The 2022 Svalbard crossing expedition is on. The sabbatical is booked. I’ve blown the dust of the kit checklist and done several happy-dances round the house. After two cancellations, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic and I do need to have a defined Plan B if it cancels again: mostly around what I do with the sabbatical. But that planning is for later. My attention is now on being ready for April 2022.
In July 2019 I ran/walked the Thunder Run, a 24 hour relay race around a 10km trail in Catton Park in Derbyshire, UK. I completed 4 laps for my team and felt pretty good about it, and by April 2020 I was ready for the Svalbard Crossing. Fast forward to now and I can walk 55km in 12 hours so I am much fitter this time round with 9 months to go. That being said, I am the queen of self-doubt and I am definitely not in as good a place mentally as I was in July 2019. This is hardly surprising but I know that over and above physical training, I need to focus on training my mindset. This is supposed to be fun, after all!
So what does this mean for the Cheshire Challenge? Next weekend I will clock round my target of 30% complete this year, 50% feels way off but maybe 42%? I’m going to press pause on the challenge for a few months over winter, the Cheshire plains will turn into a clarty horrible mud-fest and I desperately want some winter mountain time. So 42% by November? That feels like a good number.
Although this was not the longest walk so far in the Cheshire Challenge (that title is currently held by walk 21), this one scores high on the toughness scale; the eastern side of Cheshire rises up to the Peak District so it’s no surprise this 30km walk has the highest point (412m) and most ascent (814m) of the walks in the challenge so far. In fact its over double the previous highest point of 172m on the Eddisbury Way. I’ve also hit the milestone of walking 205km this year, the same as 2020 and climbed over 6000 meters over the whole challenge so far. I am terrible for not celebrating my successes, but I think if I’d been told last year I would have achieved this I would not have believed it.
This walk started in Bollington and the mood was set climbing up the very steep Hole I’ th’ Wall steps leading up to the aqueduct on the Macclesfield Canal. A quick stretching session to get the legs going and Sarah and I set off along the towpath. This was an easy 5km to lull our legs into a false sense of security before we left the canal for the North Cheshire Way. The North Cheshire Way stretches from Hooton station some 113km to Disley station and this walk would bring me close to the halfway compete mark. The path lead through delightful flower meadows buzzing with bees, butterflies and beetles. We stopped surrounded by buttercups for a snack before the walk pulled steadily upwards and into rougher hillier countryside. Our attention was grabbed by shearers working in a field next to the drystone wall bordered track. The speed at which each sheep was caught, clipped and released was impressive, with the neatly shorn sheep trotting off to graze unfazed but significantly cooler on a hot day.
My heart skipped in delight at being in this upland countryside again, I miss it and I want to get back to it. As much as I am enjoying this Challenge, I think I’ll take a winter break when the low land fields turn to a clarty miserable mess and instead head for the mountains and moorlands.
The route follows drystone walls before dropping steadily back off the hills. Here a dilemma arises. The North Cheshire Way splits into two options, one that stays low hugging the base of the hills or one that climbs back up to the National Trust Lyme Park. Both are officially the North Cheshire Way, so do I have to do both? Saving the conundrum for another day, I had opted for the hillier route, so we climbed steadily up on good paths through woodland with the last of the wild garlic filling the air.
Lyme Park was everything you’d expect from a big National Trust stately home on a sunny day, neat carparks and paths, mown grass full of picnickers, refreshment kiosks and perfectly manicured gardens. Stopping only briefly for a photo, we set off up Cage Hill with the requisite folly at the top which rewarded us with big views over Manchester and almost all the way to North Wales. Another steady down hill section past red deer and through large gates completed the experience. Being a stickler for accuracy, I made us walk down the steps to Disley station to the end of the North Cheshire Way before turning round and starting the Gritstone Trail. The Gritstone trail is twinned with the Sandstone Trail, it runs sort of parallel-ish on the eastern limits of Cheshire and is only 5 km longer, I’ll be walking a fair stretch of it to train for walking the Sandstone Trail in a day next month.
Walking gently up bridleways to a rickety brick bridge with a safer timber bridge alongside, the Gritstone Trail also splits, one option heading down to Lyme Park and a second staying higher. It was here I made a major navigation error, or rather didn’t check the automatically generated ‘snap to path’ feature on the OS website. I didn’t spot that the route I was following up to the road was not the Gritstone Trail, rushing to get ready the evening before I didn’t see the error and by the time I got the ‘this does not feel right’ feeling we were too far up the road to want to turn back. So I have an orphan path to walk – though with both the Gritstone Trail and North Cheshire Way having alternative routes I can make a decent walk of it. Hey ho! The two options for the Gritstone Trail rejoined at the carved anglian crosses known as the bow stones. Dating from the 8th to 10th century these crossed served many purposes as boundary posts, way markers or places of worship.
From here the path up to the highest point on the walk is on a wide windswept hill with sheep grazing and broken drystone walls providing little protection, fine on a clear day but prime territory for horizontal rain in winter. A detour for trig baggers can be made here at Sponds Hill, but I was in heads-down mode to catch up on time. We stopped at the viewpoint at the highest point and even with an afternoon haze to the air I could pick out the Sandstone ridge and North Wales across the plains of Cheshire. A steady down hill 5km, with the Matterhorn-esque Shutlingsloe prominent in the distance, brought us to the foot of the big pull of the day – White Nancy.
White Nancy is the name of the conical folly on Kerridge above Bollington. It was built to commemorate the battle of Waterloo and over the years has been painted to observe many different events from a red poppy to the Olympic rings. Approaching it from the north on the Gritstone Trail means gaining 100 metres height in an 800 metre distance, all that leg work in training sessions paid off and we managed to climb it in one hit; albeit with hearts pounding and legs complaining bitterly. Though its possible to miss it out and walk back to Bollington the view is worth the effort. A kilometre further along the Saddle of Kerridge this walk and the Gritstone Trail parted company and good footpaths lead back to the canal. Retracing our steps down the Hole I’ th’ Wall steps was the final test for our legs but the reward of cake more than made up for it.
After our big walk, this was to be a nice short 20km. Huh, never thought I’d write that a few months ago!
The walk picks up a section of the North Cheshire Way, Sandstone Trail and a little of the Weaver Way. This corner of Cheshire around Frodsham and Helsby has quite a few overlapping paths which makes the route planning a bit tricky and a minor detour was needed so I could fully tick off a section of the North Cheshire Way.
We started at Frodsham station, the route is a wiggly circular taking in the sandstone ridge with big views over the Mersey and a section along the river Weaver which was engineered to be navigable in 1732. The weather was gloriously sunny so I bravely left my waterproof trousers at home and took sunscreen and a hat instead. Leaving kit behind always makes me a tad nervous, especially waterproofs even though the forecast was sunny all day and I was such a short distance from home rescue was only a call away; but nervousness is a good prompt to make me check if I am really sure I should leave something behind or not.
Leaving the station, the route walk hugs the bottom of the ridge, slowly climbing up through the trees. It’s a very pretty place to walk and lovely to explore the many paths among the broadleaf woods and sandstone outcrops some with ornately carved graffiti from over a century ago.
But we were on a mission and joined the North Cheshire Way at an impressively solid flight of stone steps. The route continues to hug the wooded hillside for a couple of kilometres then pops back out into the sunshine heading for Helsby. After a steep climb through more woods, we came to the top of the cliffs above Helsby. A haunt of local climbers, its often soft, friable sandstone is not to be underestimated and requires significant brave-pants to be worn on the harder grades.
At the top of Helsby hill is a trig, which we visited on walk 6 so we gave it another hug (all trigs need a hug) and stopped for a snack. The North Cheshire Way now follows the same tracks as the Longster Trail for a few hundred metres before heading south and on paths I have already logged in the challenge. A very short stretch on the Longster Trail, again already logged, and the route switches to follow the track of the Sandstone Trail. The strategically placed Spirit of the Herd pony sanctuary’s cake stall was too much temptation to resist and having discussed in depth our plans to eat a little better on our walks we stuffed our selves with fudge and brownies. Well its for a good cause and very delicious.
The Sandstone Trail is one of, if not the best waymarked path so far on the challenge and the map was forgotten until we got to Baker’s Dozen, a flight of steel steps from Dunsdale Hollow which replaced the very worn Jacob’s ladder steps carved into the sandstone. It was here we took a short detour to pick up the North Cheshire Way before retracing our steps under the cliffs covered in carved graffiti, some dating back hundreds of years. Now officially counting towards the North Cheshire Way, the route popped out at the memorial high above Frodsham with more long views to North Wales and Liverpool.
Now the walk headed down off the ridge and into lush meadows and arable fields before arriving at the banks of the river Weaver. Canada geese, moorhens and mallard ducks were abundant in the reeds in the banks and a long-abandoned lock. At the road bridge we headed back into town and ate even more cake sat in the sun. Perfect!
Blimey that was pretty epic! This walk was a 12-hour challenge with Sarah Williams: how far could we walk in 12 hours? Walks 19 and 20 were training walks and I’d set myself a goal of 40km, or even better 42.2km to make a marathon distance. Well we smashed that! 53km. Fifty-three. Fifty blumin’ three! Very, VERY chuffed with that!
I chose the Wirral Circular Trail at 59km as ‘too long to do in one go’ so we’d not run out of path and the navigation should be fairly easy and not require lots of map checking. We set off from Hoylake at just after 6am, walking down to the beach and along the shoreline to West Kirby. The skies were grey with the threat of rain and the tide almost fully out beyond the Hilbre Island. With just a few dog walkers and one lone early morning litter-picker we had the place to ourselves. At West Kirby we picked up the Wirral Way, a 19km path along a disused railway line that runs all the way to Hooton with frequent views over the Dee estuary to North Wales, this got us off to a good start: our pace was quick but steady and the kilometres quickly clocked by. The North Cheshire Way and Arrowe Park to Parkgate Circular follows a section of the Wirral Way, which in itself is a Cheshire Challenge path so this was the third of four times I will walk all or part of the Wirral Way. It’s a good job it’s a nice route!
If I don’t plan properly, I am quite bad at keeping myself fuelled properly on long days out, so this time Sarah set an alarm to go off every hour to remind us to have a snack, apart from flattening her phone battery this worked really well and it was only at the end of the walk I began to feel really tired. This is a habit I need to build for Svalbard as eating regularly will be the key to getting the high calories I need for the exertion and cold exposure.
Once at Hooton we took advantage of the train station toilets for a tactical wee, with covid restrictions still in place our options could be limited. Planning ahead for these things is often the difference between a pleasant walk and a miserable one… I also needed to tape my feet, my old faithful Keen shoes were finally giving up and I could feel a couple of hotspots developing. Its always sensible to stop and deal with hotspots as soon as they start as a small bit of tape can be all that’s needed to stop a blister forming, which was the case for me. The next section is through the residential areas of Eastham, winding round housing estates after walking through the graffiti covered motorway underpass. The Wirral Circular Trail is reasonably well waymarked but a few rogue signs pointing the wrong way require attention to be paid to the map until the route reaches the promenades along the Mersey.
We stopped for a more substantial snack under a beech tree in Eastham Country Park, with the rain now thoroughly set in we needed to keep moving so as not to get too cold and require faffing with layers so we ate what we could and set off again quickly. At Eastham Ferry we got our first sight of Liverpool as the route headed north and to the industrial side of Wirral. The section to Seacombe flits between riverside parks, housing estates, docks and more than a handful of grey industrial units. Its not pretty and in some places it’s pretty grim, but there’s enough to be interesting.
At Seacombe the route joins the promenades. Lots of investment here has created wide, smooth surfaced walkways and cycle paths with views back to Liverpool, the docks on the far side of the Mersey and across to Crosby. The downside was the hard surface was tough on tired feed and by New Brighton our pace had finally slowed. As we left New Brighton large foreboding patches of rain could be seen far in the distance along the Welsh coast. As we walked, the wind turbines disappeared row by row as the rain approached, thunder and then hail. Well, it wouldn’t be a proper walk if we didn’t get soaked just before the end, would it?
A week after the Shropshire Union Canal and North Cheshire Way (walk 19), this was another 30km (by the time you add in some faffing) and ticked of 20% of the challenge completed. It’s also the third completed path and the second walk that completed a whole Cheshire Challenge route in one go, after the Baker Way. When I drew it out on the big map it seemed huge and daunting but now 30km feels like a ‘good long walk’. Progress!
We met in the carpark that serves the pub and golf course as well as the park and headed straight out. I was sloppier than usual in my pre-walk checks and didn’t check my shoes were laced well: my feet suffered later from moving too much inside my shoes and I got my first hot spot on my heel for years. Lesson learnt. The weather was sunny and bright for the most part but in the shade and breeze it was sharply cool which required a few layers change over the day.
The walk is mostly well waymarked though a few navigation points were a little tricky to find, the path is not named on the Ordnance Survey maps so this was a walk to have the route marked out on the app or have the guide to hand. The guide gives a number of alternative routes, the version I opted for seemed the right mix of distance and good paths.
The ground was dried rock hard in the fields and made for tricky terrain where the cows had churned up previously deep mud, but the need to concentrate on our feet didn’t limit the conversation and once again I think we talked almost the whole way round. This was a rural contrast to walk 19, the most urban it got was crossing the M53 twice and through the middle of Heswall but neither could be described as industrial. At Brimstage there is the slightly odd sight of a WW2 pill box, there are quite a large number of them around Wirral; with the Dee and Mersey estuaries either side it was seen as a possible invasion site. This one is bricked up though a few had been broken so carefully (and without dropping our phones) we used the light to peer in and were rewarded with nothing more exciting than litter.
A different mark upon the countryside is the wide, straight, tree-lined ‘roads’ that cross each other and even form a ‘roundabout’ that run from Thornton Hough and Thornton Manor. I think (though a cursory search on t’internet was inconclusive) these are where Lord Leverhulme started to work on a second Port Sunlight style village. Most are not public rights of way so access is not permitted but it was fascinating crossing them on the footpaths and wondering what it would have been like if the project was ever finished.
Once through the very chocolate-box pretty Thornton Hough, the route follows a permissive path. Its not marked on the map – some permissive paths are an orange dashed line – so we marched purposefully across the sports field full of football players hoping we weren’t going to have to do a walk-of-shame back. Nope, there it was clearly marked and off we went. We stopped for a snack by in a small patch of heath surrounded by bright yellow gorse. After last week’s high-sugar sweet experiment we had another go and concluded that the pineapple ones were nicer than the strawberry: next walk, watermelon flavour and all in the name of research. Gently buzzing we carried on to meet the Wirral Way where the two paths join for a time, then turned down to the sea wall at Parkgate. With the blood sugar dropping we sat and ate ice cream dangling our feet over the wall. The salt marsh has reclaimed the estuary here, and the water could not be seen beyond the grass and rushes which were filled with birdlife. The walk carries along the wall for a couple of kilometres before pulling up hill by a redundant boat launch to the town of Heswall.
The route weaves through the town and though care is needed not to miss the turns it was pretty easy, though this was the steepest climbs of the walk gaining 90 metres in a couple of kilometres.
After Heswall, it was back to the fields and woodland with a bit of a stretch on roadside pavements all the way back, with the last kilometre retracing our steps, only this time with disinterested cows for company.
20% finished is a great mental hurdle. Now, will I get to 50% by the end of the year?
It’s been a while since I have walked over 20km and was pleasantly surprised how little my body complained about this 30km walk. The route on the OS map puts it at 27.5km, but there were a few less obvious navigation points that were a little hidden and required a bit of back-tracking to be sure we were on course.
The first 7km of the walk was getting to the Shropshire Union canal from Hooton station. Most of the Cheshire Challenge walks have been rural or just passing through the outskirts of towns, this was much more urban and not the prettiest of walks with the busy M53 motorway, Stanlow refinery and warehouses contrasting with pasture, woodland and sandstone cottages. What I did find fascinating is passing landmarks I recognised from driving along the motorway but seeing them at a much slower pace and seeing more details, but it did mean the smell lasted longer too. Walks I have done so far on the Cheshire Challenge, especially those along the canals, have passed through industry from over a century ago which has lost its brutal edge and is painted, cared for and has become ‘heritage’. I wonder if the same nostalgia will ever placed on modern industrial buildings.
As always when I walk with Sarah Williams we talked pretty much the whole way; our conversations blend the deep and meaningful, planning future endeavours and plain silliness. I like walking and talking and it is true that walking brings clarity to thought. I often find that over a walk I’ve resolved issues that have been running round my head and, in today’s video call world, I find conversations with someone while not looking directly at them bring a deeper discussion. Add to that the steady pace of walking which is proven to help the brain process thoughts I definitely get more than just a good physical workout from walks. But the serious chat is balanced by a good dose of laughter, too.
We reached the ‘start’ of the walk at the boat museum at the Shopshire Union Canal, not yet open I got as close to the locks at the end of the canal as I could before back-tracking a short distance to walk along the canal. For a canal that passes some of the areas heaviest industry, there are pockets of tranquillity and plenty of wildlife. There are equally neglected areas too, often within a few minutes’ walk and though this could be quite depressing I take comfort in knowing that nature will thrive and reclaim what we humans leave behind. And there was a poignant moment too, a stark reminder of just how hard it has been for some with flowers laid remembering a life cut short too soon.
The walk did not stay on the canal for long and picked up the North Cheshire Way to weave back to Hooton for the next 14km. Spring was springing everywhere, this section of the walk was more rural along pastures and woodland, passing fields with calves, lambs and foals with blossom covered blackthorn and cherry trees along the hedges and gardens. Even the road sections seemed more pleasant than normal, its amazing how blue sky and sun can transform things.
This was the walk I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for the Cheshire Challenge. After walking solo since November, the lovely Sarah Williams joined me for the day. We spent the day putting the world to rights; walking and talking was the tonic I needed, from deep and meaningful discussion to silliness and laughter.
We started in Frodsham. I try and plan walks so if there is an unpleasant trudge along a busy road its at the beginning when my legs are fresh and the conversation lively rather than at the end of the day when I’m weary. So this first stretch was along the busy A56 before squeezing down the tightest passage way I’ve encountered on the whole challenge. Of all the Cheshire Challenge paths I have walked so far, the Eddisbury Way seems to be the least valued; here is no signage to say this is the Eddisbury Way, let alone the start of the route. Things start looking up for the path as it passes into woodlands, along fields and into a small gorge full of wild garlic. The waymarking is really poor so I made a few navigation errors as I was concentrating far too much on chatting with Sarah to spot the right paths to take.
There are some lovely ancient byways on this walk, worn sandstone under foot always makes me wonder who has walked these paths before and what the countryside surrounding it was like. Today the fields are a mixture of arable and livestock, the oilseed rape was starting to bloom brilliant yellow, the grass was lush and shooting up in the warm April sunshine and the sandy soil ploughed into deep furrows and planted with seed potatoes. The Eddisbury Way pulled up onto the sandstone ridge with long views behind us across towards North Wales, the rural countryside contrasted with the heavy industry of Runcorn.
We stopped for an early lunch in a grassy field protected from the wind by a sunlit hedge. Lunch was made all the better by the amazing flapjacks that Sarah had made and the subsequent sugar rush powered us up the hill.
More navigation conundrums occurred when I thought I had missed the public right of way, but closer inspection showed that the waymarked route, with the yellow arrows that indicate a public right of way was not where it was shown on the map. Here a brilliant navigation tip from Aaron Mitchell was put to use: high voltage pylons are marked on OS Explorer maps and if the insulators are hanging vertically then the cables are running in a straight line, if they are vertical then the cables are changing direction. With hedges removed and the waymarked route being further along the byway than shown on the map it was the pylons that confirmed I was stood where I thought I was, it was the path that was not where it was shown. The trodden path across the potato furrows meant we adopted a tigger-like walk bounding from the furrow-tops to cross the field.
The Eddisbury Way and Delamere Way form a crossroads on the edge Delamere Forest and it was here that we switched paths and headed north on the Delamere Way. There is a little more road walking but they are quiet back roads linking the byways and footpaths. The highest point of the walk is shortly before the end and the air was so clear that the Liverpool landmarks twenty miles away, the cathedrals and radio tower, were easy to spot. In honour of the pylon navigation aid we created the pylon dance and much hilarity ensued making the video before a group of walkers appeared. The walk descends steeply into Frodsham, sharing the path with the far better known Sandstone Trail. The start/finish of the Delamere Way is at the curiously named Bears Paw pub and we made it just in time for the weather to take a major turn from the blue skies to snow and sleet.
I’m getting close to the 20% complete with just 30km to walk before I hit the milestone. I have found my enthusiasm for the Cheshire Challenge again, with an aim to get some big miles under my feet over the next month.
This was an intentionally shorter walk as I have volunteered to test the route survey form for the Slow Ways project. I needed to stop and take measurements of the path and make notes so my overall pace would be much slower than normal.
The forest is becoming a bit of a popular film location and there was a small encampment of shiny white trailers as I walked through the old carpark, I curbed my curiosity and upped my pace as I walked past. This short section is along the same path as the Delamere Loop and I had to stop myself on autopilot missing my turn. The whole walk I was keeping alert for the factors that Slow Ways project want to know, all relating to the accessibility of the paths. I started volunteering for Slow Ways when it started early 2020 and needed people to map possible routes, the ones I did are all back in the East Riding of Yorkshire and one day I will go and walk them.
After the forest the route winds its way into the back of Norley, then on to Cuddington. I take the notes I need to, realising that my bright idea of a small lightweight tailors tape measure rather than a heavy retractable DIY one was not so clever after dragging it through the mud a few times. Before I mapped out the whole Cheshire Challenge and the pattern of the paths crossing was clear, the routes I planned were good walks but not terribly efficient in making sure I covered all the paths I needed to. For this walk, it meant a short stomp along the road to pick up where I had left the Delamere Way in walk 3, then turn round and walk back to turn this walk into a decent circular.
After Cuddington, the walk picks up the top of the Oakmere Way. Following the railway along a permitted path and around the edge of the tree nursery it crosses the road and back onto the now very familiar paths around the quarry. The weather had closed in and the rain became persistent, but I like walking in the rain. Head down and dry inside my waterproofs, I marched homeward.
The first walk of the Cheshire Challenge I didn’t complete as planned. It was a bright, warm sunny day with the promise of spring in the air, as I set out I was keen for a good walk; I knew I could walk 20km, the navigation would need some care as I know the Eddisbury Way is not well waymarked but everything was within my comfort zone. Any maybe that was the problem: it was all a bit, well, easy.
I set out through the forest, the sun had brought quite a few people out despite the lockdown but it wasn’t crowds and I would be soon away from the busier areas. The first sign that perhaps my heart was not fully in it was when I couldn’t see how to join the Eddisbury Way at Manley. I’d walked a short section of the Sandstone trail, too short to count this time as I know I will be back later, and was stood, map in one hand and phone with the OS app in the other pacing up and down for a stile that wasn’t there. After grumbling a bit I realised the basic error I had made and that the path I was looking for ran parallel to the one I was on, but on the other side of the hedge.
Once I had gotten over kicking myself, the walk to Kelsall was past familiar landmarks I would usually drive or cycle past. I like seeing these places from a totally different perspective. There is more detail to be seen with a slower pace and it doesn’t always show them in a better light: somethings are better for a glimpse at speed but others turn out to be more fascinating than I could have imagined. Around here, the fields are surrounded by huge, thick Leylandii hedges, I think there were once many orchards with the hedges there to protect the fruit trees from wind and create warm micro-climates for them.
There is only one really grim bit of this walk which is crossing the dual carriageway to get to Kelsall. It’s a very fast stretch of road and extreme care is needed to cross it. For me, Kelsall is the place where the nearest Co-op is so it was nice to walk through the village an see just how lovely it is. The experience was slightly spoilt by the huge crowds that were in the park I had to walk through, I hadn’t been near that many people since the summer and it felt pretty uncomfortable: though I suspect my underlying mardy mood had more to do with that than I’d admit at the time.
My pace had been slow and as I walked through the orchards around Weetwood thoughts of stopping arose. I only needed to walk the Eddisbury Way section, I have plans to walk the length of the Sandstone Trail over a weekend with a friend sometime so the short section I’d walk today would be repeated. But that would mean I’d given up. Let myself down. Failed. I chose to stop and sulked all the way home in the car after being picked up.
Hindsight being the leveller it often is, I know I didn’t fail. But I have reflected on why this walk just ‘didn’t do it for me’. It’s no one thing, but I think walks like this where there is nothing that really pushes me outside the comfort zone I much prefer to do with friends. And I’ve done a lot of comfort zone walking solo, I set this challenge because I couldn’t get to the wilder moors and mountains I love; I enjoy discovering these routes closer to home and not having to drive an hour to walk and its great training for Svalbard. But its not the same. I think lockdown 3 has finally gotten to me and I just need to be kind to myself. I’ve walked 320km over 16 walks since I started this challenge, missing a tad over 7km is hardly failing.
Three walks in one blog! Grab a cuppa, this is a longer read.
I walked the Delamere Loop from my house over three walks in January and February 2021. The third Covid lockdown meant I had to walk from my house, so to walk the 35km of the Delamere Loop I walked an extra 31km to meet the path further south.
The first section started in Delamere Forest alongside Blakemere Moss. I’ve walked, run, roller skied and dragged my tyre around the mere many times and will walk it again as part of the Cheshire Challenge on the Delamere Way. The route heads out of the forset to a steep road called the Yeld, it’s a relentless slog of a walk and even more of a grind for those that cycle it. Around here there are small orchards and this one was full of Fieldfares gorging themselves on the fallen apples.
After passing the outskirts of the village of Kelsall, the walk heads back into the trees, this time in Primrose Wood. Its here that a remnant of the ice age can be found, with a minor detour. Now called Urchin’s Kitchen, the narrow sandstone gorge was a formed by melt water under the vast ice sheet that once covered here. Cool huh? The Delamere Loop continues to wind through the woods climbing up hill to pop out onto a quiet road, then back onto a narrow bridleway and then out on to the road that leads in to Utkinton. After Utkinton, a less lovely stomp along a road for a few hundred meters brought the turning point, a large black and white fingerpost came into view. Time to head for home.
I’m not normally worried by cows. I’ve found that if I just walk slowly, quietly telling them I am the most boring thing they will see all day and that I am really not worth the effort to investigate then they generally ignore me. Its rare I get a strong feeling that something is not right, maybe its a primordial instinct, a sixth sense that tells you things are not all hunky dory and even without looking danger in the face, you know it is there. And this was one of those occasions. As I entered the field it was at least knee deep in sloppy mud in places and I had to pick my way, hopscotch style, across what was theoretically a path: no one would keep cows on this I thought, they must have been moved. I was wrong. As I started to reach slightly firmer ground, I saw the cows and they were definitely interested in me. Decision time. Turning back put them behind me where I couldn’t see what they were doing: if I fell in the mud I could be in serious trouble. I decided to continue, checking exactly where the exit from the field was on the OS app, phone in hand, slowing to a snail’s pace and with my walking poles to make sure I didn’t slip I walked directly towards the stile out of the field. I was fine, they were uncomfortably observant and skittish but moved away as I approached and I made it to the stile without incident. But it wasn’t a pleasant experience: I have only once before felt this wary of livestock and my heart was thumping as I swiftly climbed the stile.
And so back to the outskirts of Primrose Woods, down to the equestrian centre and then up the lane to Eddisbury Hill.
Two weeks later, I retraced my steps to Utkinton this time in snow as I dropped down from Delamere to Primrose Woods. Deciding I didn’t fancy my chances with the cows again, I headed to Utkinton and repeated a small section of the Delamere Loop I had already walked. At the black and white fingerpost I turned right instead of left and continued along the Delamere Loop. This route was a lot of road walking. The trouble with walks in winter that are road and paths is selecting footwear. Snow and mud calls for walking boots, but miles on tarmac is unforgiving on the feet and joints. Through Eaton and onward to the ghostly quiet Oulton Park race circuit, I finally left the tarmac to the refreshingly squidgy paths of Little Budworth Common. Here the first tiny early signs of the incoming spring were appearing in the woods: the brilliant green shoots of the bluebells peeking through the leafmould.
This walk was the longest of the Delamere Loop walks at 25km but the least efficient of the Cheshire Challenge so far, with more distance covered on the unnamed paths than on the named ones. At the Longstone, I left the Delamere Loop and turned back to home. The Longstone is a medieval waymarker it would have been in the form of a cross but all that remains now is a solid chunk of the base. Rare in this part of the country, the unassuming stone is grade II listed. More road walking followed. A pavement along the busy A49 was welcome and then the quiet, dead straight road along a wood know as Hogshead Lane. A short way along a verge and I gratefully headed back on to paths, this time the Oakmere Way. This is a permitted path alongside the sand quarry and leads all the way back to Delamere Forest.
Another two weeks later and I was walking back along the Oakmere Way, down Hogshead Lane and back to the Longstone. This was a shorter walk of 20km, and after a few kilometres walking along quiet tarmac lanes, I came to the Whitegate Way. Once a railway this is now a permitted path for cyclists and walkers, at 11km it’s the shortest long-distance path of the Cheshire Challenge but today I was only walking a section that doubles up as the Delamere Loop. I both like and dislike paths such as this. It’s a little too polished for my taste but its great for thinking time as no effort is needed to navigate and I don’t need to pay too much attention where I am putting my feet. As I reached the end of the Whitegate Way I started that polite game of leap-frog gate holding for two teenage girls on mountain bikes: I walked past them, they then rode past me. They asked me where the Whitegate Way ended and we started chatting about local routes to explore. I’d like to think I planted the seed of an adventure for them.
Another short stretch of road and I was back in Delamere Forest and soon standing by the Delamere Loop sign pointing towards Blakemere Moss. The Delamere Loop is the second of the Cheshire Challenge paths I have finished, the first being the Baker Way that I walked way back in the summer.
Or so I thought. Some weeks later, on an evening stroll up the hill behind my house after work, I found a Delamere Loop sign. At the top of a hill I definitely didn’t walk up. My inner list-ticking self feels the need to investigate this further…