Sandstone Trail Day 2: Kelsall to Bulkeley

Published 23 October 2022

A Sandstone Trail ‘tombstone’ waymarker

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 more stunning views than you could possibly ever wish for.

I woke to a morning of blazing sunshine. The forecast had, admittedly, been reasonably good, But I hadn’t expected to find that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I’d a rucksack of warm clothing and waterproofs for goodness sake. C’mon. It was March! I’d brought a woolly hat, but what I really needed was a sun hat. At this rate, I’d be needing shorts.

Urchin’s Kitchen, Kelsall – a natural sandstone gorge hidden in the trees of Primrose Wood.

I stared at the warm fleece I’d brought with me, then returned my gaze to the window, then back to the fleece again. It got unceremoniously shoved in my rucksack in favour of a light linen shirt I’d packed at the last minute, on a whim. Heaving the pack onto my back, I wished the room my fond farewells, and started the mile or so walk back to the Sandstone Trail.

Twenty minutes I was back in the trees of Primrosehill Wood, and ten minutes more sat me looking at a gorge called, for some reason, Urchin’s Kitchen. Cut out of the sandstone by glacial water, the urchin here isn’t some child of the slums. It refers to an elf, and the whole gorge was believed to be home to a variety of magical creatures. It was lovely, with the trees growing round the side. But could I see a gas burner or a microwave oven? Could I heck.

Out of the trees at Summertrees

After leaving the woods, the Sandstone Trail headed out onto open farmland, where it would spend much of the morning. Alas, this was definitely not one of the trail’s highlights. It followed a succession of paths and tracks through fields, or down hedged lanes. Sometimes the path was fenced in. Other times, the walker was allowed more freedom. But one thing was constant. Mud. Sticky, slurpy, deep, oozy mud. The Sandstone Trail that had betwixted me the day before, now seemed a long time ago.

The guide book attempted to keep my cheerful, regaling me with details of historical sights and local landmarks. Most through were not directly on the trail, nor easily viewable. At least until a point near a busy road. Here the book told me the story of the European “Buffer Depot” where once excess grain and sugar was stored after overproduction due to flaws with the Common Agricultural Policy. Reading it, and looking at the quiet warehouses where it once stood, I couldn’t help but feel the book was getting a bit desperate. Even more so when I read about the racecourse at Tarpoley. The one that had closed in 1939, and where there’s next to nothing to see.

Warehouses near Utkinton that apparently once held part of various European Union surpluses.

Still, the afternoon looked promising. Rumours of the Sandstone Trail’s demise were very much overrated. For ahead of me stood the start of its renaissance. Hard to make out in the bright sun, stood on a wooded hillock. On top of it, standing tall and proud, were the ruins of Beeston Castle. Built in the 1220s, for centuries it provided defensive capabilities in the area until 1645 when it was partially demolished on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.

It stood on the skyline, making its presence well know. Even if the bright sunlight did make it rather difficult to make out.

The best views came from Pudding Lane, near the hamlet of Hand Green. And by the time I got to Wharton’s Lock on the Shropshire Union Canal, you could make out much of the remaining castle ruins. With a handy bench and a great view, the lock seemed a most appropriate spot for a break.

Wharton’s Lock on the Shropshire Union Canal. And the Sandstone Trail of course.

Beyond the canal was the railway line running between Chester and Crewe. Two eras of transportation technology running side by side. One short-lived in its prime usefulness, the other still going strong after all these years. Both attracting a fair number of visitors. Although only one seemed to be attracting a special level of attention.

On the other side of the tracks, two middle aged men stood with cameras. It was hard not to notice them. One had a camera on an absolutely giant blue pole; the camera wobbling easily three or four times higher than the camera’s owner. I presume he had some remote viewfinder as it would be hard to imagine how he could be sure just what he was photographing without one.

People loitering near the railway. Your average Sandstone Trail sight.

It was clear they were waiting for a train. And I went as far as guessing it probably wasn’t a Transport for Wales diesel multiple unit that normally own the line. Perhaps it was a steam train or something, i mused.

I could have asked before deciding that I’d inevitably get told some highly technical answer that I wouldn’t stand a chance of understanding. So instead I passed them by in silence and carried on towards the castle, resigning myself to not knowing. Well until a noise was heard. A train-like noise in the distance, and getting nearer and near.

And lo, there it was. A pair of maroon painted diesel engines hauling multiple Pullman dining carriages on an excursion. Exciting? Well personally it wouldn’t have been enough for me to get out my very tall tripod. But each to their own.

The entrance to Beeston Castle, right next to the Sandstone Trail.

I came to the castle gates. And I walked right past them. My guidebook implored me to go inside – almost begged even – if for no other reason than to enjoy the sweeping panoramic views from the castle site. But I had many more miles left to walk, and although I suspected I could spare an hour, a look at the place suggested that wouldn’t be enough to do Beeston Castle justice. Also there was a cafe. If they had cherry scones, I’d never leave. No, walking past was the best idea.

So I pushed on, joining the merry throngs enjoying a patch of woodland to the south of the castle grounds, and then into a series of fields near Moathouse Farm. Anyway, Beeston wasn’t the only castle nearby. On a hill in front of me stood, quite clearly, Peckforton Castle. Although it has a less illustrious history than Beeston. And it’s not actually on the Sandstone Trail, which bypasses it. Also it’s a hotel. And for good measure, whilst Peckforton Castle looks like a medieval castle, it was actually built in the 19th century. Still, it is Grade One listed.

Cottages at the foot of Peckforton Hill.

The castle sits on top of a hill that the Sandstone Trail now skirted along the side of. At first it seemed like I had the path to myself. Down below I could hear the chatter of people walking the paths at the foot of the hill. But the path going over the hill was strangely deserted. Certainly the two grouse I started didn’t appear to be expecting my presence, as they hurried off noisily on discovery of my arrival.

Then, all of a sudden, there were people everywhere. Scores of them came out of nowhere, all walking past me in the opposite direction. Couples, dog walkers, whole families had materialised out of nowhere after I’d had a good twenty minutes of solitude. Where they had all come from so suddenly, was a complete mystery.

Peckforton Castle on a hill.

In one side of the road was Rock Cottage. On the other, an abode named “Elephant Track”. I kid you not. And a sign invited me to pop to the post office for coffee and cake. It also informed me that the post office was selling takeaway all through lockdown, making me wonder if I’d gone through a local wormhole near Stanner Nab, and had been flung back two years in time.

There was woodland to explore. There were viewpoints to admire. And a field of mud to walk through. Thick, oozing mud. The kind that sticks to your walking boots and refuses to budge, no matter how much you stamp your feet on the ground. I sighed heavily. Only a few minutes earlier I’d stopped to scrape all the dried mud from my boot treads with a stick. Now I’d need to go through the whole process all over again.

Rough steps on Bulkeley Hill.

Still, the National Trust owned Bulkeley Hill made up for that. It was another splendid patch of woodland, sitting on top of a fine view with stunning views towards Derbyshire and beyond. A strong wind may have been battering me, but there were remains of a narrow gauge tramway to enjoy. Since the 1950s, Bulkeley Hill has provided water to Stoke-on-Trent and to aid the construction of a pumping station, a tramway was built.

On its narrow tracks, heavy equipment and materials was taken to the top of the hill. When the work was completed, the tram line was abandoned and never used again. These days maintenance is done with the help of vans, as could be seen on a work site on the other side of the hill where work was being done on water pipes.

Remains of an old narrow gauge railway on Bulkeley Hill.

A little further on was “Name Rock”. It sounds more like a command than a description. It’s a popular viewpoint, with the Pennines in the distance and the village of Bulkeley down below. According to the map, so was the pub I was staying in; a mere 1km away as the crow flies.

As the Sandstone Trail misses the village, to get there in that distance would mean going down from the hill and coming back up the next morning. The trail itself carries on along the ridge to Bickerton Hill, making a very lazy loop of the village for about 3km, before crossing the A534 about 1km west of the village. With plenty of time left in the day, I carried on.

The viewpoint on Bulkeley Hill.

At first it wasn’t massively clear why the Sandstone Trail was taking this detour round the hillside, along a path covered with fallen trees. Ducking under logs, and contorting my body to squeeze through small gaps was the order of the day; not the easiest feat when carrying a 50 litre rucksack your back. There wasn’t even much of a reward for all this effort.

Then, after heading past a number of old quarries, a set of steps led down to a broken wooden platform so I could admire Droppingstone Well. Here water drips through sandstone rock to be caught in a metal container, ready to be piped down the hillside.

The Droppingstone Well. Water drips through the rocks and is collected into the metal tank.

At one time locals would walk here with buckets to collect the water. Now it flows away in blue plastic pipes. This is probably a lot easier all around, especially given half the decking planks on the platform had rotted away. It was quite fascinating. A relic of a different time, yet still firmly in use.

A rather safe and well maintained platform at the Droppingstone.

A little further on, another delight. The summit of Bickerton Hill, known as Rawhead; a trig point celebrating its 227m above sea level. Benches had been installed so you could sit and enjoy the views, although thrillseekers may be more interested in the numerous local caves in the area, including one with the vaguely gruesome name of “Bloody Bones”.

The path carried on a little further; views of the nearby hills opening up. Those to the south would be the target for the next day.

The view from Rawhead, on Bickerton Hill.

But the journey now was slowly downhill to the valley, and towards the village of Bulkeley. A village accessible to me by walking along the busy A543 road that for much of my time on it, offered no verges and no safety for the walk whilst cars hurtled by at 50mph or more. It was with some relief when I arrived in Bulkeley, and the Bickerton Poacher, an old coaching inn that was providing my bed for the night. I breathed a huge sigh of relief for somehow making it to safety unscathed, and wondered quite what it was that the Sandstone Trail liked about villages near very busy roads.

Next time: Michael Owen’s champion racehorses (not seen), another Bickerton Hill very close from the first, and a walk along the canal.

Bulkeley Hill, seen from Bickerton Hill on a gloriously sunny day.

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