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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 99

The choice is between Stafford, Uttoxeter and Derby and then turn up north for home, or Stoke, Cheadle and the Peak District. Both routes have their attractions. I’ve barely visited Stafford and have only passed through Uttoxeter so the appeal of getting to know new places is strong. I lived in Stoke for a while and have a lot of family links in the Staffordshire Peak. The pull of memories and blood is stronger. I also want to make a little pilgrimage to the place where Izaac Walton did some of his best fishing. I’ve got the bags tied safely onto the bike, pumped fresh air into both lungs and tyres and headed off on the northern roads. I’ve run out of map but know that if I get to Eccleshall I’m not going far wrong.

We’re good at naming stretches of water in the north of England. I’m not so sure the West Midlanders have developed the same skill. Coniston and Buttermere, Grasmere and Rydal have a beauty that would entice even if Wordsworth and Coleridge hadn’t done such a good PR job for them. I’m afraid I would find it harder to write verses about Belvide Reservoir and Aqualate Mere. They’re names more redolent of science text books than volumes of poetry. Despite this they are pleasant places to stroll around. Aqualate Mere, just outside Newport is the biggest natural lake in this part of the country. It tells a keen geographer that they are standing at the edge of where the ice sheets reached 50,000 years ago. Everything to the north of here was frozen solid. This is where the glaciers, that gorged out much of the landscape of Northern Britain, ended. The lake has been there ever since the ice started to retreat. It is in what is rather delightfully, and indeed poetically, termed a kettle hole. A huge chunk of glacier broke off in a process quaintly known as calving. The ice was so massive that it remained frozen for years as the mother glacier receded. The meltwater coming off that glacier deposited enormous quantities of sediment around the chunk of isolated ice so that when it eventually melted it formed the lake that we see today. It’s a haven for water birds and birdwatchers and yet another place I would like to return to with a sandwich, a flask of tea and a pair of binoculars.

It helps to explain why geographers tend to be happier, more engaging and more observant than many non geographers (and I speak as a member of the slighted class here). They became geographers, in the first place, because they were fascinated by the world around them and have only become more fascinated as their growing knowledge has helped to explain how that world came into being.

Once away from the lake I choose the main road. I really don’t have a great deal of choice. I have only signposts to guide me and certainly don’t know Staffordshire well enough to take the back roads.

The rush hour is over and the drivers are courteous. Just as well as the road bends and twists. After yesterday, when I barely had an uphill turn of the pedals once I’d reached the summit of the Cambrian Mountains, today seems to be all uphill. The countryside to the sides of the road undulates but the road itself is set to a steady gradient and it’s against me.

It’s still the brick built part of the world but the local brick is a gentle shade and the buildings look rather charming. I pass though several villages that slept on as the rest of the world goes to work. It’s heart of Olde England with communities scattered around the church and the inn. The Red Lion is as traditional as a pub name gets. The Cock Inn has a certain charm once you get past the smutty snigger stage and wonder if the women’s darts team have special t shirts made.

Somewhere along the road the gradient becomes gradually down hill. It doesn’t affect me greatly but it makes a difference to the drops of rain that fall. One side of the hill is the edge of the huge River Severn basin the other drains away into the Trent. Tributaries from the two rivers almost intermingle yet the waters enter the sea at diagonal opposite parts of the country. Knightley is the great divide. Rain falling at one end of Gorse Lane will flow all the way into the Bristol Channel and out into the Atlantic. Drops settling at the other end of Gorse Lane will eventually flow into the Humber and out into the North Sea.

Eccleshall is lovely and knows it. It consistently wins Britain in Bloom competitions and has decided that being a small town between Stoke and Stafford is very much a plus. The High Street is a pleasant mix of two and three storey town houses in the same gentle shaded brick as the villages and outlying farms. There are a good number of independent shops and businesses here and an absence of chains. Several small clothing boutiques display their ranges and are obviously doing well despite the fact that every one out in the street seems to be dressed by Levi and Tommy Hilfiger. Local restaurants seem to favour the advertising of air conditioning rather than haute cuisine but they look places where I’d enjoy a meal. An unusual clock stands on one side looking a little like something out of Dixon of Dock Green. I’m told that it is the Millennium Clock. I’m always a little dubious about anything (other than the stadium in Cardiff) that has the word millennium attached; they tend to smack of short term planning and victory of style over substance. True to form the four faces of this clock are displaying two different times. The glory of the town are the hanging baskets and floral displays. They may be set up to be competitive in a national contest but they do make the place look rather lovely.

When I lived in Stoke I had friends who lived in Eccleshall. They never missed an opportunity of letting people know this and letting us city dwellers know just how much nicer it was to live in Eccleshall. It made them a little difficult to get on with at times but, having cycled very slowly around the town, I can see that they had got a point.