The following piece was published on the Travelmag website. I’ve spent hours walking the Chase. It’s a beautiful spot but there is a darker side…..
Long before Playstations and Playbarns existed I had my birthday parties on Cannock Chase. For years I thought this area of forest and heathland got its name because we chased balls and kites and deer and Labradors for hours on end. My birthday parties followed a simple formula: We’d chase an over-sized ball that dipped and rose as it caught each chilly blast of wind. Then we’d sit on a tartan blanket or mossy picnic bench and munch sweets and crisps and cakes, washing them down with fizzy pop. Afterwards we’d climb gnarled hawthorns and sprint across the slippery Stepping Stones to burn off all that starch and fat. We’d roll and dive down grassy hollows, like the Fall Guy did. We’d wriggle belly-down through the bracken and smear rich, black peat into our cheeks as camouflage. Then we’d march our prisoners, rifles above their heads, to base camp. We’d gulp at the cool spring water and fall into the grass panting to suck up sweet air from the ferns and pines.
Cannock Chase lies to the north of Birmingham and is almost unknown outside the West Midlands. Much of it is commercially forested, while the rest could double as a Western landscape with golden sand, loose gravel, copper ferns and rutted horse trails. It’s tiny compared to the Peak District or the Lakes, but within easy reach of millions. As a child it seemed there were magical secrets and stories in almost every covert or pool or cave. There was the lonely, lovelorn hermit whose only friend was a hare; the glacial boulder and the military railway; the Royal hunting parties; the lost mine shafts and abandoned quarries; the deserted military town and the thousands of pristine War graves.
My boys love the bracing freshness of the Chase. They forage for pine cones and hoof prints, coins and cartridges. It’s the perfect antidote to stale, stuffy centrally-heated living rooms. They put on hats and gloves and soon forget the television as they rustle through bramble and fern and brook and bog breathless and ruddy-cheeked.
It’s easy to forget the Chase has a darker side too. If you have hundreds of square miles of wilderness so close to an urban sprawl, there will always be stories. My granddad was a prison officer who swore there were bodies buried here. There have been murders and even a serial poisoner. Soldiers died of pneumonia in bitter winters and some believe the Chase is a focus for UFOs and occult practice.
The Chase can kindle all manner of emotions, it seems. Its car parks and lanes are a magnet for lovers. Soldiers are saluted by old comrades at memorial parades. Gliders ride thermals and mountain bikers hurtle down steep banks. Runners pound on turf and splash through peaty puddles. Walkers forget the city, pat their dogs and sip tea from flasks. You could walk across it in half a day, yet somehow this all exists in Birmingham’s backyard.