… canal life, the work of barges, the simple pleasure of watching the water creatures. – Berlie Docherty
The symbol for the Staffordshire way is the Stafford knot, And it certainly was our experience this morning’s walking that we were walking, if not in circles, then in a very tortuous and circuitous route. From the campsite to the town of Penkridge was a scant 12km, which would normally take us three hours. We left at 9am, but it wasn’t until 1.30 that we crossed under the railway at Penkridge and collapsed into a café, mentally and physically exhausted from all the fiddly route-finding. It was not helped by a gentleman denying that a bridleway ran straight through his be-laked property, despite the evidence of the bridleway signs and rider-friendly gate opening at the end of his drive; or the fruit farms, which had sited their field-sized polytunnels running perpendicular to the path across the entirety of huge fields, making it impossible to traverse them, or bridleways which had fallen into total disuse. The fly-through shows several false moves, and some rather large deviations.
The high-tech world of large-scale polytunnel fruit farming is extremely interesting. The plastic sheeting defuses the sunlight, ensuring that each developing fruit gets as much light as possible.
Where strawberries for example are grown on benches, it is possible to control every single fruit as it ripens. There is no such thing as second quality fruit, and no waste. Channels between each of the tunnels collect all of the rainwater which is stored in aquifers. One field containing apricot trees was completely surrounded by a cordon of little pots containing biological control for drosophila hanging in the hedges like fairy lanterns.
The whole set-up minimises waste and weather- and pest-related damage with the minimum of environmental impact. And the polytunnels are architecturally beautiful.
It takes a crew of 25 acting in concert to pull the plastic sheeting over the polytunnel skeleton by pulling on ropes (we discovered, by chatting to this chap).
The café stop did us a power of good. Stephen nipped out to restock our suncream, as we feel very exposed outside in such hot weather for 10 hours a day. We were looking forward to getting to Cannock Chase in the afternoon, where we hoped to find a modicum of shade.
The frustrations of the morning melted away as we turned onto the towpath of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. If we had turned right instead of left, and kept on walking, we would have ended up in Stourport, about half an hour’s drive up our road.
The towpath was indescribably beautiful. Peaceful, calm water reflecting the sky, except where families of mallards herded their little ducklings. The bridges were brick, beautifully designed. We met a crew shoring up the banks with a mini digger on a narrowboat, and Mickey and Lizzie had negotiated a lock in their narrowboat The Rebellion.
It was a beautiful way to start the afternoon’s walk. At one point the tow path took us under the M6. I snapped a couple of pictures of lorries crossing above the canal, and just after I put my phone away an Eddie Stobart lorry crossed in front of me. I was absolutely gutted: it would have made for an iconic photograph.
Twice today the path took us across bogland on thick plank walkways covered with chickenwire. The earth otherwise was sandy to the point of being beach-like in places, studded with pebbles smoothed by the sea millions of years ago on a prehistoric beach. A characteristic ‘peewhit’ call alerted us to two lapwings executing their tumbling courtship dance over a ploughed field. We then rounded a corner to see the astonishing sight of a London bus in the middle of the Staffordshire countryside.
The day ended, quite against the rule, by saving the most beautiful and the best walking until last.
Cannock Chase was a gift of grassy paths and wide-open wooded space, with silver birch groves, hillsides of heather and bilberry, stands of Scots pines and the greatest number of ancient oaks that we had ever seen. If Treebeard wants to know where the Entwives are, you can tell him they are all in Cannock Chase.
We came out of Cannock Chase almost at our B&B. But the day was not finished with us yet. The nearest pub that served food was 2.5 km away, down the towpath we will walk on tomorrow, adding 5km more for the round trip to the day’s tally of 27km. So we laced up our boots again… but were more than amply rewarded
Quiz of the Day
Which walker are you?