A gentle yet surprising corner of Lancashire, and it saves the best until last.
Distance 4 miles (6.4km)
Minimum time 1hr 45min
Ascent/gradient 410ft (125m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Field paths and canal tow path, 7 stiles
Landscape Open fields, enclosed valley and wooded dell
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 285 Southport & Chorley
Start/finish SD 517109
Dog friendliness Keep dogs on leads until tow path
Parking Large lay-by on A5209
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 At the end of the lay-by there's a stile into the corner of a field. Go up the side of the field and left along the top, then into a wood. Cross a small footbridge and continue up the footpath, then alongside a tiny stream. Follow the side of a conifer plantation until it bends away, then bear right to the left-hand side of a clump of trees enclosing a pool. Continue up to the right into an enclosed track below power lines and on up to a junction with a tarmac track.
2 Go left, then bear left again down an earthy track. (If you're in need of sustenance and want to visit the Rigbye Arms first, go right at this point, then left along High Moor Lane.) At the end of the earthy track go slightly right, across a field, to the corner of a wood then down its left-hand edge. Keep following this, which eventually becomes a narrow strip of woodland, to a stile in the bottom corner of the field. Follow a footpath down through the wood then up to the A5209.
3 Cross the road and go left to a stile where the pavement ends. Go straight down a field and over another stile into a lane. Go right on this then immediately left down another lane. Cross the railway at a level crossing and continue until you reach a bridge over the canal. Drop down to the tow path and follow it eastwards for about a ½ mile (800m) to the next canal bridge (No 40).
4 Cross this bridge and follow an obvious track, taking you back over the railway and up to a gate and stile. Turn right on another track. In places there's a separate footpath alongside, but it's always obvious. Where the track finally parts company go ahead over a stile and along the bottom edge of a field beside an area of new plantings. Cross the next field to a post and then a stile.
5 Descend the steep steps down into a wood and bear left into Fairy Glen. Cross a footbridge, climb some steps, then go left up a good track. Cross another footbridge below a waterfall and ascend more steps. Keep to the principal footpath, straight on up the glen as it becomes much shallower, until the path crosses a tiny footbridge. Soon after this the footpath leaves the side of the brook and briefly joins a track before it emerges on to the A5209. Cross and go right, back to the lay-by.
They say West Lancashire is flat, and much of it is, but Lancashire is full of surprises. The walk starts with a slight ascent on to High Moor. Not that it is what we would call a moor today: the name dates back to before the Enclosure Acts. As to the 'high' part, that creeps up on you, unsuspected until you start down an enclosed track and then out into an open field. The spire of Parbold church is below you and, to its right, the land falls away to the real lowlands around Ormskirk and stretching away to the sea.
Inland you look across the Douglas Valley to the ridge of Ashurst's Beacon which, incidentally, is another grand viewpoint. The beacon was built at the time of the Napoleonic wars, to carry warning of an invasion which many feared was imminent. It was never used.
Now you amble down into the valley. Once this was a major communications corridor. First the river itself was improved for navigation in 1742. Then came the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. This was initiated by an Act of Parliament in 1770, but took 46 years to complete. The cost was, a then colossal, £1.2 million. It remains the longest single canal in Britain. It carried stone from local quarries - much of Wigan is built of Parbold stone - and coal from the Lancashire coalfields.
As one of the later canals to be finished, its heyday was relatively brief. The railway between Wigan and Southport, which runs so closely parallel to the canal through the valley, was opened in the mid-l9th century. The canal declined and fell into dereliction but the growth of leisure boating brought a revival.
Having climbed up a little from the canal, and crossed a few fields, you come to the pièce de resistance, Fairy Glen. Its origins are largely natural, rather than supernatural, and there are some traces of small-scale quarrying, but nevertheless there is a kind of magic about the place. Dappled sunlight gilds the rocks and waterfalls. The ground under the trees, depending when you go, may show celandines and wood anemones, wood sorrel, or carpets of bluebells and wild garlic. Between June and September, especially in the lower reaches, there are great drifts of white flowers on loose spikes. This plant could not be more appropriately named for Fairy Glen: it is called enchanter's nightshade. This, incidentally, is a member of the willow-herb family and not related to deadly nightshade. It's over all too soon and the busy road brings a rude awakening, You could always go round again.
Further up the canal, towards Appley Bridge, there's an unusual double set of locks - a kind of 'dual carriageway' of the water. Appley Bridge itself has a colourful canal basin. Ashurst's Beacon offers various short walks and a chance to fill in some of the 'missing' sectors of the view, both east towards high Lancashire and south over Skelmersdale to Liverpool and the Welsh hills.
A two-minute detour from the route is all that's needed to find the Rigbye Arms. There's a range of hand-pulled ales and fine food, including traditional favourites and more innovative dishes. Muddy boots will be most at home in the Fox Hole Bar at the back, and there's outside seating and a play area.
A conspicuous plant, of the canal banks in particular, is Indian (or Himalayan) balsam. It has reddish stems and, from July to October, showy white to pink flowers. Even more conspicuous, in a few places, is giant hogweed. It can grow anywhere up to 15ft (5m) tall and touching its hairy stems or leaves can lead to a severe skin irritation. Both species were introduced to Britain in the 19th century.