Standing in a forest clearing, sunlight streams through the surrounding treetops, casting a dappled light across the carpet of bracken below. All around, peace pervades with not another soul in sight, at least, not on two legs. Between the regimental lines of pine, beech and birch, a pair of deer can be glimpsed feeding on the grass, their spotted pelts twitching faintly.
This tranquil scene is in stark contrast to the sprawling conurbation of the West Midlands only a few miles away. It is no doubt on account of its unlikely location that Cannock Chase in Staffordshire has remained relatively undiscovered, other than to the millions living on its fringes, or the increasing numbers of mountain biking enthusiasts that come to assault its rugged terrain.
At 26 square miles, it is England’s smallest mainland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Designated in 1958, it is also potentially one of the most threatened by recreational encroachments. Now largely under the care of Staffordshire County Council and the Forestry Commission, the aim is to protect its surprisingly remote wilderness of lowland heathland, interspersed with valley wetlands, intimate ancient forest and woodland and framed by country parkland.
“Sixty per cent of the Chase is open access, so the problem we have in protecting the area is that people have a right to roam,” explains AONB Officer Anne Walker. “A lot of our work is encouraging people to stay on the paths.”
An historic landscape dating back thousands of years, the ‘Chase’, as the name suggests, became a medieval royal hunting forest for William the Conqueror in 1086. Fallow deer, possibly descended from the original herd introduced in Norman times, still roam free.
Rights of hunting were subsequently granted to the Bishops of Lichfield and Coventry in the 13th century and at Castle Ring, an Iron Age hill fort settlement at the southern tip and highest point of the Chase stand the ruins of Beaudesert, originally a hunting lodge for the bishops, which was demolished in 1935.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the land was sold to Sir William Paget. A lawyer and statesman, Paget converted the medieval hall into a grand manor house and began the process of altering the landscape of the Chase, excavating shallow ‘bell pits’ for ironstone and overseeing large-scale deforestation to provide fuel to smelt the iron ore.
“What we see today is very much a man-made landscape,” explains Steve Dean, Staffordshire County Council archaeologist. Brocton Coppice, where today the silhouettes of 200 to 600-year-old twisted and sturdy oaks make a striking contrast to the younger woodland, is the only surviving remnant of the once widespread ancient forest.
Communities grew up around the industries on the Chase, including bell pits, glassworks, brick-making, tile-making and the manufacture of edge tools. The sleepy village of Slitting Mill is so named after the watermills built there in the 17th century for slitting bars of iron into rods in the production of nails.
By the mid-18th century the charcoal-fuelled iron foundries disappeared but coal mining activity increased, with the expansion of existing collieries and sinking of deeper mines across the southern parts of the Chase. As demand for coal reduced during the 20th century, the mines gradually closed.
The compact Museum of Cannock Chase in Hednesford, housed on the site of the former Valley Colliery that opened in 1874, provides an insight into the history of the area, with an upstairs gallery dedicated to the heyday of the Cannock Chase pits. The Museum is also the hub of the 10-mile Heritage Trail, linking the industrial towns of Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley.
Cannock developed as a market town from the 13th century but due to the quality of the water from its natural springs gained a reputation as a fashionable spa town in the 17th and 18th centuries. On the Conservation Area of High Green, the hexagonal Conduit Head dates from 1736 and was the outlet for the town’s drinking water.
Rugeley, meanwhile, gained new-found prosperity from the 1770s, with industries benefitting from cheaper transport along the new Trent and Mersey Canal designed by James Brindley that runs through it. In 1973 the town centre was made a Conservation Area with buildings such as the Clock Tower in Market Square dating from the 17th century.
Cannock Chase played an important role in World War I. Logistically it was a prime location with good communication and transport links and was the largest unenclosed area in the West Midlands, so the Earl of Lichfield, the then landowner, granted permission for two large military training camps to be built.
Established in the space of about eight months, Brocton and Rugeley camps were designed to hold 20,000 men each at any one time and more than 500,000 soldiers passed through them during the course of the war. They also served as the base for the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, while a section at Brocton Coppice later became a POW camp. “The camps were basically like little towns on the chase and had their own railway line, roads, sewerage system, shops, even a picture house,” explains Steve Dean.
A 12-ward hospital was also established at Brindley Heath, where they carried on treating gas attack and shell-shock victims until 1924.
At the end of the war, the camps were decommissioned and sold off. Today, little remains on the surface of this former military use, other than a few gorse covered concrete bases of the more substantial buildings, such as at Whitehouse. From the 1920s the Forestry Commission began planting trees that now blanket the land, but to the trained archaeologist’s eye there is much still there, preserved beneath the undergrowth and in the land’s gentle undulations. “And which is of national importance in terms of WWI archaeology, a part of history that we know very little about,” adds Steve Dean. One area, perhaps of international significance, is a scale terrain model of Messines Ridge, one of the more successful Allied attacks. Terrain models were laid out in advance of major offensives to train commanders. This copy, made in concrete, probably by German prisoners under the direction of New Zealanders, is now hidden under gorse and bracken and “is the only one of its kind anywhere,” enthuses Dean.
At Cannock Chase visitor centre, an original enlisted officers’ barrack hut, which for years had served as a nearby village hall, has been brought back and reconstructed as it would have been during the Great War. There is a soldier’s uniform and kit bag on display and cabinets reveal small-scale items found on the Chase.
Those who died on the Chase during the war, many of them victims of the deadly Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, were buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at the edge of the moorland, where rows of white graves are surrounded by the shadows of conifers. A little further along is the German cemetery, which was chosen in 1959 as the final resting place for all Germans who died on British soil during both World Wars. Memorials for four Zeppelin crews are set in a separate terrace, the two areas linked by the Hall of Honour, where a recumbent bronze sculpture in the centre represents ‘the fallen warrior’.
A further memorial stands on the Chase in memory of the 14,000 members of the Polish armed forces who were executed by the Russians in Katyn Forest in 1940.
In 1957, more than 2,000 acres of Cannock Chase were gifted to Staffordshire County Council by Lord Lichfield. This now comprises the main part of one of the largest country parks in the country.
The varied landscape of the Chase, crossed by many footpaths and bridleways, presents a changing array of colours throughout the year, from purple heather, blood red bilberry bushes and rusty bracken, to dark green pine or silvery stands of birch trees. The best starting point is the museum or one of the visitor centres, each of which has a different focus. Staffordshire Wildlife Trust’s award-winning Wolseley Centre concentrates on nature conservation, with way-marked trails around the 26 acres of former landscaped gardens highlighting a variety of wildlife habitats, including a new boardwalk through a wetland area.
Cannock Chase Visitor Centre interprets the area’s military history, while Birches Valley Centre “was set up to encourage cyclists to use the tracks in the more robust forested areas rather than the more delicate heathland”, explains Emma Jane Beaman, assistant AONB officer. The Lowland heathland is now a rare and endangered habitat and along with the woodland and valley wetlands are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which support a rich diversity of wildlife including the rare nightjar, skylarks, lizards and adders.
With its contrasting landscapes, a rich history and wildlife habitats, this peaceful oasis of the West Midlands leaves a lasting impression.