Walks in Mysterious Cheshire and Wirral by Tony Bowerman (Walk 5 - Willington)

With lockdown seemingly starting to ease and vistors being allowed back into the country (Wales) my friend Kate, popped over for the weekend. We did a quick afternoon walk (3 miles) around a village near me called Hope. (Live in Hope, die in Caergwrle as the old saying goes…the two villages are adjacent to one another and this saying has been used since at least the 19th century!) Anyway – unbeknown to me, Hope has a heritage park “Park in the Past” and whilst it was still closed due to Covid restrictions, Kate and I took a walk along the public footpath that surrounds the park which was still open. It’s a place I will be heading back to in due course at it looks rather beautiful and the field at the end of the walk was just teaming with swifts or swallows skirting over the grass catching insects. An absolute surprise and treat to watch so I grabbed a quick video on my 'phone. Not the best quality, but I hadn't expected to come upon such a wonderful sight! 

Sunday was another dry day and I thought it would be a good idea to do another walk from Tony Bowerman’s book. (If you haven’t read about our first walk – click on the link)

Following the Victorians to Little Switzerland

As travel abroad is a bit hit or miss at the moment, Kate and I followed in the footsteps of the Victorians and took a trip to Little Switzerland, deep in the Cheshire Countryside at Willington.

Willington has been known by a myriad of names over the centuries. It was derived from the name of the first settlor recorded in the area, Wynflaeda. In the Doomsday book the name had changed to Winfletone and in Norman times it was called Wylaton. In the 1840’s the railway line from Manchester to Chester opened and the Victorian city workers took the opportunity to escape to the countryside.

Willington sits on a sandstone ridge, the “backbone of Cheshire.” 50% of the ridge is of great ecological and historical value as it has remained relatively undisturbed. Photographs taken during our walk do not look much different to the photographs taken 100 years ago. There are six hillforts which are situated along the length including the one at Willington, Kelsborrow Castle. This hillfort was built to exploit the natural defences the area of land held and Neolithic axes have been found at the site, suggesting that it was an important site long before the Iron Age fort was built. 

Victorian tourists walked the path up to the fort in an area known as Little Switzerland due its far-reaching views of the Clwydian Mountain Range, Peckforton Hill and the Mersey and Dee estuaries. Wherever you stand in the village, you are afforded stunning views, but views like that require some effort, and whilst the walk is only 3 miles long…approximately 2/3rds of the walk requires walking up a gentle ascent. (Thank goodness we walked the route we did – the opposite way round would have been a killer!)

We parked in the centre of the village in a little bay at Willington Corner/Chapel Lane. If people can be bothered to park their vehicles correctly, there should be ample space for about 20 cars, however, as there are no white lines, the idiot/lazy fraternity just dumped their car and left. When I arrived there was only one space left which was a tight squeeze, but I managed to reverse in leaving sufficient space at the front of both mine and idiot drivers vehicle, so all parties could get in and out without damaging either car. Fortunately, as we were about to walk up the road, someone else appeared who was heading home, so I waited a few minutes and moved into their spot…this meant I could enjoy my walk without being anxious about the apparent inability to drive of the person that had been next to me!

A short walk up hill took us towards the sheltered, south-west facing fields of the market gardens where in the 20th century crops of hard and soft fruits could be seen growing. Fruit has certainly been seen growing on the slopes of Willington Hall since the 1940s, and apples, strawberries and blackcurrants thrived in the fertile soils, whilst damsons grew in the hedgerows. The fruit was sold at the local markets in Chester, Frodsham, Knutsford, Liverpool and Manchester. Despite the popularity and quality of the fruit, the nearby Eddisbury Fruit Farm has since closed its doors, and the area was very quiet when we walked past where Winsors Fruit Farm and shop was supposed to be.

In keeping with the area, we turned into Gooseberry Lane, not named after the fruit farms which didn’t appear until after WWII, and continued heading upwards towards the are known as Little Switzerland. As we stopped to catch our breath and move out of the way of a red car, we could see the spectacular views that had caused Victorians to gasp in awe. As we headed further up the road, we were greeted by the driver of the red car, a sweet old lady who lived in one of the cottages on the steep bank. We stood and chatted to her for a while as she told us about the area and where the best views were. The cottages were built from the 1860s onwards; many of which have been enlarged from the original rural workers cottages they once were. The cottagers were wily souls and would clear out a bedroom to offer it out as a B&B for the visitors that had made their way from the station in a horse-drawn cart.

As Gooseberry Lane came to an abrupt end, we followed a narrow, raised path between someone’s house and garden. The path seems to hang in the air, as to the left the land falls away, and an area called Boothsdale comes into view. As we drew towards the top of the path, we remembered the words of the lady we had been talking to and stopped to take in the views. She was right, if you wait until you reach the top, the trees obscure the far reaching views…this spot was perfect, and gave us a little breather before negotiating the wooded steps carved into the woodland, that would take us towards Kelsborrow Castle.

Up Dick’s Mount

Open pasture greets you as you leave the shade of the trees. This unassuming area of green has had a chequered history. This is where the promontory fort of Kelsborrow Castle would have stood. Centuries of ploughing have left it difficult to see where the ramparts would have been on the enclosure. Excavations in 1973 revealed that the rampart had been revetted with timber, and the earthen bank was reinforced with timber also. The original width of the rampart was 4 metres and the ditch had been dug 8.5 metres in front of the rampart. Today, the bank stands about half a metre high and spread across an area 30 metres wide. Despite this, you can still get a sense of the scale of the fort.

Electric fences now keep grazing cattle off the public footpath, but years ago this area of Castle Hill was a stud farm for shire horses. John Kenworthy first registered a stallion on the site back in 1898 and all the horses were prefixed with the name Delamere. The stallions were taken to Delamere railway station and transported to Chester, Helsby and The Wirral for their services. A standing stone was removed from the field in the 19th Century, but local lore suggests that its origin was less prehistoric and more likely the marker for a prized stallions grave. The last recorded stud fee was fifty shillings back in 1935. This was the end of the line for the Kenworthy Shires, but not all is lost in the Shire horse world – three miles down the road at Cotebrook lies the Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre where this beautiful breed is continuing to be bred successfully.  https://cotebrookshirehorses.co.uk/

During World War II, the RAF placed a communications aerial to the right of Dick’s Mount, as this elevated position was perfect for receiving signals. Its exposed position meant that locals had to be especially vigilant during black outs. A light from this area could be seen as far away as the Welsh border and be prone to attack. Standing there, it did make me think about today’s society. How would people cope with such orders? Seeing as how folk are loath to even wear a mask to protect each other, I suspect black out’s would have been an infringement of their liberty and to hell with everyone.

Pushing my cynicism to one side, we continued past the cows and into a small wooded area to come out on a green with a lake. People were sat having a picnic on the grass, casually watching the world go by as Kate and I starred at the map. It advised us we would emerge on Quarry Bank Lane and to turn right and follow the lane uphill. There was no Quarry Bank Lane, certainly no signs for it, and did right mean the road at the top that disappeared to the right…or did it mean turn right past the lake. There was no lake mentioned in the guidebook. There was no Quarry Bank Lane on Google either. We decided we would do option 1 – the road that disappeared to the right. As we walked down it, none of the house names mentioned in our guidebook appeared, although some beautiful mansions that no doubt cost at east a million pounds loomed into view. After about a quarter of mile, we decided that we couldn’t be heading uphill…neither of us were out of breath. We turned around and scurried back, past the people at the lake, and the road started to climb. (Also the names of the houses in the book appeared which was a blessed relief…we didn’t want to head back to the lake and start asking people where the hell we were.)

The Urchin’s Kitchen

At the crest of a hill (I wish I’d read the route before we started) we saw a carpark (🙄) which took us into Primrosehill Wood. The route took us down a bridleway which was straddled with wild raspberry canes on either side. They looked a little pat their best and so we continued through the woods and onto the route known as the Sandstone Trail. Just off the path, we took a small detour into a sandstone gorge filled with rhododendrons and pine trees. Hidden within the tree this was the atmospheric Urchin’s Kitchen, a glacial drainage channel formed at the close of the last Ice Age. As the climate warmed, meltwater under immense pressure scoured out the 20-30 foot deep gorge, enlarging the natural weakness in the Triassic sandstone.

Obviously, we had to take a closer inspection, looking down into the gorge wasn’t an option…there’s no point going on a walk unless you can do a bit of exploring.  I probably should have been banned from reading The Famous Five as a child, anyway, despite both of us doing this walk in trainers rather than hiking boots…and it has been a bit wet lately, we strode through the undergrowth and into the gorge. This was where a pair of welly boots would have been most welcome, as the pair of us tried to daintily(?!) cross bits of fallen logs in a bid to not be knee deep in mud. At some point Kate saw sense and gave up whilst I tried to go further in. The mud however was getting deeper and stickier…and there was a group of people at the far end who I’m sure would have laughed like a drain had I fallen into what was turning into swamp. I trudged back to Kate and we negotiated the logs back to the Sandstone Trail.

Now you maybe asking why the area is called the Urchin’s Kitchen. I have no idea, although it is suggested that as the Middle English name for a hedgehog was an urchin, as when in curled up with its spines showing, it looked like a sea urchin. This may have been an area where hedgehogs used to hibernate because it was sheltered and full of autumn leaves.

Time for Tea

We headed through the woods and onto open farmland, here the guidebook advised “the path emerges on Tirley Lane beside Summertrees Tearoom and Garden – an attractive family run café that welcomes walkers.” Perfect I thought, as both of us had nearly run out of water and a loo break is always welcome. I did wonder whether Covid might have put paid to the place being open, but you can always hope. We walked past a very much closed “tearoom.” There were no signs confirming that this was ever the place and that, I realised, was one problem of using a guide book that hasn’t been revised and updated since 2006. As it turned out, it wasn;t Covid that had closed the tearoom, the place, whilst appearing rather popular in online reviews, had closed circa 2013/14. This was the only issue completing the walk, the village of Willington has no amenities except for the Boot Inn and Willington Hall hotel neither of which cross this walking route. Even the post office, churches, school and community rooms have long gone and been converted into houses, so it was a timely reminder that if we tried any of the longer walks in the book, to check them out carefully before we started and to ensure we had snacks and drinks with us!

At this point we were on Roughlow Lane (the name suggestive of a Bronze Age burial mound or similar nearby – again showing the prehistoric routes of the village) and the walking was sharply downhill back to where we started. As we headed further downhill on the pavementless winding road (pavements are pretty much non-existent) we remarked how grateful we were not to have had to climb this route. We took a moment to remember the Italian prisoners of war who in 1946, were recruited to rebuild a wall and repair the damage of a steam roller belonging to the County Council which had toppled over the side of Roughlow, taking a section of the road with it. I couldn’t help but chuckle too…I work as a contractor with a County Council and the standard of driving hasn’t really improved much in all those years!

Heading back down to the car park!