Yesterday, May Day, we climbed Beacon Hill. It’s not much of a peak but this part of Staffordshire is so flat it gives views across to Cannock Chase, the Wrekin in Shropshire and the distant M6 stretching away north.
Avoiding sheep poo we made our way up to the hill summit. I didn’t want to go into the wood as it’s fenced here, so the pic isn’t great but gives an idea of the fantastic display of bluebells.
On top of the heath the fields are bursting with golden rapeseed. It was a short but beautiful walk on Staffordshire Day. I like coming up here, as I did a few years ago, to remind myself there’s much to be grateful for. And on our doorsteps.
So today has been officially designated as the day to celebrate my home county. That’s not a bad thing as we’re pretty poor at celebrating our achievements in these parts. Perhaps it’s a Midlands thing. Birmingham is a great city with fantastic food, culture and industrial history but it always seems to be – in the words of Jona Lewie – in the kitchen at parties, while noisier northern conurbations are better at shouting louder and dancing.
Stuart Maconie describes our county as a bit of an enigma. It is. We’re not really the West Midlands although we’re in that government region. We used to have Wolverhampton and Walsall in the old county and even Birmingham suburbs, but they’re now West Midlands. This means (old) Staffordshire actually has an impressive 6 professional football teams – Wolves, WBA, Stoke, Walsall, Port Vale and Burton Albion. And a much larger and diverse population than the current 1 million. Our diversity in accents is pretty impressive too. A Stokie sounds worlds away from Cannock despite growing up just 25 miles apart.
Perhaps we’re a bit of a staging post. Unless you’re stopping for Alton Towers you’re likely to be hurtling through on the West coast mainline or the M6. But we have beautiful parkland and countryside. Quite a bit of the Peak District is in our county. We have our religious and spiritual places – the wonderful Lud’s Church, Lichfield Cathedral and ancient houses where persecuted Catholics hid between walls and stairs. We have a reservoir which gave its name to (Rudyard) Kipling as his parents courted there.
We have riverbanks where Izaak Walton fished and a young Carol Ann Duffy wrote verse. The Gunpowder Plotters hotfooted it here for their final shootout. We’ve got miles of canals, a terrific heritage of arts and crafts. We make amazing beer and we eat food made for the Gods – bacon and cheese oatcakes.
We gave the world Josiah Wedgwood and Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire.
And Sir Stanley Matthews, and Robbie Williams and Shane Meadows. And Olympian swimmer Adam Peaty and actor Paddy Considine.
Without Staffordshire there would’ve been no Men Behaving Badly (Neil Morrissey) or Sweet Child O’ Mine (Slash). Try to imagine that.
I’ll leave you with a few snaps of the place rather than the people. You’re welcome to visit. We might call you duck (a term of endearment), but really we’re happy without too much fuss. Have a beer. Munch on an oatcake. Simple pleasures. Perhaps we prefer it that way.
Stafford’s river is the Sow. It flows from the north west of the County through Eccleshall and into Doxey Marshes. Then it heads through the town centre and east. Between Tixall Road and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal it joins another river, the Penk, which rises to the south.
A few years back Government and the local authority built a walkway across these meadows. It’s a beautiful walk through river meadows full of horses and sheep. Just before Baswich Lane the rivers meet beneath the walkway. A swan was nesting and fish could be seen in the sandy basin.
Perhaps this point was sacred to the ancients. Certainly both were important rivers to the Celts and Saxons. Stafford was derived from ford by a staith, or landing place. The Penk gave its name to the town of Penkridge and a Mercian tribe the Pencersaete.
After following the walkway we crossed onto the towpath of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and headed towards Shugborough and Cannock Chase.
It’s possible to loop back for a shorter walk through Baswich, cutting through sandy, gorsey banks and rabbit scrapes high above the canal, rivers and trains hurtling to and from Euston on the west coast mainline. Or you can stay on the towpath getting off at Milford Common for a pint at the Barley Mow or a cheeseburger at the Wimpy (Stafford still has one and it’s popular). And head back along the canal or bridleway. Or stay on until Essex Bridge (written about elsewhere on this blog) and paddle where Sow (and Penk) join that great river, the Trent.
Other than the strike of nine there is only birdsong.
I could be in another century. It’s timeless here.
I walk Moor Lane. The peace and tranquility at 9am is wonderful. Moor Lane is really just a gravel track that leads from the ford that gives its name to the village of Seighford and leads up to the railway line. In around an hour I see only two dog walkers – one of whom is a ringer for Jeremy Clarkson – and a poodle and a dachshund.
Moor Lane leads up a ridge surrounded by steep hawthorns and cutting between fields busy with herds of dairy cattle. Apart from a London, Birmingham or Liverpool service shooting past only the birdsong breaks the silence. Over the railway is Shaky Bridges (pictured above) which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog in notes and a sonnet poem below.
Instead of treading through the rabbit scrapes and braving the attentions of a stampeding herd I take the old bridleway back toward Great Bridgeford.
The trees are full of rooks here and the farmhouse has the air of a country vicarage. It seems as if I’m the only soul without hooves to have plodded this path for decades.
I cross the lane and wander down towards Seighford Hall. This ancient building was being redeveloped as a hotel but sadly there no longer seems to be work going on. The project’s website and social media has not been updated since last August.
I turn left before the hamlet of Cooksland towards the ford. There are ancient oaks and thick-rooted hawthorns.
We (we are ‘we’ as Bruce is with me) have the ford to ourselves. The stream – Millian Brook, runs down from the higher fields of Coton Clanford to the Sow at Doxey marshes. Bruce likes a dip here. It’s a wonderful spot that’s only occasionally interrupted by a BMW making waves.
(Firstly, I promise there are no jokes about Mrs Slocombe and her, er…..cat.)
The collapse of Debenhams recently, followed by the continuing closure of regional department stores has had a huge effect on our town and city centres. My hometown of Stafford didn’t have an independent but had an excellent Co-Op department store.
Sadly, as you can see below, it’s gone. And with plenty of other empty units nearby it’s unlikely to be occupied anytime soon.
If you’re reading this elsewhere in the UK you likely had a local favourite. Beatties in Wolverhampton was wonderful and will always have special memories as my wife bought her wedding dress there. As a child I’d visit the toy department and we’d have tea and cake in the top floor cafe where the staff wore smart uniforms. I loved Rackhams in Birmingham, Jenners in Edinburgh and, of course, Selfridges too. Jenners has that huge warehouse visible from the train near Murrayfield.
There was something special about these stores. Perhaps it was having almost everything under one roof, or the range of products you’d not normally see elsewhere.
I still drop into the Birmingham Selfridges occasionally (the one that looks like golf balls) but it’s not the kind of department store I fondly remember. And socks cost about the same as my first laptop.
You could get anything from holidays to funerals, copper saucepans to reclining chairs, and insurance plans to a full English inside these doors.
I remember going to an evening presentation by Yugotours at the Co-Op restaurant. A Yugoslav delegation from Manchester (?) played music and film and fed us and it worked! We had several holidays in Tito’s Republic and they were brilliant.
Bizarrely I remember cookware and footwear in this entrance with a cracking toyshop upstairs.
Sad to think it’s all gone. I heard 5Live presenters getting nostalgic about department stores earlier this week but I guess if we’d used them more they’d still be here.
What are your memories of department stores? Did you book a holiday after being plied with slivovitz and Dalmatian ham?