Longster Trail

Published 25 September 2022

Longster Trail waymark

Created by the Mid-Cheshire Footpaths Society, the Longster Trail is a twelve mile walking in the northern half of the county of Cheshire. It runs between the historical city of Chester, and the lesser known town of Helsby, and offers a curious mixture of scenery along the way.

I couldn’t remember when I’d last been to Chester. I went to the zoo as a child. Had a day trip there when I was a teenager. That would have been over thirty years ago. Since then, nothing.

No wonder. It’s only 42 miles from my home, but takes two trains nearly two hours to get there. Of course, that’s not a reason to go. But I’d never seen the need to visit the place. Never had the cause. Until this particular day anyway.

Inevitably I went to Chester to start a walk. It was all part of a bigger plan. I had planned to walk the Sandstone Trail, which runs through Cheshire’s sandstone country. But the Sandstone Trail takes three days, and I had four free. So I stared at the maps, trying to work out how to fill that extra day. And found a plan. The 12 mile Longster Trail runs between Chester and the town of Helsby, a few miles from the start of the Sandstone Trail. And lo, I had a reason to finally go to a city that was crying out for my love and attention.

Wandering down suburban housing, trying to find a walking trail.

Ah, Chester. A city of historic city walls. Quaint pubs. A Roman amphitheatre. Not that the Longster Way is having any of that. It doesn’t even touch such things. Indeed, it doesn’t even really start. It more “fades in”.

See, when the trail was first opened in 1980, it terminated on the edge of the city at a spot called Piper’s Ash. That meant anyone coming from the city needed to make their way through roads and streets to get to the start. Then an abandoned railway line was opened up as a cycle lane and footpath. It was the perfect opportunity to extend the Longster Trail to the city centre. An “official” terminus was created near a canal. But the route’s creators encourage you to pick up the Millennium Greenway wherever suits you. And that’s what I did, by walking from the train station, through roads lined with terrace houses. Walking until I arrived at a ramp that would take me to the Greenway. And all without an ancient city wall in sight.

Slow Zone? Look dudes, I was on foot. It’s impossible to speed on foot.

For 2½km I followed the Greenway, feeling strangely isolated from the city around me. Yes there were houses backing onto the old railway line. And at one point I passed a primary school. And true, there were scores of cyclists, dog walkers, and mums pushing buggies. But when you’re in a cutting, surrounded by fences and trees, there is only a limited feeling of the passing of the miles. Still, there was a metal sculpture of a deer, and a giant carved woodpecker to admire. But even going under the M53 motorway made little impression.

If it weren’t for the map, I would have had little idea how far I’d walked. But a short way beyond the M53 underpass, the trail left the Greenway, and to the village of Guilden Sutton.

Guilden Sutton – home to the 1980s semi.

With a name like that, I’d expected a twee, historic village. All ancient cottages and rambling roses. What I found was that most of Guilden Sutton appeared to have been built in the 1980s and 1990s. Housing estates full of bungalows, and semi-detached houses. The Longster Trail did its best to hide the walker from this, although that meant wandering along alleyways behind the houses.

Guilden Sutton’s been around a lot longer than the housing estates though. The name’s old English, meaning something akin to “golden south farm or settlement”. The older bits were hiding but the Longster Trail found then in the end. A lovely looking village pub that’s been around in its current form since 1844. And a church that was about 30 years older, on the site of one originally built in the 11th century. But still, Guilden Sutton felt more like an 80s dormitory village than an agricultural paradise. I was rather looking forward to leaving it.

St John the Baptist’s Church, Guilden Sutton

A wide track left the village past a farm, with a large number of giant metal sheds. It was silent. Not a noise was to be heard. What went on there? It was a mystery I’d never solve.

Paths through fields left me to the village of Great Barrow that looked to be everything I’d expected Guilden Sutton to be, and then some. Big old grand houses. Properties with names that ended in “Lodge”. Another old fashioned community pub. The farming heritage of the place was also clear, with old stable blocks converted into picture perfect cottages.

An exciting field on the edge of Great Barrow, on the Longster Trail.

And then it was back to the farmland. The seemingly never ending farms with their silent sheds. Everywhere away from the villages was curiously quiet. Even the birds, who had been making a cacophony of sound all morning, seemed to be staying clear.

Why? Did this corner of Cheshire hold some sinister secret? Was there some darkness about the place so visible that even bird life tried to avoid it? It was strange.

It could have been the mud. Did I mention the mud? It was out in abundance. Ever since I’d left Great Barrow, the fields had been boggy, slippy, muddy.

At one point a sign requested, nay demanded, that I kept to the footpath. Not that there was anywhere else to go. But if there had been, I would have happily ignored the directive. The footpath was a muddy, churned up mess of a high order. It was like the landowner didn’t like walkers so had decided to drive their tractor up and down the lane, revving it, churning the wheels as much as possible, with a mad look on their face. If that wasn’t enough, at one point three large dogs appeared out of nowhere, surrounded me and barked intensely. Now to be fair, the owner of the dogs did apologise and was very cross sounding at the dogs. But it was hardly “Walkers Welcome” territory.

To the level crossing!

A railway line ran on an embankment raised above the fields. So I ate my lunch on the steps leading down from the foot crossing. It wasn’t that I like sitting on steps near railway crossings. Only that unlike everywhere else in the immediate area, the steps were dry and mud-free.

It’s always a risk picking a lunch spot. There’s always that chance that there will be somewhere superior round the corner. Although as all I could see ahead of me were muddy fields, this seemed unlikely. As I walked on after feeding, nothing appeared to show I’d made a mistake this time.

Get your farm fresh meat fresh from the farm at Manley.

There wouldn’t be mud forever. Walking through the village of Alvanley, I had this strange feeling conditions under foot were going to improve. It was possible it was all wishful thinking. But for the most part, the ground was getting drier. The walking was getting easier.

I had been feeling a little down on the Longster Trail. Too much mud. There had been one bit where I was enjoying walking on a lovely firm track. It was brilliant. Nice and firm underfoot. Completely dry. Wonderful. Then I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. The actual route was somewhere else. Going through a field that turned out to be a boggy quagmire. Through fields that were separated by a barbed wire fence with no stile. Signs, and the map on my phone, told me I was in the right place. But it was hard to believe it.

Please keep to the incredibly churned up, extremely muddy footpath.

There was more fun a mile later. The map showed clearly where the path went. Turn right next to a pond. I’d found the water but was there a stile? Nope. Nothing. I wandered round a field, trying to find out where I was supposed to go. If I trusted the map, that meant climbing a fence next to a sign proclaiming “No Access” and that dogs were running loose.

It could have been that the map was wrong. Or that the path had changed. Even that the landowners had illegally closed the proper path. I had no idea. All I knew was that I climbed over one fence, wandered through a field a bit and then stumbled on another Longster Trail signpost. And with that, things were fine once more.

Alvanley, Helsby or W’dh’se Hill – which way does the Longster Trail go?

I was getting close to Helsby where the trail ended. I was kind of looking forward to finishing, if I am honest. There was, however, a hint that this may be some kind of triumphant finale. The hint became a strong nudge as I headed up Helsby Hill.

For a while I’d been getting glimpses of wind turbines. Of Stanlow Oil Refinery, with its flame of fire on top of a chimney pipe. They’d been viewed across fields, from afar. And now I was going up a hill. It was possible the view was going to get even better.

Trig point on Helsby Hill, high point of the Longster Trail.

There had once been a fort on the hill top. The ideal place for soldiers to keep an eye out for invading armies. Now the hill is the domain of walkers and view seekers. Those who care for a plateau of sandstone, and a concrete trig point. The state of the sandstone suggested not everyone had come up here for the view. Etched into the soft stone were hundreds of declarations of love. EL4ES4EVA. JO HEARTH JOHN. That sort of thing. I wondered how many of these “hopeless romantics” (or mindless vandals, take your pick) were still together all the years later. I wasn’t convinced the number was that high.

Still, the view was nice. Even if there was an oil refinery in it. I spent some time watching wind turbine blades rotate in the breeze. I don’t understand why a small minority of people get so uppity about wind turbines “spoiling” the landscape. Here I was looking out to sea with a panorama of power stations, pylons, and an oil refinery. The wind turbines were infinitely preferable.

A view of the Mersey Estuary from near Helsby – highlight of the Longster Trail.

And then it was all downhill to Helsby village. A place I can’t say too much about other than that it is a village near a motorway. And that it has a train station that would allow me to leave the place. I wandered down the village’s main street to find the station. And there, the Longster Trail was done.

And with that, there’s only one final thing to say, and that’s to explain why the trail is called the Longster Trail. If you’re thinking it must come from some local landmark, or nearby village that I’d neglected to mention, sorry. Nope. It’s named in honour of Frank Longster, who died in 1974.

Frank was an active member of The Mid-Cheshire Footpaths Society, and was chair of the society when he died. Founded in 1961, the group works to protect and preserve footpaths, and promote their use. The society’s created a number of walking guides, and created several trails, of which the Longster Trail is one. It opened in 1980 before extending along the Chester Millennium Greenway in 2008.

Was it worth doing? As walks go, it hadn’t been that bad. It depended on what you wanted from a walk. And if what you wanted was a nice stroll, lots of muddy fields, and some good views, well on that front it did very well indeed.

The full details of the Longster Trail can be found in a free PDF download available from the Mid-Cheshire Footpaths Societys website.

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