Come along a visual adventure as Nigel Heath explores The Heart of England Way
It was quite a tough first morning on The Heart of England Way for my walking companion and poet Peter Gibbs and I, uphill and down dale, along woodland tracks and through open heathland on Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.
Despite having a detailed guide book and the appropriate OS maps, we still managed to miss our path having spent little more than an hour on this wonderful one-hundred-and-two miles trail.
But luckily help was at hand with the sudden appearance of local dog walkers Gillian Moores, with Tilly, and Helen Wadkin, with Molly, who put us back on the right track beside the moving Katyn Memorial.
This commemorates the fourteen thousand polish officers and others, who were brutally murdered by the Russians in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in 1940, and was erected after a fundraising campaign by a local polish man who saw a similarity between the two wooded locations.
The Ktyn Memorial in Katyn Forest
We picnicked just below the Castle Ring, an iron age hill fort high up on the southern edge pf Cannock Chase, and with five miles still to go to that day’s journeys end in Litchfield, we decide to leave the trail and walk along quiet sunlit lanes instead.
This allowed us to stop and rest our weary legs with a refreshing pint in the coolness of The Malt Shovel in the pretty flower decked village of Chorley.
Alas, the magnificent façade of Litchfield Cathedral was in deep shadow and not worth a picture, so venturing inside, we spent thirty memorable minutes listening to choristers rehearsing for Evensong.
Emerging into the bright early evening sunshine, we found the cathedral bathed in light and got our picture after all.
The Litchfield Cathedral
After a comfortable night’s stay with dinner at the nearby George Hotel, we were poised to depart when I spotted an ant crawling around my wash basin! He’d clearly climbed aboard my person when I had accidentally put my map case down on its nest the previous afternoon.
Feeling somewhat responsible for this tiny fellow traveller, I scooped it up in a tissue and sent it parachuting down to freedom through my open bedroom window.
Finding our way back to a trail from the busy centres of towns and cities has often posed a problem and with Litchfield being no exception, I wondered how my ant was getting along!
An hour later, we were finally walking away from the city and onward for mile after mile across a flat landscape, amid fields of golden crops, under leaden skies.
Then, bearing right on a long curve of dusty farm tracks, we came upon the first of several nasty scars being made by contractors working on the route of HS2, and leaving it behind, we crossed the busy A5 and headed up into the rolling hills ahead.
Descending again, we made our way across country, passing another HS2 scar, to reach the village of Drayton Bassett, where we picnicked in the churchyard.
From there it was a short step to The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, where we crossed the famous Gothic style footbridge, built in 1830 at the same time as the former Dayton Manor, home of Sir Robert Peal, who later became Prime Minister.
Peter by the Gothic canal footbridge
Now the sun came out and we followed this quiet waterway for several miles to our overnight stop at The Marston Farm Hotel. Enroute, we passed Warwickshire County Council’s Kingsbury Waterpark, comprising fifteen lakes and created by gravel extraction to provide a six hundred acres haven for wildlife, anglers, water sport enthusiasts and fellow walkers.
It was now day three on our walk far from the madding crowd across open and undulating country, amid more ripening cereal crops and through shady woodland and quiet villages to come at last to our overnight stop in Meriden.
Here a surprise was in store because neither Peter, nor I, had ever come across a war memorial dedicated to cyclists. Yet every year, cyclists from all over the country, descend on this Warwickshire village, which claims to be the historic heart of England, hence the name of our walk, to honour those brave cyclists, who had fallen in combat during two world wars.
We left our Strawberry Bank Hotel, where we had enjoyed an excellent supper, at 7.15am for our final day walking the circa seventeen miles across country to picturesque Henley-in-Arden and arrived somewhat wearily at 6pm.
An early close encounter with the line of HS2, not far beyond the pretty village of Berkswell with its lovely Saxon Church of St John Baptist, caused a diversion and delay as monster earth moving trucks went trundling past.
From then on, the path wound its way through crop fields and hay meadows to eventually reach The Grand Union Canal, which we followed to its junction with the Stratford Canal and then along this waterway almost as far as the small village of Lowsonford.
Here we left the canal for a late afternoon walk over the hills to ascend a grassy knoll for a magnificent finale view over Henley-in-Arden and the surrounding wooded countryside.
Dropping down a steeply sloping path into the village, we passed several empty seats and I remarked how strange it was that no one appeared to be around to appreciate the view on such a lovely afternoon.
Then, as if right on cue, a young couple appeared strolling hand in hand towards us, with their whole young lives ahead of them!
The Heart of England Way guide book by Stephen Cross, plus the appropriate OS maps are essential for following this classic walk.
For update information on HS2 diversions visit https://www.hs2.org.uk/ and follow the tab ‘n your area’
Before starting, we stayed overnight with Elaine Fisher at The Coach House in Milton tel 07976 017300, which has a direct access onto the path and is close to a pub for evening meals.
Meanwhile, Peter and I plan to return to Henley-in-Arden in the autumn to complete the final circa forty miles walk to Bourton-on-Water in the Cotswolds