I don’t get to do it much but I do enjoy a long walk in the countryside or along a stretch of coastline. Living in the north-west of England, I am spoilt for choice of places to indulge this little pleasure. It is one thing that I think I would end up doing more than most should I ever win the lottery (a statistical improbability made all the more so by the low frequency of ticket purchases on my part). However, early in July, 2015, I had the opportunity to get out and walk up a hill. I had planned this walk well in advance for reasons that I will get to in due course.
I chose a walk around Frodsham (this one, from iFootpath.com: http://goo.gl/ZQ81ky), a small town in Cheshire. Frodsham has a hill to the south that has a war memorial at its peak. At the memorial site, clear weather conditions afford a great panoramic view of the Cheshire plains (I did not realise we had ‘plains’ in Britain but here they are!), the River Mersey and the hills of North Wales. The walk beyond the memorial would take me over hills and down gulleys, across fields and alongside golf courses.
I wanted to do this walk because I am currently writing a novel that I have set in a post-apocalyptic area based on North Cheshire. Post-Apoc stories are usually set in America (e.g. Running Man, Escape from New York, Damnation Alley, The Hunger Games…) so I wanted to write one that was set in an area familiar to me. This would let me use geography that I know well enough. There would be no point in me setting a novel in Paris, London, New York or Washington as I have no experience of these places. However, I wanted to make sure that I was not drawing on false memories of places I had driven through or visited infrequently. There was also the matter of a planned scene in the novel requiring a wooded hill.
So, having made notes in a small notebook, I set out on a warm and bright but overcast Sunday afternoon. I arrived at the start point at 12:30pm. The car park was overlooked by two radio/phone masts.
The area seemed quiet. There was a golf course on the approach to the car park but there were few people about. I set off, expecting a quiet day with plenty of time for reflection and thinking about the book.
Five minutes into the walk, I reached Overhill Cottage. If it was ever a postcard image of a house, it had been replaced by a modern, sprawling, ‘Grand Designs’ bungalow. The views to the east, through trees that line the muddy path past the bungalow were already quite epic, promising big things for the memorial site. I could see a long ridgeway on the opposite side of open fields and a wide plain beyond the northern end of the ridge.
The path beyond the cottage led past a hotel and was flanked by a sharp drop to my right and thick foliage to my left. The hotel and cottage get me thinking about the novel. I had always imagined that the main character would walk for weeks without encountering another soul in the wild. Out here, though, there are dwellings that would likely be used in such a world (where only major cities have been destroyed but rural areas and small towns are all but left untouched). My main character would have to know which of these places were friendly and which to avoid. He might also want to defend some of the friendly places should they be attacked…
There was a brief moment when I thought I had taken a wrong turning but I trust the notes I had made on the walk route and continue past the back of someone’s house and onto a road that leads me to the memorial park. The path to the memorial has a stand of trees – Rowan, Oak, Birch and Ash. I took photographs of each species in that order so that I can identify them later on. I found much more oak along my walk.
I reached the memorial at 1:30pm and sat down on a bench to eat whilst taking in the panorama. Runcorn was dead ahead of me. Liverpool, identifiable by its two cathedrals and St. John’s Beacon, lay in the distance, just to the west of Runcorn. I could even make out the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. There is a plinth with directional info on what can be seen from the memorial that proves interesting. I sat there for a good while, imagining what it would look like with Liverpool gone and a huge, bustling, walled city replacing Runcorn and Widnes. I imagine the wide Cheshire Plains covered with farms (although my knowledge of the soils and potential for agriculture in this area is none-existent). It’s a bit embarrassing to admit but I got quite a thrill from this part of the walk (the sitting still bit!).
I imagine, too, like a psychopath, that Frodsham Hill would make an excellent place from which to bombard Runcorn with artillery (I promise that it is all related to the book, not some deep-seated desire to destroy a quite-pretty area of Merseyside). I also get a good sense of the distances involved and the time it would take to get from Frodsham Hill to Runcorn. It would be quite a long and possibly difficult walk without some modifications to the landscape. Thankfully, I can make such modifications; it is my story, after all.
Pressing on with the walk, I found some carvings in the sandstone rock that lines the trail from the memorial. Most of it was simple scratchings, the names of people who wanted to leave their mark on the landscape. Some of it, though, was far more elaborate, carefully inscribed in the stone. One, “Selina and Dad 1999”, makes me imagine father-daughter day out that led to that carving. It also makes me think about my own family (my sister has the same name and my dad liked to drag us out for long walks as kids).
I came, eventually, to Dunsdale Hollow. This is a stunning area. A thick wood in a gulley between two hills. To get to it, I had to descend a flight of wood and metal steps known as ‘The Baker’s Dozen’. I love little touches like this, things that you would only know about a place if you had actually been there. At the bottom of the steps, along a short path, there is a truly gorgeous spot. A little, natural fairy grotto of trees in a shallow bowl of land. The sandstone cliffs rise high on three sides and drop away steeply on the fourth, into the most dense wood I have ever seen with my own eyes. There was only the sound of birds and leaves rustling in a gentle breeze. If I had more time I would have sat there and written a diary entry focussing entirely on sensory input and emotional response. I would love to go back there on another summer’s day and just sit for an hour, drinking it in.
Further along the walk, I realise that, in a forest, it would be very difficult to make out details of people at any kind of distance, especially as the light fades during the evening. You would make out movement but, if you were familiar with woodlands, you would hear someone moving first, I imagine. Detail would die in the dark, though.
I had to shake myself at one point. Walking past an obviously old oak, thick-trunked and heavily-leafed, I anthropomorphised it. I thought of it as an old man and found myself wanting to shake his hand. Instead, I pat one of its branches and continue my walk.
I got back to my car at about 4:30pm and headed home. I had felt properly alone for parts of the walk. I had passed other people, dog-walkers, dads and lads, a group of ramblers, but for the most part, I was on my own. I began to talk to myself about the things I could see, hear and feel. At one point, walking alongside a field with cows in it, I talked to them, asking them how their day had been and remarking that I did not realise there was such a thing as a ‘lesbian cow’ when one mounted another to get access to the water trough. I was thirsty for large parts of the walk and grateful and smug in equal measure that I had thought to take two bottles of water rather than one.
This made me think more about the life of my novel’s protagonist. He would either need to carry lots of water from town to town or have a way of purifying water from rivers and streams. He would, in the latter case, need to keep near water-courses when in the wild. I had considered this before but had lost sight of it in recent weeks. This walk had really pointed out how important clean water would be to him.
Frodsham Hill and Helsby Hill and the land between is a lovely area, strangely natural despite the heavily populated areas that lie all around it. Liverpool, Chester and Warrington are all within thirty miles. There are enough sights and spots along this walk that I would definitely go again. Although maybe I should make it a much bigger goal of mine to walk the entire Sandstone Trail or North Cheshire Way some time. I’d need to take a couple of weeks off work for that, though. Recovery time alone would wipe out my leave allowance,