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Walking Past

During this current lockdown, I have felt hard pressed to try and come up with a daily walk that is not too taxing as to be off-putting, but of adequate length to provide a reasonable amount of fresh air and exercise. What follows has been one such attempt.

The area where I live is an ex-mining village, a couple of miles north-west of Newcastle under Lyme. All traces of the collieries which provided employment for much of the local population are long gone, and their footprint has been replaced by sprawling industrial estates. In common with many other similar areas, Chesterton has seen the negative effects of the demise of heavy industry which has had a detrimental local impact, so it has been a challenge to try and discover nearby places of interest; there are no rolling hills or pretty woodlands to stroll through, no grand houses or castles to act as obvious markers of history. Our history here is largely indicated by absence, places that used to exist, and having served their purpose, been demolished or abandoned or forgotten about. These places are conspicuous by their very absence from the present day landscape. However, I will do my best to explain their importance and former relevance to the area.

This walk is approximately 1.6 miles in length, covering main roads and level ground, so is not too arduous or unsafe. It starts at the roundabout at the bottom of London Road and Castle Street, where the area’s mining heritage is commemorated by a silhouetted group of miners in grey metal. Cross the road here to Wolstanton Road, taking time to look at the Mileage Disc set up in 2000, which shows the distance in Roman miles to various Roman settlements. The Romans first arrived here in circa 70 AD. This road, now wide and lined with smart 1930s semis, was originally a footpath from Wolstanton. On the left as you walk along is Farcroft Avenue, its name derived from that of Farcroft House which stood nearby on the slope. In 1947, this Edwardian villa became the Fanny Deakin Maternity Home, a small local maternity hospital of the kind which I doubt exists any more except in the realms of Call the Midwife. It was named after a local politician renowned for her passionate campaigning for better conditions for the working class, women and children in particular. Mrs. Deakin was from Silverdale, another nearby mining community, whose experience of seeing only one of her children reach adulthood led her to become involved in local politics, to improve conditions for those affected by the General Strike of 1926, especially miners and their families. She was to present the then Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald with her demands for free milk for pregnant women and children under 5, and although her conversion to communism divided local opinion, she continued to campaign tirelessly on behalf of deprived families. Farcroft House was acquired in 1947 and named in her honour in recognition of her progressive and socially aware work ; it closed in 1970 and was later demolished, with all maternity services being transferred to the new Maternity Block (which has itself now been replaced) at what is now the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

Continue along Wolstanton Road to its junction with the A34, and turn right, following the dual carriageway downhill, looking over the road to the hedges which form the perimeter of Wolstanton Golf Club grounds. The present day golf links were once the home of Dimsdale Hall, a small but handsome 16th century timber-framed mansion with a Dutch-style brick frontage, which was demolished in 1940 after falling into extensive disrepair. Surviving pictures show it to have been quite an imposing building, of which now sadly no traces remain.

Go past the garage and turn sharp right by Starbucks onto London Road, which marks something of a division between the residential part of Chesterton and the large industrial estate to the left, which covers some of the area formerly occupied by Holditch Colliery, a coal and ironstone mine in production between 1912 and 1990. In July 1937 it was the scene of a disaster claiming 30 lives of miners and rescue workers, with another 8 badly injured, caused by explosions of methane gas and subsequent underground fires. The death toll was exacerbated by the management’s decision to risk men’s lives in an attempt to save access to lucrative coal seams. Some of the victims are buried in the small cemetery along Loomer Road. The mine closed in 1990, although the Holditch Miners’ Social Club appears to be still in operation.

We return now to the roundabout where we started, noting the unusual geometric shape of the Roman Catholic church of St. John the Evangelist, with its arresting life-sized crucifix prominently displayed. The area to the South-East of the church was, it is believed, the site of a marching camp initiated by the Roman soldiers who had arrived here in 70 AD, who went on to construct a garrison for 600 men at the top of the hill where Chesterton Community Sports College now stands. It is difficult to work out where the marching camp stood, although apparently some earthworks may still be seen – perhaps to the knowledgeable eye, but not mine sadly. Apparently there are some small finds from here on display in Newcastle Museum – a pottery figurine of Venus, some glass beads, a small bell - oddly feminine sounding objects for a cohort of soldiers perhaps.

At the end of Loomer Road can be found Apedale Woods, together with the excellent Mining Museum and the Apedale Valley Light Railway, but that is an exploration for another day. We are now back, more or less, where we started, so it’s home to put the kettle on.

I like to think we can find the remarkable and interesting so close to home. These places may not have the grandeur we have often come to expect of history, but they are still relevant owing to the part they have played in the way we live today.

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