The Journey: prt 1

The Journey was made entirely on foot with accommodation provided by the generosity of various Church and community groups who allowed the pilgrims space to sleep on the floors of their buildings. This is the usual pattern for such walks as these (& stretching back over 30 years)

Man is nothing but the measure
Of an uncompleted path
(Lucian Blaga ‘Pelerinii’ in ‘Corabii cu cenusa’ 1952)

Day One:

Sunday 28th March

Chester to Helsby

The Notes

The start is Chester: significantly placed due to its position on a crossing point of a navigable river. The Roman town (Deva) was the beginnings of a significance that Chester held for many centuries.

Plotting and planning walking routes often presents aspects of The Past as present realities. The ancient routes, which used the most suitable land for their paths are now often (‘usually’) the base for modern highways. The motorways of the late C20th ‘ploughed’, as it were, ‘their own furrows’ and by using high tech construction were often able to utilise ground not previously suitable. The traditional ‘highway’ evolved into the major A class road – and such roads were, during the past century, gradually widened. Whilst once they provided a route for all travellers, since the dominance of the motor vehicle, they are impossible routes for those not so enabled.

Thus walkers are presented with the issue that afflicted the earliest travellers, that of discovering routes that allow reasonably direct access to their desired goal – both immediate (daily) or distant.

Leaving Chester presents a such situation and in so doing, assists in aiding an understanding of the original ‘how and why’ of the city.

The area to the NE of the Roman city was very low lying, peat marshland- drained by the present River Gowy. The Roman road that crossed it (‘Margary’ 701) was directed at Wilderspool (where it joined a major North – South route) and was probably embanked in places. It is now largely the A56.

The route of this walk is able to follow footpaths that parallel the present A56 and provide access to Dunham on the HIll, Helsby and Frodsham.

After leaving Chester the route passes St Plegmund’s Well – associated with a hermit who became Archbishop of Canterbury (maybe the reverse could apply with ex Archbishops becoming hermits!). Why do supposedly ‘official’ records continue to stuff themselves with nonsense: ‘Hermits lived in remote areas and provided hospitality for travellers’.


…. Remote – yes to get away from contact, ‘hospitality’ – what with?… rather the opposite actually!

The situation of the well and nearby church was once an island in the low wet lands of the River Gowy which the route crosses on a footpath known in part as ‘Wild moor lane’ – another indicator of local conditions before agricultural drainage schemes as is the the name Dunham on the Hill which is approximately 40 metres (131 ft) above sea level.

Here the Roman road from Chester joined the higher ground.

The first day finishes at Helsby.

The walk

Chester Cathedral was the start – and by chance the pilgrims began their walk just as the Cathedral began its Palm Sunday service with a procession composed of clergy, choir and congregation entered from the streets.

(the bus was not part of the procession)

A palm cross was provided to each walker – something to carry to the destination.

A bright day allowing easy progress out of the city onto lanes leading to St. Plegmund’s well and at the nearby church of Plemstall where morning service was being completed. This chance arrival allowed access to the building in which a previous vicar had spent many years carving much of the interior woodwork. Arrival at a later time or on another day and we would have been locked out – with the delightful results of his efforts hidden from any casual visitor.

The ‘isle of Chester’ on which the church stands is slightly above the levels drained by the River Gowy. Industrial Age drainage channels have removed the marshland allowing an easy crossing to Dunham on the Hill – an attractive settlement based on red sandstone rock. The route passed a a pub ‘The Wheatsheaf, placed on the A56. It was one of those commodious pubs (of which there are several along this road which links Manchester and North Wales) constructed in the early days of the Motor Age, providers of refreshment for the long journey to and from the holidat destinations of North Wales. Some are still attractive – this was well managed and contained a few reminders of its original style – but required a careful eye to recognise.

On approaching Helsby recent Post-Industrial Age designation of a very convenient railway trackbed as a cycle route proved to be quite literally a delusion – and a snare.

The thicket was taking over and the travellers were forced to exit by climbing out of a cutting & via the back garden of house being renovated.

This proved to be the only completely obstructed way during the whole walk.

The day was completed with a freely offered and accepted cup of tea taken in the wonderful comfort of the vicarage sitting room – providing with views across the Mersey.

Helsby is placed under a physically and historically significant hill from which can be viewed the great expanse of the Mersey river and the human works built along its banks. It must always have been a place of drama, movement and change. From Helsby much of that which we presently depend upon can be viewed – especially the oil refineries at Stanlow and chemical works at Runcorn and Widnes. These works are, for the most part, no longer the great polluters they once were – though they produce the fuel that fires our cars, homes and materials (fertiliser) used in modern farming that leave much rural landscape empty of its original life forms.

Helsby could thus be regarded as an exciting place – a place where the full force of our Present Age impresses itself on the thoughtful observer. It is a place for viewing energy – not just the oil but still the older sustainer, coal, imported at Stanlow and delivered by rail to Fiddler’s Ferry Power station on the north bank of the Mersey.

Unfortunately Helsby, in its centre, based on a short linear section of the A56, wears a rather depressing worn face with the usual collection of small businesses that seem to typify the less affluent outskirts of large towns – an all purpose store, fish and chip shop and a curiosity called ‘Ironing Maidens’ – seemingly some form of ‘beauty’ parlour? There is also the almost inevitable Tesco Store at one end and two closed pubs.

We have a ‘free’ economy serving a population that lives behind a series of metaphorical and actual ‘closed doors’. It would seem that in many (most?) smaller urban settlements this creates a physical environment lacking any coherent sense or structure.

After dark the shimmering lights of the Mersey-side developments and settlements had a magical feel to them (at least for a visitor!). The northern shore is not difficult to reach – but when one is on foot the old boundary that was the Mersey has a considerable reality.

Day Two:

Monday 29th March

Helsby to Runcorn

The notes:

The route for day two stays on the hill ridge, above the line of the Roman road, until it meets the River Weaver.

For the ‘Plotting Walker’ the issue of crossing rivers is almost always ‘interesting’ at least, fascinating usually and frustrating more often than desired. Thus with this route, which requires to use the A56 – presumably the successor to the original Roman crossing.

The hill ridge on which Helsby and Frodsham are sited contain evidence of settlement from times long before the Romans planted their road and the crossing of the Weaver at Frodsham will have assisted in creating the place as significant – especially so as it was also crossing an important salt trade route which followed the river Weaver. The present industrial developments in this area, based on chemicals, are natural successors to the ancient industry of salt production.

Day Two finishes with arrival in Halton, now part of the ‘new’ town of Runcorn but a place which, being part of the same ridge that hold Helsby and Frodsham was a significant vantage point in ancient times. The castle was a Norman construction and part of the territory controlled by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester.

The walk

Rain is falling and does so in a manner appropriate to the situation. Outside the daffodils are massed in a sort of attempt at a yellow praise to the new day (well – it seems like that when the day promises so little). Maybe they are proud boasters in this late Spring – for there are not many such displays yet to be seen. The area around the Church and its hall, being largely of stone construction and large houses contrast dramatically with the drab village centre. The day will be poor and wet – so begins with travellers shrouded in waterproofs. The routes through and away from Helsby immediately replace images of the centre as they cross fields and pass ancient buildings eventually entering a Woodland Trust property. This woodland occupying the side of Beacon (Frodsham) Hill curves in a sweet & level fashion – ideal for the walkers. And the rain – what rain it stutters for a time and becomes nothing.

There is a Constant Presence during this portion of the walk – but from the wood even this seems to be proportioned in reasonable fashion. The presence – the M56. Its impact is more noise than visual – but may well soon be joined by objects of more dramatic nature – 20 wind turbines standing at approximately 125 metres (Helsby Hill is 141 mtrs high). The largest cluster will be on the Ince Marshes in front of Helsby.

Energy – an essential. Standing in the wood looking across the small valley and back to Helsby provides a reflection on this need which seems to be, for humans, excessive. Will our craving for more and more energy be our downfall… marked by this non-stop aim of increasing our use of ‘energy’ in some form or another and by our inability both socially and individually to consume less…..?

Has society now embarked on a course that cannot be altered? One may guess that almost all vehicles rolling along the M56 would each justify their journey and that we all claim, almost as a ‘right’, our use of electrical heating, lighting, televisions, computers, dishwashers, washing machines… and so on. It applies to this article being written now, on a computer. We may be more aware but does that stop our thoroughly justified journeys, real and virtual?

The woodland trail guides the walkers gently on and passed gardens and great houses into the higher regions of Frodsham.

Presumably the oldest part of Frodsham was centred on the parish Church (open and very visitor sensitive with music playing from a sound system) but the centre shifted at some point to the lower ground about half a mile north.

Around the Church, as is normal, are gathered the graves – but many it seems here, especially from the early C19th mark the deaths of children … and these are the graves of those who could afford to record their lives on stone. The simple reading of a stone in pleasant setting such as Frodsham churchyard has the potential to open up a vast range of issues relating, once again, to the manner in which society is ordered. Infant mortality death rates in urban areas in the early C19th could be as high as 300 per 1000 – and the causes  (now avoided) of the deaths of so many young people was presumably simply accepted as a part of normality.

The travellers were  caught and wandered from stone to stone noting on so many the losses of young people. How times have changed for our Society… but elsewhere…?

The centre of Frodsham is in the valley below the Church. The only way for a walker to cross the Weaver watercourses at this point is to follow the pavement alongside the A 56. Fortunately it is a short stretch and involves using the interesting swing bridge over the navigation channel. There followed a fascinating discovery but made now with a steady fall of rain – the day was becoming very wet and cold.

Runcorn is one of those places that are frequently held in scant regard. Much is new (ie late C20th) and as with so many other similar ‘new’ places (Telford, Milton Keynes) it receives the usual casual snobbish comments (eg Jasper Conran on Milton Keynes: Sunday Times 4th April 2010). No doubt there is bad architecture and complex social issues producing ‘dysfunctional behaviour’) but part of the discovery that the passers-through made was instant… well as instant as walking can be.

Within a few metres of the Weaver Crossings was a path along the navigation – passing under railway and motorway and leading to an empty road – once no doubt, judging from it size, a major artery (it was probably an old route to ferries over the navigation & river). Maybe in time local action will lead to the creation of some form of chain? ferry available to allow walkers, cyclists and other to use, once again, the old route and the paths on the Frodsham side.

The route leads upwards from the navigation to fields and footbridges and housing estates set within large areas of open green space. Signposted trails for cyclists and walkers led to other bridges over main roads and railway lines and eventually along a very quiet road to the created shopping centre complex of the New Runcorn at Halton Lea.

It rained and rained and it was something of a struggle to find the entrance to the shopping mall which loomed above. After walking under part of it (a section that contained an elevated bus station) the south entrance was discovered. Here the delightful discoveries of the last hour or so were dismissed – but only temporarily.

Halton Lea is a concrete creation painted externally in sharp white and of, one guesses, the 1970s …. it is clearly ‘stressed’. The centre was grim – and sitting there for a few minutes seemed to provide (should it have been required) ammunition for the previously held judgements about new Runcorn. It is artificial and given the development of so many new shopping centres in near proximity (even opposite the south entrance) it  would seem to be dying. Maybe we have reached a stage in urban development where we are constantly creating new Shopping Centres in which each leads the field for a while but then, no community element being a part of the origins, declines and is ‘redeveloped’. Or is there a greater shift with the rapid advent (since any of the present crop of Centres, however new, were conceived) of internet commercialism? The ‘democratisation’ of purchasing will produce, one suspects, surprise on surprise. And it is ‘democratic’ – large companies find it difficult to accurately assess ‘public mood’ and are constantly having to adjust their policies because of the changes occurring through Great Waves of Change that cannot be always accurately predicted (and especially not ‘engineered’).

Halton Lea is not just shopping centre but also contains council offices and a newly refurbished library on three levels. This development, containing a cafe, was being well used by kids of all ages – both for computers and simply socialising. A great resource – and how different from the old silent spaces. The travellers used the sofas to sit, chat – and remove their waterpoofs (which were already reasonably dry)

Just beyond and above the white square mass of the shopping centre, across a large green space is Halton Village.

The quiet traffic free trails through the new Runcorn were impressive – as were the bus lanes (though, being complete roadways, very expensive in spatial terms) but the greatest surprise was Halton Village. The place has been left much as it was before all the development. Arriving early – and finding the rain departing (at least for a time) allowed for detailed investigation of the hill and the lanes and village around it. On a sandstone rock stands the Castle and curving around it are the houses of the old village. Yet it is in the centre (well somewhat ‘off centre’ in literal terms). There is a quiet main street and there are churches and a pub (of great character). The castle, originally created for the Norman Earls of Chester, is a viewing point across much of the Mersey both east and west – and discovering this dominant position was an astonishment (nearly the highest point on the whole walk)                                                                                                                                                                         A genuine exciting discovery to which a return is certain. Unfortunately the large parish church also placed on the hill, was locked (it felt as with its associated buildings ‘very locked’… even rather eerily forbidding).

The day was completed in a most delightfully curious fashion. The local Methodist Church provided a floor on which to sleep and it had been agreed that meeting local members would be pleasant – a way of learning more about the area. There was no formal arrangement. On arrival the pilgrims were a given a vague sense that some people would arrive, very gradually. And this is exactly what happened – over a period of two hours a group, all loaded with food, arrived and set to, creating an evening meal. The pilgrimage had become ‘the entertainment’. Not singing for their supper, but talking, explaining, sharing ideas – a time of mutual jollity. A final wonderful surprise on a day of surprises.

Day Three:

Tuesday 30th March

Runcorn to Winwick

The notes

The route descends into the Mersey valley and crosses the river to the west of Wilderspool, where the Roman road from Chester met the road from Condate (Northwich), the present A49.

The course used for the walking trail stays to the west of the Roman road (which runs directly through present day Warrington. In so doing it explores the very interesting industrial landscape created around the Mersey. Firstly there is the Bridgewater canal leading to Moore and the Manchester Ship canal, this then follows a Nature reserve to the point where the Runcorn and Latchford canal joins the River Mersey (which is also the crossing point of the main West Coast railway line, then across the still tidal Mersey, the Sankey Brook and joins the St. Helen’s or ‘Sankey’ Canal.

It is one of those curious sections that emerge of walks such as this – places where truly significant events occur – but which are generally lost to public consciousness. Castles, battles, famous people have maintained a significant place in the story we tell. However important they may have been it is likely that they are of no greater significance than places such as that zone of low lying land just west of Warrington. The ‘famous’ (sites and people) provide a drama – a patch of Mersey riverside apparently does not.

The Sankey ‘navigation’ – seemingly just a river widening scheme but in reality much more – was the first modern (industrial age) canal in Britain. The route approaches this by following the more famous claimant to that title – The Bridgewater Canal.

At this time, there was a growing demand for coal by salt manufacturers on the Weaver and new industries in Liverpool, but the only means of transporting the abundant coal from around Warrington, Parr and Haydock was by horse or cart over poor roads.

The idea of making the Sankey Brook navigable was put forward and gained support. In 1755 an Act of Parliament was passed to make the brook navigable as far as Broad Oak. So, officially, this was to be a traditional river navigation, but it is believed that the engineers knew that the brook was too shallow and twisting to be of practical use, so they constructed a completely separate canal alongside the brook. So, even though it was known as The Sankey Brook Navigation, it was, in practice, a discrete canal – the first to be built in England in modern times.

It opened as far as the Old Double Lock by 1757 – 6 years before the first part of the Bridgewater Canal opened. Yet the Bridgewater is often proclaimed to be the first canal, since it was openly promoted as a canal rather than a river navigation! It is thought that the idea of building a separate canal was so radical that the Sankey’s financial backers would be frightened away – hence the deception!


The complex of waterways are highly significant to the ‘real’ history of the British Isles (ie history that is of a time that we may be able to still understand and that has clearly had a major impact on the nature of our times). These sites are however, only just within our understanding. The changes occurring in the late C20th make understanding the ‘times’ of the C18th & C19th increasingly difficult for us to grasp.

The route of the walk at this point and for the next days, passes through a territory that has been radically transformed from heavy industry that used energy produced locally from local coal mines coal, to a ‘post industrial presence. The landscape and society that was created by industrialisation and which survived until 1950s has gone.

The route follows a trail of change and renewal and towards the end of the day passes within site one of the great iconic metaphors of the New Age – Ikea at the Gemini Retail Park on the western side of the Sankey Valley opposite Winwick Quay.

Winwick Quay by name provides an indicator of what was (being alongside the St. Helen’s Canal), but there is now no relationship with that which produced the name.

The difficulties of even beginning to understand any period (and by inference that therefore includes our own!) is illustrated, literally by web sites such as that dedicated to photographs of the Sankey Navigation

Th canal was operating as far as Earlstown until the 1950s, and was formally abandoned in 1963.

The following photograph shows how completely the recent past has been obliterated

This is one of the locks at Winwick Quay, surviving merely as a decorative memorial.

The value in understanding how quickly and completely changes can be made to a landscape is that we realise that if this can be true for a period which is still in the living memory of people who are only middle aged, then how much more difficult must it be to reconstruct, realistically, any more distant time.

The route leaves the Sankey Valley after passing the present ‘Winwick Quays Business Park’



Well – its still the shipment business!

The day finishes at the village of Winwick – a place which, due to its position on a ridge of land, provided for South – North routes from very ancient times. The Roman road is rejoined.

Burial excavations at Winwick may indicate an early Christian site as may the siting of roads in relation to the site on which the present church stands.

Given the position above a major river crossing it is unsurprising that Winwick may have had ancient religious significance, may have been the site of the significant battle of Maserfelt where Oswald of Northumbria died (there is an ‘Oswald’s well’ nearby) and may have been associated with St Anthony of Egypt (the pig carving could indicate a dedication). Local histories engage in the usual ‘destroyed by Cromwell’ stuff (one might wonder how he ever managed to do anything else) – oh, its just too prosaic and ordinary to suggest that damage to monuments was actually ordered by local people intent on effecting a change in their own area, being, as we all are, dedicated followers of fashion.

Maybe of most interest is that the Church chancel was re-ordered by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin working in tandem with the then affluent vicar.

The Walk

The ease of walking experienced on arrival into Runcorn was even better for the departure. Walking east from the old village the route quickly enters a green parkland setting – but one the felt ‘natural’ and semi-rural, after which a brief stroll along pleasant suburban roads led directly onto the Bridgewater canal.

As with all other routes through Runcorn these were well maintained – and litter free.

Leaving the town, as with arriving, was easy… there was much to consider – especially about the disparaging manner way in which such places are regarded by those who live just outside them.

The view from the castle at Halton Village allowed one to see that not all Runcorn was quite as attractive as that through which the walk progressed but this route through Runcorn demonstrates that where careful planning, retention of older structures, with walking and cycle routes – and the complete separation of major roads from residential zones, there can be created a series of pleasant living areas of greater quality than is provided in many new private developments.

The Bridgewater is a contoured canal avoiding the costly business of creating locks – therefore it contains long bends. Fortunately there were rights of way which allow bends to be avoided and the wayfarers passed easily along their planned route to Moore and whilst passing the Daresbury laboratories it was clear that the expected rain was not arriving imminently and waterproofs were gratefully shed. Ah! The relief – walking is so much easier without them.

Wayfarer: a useful term as in many sense this walk was about finding a ‘fair’ way – one that would work as part of a longer trail. For those using walking routes as a means of escape from urban lives passage through urban landscapes is not necessarily easy, or especially attractive. Thus many, if not most trails are carefully created to stay in what is generally termed ‘countryside’. Though a long distance trail from North Wales to Glasgow would provide many such ‘country’ sections, it could not, if it was to be reasonably direct, avoid the urban and industrial regions. Further, the intention of ‘development pilgrimages’ has always promoted the most suitable direct route – as is normal with any fully purposeful journey. Such an approach to route planning has led these pilgrimages, through careful attention to the environments through which the route passes, to develop an ability to reveal much of the historic development of modern Britain – and thus to increase understanding of our present selves.

This day was to be one of those in which that challenge of finding a route that passed through very urbanised zones whilst staying true to its direct course. As the previous day had surprisingly shown, what is on a map may, in reality be quite different. The initial planning suggested that it would be necessary to walk straight through the centre of Warrington, which whilst appropriate to the issue of directness, would not make for particularly easy walking as the motor vehicle dominates the route network (unlike Runcorn). Detailed examination however led to a discovery that it was possible to follow a largely ‘green’ line – and one that crossed the watercourse obstructions – the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey.

So travelling initially along the Bridgwater Canal to Moore the pilgrims forged a route, crossing the Ship Canal, passing through an extensive Nature Reserve between the canal and the Mersey & joined the trans Pennine trail. The final section of Crossing of the Watercourses involved passing a landfill site… hardly attractive and very busy with a near constant stream of wagons (most of which were designated in some form or other as ‘recycling’!) visiting to deposit rubbish.

The whole area (500 acres) of low land has been in industrial use (partly as quarrying for river sands and gravels) but is an example of the manner in which in recent years, such areas have gradually been developed as community resource.

The Arpley site, as the Nature Reserve illustrates, contains  a whole series of actions including recycling and Energy Recovery. Presumably, in time, the landfill aspect will finish and become green land.

The landfill is placed alongside the Mersey and the pilgrims used the road bridge to pass over… but not before witnessing a rare event.

Stopping on the top of the bridge for a few moments they became aware of a fast moving wave travelling up the river – it was the ‘Mersey Bore’.

Apparently an unusual event – but recorded later in the week by others standing on the same bridge.

The road leads to Sankey Bridges, west of Warrington, where there is a small collection section of industrial sheds and a mobile cafe, suffering its worst sales period since establishment 12 years ago.

The route crosses one of the bridges joining the St Helen’s canal and the Sankey Valley Park. Another example of post-industrial redevelopment which creates a green line east of Warrington.

It was a delightful space through which to walk, combining a whole range of social and community functions as well as nature reserves.

This led the pilgrims to within one mile of their destination past the fishing pools and remnants of the original canal at Winwick Quay

Thus the day from Runcorn was completed almost entirely away from traffic on a route containing insights into Britain’s industrial past, its conversion into recreational public space and which, as with previous days, raises, through direct experience, n this case the landfill site, issues of how we manage our high levels of consumption – of material goods and energy.

The Church members at Winwick had kindly left food in the Church Hall which after the rigours of the travel was greatly appreciated – and it provided a good breakfast the next morning.

So a another day finishes – and this account attempts to provide a description – but there is always more and much missing by chance, recalled but not recorded in detail, as for example using a piece of rubber tubing clearly intentionally placed and which allowed the pilgrims to slither down a bank onto an unofficial path which saved road walking, people who stare with curiosity but say nothing, the ‘Man Who was Misdirected to Burtonwood’ (some slight guilt in that instance).

There is also the issue of awareness… what was it that is being encountered, experienced, during this progression? It is simple to describe the physical – but there are other unseen issues which may be from the past or present – they ‘exist’, as part of a person’s sense of who they are and where they came from, or what such a person feels required to ‘do’ to be reasonably comfortable (eg one cannot see the locks on house doors that are designed to increas a sense of safety – we do not all have or use them).

The ‘Bridgewater’ illustrates this background… its presence tells of something no longer obvious but which still has enormous influence on the lives and sensibilities of people locally. It marks the entry of the pilgrims to the now wasted realm of King Coal.

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