A Worcestershire backwater that once knew busier times.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 410ft (125m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Forest rides, meadows, minor roads, village streets, canal tow path, 9 stiles
Landscape Mostly pastures and woodland in rolling countryside
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 218 Wyre Forest & Kidderminster or 219 Wolverhampton & Dudley
Start/finish SO 835820
Dog friendliness Much fun in woods but horses and sheep elsewhere
Parking Blakeshall Lane car park, Kingsford Country Park
Public toilets None on route
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1 Take the track inside the northern edge of the country park for 550yds (503m), to a point about 50yds (46m) beyond the end of the extensive garden. To the left is a wide glade, falling gently; ahead rises the woodland track.
2 Turn left, down the ride. In 275yds (251m), at a five-way junction, go ahead (not along a slight right fork). Join a farm track. At a road turn right, through Blakeshall. After 300yds (274m), at a right-hand bend near power lines, take a stile into a muddy and brick-strewn field. Keep a hedge on your right, following yellow waymarkers into a small valley. Reach, but don't go through, a seven-bar metal gate before Debdale Farm. Turn sharply to the right, uphill, following a vague track. Enter Gloucester Coppice at a gate and broken stile. Follow this track, soon more defined, all the way to the southern end of Blakeshall Lane (where Walk 14 rejoins).
3 Turn left, descending through the street called The Holloway, into Wolverley. After the village stores take the second footbridge on the right. Reach the Church of St John the Baptist by zig-zagging up the concreted footpath through a deep cutting. Leave the churchyard to the left, by modern steps. Go down the meadow opposite (with a fingerpost) to a minor road.
4 Turn right. At the B4189 turn left. In front of The Lock public house turn left, along the tow path. After about 1¼ miles (2km) is Debdale Lock, partly hewn into the rock. Some 220yds (201m) further, just before the steel wheel factory, is a stile.
5 Turn left here along a track. (Alternatively continue for 150yds/137m for refreshments in Cookley.) At a T-junction after a coniferous avenue turn right on a broad gravel track. After about 440yds (402m) turn left (waymarker), up some new wooden steps surfaced with scalpings, into trees. Go up the left-hand edge of one field and the centre of another to a road. Turn left for just 15yds (14m), then right. Some 400yds (366m) along this hedged lane take the yellow option to the right (to reduce road walking). At the next stile wiggle left then right. Proceed straight ahead at a junction to the road. Turn right. In 150yds (137m) walk round the wooden barrier to re-enter the country park. Two paths run parallel to the road - both lead back to the car park.
On this and other walks you may come across dense spindley woodland that somehow 'doesn't look right'. Such areas of trees may be to the oak what a pile of stones is to an old church: a ruin. The occurrence of the word 'coppice' on a map - Solcum Coppice, Gloucester Coppice - often indicates a woodland of historical importance to the local economy. With its proximity to the industries of the West Midlands, local charcoal production (especially in the Wyre Forest) was considerable.
Is charcoal an invention or a discovery? Probably it was 'discovered' by accident, and its subsequent uses were invented. It is wood that has been incompletely burned (in a controlled way) by being deprived of much of the oxygen that would otherwise render it a pile of ashes. Woods used for charcoal-making include hazel - a favourite because of its prolific re-growth - ash, oak and alder buckthorn, among others.
The raw material was cut and left to dry or 'season' for several months before use. This, together with how well and for how long the 'kiln' was burning, were key factors in determining the yield - 15-25 per cent was good, and 30 per cent exceptional. The kiln was a temporary structure, essentially a mound or dome of logs carefully constructed around a central airway, the whole being covered with turf, ideal since the roots of the grass bound the soil together tightly, and the turfs were easier to handle than soil on its own. Turf would also be used to cover the airway once a fire had been established at the core. It could take several days to complete the charcoal-making process. Of course, much of the weight lost is evaporated moisture. When re-ignited, it burns with an intensity capable of smelting metal, forging iron, and making glass, as well as blackening your burger. Gunpowder is concocted from three ingredients - charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). Only when the coal derivative, coke, was introduced was charcoal superseded as an intensive heat source. (Coke later gave way to oil and gas, which also have the advantage of being easier to control.)
Don't think that your summertime barbeques are necessarily being fuelled by British-grown trees, for in all probability they aren't. Approximately 95 per cent of the charcoal sold in Britain is imported, a statistic that upsets environmentalists greatly, since much of it is sourced from the notoriously unsustained tropical rain forests. The British countryside has a vast stock of growing wood that could be managed in a sustainable way, that is, harvested cyclically, without reducing the total tree stock, but the high income expectation of labour makes it an uneconomic proposition. Or does it? At the last count the BioRegional Charcoal Company, a marketing co-operative, had over 40 members.
In Wolverley the Queens Head, a Banks's pub, has tables outside. After Wolverley and on the canal is the Lock. It has a road-noisy beer garden and a children's log climbing frame. Just off the route, in Cookley, the Bull's Head has a beer garden, as does the Eagle and Spur, an M&B pub that has anything on its menu from Cajun chicken to traditional lamb's liver with smoked bacon in a beer gravy.
Compared with Wolverley's other buildings, St John the Baptist Church is surprisingly ugly - in a pretty churchyard, this drab lump has brick arches in its windows reminiscent of a railway viaduct. More memorable, although grim, is a monument to five siblings, all of whom died between the ages of nine months and six years in the late 18th century. On a brighter note, if the church is unlocked, you'll find inside some stained-glass windows made by William Morris's company and an effigy of a knight, well-preserved given its 14th-century vintage. Just down to the left of the (busy) mini-roundabout is Wolverley Pound. In part cut into the sandstone, it was used as a corral for stray animals until 'ransomed' by their owners.