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Hay Head Wood and the Walsall Waterfront

Along the Wyrley and Essington, and Rushall canals to Park Lime Pits Local Nature Reserve.

Distance 3.7 miles (6km)

Minimum time 1hr 15min

Ascent/gradient 66ft (20m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths and tow paths, 2 stiles

Landscape Canalside and urban parkland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 220 Birmingham

Start/finish SK 041910

Dog friendliness Off lead along tow path, otherwise under control

Parking Hay Head Wood Nature Reserve car park

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park proceed over Longwood Lane through a parking area on to the Longwood Bridge and descend to the tow path of the Rushall Canal. Go right (south west) and walk along the side of the very straight part of the canal.

2 After 650yds (594m) you will come to a bridge over the canal where you go off to the right and join a footpath that leads around the bottom end of a golf course. Follow the blue-topped white posts and continue past the rear of gardens, with the golf course to your right, and along the back of playing fields. After passing an exit area to the B4151, continue ahead on a tarmac driveway that leads to the municipal golf course's main car park and a large recreational area. Leave the car park at its rear and continue along a tarmac path by the left side of a stream. After about 700yds (640m), turn right, over the stone footbridge, and walk to the right-hand side of a play area up to a tarmac driveway.

3 Head right, up the driveway to leave the park area, then cross over Buchannan Road and continue up the footpath until you reach Argyle Road. Go right along Argyle Road which arcs left, and look out for a footpath sign. Go right and take the hedged/fenced footpath along the back of the houses in Fernleigh Road. This emerges on to the A454 (Aldridge Road).

4 Cross over the A454 and go right along its grass verge for some 220yds (201m), then go left over a stile by a footpath sign to Riddian Bridge. Continue along the footpath following a series of fingerposts until you come to Riddian Bridge on the Wyrley and Essington Canal.

5 Descend to the tow path, which is part of the Beacon Way, turn right and walk along it. This is easy walking, with just a few ducks and perhaps a heron or two for company. You may see fishermen on the banks of the canal attempting to catch some of the roach, tench, carp and pike that live in the waters. In about ½ mile (800m) you come to Longwood Bridge. Exit here on to the A454. Cross the canal and bear right to return to the car park at the nature reserve.

As you explore the history of the Black Country it becomes clear that Walsall was very much at the hub of the Industrial Revolution in 19th-century Britain. Each large town in the area had its role to play, and limestone, used as flux in the iron foundries and for cement production in the construction of canal buildings, was mined in the countryside around Walsall. The town also became England's centre for the manufacture of leather goods and fine saddlery - the nickname of the local football team is the Saddlers. Sadly much of old Walsall has disappeared, but it has become a vibrant modern town, surrounded by numerous parks which offer a link with its industrial past.

John Wilkinson, a famous pioneering 'ironmaster' opened up Hay Head Wood for limestone excavation in the 18th century. It was transported along two canals - the Wyrley and Essington and the Rushall. The Wyrley and Essington was completed in 1797, with nine locks designed to lift the lime-laden barges some 65ft (20m) up to the Longwood Junction near Aldridge. This contour canal, affectionately known as 'The Curly Wyrley', follows the lie of the land and winds its way from Hay Head Park up to Lime Pits Farm and Park Lime Pits Local Nature Reserve, then on to the north of Birmingham. The Rushall Canal was built as a 2½-mile (4km) link between the Wyrley and Essington Canal and the Tame Valley Canal.

Limestone extraction finally ceased in the 1920s, but remnants of the canal wharf buildings, pit shafts and pump housings can still be seen. The land around the lime pits have since been reclaimed by nature.

Hawthorn trees form a boundary between Hay Head Wood and the open expanse of Walsall Airport. This 17-acre (7ha) site is a mixture of grassland, woodland and wetland. Wild garlic forms a pungent white carpet from April to June. From June to September the purple thistle heads of knapweed appear and attract insects in their thousands, then swallows and swifts come to feed on this abundant food source.

The walk starts from the Hay Head Wood Nature Reserve and proceeds along the tow path of the Rushall Canal where once horses pulled heavily laden narrowboats of limestone to flux mills and cement factories in the Black Country. It continues through the recreation ground near to Walsall's famous arboretum, passes through an urban area, then crosses farm fields to Riddian Bridge before finishing along the tow path of the Wyrley and Essington Canal.

While you're there

The Walsall Arboretum, off the corner of Lichfield Street and Broadway North, was formed in 1874 by the Walsall Arboretum and Lake Company. They rented 7 acres (2.8ha) of land from the landowners, Lord Hatherton and Sir George Mellish, to provide a facility for croquet, archery and quoits, with two lakes for angling and boating. The Christmas illuminations, a fantastic light and laser display, is spectacular.

What to look for

The area around Park Lime Pits Local Nature Reserve has become a haven for wildlife. Over 100 bird species have been recorded here. Moorhens, coots, mallards and grebes can be seen around the clear pools near the reed beds, while bullfinches and buntings inhabit the stubble fields which are specially managed to encourage wildlife. Although industrial in origin, the site has actually changed very little since the last pits were worked over 170 years ago. The water quality in the deep pools is so good that freshwater crayfish, endangered elsewhere in the country, flourish here.

Where to eat and drink

Marston Pedigree and Banks's real ales are on offer at the traditional Manor Arms, near Park Lime Pits Country Park. Children and dogs are made very welcome at this popular pub where Sunday lunch is a special treat. Alternatively, you could try the Brewers Fayre pub along the A454 (Aldridge Road) or one of the many pubs or restaurants in Walsall itself.

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