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The Secret of the Hanbury Crater

Investigating the haunting site of the biggest, non-nuclear explosion of World War Two.

Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 240ft (73m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Meadow tracks and bridleways, 27 stiles

Landscape Farmland and bomb crater

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 245 The National Forest

Start/finish SK 170279

Dog friendliness Must be kept on lead near livestock

Parking St Werburgh's Church car park

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park, go back along Church Lane and after 150yds (137m), go right through a car park and over a stile. Cross the field to a pair of stiles over a road and continue across the field to a gate, then to the corner of a hedge. Keeping this hedge to your right, head for Knightsfield Farm.

2 Go through the farm courtyard and along a rough surfaced track. As it bears to the right, follow a footpath sign, left, across stiles, keeping the hedge to your left. At a turning circle, go across to a stile and a footbridge before continuing, with the hedge to your left, to a stile before a road.

3 Turn right, then first left before the Crown Inn, across the car park. Cross into the field ahead to the stile at the bottom. Continue up the next field, crossing the stile beneath a tree at the top.

4 Where the hedge goes left, follow it across another stile and aim for the far right of Hanbury Park. In the top right-hand corner of this field, go through a gate to the road. Turn left, going through a gate into the farm courtyard, then through a gate to the right. Continue on the bridleway to Woodend.

5 At the road head right for 100yds (91m) then go left through a gate, making for a stile in the fence to your right. Head diagonally left across a field to a stile, then continue straight across the next field to a stile. Cross Capertition Wood to an open field, continuing with a hedge to the left, up a hill, across a stile, then down to another stile. At the end of the field go through a gate.

6 Skirting to the left of the farm, climb over a succession of stiles before turning left through an iron gate. Head across the field keeping the hedge to your left. At the end cross a stile on the left and go right towards the right-hand end of a bank of trees.

7 Head right up a short hill to a stile, then continue to a stile amongst trees. Head round to the left to see the crater, now recolonised by nature. Follow the path round to the left, past the memorial stone, to a bridleway leading away from it.

8 At the end of this bridleway head left across a field, keeping the hedge to your right. Go through an obvious gap in the hedge ahead and continue straight ahead to a gate at the top. When you reach the end of the hedge on your left go through a gate and a stile to return to Hanbury.

The history of Hanbury starts with the legend of St Werburgh. During the 7th century ad, Werburgh, daughter of pagan King Wulfere of Mercia, founded nunneries at Repton, Trentham, Weedon and Hanbury, the latter believed to have been situated to the east of what is now St Werburgh's Church.

Legend has it that when Werburgh died she was buried at Trentham, but her body was stolen back by the people of Hanbury and buried in a new shrine near the nunnery. As a direct result Hanbury became a major centre for Christianity for well over a century. When the Danes invaded in ad 875, Werburgh's body was again moved, this time to Chester for safe keeping, and it was there, in the cathedral, that she was finally laid to rest.

Today, however, Hanbury is known for a much more recent tragedy. At 11am on 27 November 1944, the village witnessed the largest explosion caused by a conventional weapon in either world war; only the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bigger. In all, 70 people were killed in the blast, and 18 bodies were never recovered.

The reason for the explosion is unclear, although the site is hard to miss, marked as it is by a crater over ¼ mile (400m) across and 100yds (91m) deep. The area around Hanbury is rich in gypsum and alabaster and a number of exhausted mine shafts became convenient storage depots for high explosives during the war. RAF personnel and Italian prisoners of war dispatched this arsenal with heightening urgency as the Allied offensive in Europe got underway, and it's thought that carelessness, inexperience and cost-cutting all had a part to play on that fateful November morning.

The first the villagers knew about it was a distant rumble before the explosion proper, which blackened the sky as tens of thousands of tons of soil and rocks were blasted into the surrounding landscape. An entire farm, including its occupants and livestock, disappeared completely, and dozens of underground munitions workers - both British and Italian - were killed. A reservoir for the nearby plaster works burst its dam, unleashing 6 million gallons (26 million litres) of water, boulders, mud and trees on to the factory below, killing 27 workers. The explosion could be heard from London and was recorded as an earth tremor as far away as Geneva.

Today, nature has healed the scars on the landscape as hawthorne, larch, and silver birch have recolonised both the crater and the surrounding area, providing a habitat for - among other things - a vast colony of rabbits. There's still a gypsum works to the north, below which is an extensive system of mines spread over 10 square miles (26sq km).

Where to eat and drink

The Hanbury Inn is a charming little pub with picnic tables and good views over the surrounding countryside. It also has newspaper reports of the tragedy lining the walls for those who are interested in finding out more. It serves a wide variety of bar snacks and meals, and is open all day at weekends and 5:30-11pm Monday to Friday.

While you're there

Apart from the core of the west tower and the 13th-century arcades with round piers, St Werburgh's Church is of little interest architecturally, having been almost entirely rebuilt in the late 19th century. But if the church is open (and it usually is), look for the window in the south aisle featuring a memorial to those who died in the explosion, made using fragments of 14th-century stained glass.

What to look for

The memorial just to the south of the crater is made of fine white granite, a gift from the Commandant of the Italian Air Force Supply Depot at Novara in north west Italy. The stone lists the names of the people who lost their lives, including those whose bodies were never recovered, and provides a poignant reminder of the tragedy.

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