny hollow of Dropping Stone Well; a bulging cave under Rawhead where dusty green lichen harmonised to perfection with the dusky pink of the stone; Mad Allen’s Cave on Bickerton Hill, the home of an erstwhile hermit. And punctuating all, the view back northwards to the pale 13th-century walls of Beeston Castle on its wooded knoll.
We gathered succulent bilberries on the lowland heath of Maiden Castle, and descended with reddened fingers and tingling mouths into the meadows on the west of the great ridge. The homeward path was spiced with individual pleasures – a Methodist church at Brown Knowl like a turreted mansion in a Gothic fable; Harthill’s little chapel, school and gabled estate cottages on the green; and a last swing back along the Sandstone Trail towards the Pheasant Inn, with a giant sunset spreading gloriously all over the western sky.
Start & finish: Pheasant Inn, Higher Burwardsley (OS ref SJ 523566)
Getting there: M6 to Jct 16; A500 to Nantwich, A534 towards Wrexham. At Fuller’s Moor, right (‘Harthill, Tattenhall’); past Harthill, right to Burwardsley; then follow ‘Pheasant Inn’. Park at inn (NB Please ask permission and give inn your custom!).
Walk (11 miles, easy/moderate grade, OS Explorer 257): From Pheasant Inn, left to crossroads; left up Fowlers Bench Lane, over crossroads (ignore ‘Sandstone Trail/ST’ to left). Follow lane to gatehouse at Peckforton Gap (526559). Right along ST (yellow arrows with footprint) for 4 miles to Maiden Castle (498529). At foot of descent beyond Maiden Castle, ST turns left (496528); bear right here (yellow arrow/YA) down shallow stone steps, following YA through scrub. Go through gate; in 150 yards, at National Trust ‘Bickerton Hill’ sign (493531), right for ¼ mile to T-junction in Brown Knowl (495535). Right; follow road past church, for ½ mile to A 534 (497542). Left for 150 yards; cross (take care!); through kissing gate (fingerpost); down field edge; cross brook. Uphill to skirt left of Park Wood; follow YAs to Harthill (501552). Right along road for 50 yards; left down Garden Lane (fingerpost) for 250 yards, then uphill on left of hedge. At top of slope (506553), left to 2 stiles. Cross right-hand one (YA); climb through Bodnook Wood. Cross paddock, then track (YA); climb slope to lane (509552); left (YA). Pass entrance to Droppingstone Farm (512553); continue below wood for ¼ mile to meet ST (515552). Follow it past Rawhead Farm drive; in 50 yards, left over stile (519552); follow field edge to cross stile at corner of wood (522553; YA). Left along track for ½ mile to Peckforton Gap gatehouse; follow ST for nearly ½ mile to road (527566); left (‘Pheasant Inn’) to car park.
NB Many steps, some unguarded cliff edges on Sandstone Trail! Extra care crossing A534!
Lunch: Picnic; or Coppermine Inn (01829-782293) on A534 at Fuller’s Moor.
Accommodation: Pheasant Inn, Higher Burwardsley (01829-770434; www.thepheasantinn.co.uk) – excellent country inn; good food and friendly welcome