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1 January, 2007

Walk: Bickerton Hill and Peckforton Castle, Cheshire

Having lived in North East Wales for eighteen of my first nineteen years, it's unsurprising that I know (knew) certain districts rather well.  However, family habits meant that other areas, even quite close to home, were visited infrequently, if ever.  For example, I grew up in a village roughly equidistant from Chester and Wrecsam (Wrexham in English), but whilst I visited the former at least monthly, I've only ever seen the centre of Wrecsam about twice.

Another little-known area is the Cheshire plain. I've visited Beeston Castle once (maybe twice), but otherwise Whitchurch, Northwich and pretty much everything between Chester and Crewe is terra incognita to me. For a while, my mother and I have planned to explore Bickerton and the Peckforton Hills, a ridge of ~200 m high red sandstone lumps immediately south of Beeston protruding from the very flat plain (~20 m asl near Chester rising to ~80 m in Whitchurch, ~30 km away). They're clearly visible from the top of my mother's road, so I've seen them literally hundreds of times over 35 years, but for all I knew the view could have been a matte painting. Until today.

To start we (well, my mother) drove to Broxton, little more than a crossroads on the Chester-Whitchurch road (A41). We made a false start on the the walk, as there's nowhere (apparent) to park a car in Brown Knowl on the north-western side of Bickerton Hill, so we went around to the south-eastern side and Bickerton itself. We parked alongside others in a wide gateway, but discovered (on foot) that the track through the gateway led to a public car park. Which was, incidentally, rather full. It seemed others had had the same idea for their day trips. There were numerous people around, but curiously they were all rather similar. All looked more than averagely affluent, and were either pensioners in goretex or young families in clothes somewhere between 'smart casual' and 'non-technical outdoors'. The adults' hair would obviously match their working suits, whilst the children looked like miniature horsey adults. None looked like the sort of walkers I encounter in the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales.

It seems there are a number of footpaths on Bickerton Hill, but I was slightly concerned that exertion made my mother (convalescing from pneumonia) breathe the cold air rather deeply, so we kept it fairly short: just a kilometre or so and ~60 m ascent to Maiden Castle, the Iron Age hillfort at the 212 m summit.
The weather was patchy – clear in certain directions whilst in others the landscape was obscured by haze or even curtains of rain. Hence, we had good views of the North Wales coast, Chester and Liverpool (i.e. a quadrant between west and north of the hill), but could barely see Wrecsam or southern Cheshire.

Back at the car, we headed north along the eastern side of the hills, towards Beeston. Some of the farms and cottages we passed were rather quaint, so we made a couple of photo stops and wandered around the hamlet of Peckforton.
Another stop to photograph the grandiose gatehouse of Peckforton Castle was extended when I noticed a 'public footpath' sign pointing straight up the drive – at least part way to the castle, it wasn't private property. Hence, we followed the wooded track up to the castle itself, and into the courtyard. Even knowing it to be a Victorian interpretation of a mediaeval castle in a location which had never featured the real thing (Beeston is only a kilometre away), it was very impressive.

For a number of reasons, not least the approaching black clouds, we didn't visit Beeston Castle too, though I couldn't resist one more photo stop, just as the first raindrops were hitting the windscreen. Minutes later, visibility failed in intense rain, and a final diversion, to the historical village of Christleton on the eastern margin of Chester was more than metaphorically a washout.

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