GM Ringway Stage 4: Bramhall to Middlewood

Published 4 July 2021.

Lady Brook in Happy Valley

The 186 miles long GM Ringway is Greater Manchester’s very own orbital walking trail. It’s a perfect walk for someone who wants to explore more about the Greater Manchester area. And handily I did… Having done stages 1 and 2 some months early, I did Stages 3 and 4 on the same day, starting at East Didsbury in the morning. And after a nice lunch in Bramhall Park, I set off on stage number four.

Stage 3 of the GM Ringway actually ends at Bramhall railway station. It travels from Bramhall Park through Carr’s Wood, following a stream so insignificant that the Ordnance Survey map doesn’t even list its name. I can’t tell you anything about it though as I didn’t do that bit. For a good reason I hasten to add. Stage 4 follows the same path right back again to Bramhall Park. I was sure it was nice of woodland, and no doubt an utterly idyllic stream. But I had planned to do both stages in one day. As such, there seemed little point in following it there and back for a total of four kilometres. Why bother when I could sit on a highly uncomfortable bench for a couple more minutes instead.

And it was a most uncomfortable bench. It was as if someone had gone out of their way to make a horrible bench. The back was angled in such a way that you couldn’t slouch, but you couldn’t sit bolt upright either. I tried to linger. To unwind. To relax. But it didn’t take long for the wooden slats to dig into my back enough that I was persuaded it was time to leave.

So with my rucksack back on, I left Bramhall Park, crossed a busy road, and headed to Happy Valley.

Welcome to Happy Valley

To many people Happy Valley will be best known as a BBC One crime drama set in West Yorkshire. But those in the know, well they know that there’s another Happy Valley on the other side of the Pennines. It’s a sizeable nature reserve that runs on either side of the Lady Brook. And it was where the GM Ringway went next.

Happy Valley (the proper one) looked like it would be a great place in the spring. There was an area of wetlands, full of rushes. And fields.

The Happy Valley wetlands

And then there were the woodlands. Had I mentioned stage 3 and stage 4 of the GM Ringway have a lot of trees? No? Well they have. I suspected that this would be the kind of woodland that, come April, would be filled with bluebells. Which made it a shame I was there in November.

Happy Valley also included a number of metal benches. Designed by the children of local schools and community groups, they were elaborately decorated of birds and flowers, . They looked rather lovely, even if one of them was coated in what could have been white paint, but more likely was the output of a particularly ill bird. On the other hand, nothing was going to tempt me to sit on a cold metal bench at this time of year.

An artistic bench in Happy Valley. Not sure it looks very comfortable though.

At some point in Happy Valley, I knew I had to cross Lady Brook. I assumed the crossing would be obvious, so I walked along the path that followed the brook, not really paying attention.

Only when I came to a sign about stepping stones did I actually wonder. The sign was – presumably – where the stepping stones had been. “Removed” turned out to be a bit of a strong statement. It looked more like the large stones had been dragged out of position so no one could use them. Why, wasn’t clear. The sign was no help. It told me that the stones were gone, and that the path was no longer circular one. My map proved to be utterly useless, offering no clues on water crossings.

End of the path at Happy Valley – definitely not where the GM Ringway goes.

It did show some lines in the direction I was going. They may have been a path, that – maybe – would take me to the main road I needed to go to. But that was no good. The path abruptly left the water, headed up a hill and double backed on itself along the edge of a field.

Hmm. What to do now, I wondered?

I had hazy recollections of there being a bridge near the entrance to Happy Valley. I’d crossed it, but as the path on the other side didn’t seem to lead in the right direction, I’d discounted it. It was a fair distance back. Was there something closer? I couldn’t remember.

The former stepping stones of Happy Valley

Glum at the un-necessariness of the detour, I stared at Lady Brook all the way back. Could I could ford it somewhere? The answer to that was, no, not unless you want to get very wet. There were many shallow sections, but they always coincided with a bit that would waist high. If I tried to get across without a bridge, it was obvious I’d get drenched. Even close studying of where the stepping stones used to be, revealed nought of any use.

And then, there was a bridge! Right there in plain sight. I’d not noticed it as I’d walked past. Hadn’t been paying attention. Well there hadn’t been a big sign saying “Hey you, if you need to cross Lady Brook, do so now cos you the stepping stones are no more!” Although even if there had been, spelling out the message in flashing neon letters, it is possible I wouldn’t have noticed. Still, I could cross and that was all that mattered.

The path on other side of Lady Brook was pretty similar to the side I’d the one I’d been walking on. Although with a bit less mud. And fewer trees. And more sheep in neighbouring fields. In fact, not that like much like the path I’d been walking on earlier. But it was the correct path. And it led to a main road. A road where the GM Ringway popped out of Greater Manchester for a dalliance with Cheshire. Cheshire East Council welcomed me into the county with a roadside sign that had fallen over, propped up next to a fence. It was a grand welcome.

Cheshire East Welcomes You

There was no longer a path next to Lady Brook. I wouldn’t see the waterway again until I crossed back into Greater Manchester some time later. Instead I made do with pottering down lanes, and using an underpass under the A555 Manchester Airport Eastern Link Road. Only opened two years earlier, it hadn’t taken long for the local graffiti vandals to find their new blank canvas. A plethora of witless messages and drawings without any particular artistic merit filled the subway walls.

“It is legal to paint here now” declared a message painted on the far end. I was a little sceptical that an official notice would be written in spray paint, and would use such bad English. But the kicker was the bit that declared itself to be from Stockport Council. Come on. This was Cheshire East territory. Get it right dudes.

Looks legit. Especially as the subway wall’s the responsibility of Cheshire East Council.

When I first came across the GM Ringway, it’s website was a bit rudimentary. There was an overview map of the whole route. But only the first two sections had detailed instructions. There had been no downloadable version of the whole trail, only the promise that more detail was to come.

Given that, you could argue it would have been wise to wait for more information to be available before heading off to Middlewood. But it never seem to come. So using my technical knowledge of how websites work, I’d managed to save the file used to generate the overview map, and had been using it to plot my route for the day.

I’d downloaded it over a year earlier, and so hadn’t even bothered to check the website before going out. This was probably for the best as since I’d last checked it, the GM Ringway’s website had completely changed and the overview map had ceased to be. But in the weeks following my walk, some updates had been made. More detailed route information appeared for stage 3 and stage 4.

I only found out after my walk. But studying them, I noticed a couple of revisions from I’d ended up walking. Such as it is when you’re being a bit of a pioneer.

A muddy farm track on the GM Ringway, near Poynton.

The most noticeable alteration came after I’d crossed a main road near a garden centre. The latest version had a nice walk round Poynton Lake. The older version had told to walk alongside a busy A-road, full of traffic. I can’t think why they changed it.

The new route met up with the old one near farm fields so muddy that the Glastonbury festival could have been held in them. The inhabiting cows looked at me as if I was completely bonkers as I picked my way through huge puddles. But no fear, because – after a brief detour to look at that new airport link road again – I would soon be back to the waterway I’d been following all day.

I found it again alongside some more mudland. Sorry, woodland. Woodland with a lot of mud in it. One where almost every tree had a sign on it warning you to stay on the path. That dangerous horses lived nearby. And that you absolutely must keep to the path or else.

Can’t see the wood for the signs.

In my absence, Lady Brook had undergone one of its name changes again. It was now Norbury Brook. The link with this few miles of water and a district of South West London being, I am sure, clear to all. I couldn’t wait until I hit Streatham Spring either.

There was also a bench. A comfortable one too. So I sat down, basking in the afternoon sun away from the crowds of warning signs. Whoever had installed this bench didn’t have a vendetta against people wanting to rest in comfort.

Rested, I got up and carried on. The path drew alongside a railway line, with the path running in a narrow gap between the railway and the brook. A very narrow gap, with a muddy path where one slip would send you tumbling down into the water. Reader, I walked with the uttermost of care. And then was amazed to find two men walking the opposite way with their mountain bikes. If they’d hoped to have a cycle, they’d made a firm misjudgement on conditions.

The GM Ringway joined Middlewood Road for its final stretch. Not an ideal scenario given the road’s a twisty one with no proper pavement. But I spotted a narrow track that weaved its way along in the trees that lined the road. Narrow, slippery and with a good fall to the road if you misstepped. Excellent. Still it took me to Middlewood Station and that was all that mattered.

Middlewood Railway Station

Every section of the Ringway starts and ends at a place of public transport. And Middlewood station is definitely a station and a half. It serves a limited local population. But hey that’s fine. Less enticing is that it has has no road access. The only way to get to it from Middlewood village is via a half a mile of unlit footpaths, much of it through woodland. The alternative path, that the GM Ringway takes, is useful for the residents of one house. And perhaos a few walkers and cyclists. Not surprisingly, Middlewood is one of the quietest railway stations in Greater Manchester.

Yet this little station used to be a major junction. It had four platforms over two levels. Those wanting to, could travel from Buxton, alight at the lower level station, climb up the steps and then board a train to Macclesfield. Well, until 1960 when the higher level station closed due to lack of use. The whole of the Macclesfield line followed ten years later. Of the platform and the station, little trace remains.

Had it remained, I may have had an easier journey home. The old line ran through my home town. But helpfully the line had been converted in a bridleway called the Middlewood Way. A three mile walk home following the old railway now beckoned for me.

And so I set off north, waving Norbury Brook goodbye. It had had three different names during the time I’d spent with it. But the GM Ringway wasn’t finished with it yet. On my return I’d be back near it once more. And it would even get yet another name.

Middlewood Railway Station, end of GM Ringway stage 4

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