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Cheshire Walks - Dunham Massey

21:59 16 November 2009

Step back in time on this walk with Keith Carter around the Dunham Massey estate near Altrincham

I thought I was seeing things on entering the courtyard of Dunham Massey Hall to research this month's walk, described below. This was in early November when a lucky day brought sunshine with the wind chasing the leaves around.

I knew the house would not reopen to the public until next February but had not expected to see characters from a costume drama stalking the grounds, one in a bowler hat and apron, a groom I think, and Lady Stamford herself in cloak and riding hat with a fetching feather, taking the air.

It all became clear when I learned that these were part of a Living History narrative designed to bring the past alive for today's schoolchildren. My earliest recollection of history lessons was learning dates and the succession of the Kings and Queens of England drummed in to me. Even today I can tell you who followed William and Mary and the Six Wives of Henry VIII, learned by rote.

Dunham Park is remarkable for its age. It goes back to lands granted to one of his followers, Hamo de Massey, by William the Conqueror. The park was laid out and trees planted at the orders of the 2nd Earl of Warrington, the trees fanned out in a 'goose-foot' pattern in the fashion of the times.

A visit to Dunham Massey is full of interest, even when the Hall is closed. Children don't get much out of visiting stately homes, preferring to run out and chase each other through the shrubbery. My grandchildren have visited Chatsworth numerous times and have never shown the slightest interest in going into the house. I can't say I blame them. Here they might wait for the clock to strike one when the lions' tails are said to twitch. I watched for them but managed to sneeze at the critical moment and missed them twitching.

1 Our walk starts from the car park. There's no escaping paying to get in although National Trust members can flash their cards and get waved through. Walk back to the main gate and turn right along the pavement, following the perimeter wall of the Park until the first turning on the left, Woodhouse Lane, leading to Dunham Town.

It is not a town of course, not by any stretch of the imagination, having a single shop, a church and the pub, nothing more. Before you enter the village, at the Big Tree, go right on Charcoal Lane then next left to find Dunham Massey Brewery run by John Costello with his son Anthony, brewing twelve different beers, some of which have won top prizes at beer festivals. I can vouch for the beer's quality, having tasted it as work in progress. Nice one, John.

2 Return to Woodhouse Lane and walk through the village, passing the Village Store and the pub, the Axe and Cleaver, an echo of the days when cutting wood would have been one of the most prominent occupations judging by the number of chimneys on Dunham Massey Hall.

I imagine the staff needed to keep all those fires burning brightly. Up a lane to the right you'll find Little Heath Farm Shop, celebrated locally for its meat and fresh vegetables, just the place to pick up some pork chops for the evening meal.

3 Cross the canal bridge and immediately take the footpath on the left that leads down to the towpath. Go under the first bridge taking Back Lane over the canal then over the next one where Woodhouse Lane goes under it.

The canal narrows as it is taken over the River Bollin by an aqueduct then broadens again and we must look for steps leading down off the canal embankment to a lane where we go left, the lane leading under the canal along a cobbled section to reach the village of Little Bollington.

Here we find the oddly named pub The Swan with Two Nicks, that's 'Nicks' not Necks as you would expect. It's a good place to sample the Dunham Massey beers of which it has a selection on draught.

4 Turn left out of the pub and cross a metal footbridge over the Bollin with a weir to the right. Cross the road and enter a straight lane leading to the Bollington Gate entrance to Dunham Park.

Through the gate, or at least over the step stile beside it, we see the Old Mill on the left with its water wheel. It dates from 1616, originally a corn mill and subsequently a saw mill although in modern times it fell into disuse and needed restoring to its well-preserved state in which we see it today. Just past the mill turn left and pass the buildings now used for the National Trust shop, caf and toilets.

Go under the clock tower then turn right past the second old tree on today's walk, this one over 500 years old. Stay on the path alongside the moat and it will lead you back to the car park.

As I passed the Hall, the Living History characters were getting ready for another influx of school children.

'I like the hat,' I told Lady Stamford, 'or should that be "I like the hat, your grace.'"

She shook her head. 'Call me Madam,' she replied.



Fact file

Area of walk: Dunham Massey, Little Bollington and the Bridgewater Canal.
Distance: 4 miles
Time to allow: 2 hours excluding stops.
Map: OS Explorer 276 Bolton, Wigan and Warrington
Refreshments: Caf at Dunham Massey Hall, also toilets, pubs at Dunham Town and Little Bollington
Useful guide book: Dunham Massey published by the National Trust.

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