A walk that samples both the lush Cheshire Plain and the wilder ridges that overlook it.
Distance 5.2 miles (8.4km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 720ft (219m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Open fields and woodland paths, canal tow path, quiet lanes, short sections where path indistinct,10 stiles
Landscape Mostly farmland and deciduous woods on flanks of ridge, views from crest
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 268 Wilmslow, Macclesfield & Congleton
Start/finish SJ 857573
Dog friendliness Woods and canal tow path are best places to let dogs run
Parking National Trust car park directly below Mow Cop castle
Public toilets In nearby towns of Kidsgrove or Biddulph
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1 Head towards the castle. Before reaching it take a narrower path left, to a road. Go right up this, then left, signposted 'Old Man' and 'South Cheshire Way'. Swing left, then right, then fork right on a narrow path past the Old Man. Rejoin the wider track, heading towards a communications mast.
2 At a junction of footpaths go left. Follow the field edges downhill and continue descending in a wood. Where the footpath splits at a tangle of holly bushes go left and into a field, then bear right. Skirt a farm then join a rough track. Keep heading downhill to join a surfaced lane. Bear left and cross the railway at Ackers Crossing.
3 Follow the lane to a wider road and turn right. Cross over a canal bridge, then go down steps and left, along the tow path. At bridge No 81 go up to a lane and turn left, over the bridge.
4 Follow the narrow lane to a crossroads by Baytree Farm and go straight ahead up the track to Limekiln Farm. Take a track on the left just beyond the buildings. Keep low, along the edge of the wood, until the track bends right by a post marked with yellow arrows.
5 Go left, pushing through undergrowth to duckboards and a stile. Turn right along a field edge. After 100yds (91m) there's another post. Descend sharp right then cross several, sometimes slippery, plank bridges. A narrow path heads uphill leading to a wider track, then tarmac near a house. Before the track starts to descend again, go right to a stile. Follow the left edge of a field alongside a wood. After another stile go up a narrower field until it opens out. Above a signpost, go right on a green track to a stile amid holly trees. Continue to another boundary; beyond is rougher ground with rushes and some gorse. A firm track curves across this, though the last bit, to a stile remains rough and rushy. Bear left up a drive to the road, then follow it right for 300yds (274m).
6 By a gateway on the right-hand side a Gritstone Trail sign lurks under a beech tree, pointing the way into a narrow wood. The footpath roughly follows the upper margin of the wood, then emerges on the level floor of some old quarry workings. Bear left, below the communications tower, to rejoin the outward route near the Old Man of Mow.
Some people might think it odd to start a walk on the top of a hill, descend, and then climb up again, but then Mow Cop is an odd place. Its crooked streets seem positively to seek the steepest ways. Split between the two counties of Cheshire and Staffordshire, the village is as quirky as the castle that dominates it. Never a fortress, the castle was built principally for embellishment and remains one of England's best-known and most conspicuous follies.
It's not the view to it that concerns us, however, so much as the view from. Mow Cop is perched on a sharp ridge, the last great outlier of the millstone grit. The view south is over the Potteries but north and west is the green expanse of the Cheshire Plain. The distinct boundary between hill and plain is underlined by the Macclesfield Canal.
The walk starts level, passing the Old Man of Mow. Logic suggests that this monolith is merely an incidental remnant left behind when the quarries closed. Yet it's so sculpted that you can't help feeling that, consciously or not, there was some artistry at work here. This is a good place to pause and study the view before descending to the plain.
The descent is steepest in the woods of Roe Park. Down on the level, you first cross the main Manchester-to-Stoke-on-Trent railway line. Take care as high speed trains use this line. Just beyond, and on a parallel course, is the Macclesfield Canal, where the speed limit is a sedate 4mph (6.4kph). Though the general line of the canal was planned by Thomas Telford, the principal engineer was William Crossley.
On the way up again, you need to be alert for a short section in the woods past Limekiln Farm. The path tries to hide in the undergrowth, then doubles back sharply as if trying to shake off pursuit. Higher up, there's a section with no clear path at all, but it's simply a matter of following the edge of a field.
Overall the ascent is less steep than the descent, but there's rough ground below the ridge crest. Here, if you so desire, you can walk with one foot in Cheshire and the other in Staffordshire. A path then threads a narrow belt of woodland before emerging into another old quarry. No Old Men here, but in summer the level floor is alive with wild flowers.
Little Moreton Hall, which you can see from the ridge, is almost certainly the most celebrated half-timbered house in England. The house was built in stages between 1480 and 1580 and has hardly changed since. From the classic views of the exterior reflected in the moat to the wall decorations inside, everything is a striking expression of its time.
Mow Cop folly was built in 1754 by John and Ralph Harding for the Wilbraham family of Rode Hall, about 3 miles (4.8km) to the west. It was probably used as an occasional summerhouse, but mostly served to enhance the view from Rode Hall. The hilltop was also the birthplace of Primitive Methodism: in May 1807 thousands gathered to launch a move back to simpler forms of worship. The term 'primitive' was not seen as derogatory: the usual contemporary term of abuse was 'Ranters'.
The Mow Cop Inn is close at hand, just below the hilltop on the Staffordshire side. It's a cosy pub with a local feel that does good-value food, but isn't open all day. For a wider range of options, including no-smoking areas, try the Egerton Arms at Astbury, just off the A34 near Congleton.