Explore an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty once ravaged by industry.
Distance 3.3 miles (5.3km)
Minimum time 1hr
Ascent/gradient 270ft (82m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Gravel tracks
Landscape Forest and forest pools
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 244 Cannock Chase
Start/finish SK 017170
Dog friendliness Can be off lead, but beware of bikes
Parking Parking at visitors' centre costs £1 per day
Public toilets At start point
1 From the car park at the Birches Valley Visitors' Centre go left along Penkridge Bank (metalled road) and, after 200yds (183m), turn left along a wide gravel bridleway. Stay left on the main track here, avoiding a less obvious grass track up the hill to the right.
2 At a path junction just before Stony Brook, go right along the wide bridleway. Shortly after, you come to a fork. Stay left, following a track alongside Stonybrook Pools and Fairoak Pools. When you get to a main intersection of two bridleways, about 200yds (183m) beyond the last pool, head left. Keep going straight up the hill, ignoring the path off to the left after a 100yds (91m) or so.
3 Continue to the top of the slope and then turn left along Marquis's Drive (metalled, pedestrian only road). Pass the large wooden sign to Hednesford on the right and carry on for another 300yds (274m) until the road starts to head round to the left. Soon after, go left down a wide gravel track. Just past an obvious path crossroads, as the track veers round to the right, there is a large disused mineshaft on the right (now overgrown).
4 At the T-junction at the bottom of the hill go left along another wide gravel bridleway to Stonybrook. Cross the stream and retrace your footsteps back to the car park.
Cannock Chase, a vast area of open heathland and conifer forest just to the north of Birmingham, has been the site of human activity for thousands of years. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers built massive earthworks here (PWhile You're There), and William the Conqueror, realising that the heavily forested area would be difficult to cultivate, declared it a royal hunting forest. As a result, anyone caught killing a small animal lost an eye or one hand, while anyone caught poaching deer was executed.
While many other forests were exploited for wood in the centuries that followed, the precedent set by William I protected the chase from deforestation and it remained a hunting forest until Tudor times. Under the reign of Henry VIII, however, the title to the chase was given to William Paget, later the Marquis of Anglesey, who secured a licence to fell trees for iron smelting in 1560. Today, Marquis's Drive, running more of less right across the chase, is a reminder of his legacy, but it was his deeds rather than his name that had the greatest impact on the landscape.
Iron smelting relied on vast quantities of charcoal to fire early blast furnaces. With the help of water-powered bellows, a mixture of charcoal, limestone and cinders was used to melt the iron ore, which was subsequently poured into troughs as cast iron, an alloy of carbon and iron. This mixture was very brittle, so even more charcoal was required to burn off the carbon so that it could finally be hammered into wrought iron. The bars of iron produced in this way were then heated a final time, to be rolled flat and slit by a water-powered mill. By the end of the 16th century, the process was refined enough to produce items like nails, locks and chains. But the new technology came at a price and by 1610, Cannock Chase had been almost completely deforested by voracious charcoal-burners.
It was still treeless 240 years later when the Cannock Chase Colliery came into being. The area was first mined for coal in 1298 but it wasn't until the height of the Industrial Revolution that it became big business. With coal came people, and the increase in population soon pushed back the boundaries of the remaining green areas further still.
Mining continued well into the 20th century, and it wasn't until the 1920s and 30s that trees began to be systematically replanted in the area. By the end of World War Two, coal mining was confined to larger pits, and many of the smaller pits were closed. In 1958 much of the woodland and heather was declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and since then most of it has returned to nature.
The Birches Valley Visitors' Centre sells snacks and hot and cold drinks on summer weekends, but for something more substantial try the Chase Inn in Rugeley. It serves simple, good-value food, every day, all year round.
Cannock Chase is home to five different species of deer: fallow, muntjac, red, roe and sitka. You'll easily spot the deer signs on the roads crossing the chase, but less easy to see are the reflective posts that keep deer off the roads at night. These posts have a reflective strip set at an angle, so that when they're hit by the glare of car headlights, they bounce an arc of red light into the surrounding woods. Nearby deer are stopped in their tracks, thus preventing them from running into the path of the car.
The Castle Ring, just a few miles south east of the visitors' centre, dominates the highest point on Cannock Chase offering impressive views over the countryside. Enclosing an area of over 14 acres (5.6ha), this vast earthwork comprises a triple rampart of steep banks and deep ditches. It is thought to have been built between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, either as a beacon or a fortress.