A canal and woodland walk close to Consall Nature Park.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 30min
Ascent/gradient 360ft (110m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Gravel tracks, tow paths and roads, can be muddy, 7 stiles
Landscape Canal, meadow and woodland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorers 258 Stoke-on-Trent; 259 Derby
Start/finish SJ 994483 on Explorer 258
Dog friendliness Must be kept on lead
Parking Ample parking at visitors' centre
Public toilets At visitors' centre
1 From the car park head to the left of the visitors' centre to join a road. Go right and, at the bottom of the road, bear diagonally right across a field to a footbridge. Follow the path right and then left as it curves round to reach the corner of a bridge across a railway. Cross the bridge and go right down a set of steps, then right along the tow path.
2 Soon after you pass Consall Station on your left, walk under the railway opposite the Black Lion pub and cross the canal and then the river. Just to the left of the lime kiln go up 202 steep steps and, at the top, walk right, along a grass track. At the brow of the hill follow the path to a gate and two little mounds. After picking your way through these mounds, cross the stile in the corner of the field and, after 30 paces, walk right through the gate. Head diagonally left across this field to cross a stile and continue on the track. At the metalled road go right.
3 After 600yds (549m) reach a black-and-white timbered farmhouse on your right in the village of Consall. Just after a T-junction (signposted to Leek) go left across a farmyard following a public footpath signed 'Hollins'. Cross a stile, continue along the wide track to another stile, then following a line of trees just to your left-hand side. Carry on through a series of stiles to the corner of a wood.
4 In the wood carry straight on, ignoring the trail to your left. When the path you're on bears left, follow it to cross a stile back into Consall Nature Park. Go straight down the hill, again ignoring a path to the left. At the bottom, head left along the wider track. When this joins an even wider grassy track, bear right and continue straight on, ignoring paths to the left and right.
5 By a water outpipe, follow the track round to the right and then go left at the fork, pass a fishing lake to your right and return to the visitors' centre.
Consall Nature Park, like Dimmings Dale near Alton, is a part of the Churnet Valley and has a long industrial history. Iron working is known to have taken place here as early as the 13th century, when vast tracts of woodland were felled to provide charcoal for smelting. Later, towards the end of the 18th century, the place was mined for ironstone, and the arrival of the Caldon Canal and the Churnet Valley Railway meant it was once again stripped of trees to make way for progress. At its peak, 1,500 men worked here, filling 30 barges a day with iron ore.
Today, this region has been largely reclaimed by nature, but many landmarks remain. The railway, for example, was built in 1849 to link Manchester and Macclesfield with the rest of the Midlands, transporting iron ore, coal and limestone all over the district. Although it stopped operating commercially in the 1960s, it has recently been given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction, and the once-derelict Consall Station has been lovingly restored. Before the arrival of the railway, the Caldon Canal served a similar purpose, and there are still giant lime kilns where the canal and the river meet. These kilns were used to burn limestone from the vast Caldonlow quarries near by to produce quicklime, which could then be used in fertiliser or in mortar.
Even the Black Lion pub was built in the early 1800s specially to serve the men who lived and worked in the area. To this day it's still not accessible by road. Back then, it could be reached only by a cart track, by the steep steps running up beside the kilns, by canal and, later, by rail.
At the top of the steps beside the kilns are the remnants of spoil heaps, but the further you go from the river, the harder it is to find evidence of the damage done in the name of progress. In 1994 the Consall Nature Park was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as the largest area of semi-natural woodland in Staffordshire. Today, this region is dominated by birch trees as these are often the first to recover after deforestation. There are no large trees as these were felled when the original forest was cleared for charcoal, mining and railways, although there are signs that oak trees may be starting to establish themselves, protected in their youth by the silver birches.
At the pond by the visitors' centre, see if you can spot one of its resident water voles. They're not the most outgoing of animals and their burrow - a nest made of rushes and grass - is often below the surface. You should be able to see signs of their existence, from tracks in the mud to the nibbled tops of pond plants.
If it's open, spend some time in Consall Nature Park Visitors' Centre: it has a touch table, interactive displays, and a wealth of information on both the industrial and natural history of the area. It also sells cold drinks and snacks.
The Black Lion, set in the heart of the Churnet Valley, is a great place for a pie and pint, not least because it's only accessible on foot. It does the usual bar snacks and has an extensive restaurant menu. Food is served daily in summer.