Well, it had to happen at some point in this challenge, a walk I really didn’t enjoy. To be fair, the Bishop Bennet Way is primarily a horse and cycling route on bridleways, byways and roads; this section had long road sections and for someone who’s preference is remote wild places it didn’t fill me with much joy.
The route starts in the shadow of Beeston Castle and follows a byway before a long trudge along the road past the Ice cream farm. In non-covid times the prospect of ice cream would have cheered me up but even the drive through seemed closed. I found a good lunch spot where I could light my stove for a warm drink, eating a lot of cake and watching a flock of hens were highlights, as was the curious machinery graveyard at Calveley Hall.
Pfft. That was it really. 17km in the bag and glad that’s ticked off: But I guess you can’t have all all the time, can you?
November. It was no surprise that this was a damp walk under grey skies, but the mood was anything but sombre. A circular walk meant meeting with a friend and it was lovely to have company again. The walk started and finished at Wrenbury-cum-Frith, in non-covid times a post walk pub dinner would have definitely been part of the plan.
The first half of the walk is along the South Cheshire Way: pub quiz fact – at 55km it is just under half the length of the North Cheshire Way. Muddy fields were the start of the day, gently rolling through lush grass and pastures. The waymarked path diverted a couple of times from the map, which caused a bit of navigational confusion but we soon popped back out onto the road to Marbury and the accurately named Little Mere and Big Mere. Time for our legs and lungs to get a good workout, the route pulls steeply and steadily up Buttermilk Bank to a spectacularly long view to Peckforton and Bickerton Hill and the sandstone ridge.
All down hill from here, the path picks up the Bishop Bennet Way, another Cheshire Challenge path that I’ll be ticking off soon. After another muddy trudge through a recently harvested maize field we joined the Llangollen Canal which at this point is also the Sandstone Trail. We stopped here for a late lunch, timely as the weather began to close in; mizzle turned to drizzle and then to rain. Head down, deep in conversation at times and comfortable silence at others, we stomped steadily along the canal with barely a drop in height of 10 meters over the whole 10 km.
Sometimes all you want is a nice simple, long walk to let your mind wander and not have to concentrate too much. This walk was to be a 20km stomp along the Shropshire Union Canal, finishing where the South Cheshire Way crosses the canal and where I had planned a series of circular walks to save for walking with friends. From Audlem and south, no other Cheshire Challenge walk crosses the canal so most of it will be solo and possibly multi-day walks for me.
I set off from just outside Cheswardine; as is often the way with canal walks it started at a narrow canal bridge and steps down to the towpath. The October weather was warm and sunny with clouds gathering but no sign of rain. I’d planned a walk and talk with a polar friend, Lungi and passed the first two kilometers happily chatting about training and back-up plans should trips be cancelled again, sharing the rural Cheshire scenery on Facetime to South Africa. Social media may not be perfect but sharing a walk with a friend I have not met in person is pretty special.
Then the barrier fencing loomed into view. Recent heavy rain had caused landslips in the cutting and the towpath was closed. Drat. That’ll teach me to check with the Canal and River Trust before setting out. Of course, this was the one time I had not bought the map with me as the navigation was just ‘follow the canal for 20km’ and so I had to end my chat early to work out a route on the OS app instead. It wasn’t the most pleasant of detours and involved a section of verge walking along the busy A529, it barely added any distance to the day but it does mean I now have a stranded bit of towpath I need to walk. Re-joining the canal at Tyrley Locks was a friendly greeting from the slower pace of the canal after the lorry-dodging on the roads. A snack later and I was ready to carry on.
The whole of the walk is gently down hill and there are plenty of locks along the way. A deep tree lined cutting just along from Tyrley with a series of locks was a magical dell with ferns and mosses covering the engineering epic that it must have taken to build it.
Aproaching Market Drayton I was greeted by a very enthusiastic parrot in a narrowboat, who waved their toys enthusiastically at me as I walked by: I’d say its not what you expect to see but I’ve learnt you see all sorts of life on the waterways. A little further on another out-of-place sight was a grade 2 listed Pillbox at Market Drayton built in 1940. As I stopped, slightly surprised by it, I got chatting to a couple who had recently become full-time boat dwellers. Canals seem to attract friendly people; I am not sure how long we talked for and I don’t really recall what we talked about but it was lovely to have a touch of normality and connection with people.
Another thing I like along my walks is to read the plaques on benches. Often they are just a name and dates in memory of someone but some are beautifully poignant, witty or just make you stop and think. I’d hope that lots of people have smiled and sat with Ellen and Ike.
The walk ended a few kilometres north of Audlem, which meant walking the full length of the locks flight, with an honesty box cake stall at the top and plenty of pubs at the bottom for boaters to steel themselves for or recover from the effort of working the 15 locks. The top of the locks to the end of my walk was a repeat of the towpath, also part of the Weaver Way which was walk 4 of the challenge for me, the finish today was Austin’s bridge now a footpath on the South Cheshire Way. I’ll be back here someday soon.
This walk on a lovely sunny August day was the other half to walk 1, repeating the connecting path. This time I met with the awesome Sarah Williams of Tough Girl Challenges, we parked our cars and, without our usual greeting of a hug, we set off.
The Sandstone trail is well trodden and with plenty of waymarks the navigation is easy, meaning we could natter the whole time without paying attention to where we were heading. The sun was warm and we quickly reached the turning point.
The route turns west and follows field edges then large open grazing land. This is not a named route and the waymarks sparse, so more care was needed on the navigation. Lots of temporary fencing for dairy cattle divided the fields, making the route of the public right of way unclear and uncomfortable for a short section. The GPS came in useful to confirm that the path was correct as a number of electric fences needed to be crossed: a bit of team work, walking poles and good flexibility was required. Rich grassy field, the result of the muck spreading encountered on walk 1 took us past the trees of Hoofield covert.
We picked up the Eddisbury Way following a thick hedge before popping out onto Hoofield Lane and into the village of Hoofield. Passing out of Hoofield more navigation confidence was needed to cross a poultry farm and into thickly planted maize. It was reasonably easy to walk down the lines of maize holding our arms in front of our faces to keep the leaves away from our eyes. A short stretch along the busy A51 took us on the Dutton Mill were it was time to leave the Eddisbury Way and head back. The footpath passes through a final farm sweet with the smell of cows and a final trudge up the road back to the cars.
Video of the walk HERE The route is available on the Ordnance Survey website HERE
It has been a long, long time since I walked 20 km. Mentally this seemed like a huge challenge, although lockdown had meant I walked almost daily I had no idea if I could walk 20km in one go. I decided to do a solo linear walk with my husband dropping me off and collecting me: if I had to stop I could always call for an early pick-up. As I wanted to test my endurance and not my navigation, a canal walk seemed to fit the bill.
The Weaver Way runs from the top of Audlem locks on the Shropshire Union Canal, right on the southern edge of Cheshire, all the way to Frodsham broadly following the river Weaver. Its 64km long and the longest of the routes that is entirely within the county of Cheshire.
I started the walk at Audlem. This unfortunately meant I had to walk back up the 15 locks to the actual start of the Weaver Way, but it was a lovely day and the locks are lovely. After loitering long enough to look like I had intended to walk up the locks, I turned and headed north. The walk crosses the river Weaver twice on aqueducts, once north of Audlem where the Weaver is little more than a big stream and again just before Church Minshull by which time it has grown to a river. The stretch to Nantwich from Overwater marina is straight and surrounded by flat farmland. But it is far from dull, there was so much wildlife from geese grazing in the fields, moorhens dabbling along the towpath and juicy ripe blackberries too irresistible not to eat. At Nantwich there is the option to detour through the town, but I chose to stay on the towpath which was now busy with narrowboats. As the canal heads out of Nantwich it crosses the Chester Road on a short but impressive black and white painted aqueduct.
It was at this point I witness what was almost an incredible encounter. A man was busy, head down repairing his narrowboat. As I approached, a kingfisher flew out from the trees on the opposite bank went to land on his back, changed it’s mind at the last moment, briefly landed on the bow behind him and flew back into the trees. As I walked past him I said what had happened and we shared a moment of delight at such a beautiful bird.
Onward and I was soon at Hurleston Junction where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal, and a place I will visit at least twice more on the Cheshire Challenge. From here it was a few kilometres to the turning point at Barbridge Junction and along the grandly named Shropshire Union Canal Middlewich Branch. More winding and a little wilder than the main branch I recalled cycling down this towpath, chasing down a friend’s narrowboat a few years before. Weary legs carried me on and, 24km later (not counting the walk to the top of Audlem locks) I reached bridge 14 and the end of the walk.
A lovely warm and sunny summers walk along the river started this walk from just outside the village of Kingsley. The track down to the river was a footpath with hedges either side, full of butterflies and bees on the wildflowers. The path opens up to a grassy field and the river, breakfast smells rising from a narrowboat moored on the bank as we headed up river.
The Weaver here is navigable and in its hey day was busy bringing coal to the salt works and the salt back out, which makes it a fascinating place to walk. A fallen tree in a wooded section provided entertainment to the others as we each ducked underneath it trying not to catch our back packs. The path briefly ducked away from the river at Pickering Cut through a small mobile home park and over what was once the original path of the river, now a quiet back water and a haven for wildlife. A short distance further on is the impressive Dutton Viaduct, carrying trains between Liverpool and London, after some silliness listening to the echoes under the arches we carried on Dutton Lock. This is where we left the North Cheshire Way and joined the Delamere Way.
After the flat river walk, the pull up the hill got the blood pumping and we wove round fields and briefly popped out onto the road and under the railway. We stopped for lunch under a large tree and watched the trains whooshing past. The route then follows the top of the railway bank all the way to Acton Bridge. It was here I made a minor navigation error where several paths criss-crossed in small fields, I may well have been absorbed in conversation! The downside is that I now have an orphan section of just a few hundred metres, the upside is that we passed the Hazel Pear pub, which had just reopened with Covid restrictions in place. We stopped for a drink and sat in the pub garden, it felt very odd to be back in a pub though it felt very safe and well organised.
Refreshed, we carried on. The route took us along the road out of Acton Bridge, and just before we turned down a hedge-lined footpath we heard snuffling and a small black pig wandered up to the gate for a scratch behind the ears. The remainder of the Delamere Way alternates between fields and back roads, as we left Ruloe we waved goodbye to the Delamere Way, it heads south-west towards Delamere Forest but we needed to head north-west back to our start point. The paths were again mixed between quiet roads, byways and footpaths, the last couple of kilometres on the tarmac made tired legs complain a little in the heat of the late afternoon but nothing to spoil a lovely day in the Cheshire countryside.
The Baker Way is the first completed path of the Cheshire Challenge and was named after Jack Baker, a much loved and active advocate of local footpaths. It was June 2020 and in less strange times, I’d have taken the train to Chester and walked back but lockdown had changed the timetable and I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to sit on a train, if only for a short distance. So instead, I was dropped off at Chester Station. The walk is 21km, and takes in city canal, fields and forest along the way, it’s a lovely walk and the weather was mostly kind.
The route picks up the Shropshire Union Canal, so I’ll be walking this way again twice: even though I will have walked the track underfoot, it only counts towards one named path at a time. So, I’ll be back! It was a little odd walking past the cafes and pubs on what would have been a busy Sunday morning and the ducks were clearly wondering where their snacks had gone. I followed the canal out of Chester, moving from old brick warehouses to modern industrial buildings and suburban housing and pubs.
After briefly swapping to a muddy footpath on the opposite bank of the canal, the Baker Way heads off across fields of wheat and maize before popping out onto a quiet country road. The road becomes rougher and broken before turning into a by way, which weaves through the Hockenhull Platts nature reserve and crosses three grade 2 listed medieval bridges. This is border country and the name is a combination of old English and Welsh meaning “the bridges on the old peddlars way”. After the bridges comes the village of Tarvin. This is where we normal drive to for the most excellent fish and chips from King Louis, so it was fascinating to pass through a familiar place on an unfamiliar route.
A perfect single oak made an excellent lunch stop and feeling pleased with my efforts I stayed a while, eating cake and leaning against the tree. Drizzle prompted a quick repack and the path carried on, skirting round Ashton and through the splendidly grand Peel Hall which is now a stud farm with foals, all knees and hocks, grazing with their mothers. Then followed a stretch of road walking, though in parts the road was barely more than a track. Now back in familiar territory, the route passed through Brines Brow wood and then a short but rather unpleasant stretch along the road known locally as the switch back. The road is fast here with rough verges and blind corners so I was glad when the route headed off into the forest. This section crosses several other paths on the Cheshire Challenge and it was quite exciting to know I would be walking them all.
When I first moved to the area, it took me a while to realise just how many bridges cross the railway in the forest and it did my navigation confidence no good when I’d find myself back at a sandstone bridge facing the opposite direction I was sure I was headed. The Baker Way crossed three bridges as it winds through the forest, the afternoon sun had brought out families walking round the Gruffalo trail and it seemed crowded compared to my mostly solitary walk. Finally the path came to the station at Delamere and I was done. The first completed path! I wonder which will be next?
Although I had completed about 80km of the challenge, it was clear that I needed to be a bit more strategic in planning walks or I’d end up repeating paths or, worse, leave lots of little missed sections. So time to think big!
1:80,000 scale big. This scale is detailed enough to show B roads and villages, but big enough that the whole challenge fits on one piece of paper. It’s an Ordnance Survey map which meant tracing the paths from the LDWA website was fairly easy as I could zoom out to the same scale and transcribe what was on screen to the map. The intention was not to show every twist and turn of the paths, rather the overview of the places they passed through and how they related to each other. Where paths shared the same track on the ground I drew them as parallel lines, totally unrealistic as that would make them 300 meters apart but it meant I could see instantly how many paths shared that track. It took the best part of 10 hours and nearly 200 metres of pen ink but was very satisfying to see all 22 paths and how they interlinked or not in some cases!
Connecting the paths into routes for walks will be tricky. Some, like the Llangollen Canal, have no adjacent path in the challenge so I’ll probably turn them into multi-day walks and camp overnight. The trickier route planning to solve are the areas where there are many adjacent and crossing paths. The perfect solution is to find a series of circular walks that do not duplicate, don’t miss sections of path and minimise the number of paths not in the challenge. This is stepping into the world of computer science and the dark realms of P vs NP problems, way beyond what my brain can fathom so I’ll resign myself to a few odd walks to officially complete the challenge. If you have 45 minutes and want to boggle your mind, this In Our Time Podcast has a go at explaining it.
After eating my celebratory Tunnock’s something was niggling at me. That purple shaded area over Hooton and Parkgate. So the following weekend I checked the website again. And the niggle was right.
Two of the rules I set myself were that the path must start or finish in Cheshire, and the path much be on the LDWA website. Following these rules and now with the big map i n front of me it was clear I had missed three paths and 108km. Out came the pens and the map was updated. This sets the challenge at 25 paths and just a fraction over 1500km, which are much nicer round numbers, don’t you think?
And to show the size of the task, I made a timelapse video of my efforts fuelled by gin, tea and Tunnocks! Enjoy!
Feeling the need to take control amongst all the uncertainty, I’ve started a new challenge!
An awful lot could happen between now and April with Covid-19, which has made me worry that it could affect my expedition to Svalbard again. I know that with polar adventures you are often in the lap of the gods and that resilience and stoicism is key, but I’ve found it hard to focus on training knowing there is a chance it might not happen again.
The mountains are only an hour or so away from me and are a perfect place to train and a place I love to be. But, Wales is still on a stricter lockdown as I write this and there is always the possibility that we all go back to a higher lockdown if infection rates rise again. I am also very conscious of the huge pressures the lifting of lockdown will have on local communities and facilities: the mountains aren’t going anywhere so I’d rather wait before returning. I needed to set a challenge that I can start ticking off now, is close to home, is good endurance training, doesn’t require any new kit or skills and could be done solo or with friends: it needs to be something that stands alone from the Svalbard crossing at the same time as contributing to it. So this is a challenge for Covid times.
The Cheshire Challenge
There are 22 long distance paths that start, finish or are wholly within Cheshire where I live. 1394 km (866 miles) in total. I unofficially started on the 7th June 2020 when lockdown began to lift in England but now, with a spreadsheet ready, I’m making it official! I’ve set myself some rules for the challenge:
The path must start or finish in Cheshire
The path can be done in sections
No double-counting distance if sections are repeated