- Start: Burtonwood
- End: Burtonwood
- Country: England
- County: Cheshire
- Type: Country
- Nearest pub: Pubs including Fiddle I’th’Bag, Alder Lane, Burtonwood.
- Ordnance Survey: OS Explorer 276 Bolton, Wigan and Warrington.
- Difficulty: Medium
Keith Carter leads a walk through the varied countryside around Burtonwood and the Sankey Valley
To the beer drinker the Burtonwood name is most commonly associated with Burtonwood Brewery, a Northern brewer with a wide following founded originally by James Forshaw in 1867 to supply local ale houses, the beer being delivered in four and a half gallon kegs called Tommy Thumpers.
Forshaws continued the tradition through succeeding generations with their efforts receiving royal approval with a visit by Princess Margaret in 1987, not herself a beer drinker by all accounts. In recent times it is hard to keep up with the takeovers within the brewing trade but the present establishment seems to be run by Thomas Hardy Holdings in a modern purpose-built factory, a far cry from the days of Tommy Thumpers.
Our walk starts from Burtonwood, a town with a population of over 11,000 so no longer the sleepy village known to American servicemen when the aerodrome became a huge supply depot for the war effort.
1. We parked at St Michael’s Parish Hall opposite the church and started out by taking a footpath on the same side of the road as the church, a tarmac path enclosed by fences running behind housing, crossing a side road and continuing beside an open field to emerge on Fir Tree Lane opposite Boarded Barn Farm.
Cross slightly left onto Hall Lane where a prominent sign advertises Vantasia Nurseries and walk as far as a junction where a signpost says ‘Sankey Canal 2/3m’. Fork left here and at the next junction pause for a moment to decide if you want to take a look at what remains of Bradlegh Old Hall.
If you do you can see a stone archway barricaded off by fencing and the rebuilt farmhouse within. The Old Hall was built in 1465 by Sir Peter Legh as a fortified manor house, the present farmhouse dating from the 19th century. It is reputed to contain an old bed in which Richard III slept while campaigning against Scots invaders although I can’t recall Shakespeare mentioning it. ‘A bed, a bed, my kingdom for a bed’ hasn’t got quite the right ring to it. Having contemplated this scenario return to the junction and take the path between hedges on your left through a gateway.
2. At a signpost we keep right and the path winds its way to where a footbridge crosses the Sankey Brook. Cross the bridge and beyond we find ourselves by what seems like a canal basin with a bridge leading to a car park.
This is known as Mucky Mountains Nature Reserve an area now overtaken by greenery where there was once a tip where they dumped the alkali waste from a works producing vitriol which we know as sulphuric acid. The concentration of alkaline soil has led to the proliferation of a number of rare plant species which attracts botanists. We did not find any rare plants but we did see a kingfisher to our excitement, an unusual sighting in spite of our perambulations around the countryside.
3. Turn right onto the towpath of the Sankey Canal, sometimes referred to as the St Helens Canal, and walk with the weedy water to your left. The canal has fallen into neglect due to being no longer navigable so of no interest to the narrow boat community. It was one of the earliest canals dug and is unusually wide since it was designed for a type of sail craft called a ‘flat’ which would bring ore down from North Wales and up the Mersey to be smelted into copper and take loads of coal back down to Merseyside from the open cast pits in the area. It looks a bit abandoned now and in places the bank is collapsing along the towpath edge. There’s an active preservation society called SCARS who do their best to maintain the canal but their task seems challenging to the casual observer.
The stroll along the Sankey Canal is full of interest and we were lucky to run into one of the rangers based at the Sankey Valley Visitor Centre who knew his stuff about the industry of the area. One drawback is the proliferation of the invasive Himalayan Balsam which is rapidly becoming the dominant species hereabouts. It’s a non-native plant and extremely fast growing and can take over river banks within a few seasons to a point where it is beyond eliminating.
4. Continue along the towpath until you reach a road bridge crossing the canal and leave it by way of steps on the right and walk a few hundred yards on the pavement to the Fiddle I’th’ Bag Inn at the roadside. On entering you find yourself in a flea market with memorabilia everywhere, stacks of magazines, old flying jackets, stuffed animals, musical instruments without strings, collectables of all kinds and the pumps concealed behind piles of junk. It’s an extraordinary repository of stuff collected by a previous owner, a regular ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’. My friend Jim unearthed a scholar’s mortar board, conferring on himself a degree at last. After this jumble sale experience return to the road bridge and take the steps down to the footpath. All trace of the original canal is now lost but a clear path leads to a lane and we turn right to walk along it crossing Sankey Brook again by Causey West Bridge.
5. Once over the bridge ignore the first turning on the left but continue the short distance to where a line of high tension cables crosses the lane. Here a footpath breaks away left along the edge of a field and comes on to a ditch on the left which soon leaves us while we trend right and locate a footpath sign partially concealed by a bush.
Turn left here on an earth track which leads us to some mounds of greyish material which is actually waste from a paper mill which, being alkali, works in much the same way as lime. The dumping of this waste here has obscured the footpath and we are obliged to fend for ourselves to find our way forward.
Look to the right to where a gap in the trees allows a way through on a track used by farm vehicles. You should see a lone modern barn so make for it and soon join a lane at a bend. Turn right and walk along this lane to where it meets Fir Tree Lane at a T-junction. Turn right and the pavement brings us back into Burtonwood.
Area of walk: Burtonwood and the Sankey Valley
Distance: Six miles
Time to allow: Three hours
Map: OS Explorer 276 Bolton, Wigan and Warrington.
Refreshments: Pubs including Fiddle I’th’Bag, Alder Lane, Burtonwood.
Wheelchair/pushchair? Not suitable.