As I plan and prepare to move home I have been thinking about the things I will miss about the area in which I currently live. It is, afterall, the area I have called home for over 40 years, it is the place of my childhood and of many years since.
South-west Cheshire, where I have lived since before I started school, and almost as long as I can remember, is a quiet and pleasant rural area. It is a place of large, open and largely flat, hawthorn-hedged fields, mostly given over to the dairy farming in one way or another. Through pasture, silage and often maize, the fields provide for the Friesian and Holstein herds that dot the countryside and give the area an often sweet bovine scent. It is not a remarkable landscape; it is mostly devoid of woodland or great rivers. The Dee passes along its border with Wales, barely the making a Cheshire river at all. In the east, where the county touches neighbouring shires, the Peak District rises, facing the opposing Welsh hills, but for much of the county, it is a flat, barely rolling plain.
There is something, however, that stands out, quite literally, across a sweep of Cheshire; a low sandstone ridge of hills. They stretch just over five miles on a slight arc from north-north-east to south-west. On approaching them from home, they stand quite abruptly above the surrounding flatness but from other angles they have a shallower and more measured incline from the lower ground beneath.
The hills are rather unassuming; they’re not the great fells of the Lakes to the north, the peaks of Derbyshire to the east, the mountains of Snowdonia to the west or even the Shropshire Hills to the south. They rise from around 100m above sea level at their base to just over 200m at their peaks, these not being grand pinnacles but the rounded summits of the undulating ridge.
They do not take great evocative names either, rather they take them from the surrounding villages that lie in the folds at their base; Beeston, Peckforton, Bulkeley and Bickerton. They do have places, though, that conjure thoughts back to previous times, when old industries operated and further back when myths and legends were made: Maiden Castle, Mad Allen’s Hole, Musket’s Hole, Raw Head, Coppermine Lane and Stanner Nab.
They are not quite a continuous string; Beeston Hill is like a friend now ostracised from the others. It stands alone, its craggy sheerness showing its back to the others. Its top ringed by an 800 year old castle, taking advantage of its all-seeing position, Beeston is the perfect site for a defensive position. The others, joined together, start at Peckforton, with its much newer castle-like country house, leading to Bulkeley and its covered reservoir and old narrow gauge railway up its steep face, and to Bickerton with the high point at Raw Head, heathland on its broad open top and its prehistoric fort. These hills are part of a longer seam of sandstone from the Mersey to the Shropshire Border, Frodsham to Malpas, but Peckforton to Bickerton, with Beeston alongside, stand apart from others, distinct in their familiar grouping.
The hills are a place of varying landscapes, broadleaf woodland, lowland heath, grassland and pasture. They are a place of wildness, of buzzards and ravens, a place of farming and quiet rural villages, a place of both pre-history and the modern world, and, for me and many, a place to escape and breath.
They have been a place that has dotted my life with memories. For the last 20 years I have seen them from my bedroom window through the gaps between the few houses between mine and the open countryside, but they have been so much more than that for so much longer.
The hills were a place for a toddle as a three or four year-old through the lower wooded paths, a challenge for climbing the railway track as a growing child, a hiking route along the hill top edges as a cub and a scout, a place for an afternoon walk with friends and family, a setting for early morning bird surveys and a place to take someone for a quiet wander.
I’ve slept out there too; in the Scout hut at Beeston, in a tent below Peckforton and in a hedge somewhere nearby. I’ve seen the sun rise from them and seen the sun set both from the top and from behind. Within their slopes I’ve seen the dusk on New Years Eve and the sun going down on Summer Solstice.
They have been places for all seasons too. I’ve waded through knee high snow on their tops, wandered listening for birds on warm, quiet spring mornings, walked end to end on hot summer days and felt the first chills of autumn on damp afternoon strolls amongst the copper and gold-leafed trees.
Above all, though, they have been continuous presence in my life, a back drop always there, somewhere to spend a spare hour or two, somewhere to escape for an afternoon or just somewhere to stop and look at for a moment. They have been a pivot in my local geography, I judge where I am by my relationship to them and they have welcomed me home as a first recognisable sight on a return from a journey away.
I will miss them…
In writing this post, I came across the website for the Sandstone Ridge Trust, which provides much more information on the area – well worth a look.