Edit Blog Post
Published: November 20th 2015
So much of my time has been taken up with house related activities. Not that I mind this particularly, it's been interesting to see just how quickly I slotted back into an earlier lifestyle; when my life here revolved around earning a living, gardening and home maintenance.
I didn't want to spend all of my time doing jobs and making arrangements for the house sale; this trip was after all supposed to have been partly a holiday. There is a very large nature reserve close to my house called Consall Nature Park. A ten minute walk from my home will take me to the start of one of the many footpaths that lead down into the park. There are several attractions to be found there, and to say that there is something for everyone is not far from the truth, unless shopping is your religion. This park occupies a large valley through which runs a steam railway with two preserved train stations at Froghall and Consall. Steam trains don't hold a big fascination for me, but seeing them go by in the summer months carrying visitors to this time locked valley, reminds me of childhood holidays to the
south coast, and with all of the excitement that it entailed.
This valley bottom is also shared by a river and a canal. The canal was of course here before the railway line. But the canal took up valuable space in the narrower section of the valley. So that, when the rail track was laid, the rail company needed to re-route a section of the canal to make way for the single track rail line. The railway engineers then constructed a bridge using sections of rail track and built a new tow path on the opposite side of the canal. It was a clever idea because it meant that a horse towing a barge could cross the canal without having to be unhitched from the boat. Scars can be seen on sections of the bridge where, over time, the towing lines cut into the structure as the horses crossed over the bridge.
There is evidence of iron working in the Churnet Valley since 1290. By the 17th century a forge was in operation using the River Churnet for power. This industry was later replaced by ironstone mining, during which time the valley was stripped
of trees. At its peak 30 barges a day of ironstone were transported to Froghall, where the valley opens out into flat land. Because of the bright red dust of the ironstone, the workers who numbered well over a 1,000 at its peak, were known as 'the Redmen'. Cherry Eye Mine was the last to close in 1923. Many of the miners would walk home at the end of their working day over a bridge spanning the canal. I am told that this bridge was known as Cherry Cheek Bridge by the locals due to the miners red faces.
Today this canal is very popular with pleasure craft users. Some are owned and moored locally, but the majority are operated by hire companies both near and far, who rent narrow boats out to holiday makers in the summer months. An extensive network of canals can be accessed from the Churnet Valley. It would be possible to get to Liverpool, London, Birmingham and many other large cities in the UK, using the canal system and navigable rivers, some canal boats even cross the English Channel to France.
Apart from the steam railway, the river and
the canal, there is another attraction: the Black Lion pub which sits in the mid section of the valley. In the years that I've been away it's become a CAMRA pub - Campaign For Real Ales - and specializes in locally brewed beer. Real ale lovers talk of their chosen brews in much the same way that wine lovers do, garlanding their favourite tipple with outrageous adjectives. CAMRA men, in this pub at least, tended to be middle aged, generous around the mid drift and dressed as though they'd just come from the garden. So it was reassuring to see that I at least fitted in with their dress code.
The beer is very strong, regardless of any other merits. All the locally brewed beers are named after rides at the local theme park known as Alton Towers. Since I'm not really a drinker, one pint of 'Black Hole' was enough to make my return walk up the steep valley side a challenging event. Many people choose to drive to this pub along narrow winding roads but it is also a popular stopping point for the hikers, strollers and boaters that pass this way. Muddy boots and
dogs on leads are tolerated at the pub although this was not always the case with previous landlords.
When I lived in this area, much of my free time was spent walking the network of footpaths that interlace the valley bottom and adjoining woodland trails. There must be 20 miles or more of walking to be had in this area, which can be explored anew with each changing season. It has been a source great joy and a solace to me over the years to walk these pathways alone and in the company of friends. Birch trees and bracken, bounce back the sun's rays on the upper slopes whilst the lower ground, which lies shadowed by the valley sides, often only sees sunshine at midday and can remain damp and foreboding even on the hottest of summer days.
Many areas of woodland have their own names, one of which still gives me a chill when I read the signboard announcing "Crowgutters Wood". A favourite place of mine is Booths Wood. It's an area of land that runs parallel to the canal at its base and then climbs up to the high ground. Silver birch
trees at the bottom are replaced by oak trees and then open fields at the top of the valley's ridge. In this area during late spring a special event takes place. It's the emerging and flowering of wild garlic. This plant grows around 18 inches in height with broad-bladed dark waxy leaves. This wild garlic, which can be eaten, starts to give off its subtle garlic scent as soon as the green leaves begin to emerge from the soil. As the plants grow to their full height, the scent intensifies and fills the surrounding woodland with a magical vegetarian fragrance. The plants' range increases each year and now covers half an acre or so of woodland. As the growth matures, beautiful white flowers appear; their heads held boldly above the leaf growth. In the evening time this is a sight to be seen, especially if the moon is high, when this display of white flowers and the silver barked trees bounce back the lunar light. Everything in black and white: a section of valley transposed to a photos' negative. Like a carpet of snow has fallen, in a culinary avalanche. To follow this scent like a Bisto Kid to its
origin, and then wander carefully through the snowy scented luminescent cascade, is to be transported into an annual wonderland. To share this twilight adventure with a significant other, forges memories that will never be lost, even when their eventual paths diverge forever.
I can recall fine times in this nature reserve full of talk and laughter. The thrill of exploration. Bird song and picnics, carpets of blue bells, the surreal sight and fragrance of wild garlic at twilight; romance and the formulation of world travel plans and dreams of the future. Yet, so many of its footpaths during difficult times in my life, have in the words of Dylan Tomas: "... been worn thin by my walking tears." Problems, troubles, worries and stress have all been soothed and walked away along its winding footpaths. I can't recall ever having emerged from this shaded retreat without feeling brighter and with a renewed sense of conviction. From darkness into light.
It will soon be walked by me for the last time, not with sadness but with gratitude and an understanding that everything changes.
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