Sandstone Trail Day 1: Frodsham to Kelsall

Published 9 October 2022

A Sandstone Trail waymark on Frodsham Hill.

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.

There’s a small part of me that thinks a walking trail should start and end in a big way. A thrilling sight to set you off, or some huge climatic end to finish on.

The trouble is that such highlights are rarely near train stations or in towns. They don’t often feature in places served by buses or trains. They’re rarely near somewhere you can get food and accommodation. So most walking trails start with a bit of a boring way, next to a train station or in a town centre. If you’re lucky there will be a sign at the start. If you’re really fortunate, there will be a monument. But then you’ll have to walk past some shops, or through a housing estate before things get going.

Frodsham Hill War Memorial, not far from the start of the Sandstone Trail.

I stood next to the war memorial on the hilltop, looking down on Frodsham. As I did I thought what a great place this would be to start a walking trail. You could see for miles. Somewhere in the distance was Liverpool and Manchester. Okay, there were some power stations and the Stanlow Oil Refinery. But there were also graceful wind turbines, a good view of the Mersey Estuary, and the Welsh mountains. Yes, this would be an amazing sight to behold. A grand way to start proceedings.
Just, not very practical.

As it happens, when the Sandstone Trail opened in 1974, it started at a car park not far from where I stood. Someone decided to start the walking trail with a bang.

The actual start of the Sandstone Trail, on the high street in Frodsham.

And then in 2000 the route was extended into the town below. A smart sandstone marker was erected on the high street to mark the northern terminus of the trail. A nice way to start, but then to get up to the war memorial required a mile of walking down roads and through alleyways. The new start was practical. It was a short walk from shops, pubs, trains and buses. It wasn’t exciting, but it made sense.

But as it happened, the Sandstone Trail managed to provide something of the best of both worlds. My hotel – a large affair with conference facilities, restaurant and leisure club – was at the top of the hill. It was only a short walk from the war memorial, and was almost on the trail. So the day before, I’d followed the Sandstone Trail from the station to the hotel. I’d stayed the night in a room with a stunning view similar to the one I got from the war memorial. The next day I could set off from the hill top. I could claim my walk started on the hill top with a grand panorama. And I could also say I’d walked the whole route from Frodsham. It appeared I had all bases covered.

I nodded to myself, pleased at my cunningness, and prepared to set forth.

A Peak and Northern Footpaths Society signpost on Frodsham Hill, for those trying to navigate the Sandstone Trail.

The Sandstone Trail is a 55km/34 mile walk across the length of Cheshire. Starting at Frodsham near the Mersey Estuary, it weaves its way south, crossing into Shropshire and ending at the town of Whitchurch. The route celebrates the sandstone hills of the Mid Cheshire Ridge. And there’s canals, forests, farmland and even a castle. For a short walk, it seemed to offer quite a lot of variety.

Launched in 1974, it was originally a far shorter route. Running from Delamare Forest to Duckington, its 16 miles could be walked in a day.

It was soon extended north to Frodsham, and south to Grindley Brook, before getting its current form in the late 1990s. It’s a popular route, described by some as the best walk in the North West. In 2017, television channel ITV broadcast “Britain’s Best Walks”. With the help of the Ordnance Survey and National Trust, a list of 100 walks was compiled highlighting the best walking in the country. Alongside the ascent of Hellvelyn in the Lake District, and Richmond Park in London, was the Sandstone Trail.

A landscape of power stations and oil refineries.

A walk with such credentials had to be rather special, and one deserving of my attention. So in the spring of 2022 I’d travelled to the north of Cheshire, ready to check it out. And if the views from near the northern end at Frodsham were anything to go by, I was going to have a great walk.

Tearing myself away, I set off for Whitchurch. Immediately the Sandstone Trail headed into a patch of woodland surrounding sandstone cliffs. The local “yoot” had been regular visitors over the years, engraving their names in the stone. Some were in impressive copperplate lettering. Someone’s true calling as an engraver of gravestones may have been missed.

My hotel for the previous night stood to the left. The top of Frodsham Hill once held the Mersey View Pleasure Grounds and Funfair. Opened in 1865, visitors could enjoy swingboats, donkey rides, and a dance on the green. By 1908 they could also enjoy a helter skelter. I looked around, trying to imagine this as a hub of pleasure and entertainment. Although even back in the days of the funfair, it may still have been a bit quiet at 10am.

Lots of trees on Woodhouse Hill, on the Sandstone Trail.

The trail meandered along the ridge of the hillside. Views of the Mersey estuary sometimes peaking out through the trees, giving but a glimpse of what was beyond. And then I came to a clearing on the side of Woodhouse Hill.

“Don’t worry, I’m just going, now I’ve finished my phone calls,” declared a woman, rising up from the bench she was sat on. All completely unprompted. All I’d done was say “hi” as I’d looked out across the estuary. Perhaps she felt the view too special to share. Well it was nice. Even if it did include several power stations and the M56 motorway. Still, the sea glistening in the sun means it was hard to go wrong.

And so it was time to bid farewell to the estuary and head south. Still through the woods, but with the noise of road traffic fading gently away.

A series of woodland paths led to a road called the Ridgeway, and then to the edge of Avanley Cliff; a small hill with chunks of sandstone hidden by the trees.

Austerson Old Hall, which is no longer in the village of Austerson.

More visible – from afar anyway – was the 15th century Austerson Old Hall.

It was a lovely looking building of brick and timber. Quite beautiful from what I could see from the path. But I couldn’t help but wonder who lived here and what the maintenance costs were like. Still, it seemed likely the owners could afford it. This was Cheshire after all, one of the richer parts of the UK. This seemed confirmed later when I learned that the whole building had been relocated in the 1980s. Brick by brick, it was moved twenty miles from its original location in the village of Austerson, near Knutsford. Now that’s not a job you can do on the cheap.

A road took me to the village of Manley. Had it not been for the “e” in the village name, you’d be now reading several paragraphs containing some “humorous” gender stereotyping. Consider yourself having had a lucky escape. Instead I will tell you that Manley was a lovely village with a very fast road running along the top of it. There was a pavement, that the Sandstone Trail used. But somehow even this separation from cars and vans going at 50mph, didn’t seem quite enough. I was far happier when I got to leave the road and walk over a field to the cluster of houses that are Manley Common.

Trees in Manley Common.

A sign at a farmhouse B&B informed me the next refreshment stop was four miles away. I glanced around lest someone leap out and offer me a cup of tea, but no one did. Still, I could wait four miles. I had lunch with me, that I later scoffed sat on a log on the edge of Delamere Forest.

The forest would take up most of the afternoon. At 972 hectares, it’s one of the largest forests in England, so it takes time to walk through. It’s also a forest of history, with a lineage going back to two twin forests established in the 11th century. Although it has to be said that forests back then were rather different to what we think of as a forest now. The twin forests of Mara and Mondrem contained something like 60 townships or villages between them. The two areas had ‘forest law’ applied to them, where game animals and their habitat were protected from destruction. Although not protected from hunting of course. A big part of forest law was ensuring the nobles had plenty of animals they could kill.

A Sandstone Trail post in the Delamere Forest.

What’s now Delamere Forest is but a slither of the old forests, occupying about 16% of the old medieval forest land. And there’s more trees. In 1924 the Forestry Commission took over the forest, managing it for timber production. Since 1968 though, the principle emphasis has been on leisure. Near where I ate my lunch, cyclists tested their skills on a mountain bike course. Later the Sandstone Trail joined a forest road providing access to wooden holiday lodges. And there was the obligatory cafe.

I wandered happily along the myriad of tracks and paths. The Sandstone Trail delighted in exploring every type of path in the forest. From narrow tracks to full on roads, it offered it all. It was all rather enjoyable, with none of the mundanity of commercial forestry. Even a main road running through the place, couldn’t detract from proceedings. Indeed Ashton Road offered a curiosity. It’s known as the “Switchback Road” to some locals, for reasons I never found out.

Ashton Road in Delemere Forest – also known as the Switchback Road.

There was also a railway line, tucked in a cutting, allowing passengers to speed between Manchester and Chester. A family stood patiently on the bridge, holding up excited toddlers as they waited for the noise of a diesel multiple unit. Alas train power appeared elusive. The parents no doubt got aching arms from holding up their children for so long.

Beyond the railway line, a path led to the forest visitor centre. It’s not actually on the Sandstone Trail, but a 1km detour for a pot of tea and a cherry scone seemed too good an opportunity to pass on. School children wandered round in groups, cyclists zoomed by, and parents and grandparents enjoyed the Superworm trail with toddlers. It was all so wholesome, I could burst. I immediately pondered dragging my own children here with their bikes as soon as possible.

Aerial masts on Pale Heights hill, on the Sandstone Trail.

I was getting quite close to Kelsall where my days walk was due to end. But first a short detour to Pale Heights was needed. Originally the Sandstone Trail bypassed this small hilltop, continuing along a bridleway along the foot of it.. But in recent years an alternative route has been signposted, heading to the top which is decked out in radio transmitters. Those wishing to, can still skip it. Carry on along the main path. But for my money, you’d be mad to do so. No, don’t bypass Pale Heights. For up there you’ll find a splendid viewpoint offering a 270° panoramic view.

The viewpoint’s rather special looking in itself, consisting of a large obelisk made of Cheshire sandstone. This is surrounded in a vague circle by stone columns marking other counties viewable from the hill top. The stores are all made – presumably – of the type of stone their famous for. Flintshire, Denbighshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, and many more are all represented.

Stones at the top of Pale Heights.

Only historic counties needed apply. No room here for a monument to Greater Manchester or Merseyside. Although what type of stone would you associate with those two anyway?

But it was the view that mattered most. Metal plaques on the ground pointed out what you should be able to see from any particular spots. Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral and Winter Hill both seemed illusive to me, but I tried non-the-less. But mostly though, I tried to soak it all in. It was spectacular. And given that, why wouldn’t you?

The A54 on the edge of Kelsall. Bit different to Delamere Forest.

For those staying the night in Kelsall, a choice needs to be made. The obvious option is to walk down the A54 road. It’s simple, direct, and also a crazily busy, with only a narrow pavement to keep you away from the speeding traffic. Alternatively you can cross the road, carry on along the Sandstone Trail a bit more, and leave the trail at a spot known as King’s Gate.

I took one look at the cars and HGVs thundering down the road, and opted for the latter. Besides, it would knock off about a mile of walking from the following day. Well that was a plan. And so I walked on through the wonderfully peaceful Primrose Hill Wood. Just me, a handful of dog walkers, and a jogger. A definite contrast to the business of Delamere Forest.

At King’s Gate – presumably a gate for a king? – I turned off the trail and headed to the inn I had a room booked in. A bed, a shower, food and refreshment were all waiting for me. It had been a great day. It was hard to imagine how the next could live up to it.

Next time: enchanted woodland, an old European Union depot, a castle, the ruins of an old tramway, and more of those great views.

Have your say