Exploring the industrial history of a wasteland that's recently been returned to nature.
Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 300ft (91m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Wide gravel tracks, roads and dirt trails, 10 stiles
Landscape Ancient woodland, farmland and hilltop
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 258 Stoke-on-Trent
Start/finish SJ 822483
Dog friendliness Must be kept on lead at all times
Parking Ample parking opposite Heritage Centre
Public toilets At Heritage Centre
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 From the Heritage Centre in Apedale Country Park take a path to go right, through a gate. After 400yds (366m) turn right down to a corner of the park, then continue straight ahead, passing to the left of the sawmill. At a fork, head right down a short hill to the corner of a lake.
2 Ignoring the stile, turn left along the narrow path into the woods. Follow the most obvious trail to emerge into Fern Bank, an exotic landscape of giant, head-high ferns. Follow this path to reach a junction of many paths, with a clearing to your left. Walk through the clearing to reach the main gravel track.
3 Turn left and continue for 600yds (549m) to a gate and the turn-off for the lake (Point 2). About 30 paces after the gate, head right up a signed footpath along the edge of a small copse, keeping the fence to your right. At the top of this wood, 30 paces off the track to your left, is a disused mineshaft.
4 From the top of the wood continue up the tree-lined track to the village of Apedale, a former mining community. On the right, just after the track veers to the left, is Gamekeeper's Cottage, once the site of a colliery.
5 About 100yds (91m) beyond the cottage turn left along the track to a gate; bear left after the gate down a well-trodden meadow path to a stile. After the stile, head right following a fence to the bottom of the hill, then skirt left to reach another stile.
6 Cross into Watermills Wood and follow the trail to another stile, then come to a junction of two paths. Head right here and, after 10 paces, fork right again. You'll shortly come to a succession of stiles before continuing up to Watermills Farm.
7 Go through the gate and continue for 100yds (91m) before following a footpath left over a series of fields and stiles to some farm buildings on your right. When the fence veers round to the left, follow it to the edge of a sapling plantation. At the wide gravel track, head right and at a fork go left. At the next fork go right along the tarmac to the summit.
8 From the summit drop down the other side, continuing over a crossroads to a pair of swing gates and a T-junction. Head right here, and then take the first left down the hill. At the tarmac road head left and continue back towards the Heritage Centre.
Apedale Country Park, just to the west of Newcastle-under-Lyme, has a rich and varied history. The name itself has two possible meanings: one suggests that the word ape comes from the Latin apis meaning bee; the other is that ape is short for apple. Whichever you prefer, it seems probable that Apedale was once an ancient rural landscape, although for the last 2,000 years, it has been anything but?
Iron smelting in Apedale probably goes back at least to Roman times, if not before, but the impact on the landscape would've been negligible compared to what came later. Mining in the region is known to date back as far as the 1200s. This was made possible in the early days thanks to large deposits of coal lying at or very near the surface. Of the four main Staffordshire deposits, the Potteries Coalfield was by far the biggest, comprising an area of 100 square miles (259sq km).
The Potteries, though, were doubly blessed. Not only was there coal to be mined and sold, but there were rich seams of high quality clays that could be used to make pots. As the pottery industry developed so the demand for coal increased, and the Apedale collieries would have played a major role in meeting that demand. The arrival of the first canals in 1777, thanks partly to the vision of people like Josiah Wedgwood, precipitated a boom in business throughout the region, and the emergence of the railways 60 years later proved to be another catalyst to productivity and prosperity.
With the Industrial Revolution well underway, iron mining and smelting enjoyed its own boom thanks to the invention of the blast furnace in the late 18th century. Apedale was a major centre of production, at one point providing employment for over 3,000 men. Rising costs, however, sent local industry into decline by the 1920s, and when the owners lost their fortune in the Wall Street crash, it ended altogether. Coal mining in the area, however, continued until as recently as 1998, when the last deep mine was closed at Silverdale, just a mile or two to the south of Apedale.
For much of the 20th century Apedale remained a barren and desolate place but today little evidence of the area's industrial heritage remains. Nature has reclaimed the spoil heaps with luxurious ferns, and trees are recolonising the land, creating 455 acres (184ha) of woodland, meadows and pools that everyone can enjoy. Active reclamation work began in 1995 and continued efforts to improve and develop the park and its facilities are a triumph of nature over industry. Apedale Country Park is probably as green now as it's been in the last 300 years, an ancient rural landscape reborn.
The highlight of the walk is undoubtedly the view from the hilltop at Point 8, where a wide circle of carved wooden posts indicates the position of various distant landmarks on the horizon, such as Mow Cop Castle, 6 miles (9.7km) to the north, and Pye Green Mast, 25 miles (40km) to the south on Cannock Chase. The scene is relatively pollution-free today, and it's hard to imagine that the view to the east was once shrouded in smog, or that 'smoky postcards' were once very popular as a souvenir of the times when plenty of smoke meant plenty of work.
The Heritage Centre café, conveniently situated at the start of the walk, sells a vaiety of hot and cold drinks, cakes, biscuits and other snacks.
If you have time make sure you visit the surprisingly picturesque market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, to the south east of Apedale. Its pedestrianised town centre is a haven for shoppers, as is the market, which takes place six days a week.