Britain at its best: The delights of Staffordshire’s Churnet Valley, once marred by industry, now a rural idyll with an old railway and teeming with woodpeckers and tea rooms
- Rob Crossan explores the area and says this corner of North Staffordshire “has never looked more beautiful”.
- He recommends stopping by the Black Lion Inn, where locals can share stories and campers can set up for free
- Stay at the Tawny Hotel, where accommodations include chic shepherd’s cottages and tree houses
From the top of Devil’s Staircase we overlook live oaks, wetlands, deep forests, ponds and tapering footpaths. When a vintage burgundy train chugs past a canal, it’s hard to imagine that 70 years ago the Churnet Valley was a heavy industrial hub with more belching smokestacks than trees.
More than two centuries ago, this part of North Staffordshire experienced something of a gold rush, when mining companies operated kilns, mineshafts and tramways to excavate the rich seams of copper, flint, coal and ironstone that lay beneath the rural idyll lay.
But by the mid-1960s, the cinder and slate mountains had disappeared and nature fought back from oblivion.
While exploring the Churnet Valley, Rob Crossan of the Mail watches a historic Churnet Valley Heritage Railway train (above) chug past a canal. Looking at the idyllic scenery, he finds it “almost impossible to imagine that 70 years ago the valley was a place of heavy industry with more belching chimneys than trees”.
Haven: Rob says the woods in the Churney Valley are filled with “the frenzied hammering of the woodpeckers” (file photo)
Much of the forest is an RSPB reserve, filled with the manic flapping of blue tits and the frenzied hammering of woodpeckers.
Buried in the valley, the Black Lion Inn might well be one of the most inaccessible pubs in England – but it’s worth a visit.
Out of the reach of cars, cross two footbridges over the Churnet River and the Churnet Valley Heritage Railway to find the garden.
Campers park for free here, while locals share tales of the area’s recent crime spate, which has been caused by squirrels sneaking into shacks and rummaging through jewelry on bedside tables.
As I walk through the valley on a hot afternoon, I stumble upon some Neolithic-looking stone remains.
These are the surviving bits of industry – huge, lichen-covered relics of the huge lime kilns that once dominated the area.
How hot, loud and frightening that valley must have been.
Now the remains stand on Froghall Wharf next to Hetty’s Tea Shop, a cottage serving afternoon tea and Staffordshire oatcakes – a sort of thick crepe stuffed with sausage, mushrooms, bacon and, locals say, a base of grated cheese.
The exquisitely designed Tawny Hotel was built on the site of Consall Hall, a country house with 70 acres of follies, ponds, meadows and woodland.
Rob is staying at the Tawny Hotel, which is in the grounds of Consall Hall country house. Pictured is the hotel’s Plumicorn restaurant
A freestanding tub at The Lookout Retreat at the Tawny Hotel. The ‘exquisitely landscaped’ hotel is surrounded by 70 acres of follies, ponds, meadows and woodland
A shepherd’s hut in the Tawny Hotel. During their stay, guests can watch Canadian geese strutting across the grass
Double rooms at the Tawny Hotel are from £225 B&B
The follies, including a stone circle and grotto, are still here, but chic retreats are now being added, including shepherd’s huts with outdoor tubs, as well as boathouses and treehouses, which are more cabana-like rooms on stilts.
The floor-to-ceiling windows in the Old Hall restaurant, Plumicorn, make the sight of Canadian geese strutting across the grass almost as appealing as the food.
Nature has taken its vengeance in this corner of Staffordshire. And it’s never looked better.