Walks in Mysterious Cheshire and Wirral by Tony Bowerman (Walk 11 - Whitegate)

Having spent the last three hundred thousand, thirty four, nine hundred and seventy four thousand days on home turf since lockdown started, it was with unbridled joy that I jumped into my car on Saturday, (1st weekend where Welsh residents were allowed more than 5 miles from home) drove 23 miles into England, met my friend Kate and we had a ramble in the sunshine.

It was wonderful to meet up in real life rather than on a Zoom meeting but our first walk of the year came with a few caveats. Firstly, it had to be a gentle breaking in walk, not one of my usual “oh it’s not very far,” cue 15 miles later getting very threatening looks off what is likely to be a soon ex-friend if I don’t find the car again very soon after proclaiming “don’t worry, I sort of know where we are!” Secondly, the walk would not consist of clambering up any large hills…something I wasn’t going to argue with….I’ve been sat on a sofa eating cake for four months. I can easily roll down a hill, getting up one without the aid of oxygen and a winch would be trickier. Thirdly, we’ve had a lot of rain, so the book of canal walks would probably be a no-go…also there’s not much room on a towpath to steer clear of folk whilst we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

As I started to despair that none of the walks I had in my books were suitable, I stumbled across this book from 2006 – “Walks in Mysterious Cheshire and Wirral by Tony Bowerman.” The book contains fourteen easy to follow circular walks, mainly in Cheshire, covering a variety of landscapes.

The landscape of Cheshire is a land steeped in mystery and has been used as a backdrop for many works of literature. Alderley Edge is perhaps best known as the landscape for Alan Garner’s “The Wierdstone of Brisingamen,” a children’s fantasy novel influenced by the folklore of the area. In this walking book, Tony Bowerman has put together walks of interest, not just visually, but historically too, and each walk comes with it’s own unique stories from the past. The walker can follow lost Roman and medieval roads, ancient copper mines, a stone elephant, a gypsy king’s grave, a ghostly duck, and much more.

Walk 11 – Whitegate: Where Vale Royal Abbey stood.

I picked walk 11 as it was equidistant for us both to reach. (It was also flat, only 3 miles long, and covered a variety of landscapes…woodland, fields and a river.) I sent across all the details to Kate and we agreed on our rendezvous. We were onto a good start when I arrived and realised that there was very limited parking (about 5 spaces) so we had a quick look at the neighbourhood, found a road we could safely park on and finally we set off on our way to St Mary’s Church where the walk commenced.

We set off up Vale Royal Drive, flanked by tall beech and lime trees. We were so engrossed in nattering away that we nearly missed the first waypoint on our walk, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed a path on my right and realised we should be taking it. It opened out onto a field of barley (cue a rendition of Sting’s classic, Fields of Gold) and then us both desperately trying to remember what that Kevin Costner film was and why in America the fields of barley are higher than ours (probably because Kevin Costner was in a field of corn not barley! 🙄) 

We headed off towards the woods, which according to the guidebook “The floor of this mixed deciduous wood is open and sunny, and sweet with the scent of bluebells in early summer.” How nice. I’d been in lockdown, I missed them all. There was however the pungent smell of wild garlic still wafting on the breeze; the leaves however had died back, garlic season also missed due to lockdown, which is a shame as it does make a nice pesto sauce.

I did see some interesting fungi on a tree, however, chances are it was probably poisonous so I left it where it was and continued on my way towards a simple footbridge made of railway sleepers. It was a plank of wood over a low ditch which landed us on the periphery of someone’s paddock. As we skirted the muddy path of the Abbot’s Walk, I noticed a large ladder type style ahead of me that took us into said paddock…and another one at the other side to escape from it. These things are bad enough at the best of times, but it appeared the whole household was out on the patio enjoying tea and watching the fools out for their morning constitutional. After landing in an undignified manner into a holly hedge from the second ladder style, I found myself in a potato field…before I could check where my friend was, I was suddenly overtaken by a runner. Where the hell did he spring from…and that’s not two bloody meters you eejit!

By now we were about to hit point 4 of the walk. Back into the woods once more. Fortunately the style no longer had a fence surrounding it so we could just walk past it downwards toward the river. Now this is the bit of the book I hadn’t read properly…”the wetter ground that slopes down to a loop of the old, uncanalised river, is rank with nettles and clad in hazel, elder and rowan.” Oh bollards! I knew we should have put our wellie boots on. But we didn’t…we wore our trainers…on the first dry day in weeks. Mud? Loads of it…at every turn! As we delicately squelched as best we could without either covering ourselves, or worse falling face (or arse) first, in mud, we kept our eyes open for the promised kingfishers and watercress. I suspect the kingfishers had eaten all the watercress and then died laughing at the pair of us, for neither could be found.

Suddenly a tarmac path greeted our feet, and a sign for an angling club. We were back on terra firma and at the Vale Royal Locks on the River Weaver. We pootled across the swing bridge and sat down and watched as a barge that looked as though it should be laden with coal was guided through the lock gates by two young men wearing masks. As they huffed and puffed turning their windlasses, the masks were quickly abandoned, and we carried on walking down the towpath towards the railway viaduct that looked remarkably similar to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen. Fortunately, as there is a mainline railway line at the top and not a canal, there were no steps for us to climb up – this was a good thing as climbing up the Pontcysyllte had nearly killed us off a few years ago.

We wandered back to the lock gates just as the chaps had finished their work and watched the barge chug through. As it was a beautiful day we sat awhile longer, got accosted by several dogs, including one I’m sure had been bathing in the river, and I gave Kate a history lesson on the surrounding area. I’d like you all to think I’m an eminent historian, but the truth is, this beautiful little book has anecdotes dotted throughout the walk, and historical information so that you can get a real sense of the past as you walk around.

Nixon, the Cheshire prophet, is said to have been born in Whitegate in 1467. A simple ploughboy, he is credited with some extraordinary prophesies which were made when he fell into one of his regular trances. Among them, he foretold that Vale Royal Abbey would become a ravens’ nest; and it is true that in 1538 the estate was bought by the Holcrofts – whose crest was a raven!

I had now, however, reached the point where I really wish I’d brought my sandwiches with me rather than leaving them in the car for later. I also decided I’d probably need a wee soon and there were no facilities ANYWHERE, so we got up, just in time for the men to close the swing bridge as there was a flotilla coming down the river. Well ok, two narrowboats and two cruisers all needed to squash into the lock to go down river. I gazed in awe at their skills at entering the lock without hitting each other and reminisced about when I had taken the helm of a narrowboat 15 years ago and nearly got it lodged in sideways. After that it was deemed the other half would drive the boat and I would stick to opening the lock gates. Eventually we were allowed back across the river to finish our little jaunt out, crossing open fields and more woodland (which again is “heavy with the scent of bluebells in early summer”) before landing on a golf course.

Vale Royal House Apartments
“Beyond the 18th tee, the public right of way continues…” Oh good…I don’t think I’ve ever traipsed across a golf course whilst lots of people are hitting small hard balls in my general direction before. Pausing briefly to look at Vale Royal House, we ended up on a rather nice-looking housing estate. As we walked up the cul-de-sac that would take us back to the woods and onwards to where we started our walk on Vale Royal Drive, I couldn’t help but think that the houses probably cost an arm and a leg (judging by the cars in the drives) yet not one had a patch of green surrounding it. I might only have a small house and garden, but at least mine is teaming with wildlife rather than concrete.

At the cars, we ate our sandwiches and concluded that this was possibly the first time we’ve ever gone on a walk and not got lost. That’s a big tick to Tony Bowerman. I therefore tentatively suggested that maybe we should do the remaining 13 walks which are left in the book. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but if we do…you’ll be the first to know!

Whitegate is a quaint village in the English county of Cheshire named after the white gates which led up the Abbey. The village green is surrounded by a church, a school and a couple of thatched cottages. There is also the Grade II listed building, Whitegate House, built in the 17th century which was once an Inn called The Rifleman; it lost it’s licence in 1870 due to Lady Delamere objecting about the “unseemly behaviour of customers on the green” and thereafter became a residential property. The four bedroomed property could be yours as it is currently for sale for £515,000.00!

During the winter of 1263, the future King Edward I was caught in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, returning from a crusade in the Holy Land. He prayed to the Blessed Virgin that if he survived, he would build a convent for 100 Cistercian monks. It seems that his prayers were answered as he fought his way to shore, only to watch his ship vanish into the roaring tempest. He was one of two survivors, but his vow to found the largest Cistercian house in England had to be delayed as civil war was about to break out.

The site chosen for the Abbey was at Darnhall in nearby Delamere Forest and on the eve of Edward’s departure on a crusade, a foundation charter was issued for the monastery of St Mary, Darnhall. The chosen site proved unsuitable for Edward’s new abbey, for a start it could only house a community of 30, therefore Edward allowed the monks to find a more suitable site about 4 miles away which he would rename Vale Royal in order that no other monastery could be more royal than his.   

The foundation stone of the new abbey was laid by Edward I in 1277 in a ceremony full of pomp and splendour. Endowments of land in the surrounding area were made to support the Abbey, but Edward’s propensity for going to war put a drain on his finances for the abbey and by 1336 the church still did not possess a roof. Edward of Woodstock tried to breathe new life into the project, but by October 1360 a storm blew down the nave and following his death in 1376 royal patronage ended. Had Edward I succeeded in his desire to build the abbey it would have been on a grander scale that its more famous cousin, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

During the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, the monks were removed from the Abbey and the land and building was sold to Sir John Holcroft. Most of the Abbey was demolished, although some of the monk’s quarters remain, most predominately in the cellars. Excavations in 1911 and again in 1958 established the floor plan of the original 1278 building as a cruciform design with a central tower, two smaller towers at the west end and cloisters on the south side of the nave. The high alter stood at the east end of the building and is marked by the Nun’s Grave from which a ghost is still alleged to walk from. Vale Royal Golf Club now sits on the site of the former Abbey and you can buy a 2-bedroom apartment there for circa £315,000.00.