This heathland walk serves as a poignant reminder of less peaceful times.
Distance 4 miles (6.4km)
Minimum time 1hr 30
Ascent/gradient 361ft (110m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Gravel tracks and roads
Landscape Heather and woodland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 244 Cannock Chase
Start/finish SK 980181
Dog friendliness Beware of cyclists at all times
Parking Ample parking at start point
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the Glacial Boulder, walk away from the road along a narrow dirt trail for about 40 paces and then turn right along the wide gravel track. When you get to a fork, go right, following the Heart of England Way footpath sign.
2 At the next major fork, continue in the same direction (ignoring a footpath off to the right). At the next path crossroads, again carry straight on as the path curves gradually around the right. Continue along this track across two more path crossroads until your path curves round to the left alongside the road. At the point where another wide track comes in from the left, go straight on rather than taking the shortcut down to the road.
3 After crossing the narrow surfaced road opposite Springslade Lodge continue up a dirt track and across a path crossroads. After about 500yds (457m) you come to a T-junction in the path which requires a dog-leg right then left to keep going in the same direction through a car park. Continue in this direction to a second car park and, as the track curves around to the left, another metalled road.
4 Turn left past the German War Cemetery until the road becomes a wide gravel track. Continue along this track, down into the woods, and when you get to the fork go left down the hill, ignoring the path heading uphill to the right.
5 Continue along the bottom of the valley for a mile (1.6km), staying to the right of the stream, until you get to the obvious ford. Cross the stream using the stepping stones. At the junction on the other side head away from the stream following a track left around the bottom of a hill ahead, rather than right, straight over the top of it. Follow this track as it curves round to the right, all the way to the top of the hill.
6 Continue across the plateau until the path starts to descend the other side, at which point you rejoin the path, heading right, back towards the start and the car park.
At the beginning of the 20th century Cannock Chase was very different from the way it is now, due to centuries of deforestation. A long history of iron smelting and the consequent demand for charcoal and then coal had left the landscape almost treeless.
But the bleak landscape reflected bleaker times. With the outbreak of World War One, the Chase seemed like the perfect place for an army training camp and, between 1914 and 1918, 250,000 British and Commonwealth troops passed through its gates on their way to the trenches. Many of them were destined never to return.
The camp itself occupied much of the area covered by this walk. There were of course training areas and firing ranges but there was also a railway, sewage works, a prisoner of war camp, a powerhouse and pumping station, and quarters for troops and officers. Equally important were the veterinary hospital at Chase Road Corner (horses were still a large part of military life back then) and the Great War Hospital at Brindley Heath, which treated wounded soldiers brought back from the front.
Many German, British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the War Hospital were buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery, which today is a quiet, contemplative place, immaculately preserved and continuously looked after. Equally moving is the German War Cemetery, just to the north east. It was established by the German War Graves Commission, an organisation charged with caring for the graves of victims of war and tyranny. The commission was asked by the German government to take care of over 1.4 million graves, in 343 cemeteries throughout 24 different countries.
After the German-British War Graves Treaty of 1959, most of the German soldiers in cemeteries around Britain were exhumed and transferred to the cemetery at Cannock Chase, and today it is the only German war cemetery in the UK. It is the final resting place for 2,143 servicemen who died in World War One and 2,797 who died in World War Two. In all, 1,307 Germans remain in other British cemeteries (including the Commonwealth Cemetery here) and are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Read the poem on the wall of the visitors' centre; it says it all.
To the right of the visitors' centre are the massive grave stones marking the deaths of four Zeppelin crews shot down over England in World War One. They were originally buried in Potters Bar, Burstead and Theberton. Much harder to find are the graves of the 90 unknown soldiers buried here; one near to the centre is marked simply: 'Zwei unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten.'
Springslade Lodge is a great place to stop for refreshments in the summer, but is no less warm and welcoming in the winter. It has a tea room and a campsite, offers bike hire, and serves cream teas and Sunday lunches, as well as other snacks, all year round.
The Katyn Memorial, just a short walk from Springslade Lodge, is a tribute to the 14,000 members of the Polish armed forces and professional classes executed in 1940 in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, by the Soviet secret police on the orders of Stalin. The Poles had been prisoners of war following the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland while Germany was invading from the west; another 7,000 who were shot have never been found.