Sandstone Trail Day 3: Bulkeley to Whitchurch

Published 6 November 2022

A metal Sandstone Trail sign at Gallantry Bank.

Declared one of Britain’s best walks, the Sandstone Trail is a walk through Cheshire’s sandstone hills. Offering glorious panoramic views, castles, history, unusual canal locks, lots of sandstone, and even a few fields, it’s a gem of a walk. And at 35 mile/56km, it only needs three days to walk it. I found some time in March 2022, and went to see just how much sandstone one person could get to see. On my first day I enjoyed sandstone, forests, and stunning views. The second, an enchanted woodland, aa castle, the ruins of an old tramway, and more of those great views. What would the final day offer?

“So how was your last day’s walk?” my partner asked on my return home.

“Errr,” was all I could reply as I racked my brains, trying to think how it had been. But I could think of nothing. My mind was completely blank. It was like I’d forgotten a whole days walking? How could that even be?

And with that, my eyes opened and I found myself lying in bed at the Bickerton Poacher. I couldn’t remember what had happened for the very good reason that it hadn’t happened yet. My mind reassured, I looked at the clock. Half past six. I stared at the ceiling then tried to doze a little before it was time for breakfast.

A chimney near Galantry Bank, near the Sandstone Trail.

Careful studying of the map had showed me there was a way to bypass the A543 on my way back to the Sandstone Trail. A series of paths through fields ran roughly parallel to the road, and would avoid any incidents with speeding cars.

True, at 9am on a Sunday morning, the road was hardly likely to be busy. But when walking down the road the previous day, one Range Rover had got ridiculously close to me. After that, I wasn’t that keen on taking any chances. Even if it did mean going through a few muddy fields, it would be far safer. The worst that can happen to you in a field is usually that you slip. Far preferable to being hit by a car driven by someone not paying anywhere near enough attention. It’s never happened to me yet, but I was in no hurry for that situation change.

It also gave me a chance to admire the Bickerton Hill I’d walked over the previous day, and see an old stone pump house chimney near the road. I’d been far too busy fearing for my life the day before to spot it.

A stone cross in the graveyard at Holy Trinity church, Bickerton.

Oh, by the way, yes, I did mean to say “the Bickerton Hill” above. The wording above is deliberate. For reasons that will come clear shortly.

Rejoining the Sandstone Trail, I wandered through the hamlet of Bickerton. A cluster of houses, and the rather attractive Holy Trinity church, built in 1839 to serve local churchgoers. Before the church had been built, local churchgoers faced an eight mile round trip to worship in Malpas.

Behind the church, the path took a climb up Bickerton Hill, owned and restored by the National Trust as a restored heath-land. It’s also the second Bickerton Hill of the trail. One of the Bickerton Hills as they were. A strange naming quirk sees there being two different Bickerton Hills sited a mile apart, staring at each other across a valley. One can imagine that they were each given the same name by locals. And when someone pointed out this was an absurd situation, no one could agree which should be renamed. The obvious one would have been the one furthest away from the hamlet – the one to the north that I’d walked round the previous day. But then, perhaps they couldn’t agree on a new name.

Kitty’s Stone on Bickerton Hill (South).

This second Bickerton Hill of the trail offered viewpoints a plenty. And without doubt, the finest stood near a simple stone memorial known as Kitty’s Stone. It’s dedicated to the wife of Leslie Wheeldon, who helped the National Trust buy the northern part of the hill in 1991. Kitty’s Stone offered a splendid panoramic, looking across Cheshire to the Welsh mountains, with a glimpse of the Mersey Estuary. It was quite the viewpoint.

The path carried on to the adjoining Larkton Hill, where the views were similarly superb. And it’s also the site of an old castle for good measure. There’s not much to see, and anyway the Sandstone Train doesn’t go past what little there is. But I got to admire very little thanks to taking a wrong turning, carrying on along the hilltop instead of heading downhill. Not to worry, I thought, on realising the mistake. I can take a course correction! One that required scrambling down an incredibly steep slope. I could only hope the good burghers of the National Trust would forgive me.

The southern end of Bickerton Hill is known as Larkton Hill for some reason.

The walking through Larkton Hill’s wooded slopes was, alas, too short. I’d enjoyed the heather topped plateau at the top. And the woods that followed it, were delightful. But it was time to bid the hill farewell and wander off through fields and farmland. When the Sandstone Trail had first opened in the 1970, it was at a nearby car park that the trail ended. But then it’s now more than double it’s original 16 mile length.

And so through farmland I want. And also farmland-turned-into-champion racehorse training facilities. Manor House Farm once housed cows. In fact, it was the first Cheshire farm to produce tuberculin tested milk, meaning the cows milk had been tested for the presence of Tuberculosis. Those cows are long gone, and now the farm is owned by former footballer Michael Owen and his wife. The farm’s now a huge enterprise, with training tracks, stables and more. Although I assumed the horses didn’t work Sundays as the place was completely silent.

The entrance to former footballer Michael Owen’s stables – Manor House Stables.

The next couple of miles passed in a blur of fields. Mainly muddy ones, although one was flooded with the water ankle deep. But it was a cluster of sheep-filled fields that proved memorable, for all the wrong reasons.

For starters, I found myself lost in a field. Quite lost. I ended up walking full circuits of it in an attempt to re-find the Sandstone Trail. I could see the gate I’d entered in. But it seemed to have no way out. At least not one that matched the map.

I was fluxomed. Nothing made sense. I spent about ten minutes wandering round the field’s sloped boundary, staring at the fence with no idea where I was supposed to be going. A sign had pointed me into the field, but the only exit would be sending me back the way I’d come.

Hiding between the trees is the local church, St Chad’s. Although it’s not actually that close to the Sandstone Trail…

It took me ages to work out what had happened. In a previous field I’d unknowingly taken a wrong turn. I’d realised pretty quickly, and got myself back on track. Or at least I thought I had. But what I’d missed was that I’d managed to double back on myself. The reason the exist to the field was pointing back the way I’d come from, was because it was pointing towards Bickerton and it was the path I’d come in on.

Once I realised that, I was soon back on track, and back into the field I’d originally made a mistake in. I knew this because it contained the reason why I’d made the mistake in the first place. It contained a dead lamb, being watched over by its mother. I’d given it a wide birth, because I didn’t want to upset the ewe who I presumed was grieving. But in doing so, I’d missed a gate I needed to go through, a short way away from the lamb’s corpse. And with that, twenty minutes of confusion was finally resolved.

This now meant I could resolve a mystery. There were two churches, both very close to each other. One was in the field I went to. And it had a small sign explaining its history.

Old St Chad’s Church, Tushingham.

Old St Chad’s Chapel was once the main church in the area. A lovely building, made of red sandstone, it was also one that outgrew its population, resulting in the erection of a replacement nearby. The newer replacement was more easily accessible to the locals. Yet somehow Old St Chad’s survived, and still hosts some services in the summer months; its lack of electricity preventing all year round use. It all seemed deeply inefficient. But still quite lovely that it had survived.

A few more fields followed. A lot more mud too. And then there I was at Willeymoor Lock, and its adjacent public house. I hadn’t planned on stopping, but there had been nowhere to stop for a rest since Bickerton Hill. No benches. Not even a nice mud-free field. So I heaved the rucksack off, popped inside for a pint of lime and lemonade, and sat myself on a picnic bench outside, waiting for a barge to arrive at the locks. None came of course, but at least I was well rested.

At the locks at the Llangollen Canal and that means.. canal side pub!

The final 3½ miles of the Sandstone Trail run down the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union, now known as the Llangollen Canal. The highlight of this walk had to be the brick built Jackson’s Bridge. Well, it is if your surname is Jackson.

Most other people will prefer Grindley Brook. This was the second southern terminus of the Sandstone Trail, and was until the trail was extended to the town of Whitchurch in the 1990s. Grindley Brook had many lovely features. A signwriter specialising in lettering for canal boats. A lovely looking pub. A shop. A cafe. And, of course, a complex staircase lock.

Peeking through the bridge to Grindley Brook, on the Llangollen Canal.

Your average canal lock is quite simple. The canal on each side of the lock is at a different height to the other. And what you want to do is get your barge in to the lock and either fill it with more water so that you can raise your barge up. Or you want to let water out so the water level goes down. When the water level is correct, you open the gates and pootle off. This works fine as long as there isn’t too much of a difference in heights between the start and finish.

But sometimes the height difference is much greater. And that’s where a staircase lock comes into play. There’s fairly rare, but effective. If the height difference is too great, then you can raise or lower in stages. A staircase lock does it in stages.

The Staircase lock at Grindley Brook.

At Grindley Brook there’s three stages, with different rules depending on whether you’re going up or down. It looked incredibly complex, and perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s one of a few locks that have an attendant lock-keeper. Although if they’re not there, don’t worry as there’s signs to tell you just what you need to do. Bottom lock should be empty. Top lock full. And the status of the middle one depends on the direction you’re travelling. Full if you’re going uphill. Half full if going down. Got that? Good. Best of luck with it then.

A small crowd had congregated on the canal-side near Whitchurch. The cause was a lift bridge that had been raised to allow a barge to pass down the canal. The barge glided through, and in a thrilling moment for the assembled children, the bridge was winched back into its down position and pedestrians could walk once more. The excitement was over. Normality was restored.

The lift bridge at the entrance of the Whitchurch arm of the Llangollen Canal.

The bridge stood next to a small canal junction, with a short spur leading off to The Whitchurch Arm, and it was down here that the Sandstone Trail followed for its final stretch.

With the decline of the waterways as a means of transporting goods, the Llangollen Arm of the Shropshire Union had closed to traffic in the 1940s. But by the late 1950s, there was growing use of the canals for leisure purposes. The Llangollen got a temporary stay of execution, before that being permanent thanks to its success in attracting recreational traffic.

The Whitchurch Arm of the Llangollen Canal.

The short Whitchurch Arm wasn’t part of that plan. But in the 1980s the Town Council began investigating what it would take to restore the town’s canal link. Part of the old canal bed had been redeveloped in the 1950s, but there was enough remaining to re-open a 1.2km section of the route. After a lot of fundraising and hard work, the restored Arm re-opened in the 1990s, and now provides short and long term mooring space, as well as providing the towpath that the Sandstone Trail follows towards the town centre.

A little beyond the canal came journeys end. The Sandstone Trail completed its 35 mile journey from Frodsham near a children’s playground and a car park, on the edge of Jubilee Park. The trail end was commemorated by a small stone archway made, one can only assume, out of sandstone. Why would you use anything else?

The sandstone arch at the end of the Sandstone Trail.

It seemed a slightly curious place to finish. Why here? Why not in the town centre near its plethora of pubs and shops? It’s a lovely town centre too. The town’s got a hundred listed buildings, and it’s full of black and white timber framed buildings. There’s a pedestrianised shopping street where they could have put the arch.

With all those old buildings, it looked like the place should be full of tourists. Hey, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited town in Shropshire. It should be full of people who had come to see this charming town centre and its old buildings, before enjoying an award winning pork pie from Powell’s Pork Pie and a pint of ale in the 14th century Old Eagles pub. But many of the shops were empty; their dusty windows suggesting Whitchurch’s high street had been hit hard over the years. And early on a Sunday, the place was almost deserted. Very few places were open, and I wandered through mostly empty streets wondering how I’d fill the time before my train home, feeling a little dismayed at the ending.

I found a pub and sat in a mostly empty beer garden overlooking a branch of Tesco. Glamour personified. Okay, I hadn’t expected a party on the street. No brass bands playing, and cheerleaders performing as I walked into the town centre. But it would have been nice for a little more life. Perhaps I’d simply picked the wrong day of the week.

Black and white building in Whitchurch.

Supping my pint, I thought back over the previous three days. It had been quite something.

I’d first learned about the Sandstone Trail when I’d read it had been labelled as one of the Top 100 walks in the UK in an ITV television series called Britain’s Favourite Walks. Rated 70th if you must know. Top of the list had been the ascent of Hellvelyn, in the Lake District. Well it was hard to argue with that assertion.

Before I’d set off, I’d wondered if it would ever live up to that. Did it deserve such an accolade? Don’t know. But despite the slightly disappointing arrival in Whitchurch, it had been a corker of a walk. Three days of wonderfulness in the Cheshire countryside; an area not perhaps best known for its walking countryside, despite a TV programme. I’d enjoyed it no end. Even the mud.

So was it one of my favourite walks? Yeah. I think it was.

Have your say