GM Ringway Stage 5: Middlewood to Strines

Published 11 July 2021

For those not going in the same direction as me.

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 do… Covid-19 lockdowns were doing their best to stop me walking it, but finally in the spring of 2021 I managed to get out to do stage 5. And handily it was local to me.

Winter. Cold, short days. Dark nights. Bad weather. 

It should come as no surprise that our biggest festival of the year comes in December.  Christmas.  A time to celebrate.  Joy and light.  A brief interruption of brightness in a period of darkness, before another two months of gloomy weather.

Winter.  The time when you stay inside next to the fire, huddling together for warmth.  Equally a period when I can’t wait to get outside.  But where I feel a bit trapped because the weather stops it happening.  Winter. When it’s difficult to get out.

And that’s even more so in the “Year of the Pandemic”. 

Four months earlier, when I’d last been on the GM Ringway, things had been looking up. Covid-19 rates were falling. A month-long lockdown was about to end. Then it all got worse again. Just over a month after I’d arrived at Middlewood, the country was in lockdown again. And as that third lockdown dragged on and on and on, the more I longed to escape from the house.

Your home is somewhere that should feel like a comfort to you. A place of sanctuary and safety. But when you can’t leave it, it can feel oppressive. I worked from home. I ate at home. I couldn’t even get out to take the children to school for they were being educated at home. As and as the first part of 2021 went on, all I really wanted to do was spend a day outside of those four walls. Those increasingly claustrophobic walls that surrounded me.

But at long last March arrived. The children went back to school and the opportunity to take a day off work and do something, finally arrived. But we were still in Yet-Another-Covid lockdown. What to do when you can’t travel anywhere? When you are supposed to stay local? When you’re only supposed to leave your house for shopping, to take children to school, or to exercise in your locality. Ah, there was an answer there. The GM Ringway.

The previous section of the GM Ringway had ended three miles from my house. Section five was a meandering tour of the edges of south east Greater Manchester. Along canals, through a National Trust park, and along a hilly ridge. And the whole thing was within a couple of miles from my house. I wouldn’t need to get the bus anywhere. I wouldn’t need to drive anywhere. I could set forth from the front door and walk. And as soon as I could, I booked a Friday off work and did just that.

It wasn’t the best of weather. Twenty minutes before I left the house, the heavens had opened in spectacular style. There were signs that more rain was on the way. But I was committed. And would it be worth it after being locked up for so long?

Hell yeah it would.

Heading off into woodland for stage 5 of the GM Ringway.

A short way north of Middlewood station, the GM Ringway darted into a section of woodland, along paths and tracks. Well I say woodland. It was woods interspersed with pockets of industrial buildings, like they were hiding away in the trees, not wanting to be seen. As woodlands go, they weren’t exactly the nicest, even if you did your best to ignore the car repair shop, and other such excitement. There was something rather dark and oppressive about it. Dense and miserable. No sign of flowers or spring anywhere to be seen. Not even a lowly daffodil.

The GM Ringway was heading towards the Macclesfield Canal, a 42km section of waterway that connects with the Peak Forest Canal in Marple, with the Trent and Mersey canal at Kidsgrove. Opened in 1831, it predominately carried coal, cotton, and grain, until slowly but surely, the railways took the business away. Despite that, commercial goods continued to be transported along it right up to 1954.

Hello! It’s the Macclesfield Canal!

Nowadays, as with most canals that have survived, it thrives on leisure and residential boating. A cluster of houseboats were moored up as I arrived, all handily located for a muddy, almost swampy towpath. It was wide enough to take a car and at some point had been laid with a base made of up small metal squares. Presumably something supposed to be substantial enough for the odd car to use it. Maybe it was once better, but now it was slippery and the square holes full of mud. I didn’t like walking along it, yet alone like the idea of potentially driving on it.

Perhaps mindful that the previous two sections of the GM Ringway had focused heavily on one babbling brook, the trail didn’t hang around too long with the Macclesfield Canal. After slurping along the towpath, it darted over the first available bridge, double backed on itself and headed on towards a brook. A nice looking waterway, although heavily swollen after heavy rain the previous evening. But hang on, wasn’t there something rather familiar about this waterway? Ah yes, there was. Yes, it was the waterway also known as Lady Brook, as Micker Brook, as Norbury Brook. And now under a fourth name, Bollinhurst Brook.

The bridge over Bollinhurst Brook – a GM Ringway waterway favourite.

The brook meandered along in a rather lazy way, with lots of loops, twirls and flourishes. So it was with thanks that the path didn’t follow it closely, but went a more direct route along a series of fields; a line of wooden posts showing the way to walk. They were rather frequent, not even 100m apart in places. Installed perhaps at the behest of the landowner, keen to ensure walkers didn’t stray too far off the approved route. Not that I had much choice. The fields were waterlogged, close to being flooded. The result of a few days of heavy rain. And whilst the posts tried to keep me on track, it was impossible. To follow them to the letter would have seen my boots covered in mud. Assuming I could stay upright. At one point I couldn’t even do that, slipped and fell right on my backside. A little deviation away from the posts and onto the grass was an essential requirement for staying upright.

Perhaps all in all, not the highlight of the walk. But what came next fitted the bill. For I was about to enter the National Trust owned Lyme Park. Sited just over the Greater Manchester-Cheshire border, its manor house, woodland and deer park are a major draw for visitors. Parts of the house date back to the 15th century, and the building is as much of a TV star as a visitor attraction. It’s arguably best known from Red Dwarf episode ‘Timeslides’ where it featured as the home for an alternative version of Dave Lister. Although some people may also know it as Pemberley in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Yes, that lake scene with Colin Firth, that was filmed at Lyme.

Elmerhurst Wood, in the GM Ringway’s detour in Lyme Park

Now the GM Ringway doesn’t need to take in much of Lyme. It doesn’t help the trail go along its way. You could actually cut out most of the Lyme section entirely if you wanted. It’s a detour for no other reason than just because. And having been to Lyme many times in my life, I knew that in this case, because was more than enough of a reason to do it.

The GM Ringway’s diversion through Lyme Park comes in two stages. First it headed south through Elmerhurst Wood. Unlike much of the woodland earlier in the day, this was an attractive place, even when looking rather plain in winter when the trees had lost all their leaves. There was something enticing, and quite beautiful about it. Maybe it was the well made meandering paths. The complete lack of litter. Or maybe it was just that someone took care of it. Yes, this was a lovely spot all right.

Those wishing to could easily take in a visit of Lyme Hall whilst walking this section of the GM Ringway.

The path would take me down along one side of Lyme’s long entrance driveway, originally used by the house owners, and now regularly busy with cars heading to the main car park. It was at the car park that the GM Ringway would do an abrupt u-turn and head up along the opposite side of the drive. This would go along a small ridge, towards the park’s famous landmark, the Cage.

A three story stone tower built with four domes on the roof, the Cage was built at some point in the 18th century. A classic folly, it was used variously as a hunting lodge, and later as accommodation for members of staff. By the 1920s it had been left to deteriorate, and at some point in the second half of the 20th century, rotting floors and timbers were removed, leaving only a hollowed out shell of a building.

The Cage at Lyme Park

Things are a bit better now. Floors have been restored, and pre-Covid the Cage was often opened up to visitors. Without a doubt there’s a fine view from the top. I know because I’ve been there. It’s prime position on the hill gives a splendid view looking towards Greater Manchester. No wonder that during World War II, the local Home Guard had the building as a look-out post.

There was no opportunity to visit inside on this day. But even from its base you can see a long way either to the city, or to the Peak District on the other side; some of the fell tops still covered in snow. And I made the most of it, perching up for a while, until strong winds forced me to set off once more.

Perhaps the world’s tiniest waymark sign is in Disley.

I followed the drive down towards the entrance, crossing over Bollinhurst Brook (or whatever it was called now) one final time, before arriving at the busy A6 road. The driveway was decked out with daffodils and snowdrops, all in full bloom. A sure sign that winter was on its way out and spring was in the air.

The next few miles to Marple Ridge would be a bit of a mystery to me. The map showed a stretch of unnamed woodland that I needed to go through. I didn’t hold out that it would be that exciting, but it turned out to be rather lovely.

With the roar of HGVs in the background, I passed through an area enchantingly planted with silver birch, holly and occasional oak. And there was no one there. After the bustle and hustle of the roads, and the scores of people I’d seen enjoying Lyme Park, this came as rather a surprise. A serene oasis that had somehow survived. It was so quiet and peaceful that it was hard to imagine anyone ever coming through it. Even if the well made path that the GM Ringway followed, suggested otherwise.

The path led to the top of Disley Hill. Not the most exciting place in the world. Just some houses and a sports club, although houses with a grand view of the local area. Views that no doubt added a fair premium to the local house prices. That this dormitory village popular with people commuting into Manchester, sat just on the other side of the county boundary in Cheshire, presumably helped too. Disley sits at the far north east of the county, a narrow strip sandwiched between Greater Manchester and Derbyshire, with limited connections to the rest of its county. In a world that made sense, Disley would sit in either of them rather than being this oddity of Cheshire. So in 2008 a referendum was held. Would residents prefer to be an isolated outpost of Cheshire? Or perhaps they thought they’d be better served being part of the borough of Stockport in Greater Manchester?

Obviously the residents voted to remain in Cheshire. Well you have to think of the house prices. Although with a turnout of a mere 23.96%, one could argue that mostly the local population didn’t care as long as their bins were emptied on time.

The GM Ringway obviously has to go through at least one golf course.

And then it was to Disley Golf Course, following a path straight through the middle of it. Although thanks to Covid restrictions, no one was allowed to play, meaning I didn’t need to keep my eyes peeled for errant golf balls. No middle aged men wielding a metal stick would be glaring intently as I walked by, getting in the way of their shot. Instead the course was full of people walking dogs; the dogs taking no notice of the signs imploring visitors to keep off the greens.

The path darted through some woodland, over a muddy swamp, and then found itself in the shadow of a tall brick chimney. Built around 1790, the chimney’s the remains of an old bone mill that once supplied dye to a nearby printworks; the dye coming from plants and the ground bones of dead animals. An Ordnance Survey map from 1899 showed the mill as already being disused. Quite how the chimney had remained in such good condition was quite a question. But not one I was going to dwell on for too long, anyway.

An old chimney at what once was Springwater Mill, on the GM Ringway

On the map what I was about to do looked utterly bonkers. The GM Ringway was heading towards Strines and it would get there by walking along the Peak Forest Canal. From where I was at Turf Lea Farm, the trail wanted me to head north along a road, turn right along another road, right again down a third road before joining the towpath and heading right once more. This would take me 2km of walking and get me to a place that was a 200m from where I was standing. And which I could get to by taking a simple track through a small woodland.

I was baffled. The track was marked as a right of way on the map, so that didn’t seem to be the problem. So why the detour?

No beer from this public house any more. Indeed there are few refreshments on this section of the GM Ringway.

There was only one way to find out. So I walked up road one, then road two. Just after a former pub called the Romper, I dutifully turned again and walked down what increasingly looked like someone’s driveway. I was still mystified. And then all was revealed. We’d taken this huge route out of the way for a view of the hills across the valley, up towards Mellor. The next stage of the GM Ringway would be going up there. It was giving me a preview of what was to come.

It wasn’t strictly necessary. There were places on the canal towpath that gave similar views, although arguably not quite as good. And it did give an extra bit of canal walking that otherwise wouldn’t be necessary. Still as a finale to the day, it wasn’t a bad diversion.

The fine view from Marple Ridge to Mellor Moor – which will be explored in stage 6.

I meandered slowly down the towpath to Strines, now a small commuter village but once home to a major manufacturing complex. And also Springfield Copse, a piece of land owned by the Woodland Trust.

The main route followed a road from the canal to Strines railway station, but I spotted a path through the copse that ran alongside it and decided to take a detour. Well it had been a very woody day. What harm would one more bring? The answer, it transpired, was a steep muddy path going downhill.

Springfield Copse – not on the GM Ringway itself but it runs alongside it.

It would be more amusing a tale if I’d slipped at this point and had ended up covered in the stuff. Sorry, but I didn’t, but only due to much diligence, with a sigh of relief as I arrived back on tarmac, and was able to admire Strines’s local landmarks.

These consist of three notable things. Firstly there’s Bruce’s Clock, named after Thomas Bruce, a foreman mechanic at Strines Print Works who had once occupied much of the village. Bruce had made the clock in 1809 for the works. Now it stands alone, surrounded by hedges, and not too far from notable thing 2.

Bruce’s Clock, Strines

That would be the old millpond. Quite a big one, now used for fishing. And which has, in its middle, notable thing 3. The Strines Dovecot.

The Strines dovecot is a bit of a mystery. During the medieval ages dovecots were a common feature, providing a way of raising pigeons and doves for food. But the Strines one isn’t that old. It was built at some point between 1832 and 1852.

There seems to be no record why it was made. But made it was. A big one too. There’s 72 roosts for raising birds that no one particularly needed. Nor could get to easily as it was plonked in the middle of a millpond.

One thing is sure. The dovecot that is there now isn’t the original. In 2007 the dovecot was in a poor state and when it was removed for restoration, it was deemed to be beyond repair. So instead a replica was built. Although whether any doves will ever live in there, is another matter entirely. Few have yet to take up residence.

The Strines Dovecot

Landmarks dutifully admired, I retired to a small park near the station for a quick rest. Well, there’s not that much to do in Strines. It mostly consists of houses clustered along a road. In recent years its two pubs have closed. One stands empty, the other converted to housing. There’s a car showroom. And there was a cafe, but someone had decided that what Strines really needed instead was a small, flexible office space instead of somewhere to buy a cappuccino. There were a few other small businesses tucked away, but Strines felt rather a dead place. Even the railway station is a bit of a dead end, tucked well away from the houses, and consisting of some bare platforms and a couple of stone built shelters.

On the other hand, I was out. I was about. And now I’d completed another section of the GM Ringway I was eager to get on and do another. The next section would take me to Marple, the place I lived. But it gets there in rather a roundabout way. I’d be doing that the next week. Instead I walked a more direct route, along the side of the River Goyt that flows between the two, and headed home on foot in what can only be described as Covid Secure manor.

Strines station – The end of another section of the GM Ringway.

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