First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A table full of cheery Midlands pensioners were getting to work on their ice cream sundaes as Jane and I left the Barley Mow and set off across Milford Common into the woods of Cannock Chase. Tits and finches whistled in the treetops, and our boots stirred a litter of weightless leaves. The woodland ponds lay cold and black, mirrors of a long winter sent packing by a few mild days of spring that had brought sticky buds to the ash trees and a gleaming sheen to the leaves of as-yet-unbroken daffodils.
Cannock Chase, an ancient no-man’s-land of hummocks and hollows, mine heaps and quarry scoops, has been greening over for centuries. This is what the neighbouring Black Country would look like if the Industrial Revolution had not ravaged it so thoroughly. Nowadays the diggings and delvings of the Chase hold a mosaic of spring-fed meres and tussocky bogs, threaded by a maze of paths. We followed the Heard of England Way, then the Staffordshire Way up sandy rides flanked by venerable, deeply fissured silver birches, and by bilberry bushes whose every green shoot had been nibbled down to the woody root by hungry deer in their end-of-winter starvation.
The Chase is a place to get lost in, a wanderer’s paradise where a million West Midlanders come for recreation and are never seen again – not by Jane and me today, anyway. We sat on a bilberry bank to admire a haze of purple and gold willow shoots, lingered under the slopes of Harts Hill to hear a wren boldly chittering for a mate, and hopped the stepping stones in the Sher Brook to our hearts’ content. Dogs splashed after sticks in the pools of Sherbrook Valley, and over in Abraham’s Valley a great spotted woodpecker flashed scarlet, white and black as he gave a hollow oak a battering.
From the green enclosures of Cannock Chase we emerged into the open country through which the River Trent snakes round the northern edge of the Chase. The sky expanded, the ground smoothed out into broad, flat river meadows in which the mansion of Shugborough Hall lay like a giant wedding cake on a croquet lawn. You can’t have a Midland scene without canals, and so it turned out here – the Trent & Mersey to carry us north along its towpath to Haywood Junction, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire to lead us past grebe-haunted reedbeds and fields of spring lambs to the Barley Mow and the borders of Cannock Chase once more.
Start & finish: Barley Mow PH, Milford, Stafford (ST17 0UW) – (OS ref: SJ 973212)
Road: On A513, Stafford-Rugeley.
Walk: (8½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 244):
Cross A513; left along Milford Common. Opposite Shugborough Park gates, 2 paths diverge (975210); take further one (bridleway fingerpost) past one pond to another (974207). ‘Heart of England Way’ (fingerposts) to Mere Pits (978201); left (‘Trail 5, Punchbowl’); in 250 yards, right on Staffordshire Way (981202) for 1 1/3 miles. At pools (986186) left across Sher Brook; up and over into Abraham’s Valley. Left (999186) for 1 1/3 miles (blue arrows) to car park. Follow road across A513 (004207) to Navigation Farm bridge (004213). Left along Trent & Mersey Canal to Great Haywood Junction (995229); left along Staffs & Worcs Canal to Tixall Bridge (975216). Left down road to Milford Common and Barley Mow PH.
Lunch: Barley Mow PH (01785-665230)