Our Travel blog
Welcome back. This is the first in occasional entries while we are off the road. Today is exactly one year since our first proper blog entry; a picture and brief note that we’d started packing (2 March 2017). I miss writing even if it’s a blessed relief to everyone else. So picking up where we left off, we are working at Shallowford in a variety of positions that, for the sake of convenience we’ll place under the umbrella title of hospitality. The work’s good, varied and at times stretches us in good ways. Despite that there is a distinct feeling that we are marking time. We get to spend a night or two a week at our house in Leek, which we love and want to spend more time in. It’s riddled with odd jobs that need doing to turn it from a house into our home but progress is gradual. Plus, because we are spending our time there doing those jobs we are not taking advantage of the glorious countryside around us.
Which probably sounds ungrateful but it isn’t intended to be; it’s just that deep down our hearts are on the road and in the hills. To that end we’ve taxed and insured Mavis and are negotiating plans for the summer. There’s nothing definite yet and we feel like we are on a mountain, gradually eliminating options as we focus and close in on the summit. Some we reject out of practicality, some with regret and there are occasional slips and pauses to find new routes but the momentum is ever upwards. And that, you will be relieved to know, is the end of that clumsy extended metaphor. Let us now venture into our surroundings.
I’ll get to Leek in the fullness of time, but as we’ve spent most of our time in Shallowford let us introduce you to our nearest settlement of any note. Stone is a modest place that despite being the 2nd town in the borough of Stafford (after Stafford) is so unassuming the chances are that you haven’t even heard of it. There are probably residents of Stone who are uncertain where it is. Even its name means nothing sexier than ‘a stone’. Local legend suggests it is named for a pile of stones that marked the graves of princes Ruffin and Wulfad, allegedly killed by their father King Wulfhere of Mercia in AD 665 because of their conversion to Christianity. This is apparently most unlikely, not least because Wulfhere was in fact a Christian himself by then. Nevertheless Ruffin and Wulfad were canonised, although only St. Wulfad gets to be commemorated by sharing in the name of the imposing C18th church of St Michael and St Wulfad. Quite what St Ruffin did to be left out I don’t know but the pair are still remembered by the pilgrims who walk the Two Saints Way that runs from Chester to Lichfield via Stone, and who bring stones to place in a basket by a church window that commemorates the saints. Stones to Stone is like coals to Newcastle without the practicality of use as a handy fuel.
The pilgrim’s way is one of several routes that make Stone if not appealing then at least necessary. It has a railway station and was once a mayor coaching town. Nowadays it sits on the busy A34 and A51 and is a couple of miles from the M6. Its position on the banks of the River Trent means it has been a stopping point for cargo-carrying vessels since Roman times and it held an important position point on the Trent and Mersey Canal, the motorway of its day and was essential in ferrying pottery safely from the nearby pottery towns around Stoke on Trent.
The canal still boasts the 1772 Grade II listed Star Lock in the centre of town. It stood for about 24 hours before having to be rebuilt because a cannon fired in celebration of its completion struck the new lock, all but destroying it. Of all the directions to aim a machine built expressly to destroy property and people, someone chose to point it towards their nice new lock on which the paint had barely dried. Honestly, someone had one job to do…
Nowadays the canal is for leisure, with a big boat yard on the town side of the lock, which is mercifully free of artillery bombardment and which supports a rather nice public house, ideal repast after a pleasant tow path ramble. Drinkers today are blissfully unaware that the building was once a slaughter house. Before we leave talk of canals…we had a group stay at work from the Canal Ministries. Wonderful people who minister to the canal boat community. They were lovely and do some great work, but someone should tell them that they shouldn’t brand their polo shirts on the left breast with Canal Ministry, because the C is hidden on the more buxom members.
Stone town centre is divided into three distinct parts. The main thoroughfare is pedestrianised but has a pervading sense of hanging on. The large CoOp is destined to close soon and it has more than its fair share of charity shops. There are restaurants and shops hiding in narrow alleys radiating from the High Street and a few independent shops and cafes but they all seem to close early, leaving the ubiquitous Costa to mop up business. Below the main street is a cluster of brightly lit takeaways punctuated by the sort of shops that cannot afford a position on the main High Street; a fireplace shop, hairdressers and specialist injury lawyers (or parasitic ambulance chasing evil bastards in the common parlance). The other end of the high street, across another busy road is a neat triangle of shops and businesses that appear more prosperous; a Weatherspoon’s in the old post office, a fancy tea shop, an outdoor clothing and camping specialist and a few hairdressers of the boutique variety. Within easy walking distance of the High Street a large brash Morrisons casts a malevolent yellow shadow over the town, sucking the life from the independent businesses. It’s not that I object to Morrisons, or indeed supermarkets in general (that would be hypocritical considering how often I seem to visit them) but a town the size of Stone cannot support its local businesses when most of the trade goes over the road to the supermarket.
On the road we take into Stone there stands a sad little parade, a pub that’s trying a tad too hard to attract custom, a OneStop shop that sells everything that the nearby CoOp sells, only for more money and later into the evening, a brash Shell garage and, sat a little way back like a shy aunt at a wedding, the glorious shrine to cholesterol that is The Walton Fish Bar. We called in one day and, affecting the kind of saunter only a southern dandy like me could pull off I casually leaned on the Formica counter and beckoned a bosomy vision in nylon over and requested two of her finest fresh fried cod and one large portion of chips to share. She held us in her gaze appraisingly, presumably decided we were clearly a long way from home and needed help. “I think you’ll just need a small chips duck” she replied and scurried off to cook them. We then passed a merry half hour helping her remember the name of a song that went “hey hey…” Our meal eventually arrived and, turning to leave I ventured…”was it Hey-Ya by Outkast?” Well, I was hailed a hero and practically borne aloft out of the building. We got home to find the most enormous portion of chips known to mankind which burst forth from a bag made soggy by grease. The portion sizes up here are a thing to behold, full size sponge cakes cut into four, sandwiches with the cheese filling thicker than the two doorstep slices around it and even the Indian restaurant has a whole section dedicated to extra-large portions.
Apart from mammoth meals the town has the distinction of having a parliamentary constituency named after it twice, once between 1918 and 1950 and then again from 1997 to the present day. The incumbent MP nowadays is the Eurosceptic Conservative Bill Cash. Of note is his falling out with his journalist son William, played out in the pages of The Telegraph and Spectator. Young William, the little scamp, joined UKIP as its Heritage Spokesman, much to daddy’s irritation. As if that didn’t prove William is a prize knob then consider that he set up Spear’s magazine. If you don’t know Spear’s, and as you are reading this then I’ll assume that you don’t, it is a “wealth management and luxury lifestyle media brand, whose flagship magazine has become a must-read for the ultra-high-net- worth community”. According to their website their readership is made up of people with average assets of £5 million+. I’ll wager they don’t carry handy hints on stretching out the family budget until pay day in the magazine.
Aside from super-rich Tories Stone has given birth to some notable sons and daughters. Among them is Eva Morris whose claim to fame was living to 114, several sports stars including footballers Stan Collymore and Anthony Gardner and the inventor of Hovis, Richard "Stoney" Smith who invented the wheatgerm infused bread in Stone. It’ll be familiar to those of us of a certain age from the iconic advert featuring a baker’s delivery boy on his bicycle negotiating a cobbled hill. For all its Midlands appeal, it was invented at Stone Mill and made in Macclesfield, the advert was filmed in Shaftsbury in Dorset and incidentally was directed by Ridley Scot, who went on to make his name with the Alien franchise.
On the outskirts of Stone are common grounds known locally as Mudly Pits where in 1745/46 the Duke of Cumberland set up a winter camp for his men, sheltering them from the freezing moorlands and peaks. They were on a mission to intercept the Jacobite’s’ advancing on Derby. In the end the rebels turned back without the Dukes intervention because of the onset of winter. You can read more about the Jacobite rebellion in our entry of 20 May 2016.
Now we have been reassured that we can navigate Stone without cannon fire or bumping into royalist forces it has become our go-to place for a pleasant stroll along the canal or a saunter along the High Street in search of bargains. It is a middle of the road town in the middle of the country that isn’t chic and has no real tourist appeal. It is home to stolid people who have seen its fortunes wax and wane as their local economy wrestles with changing industry and technology. In many ways Stone represents the underdog, the backbone of the country where people’s livelihoods have always been for hire and seldom guaranteed. It is clearly trying hard as a community to cope and to find its place in the post-industrial C21st and the signs are that its fortunes are slowly looking up. There are new, prosperous looking homes being built, the High Street is freshly paved, the tow path and lock are getting a makeover, new restaurants and wine bars are trying their luck and there’s a feeling that spring is just around the corner.
Over in Leek we have just finished sorting out furniture and we had a washing machine delivered on the 2nd attempt. On the first attempt the driver opened the van, scratched his head and eventually apologised because he’d forgotten to load the washing machine in. Honestly, someone had one job to do… It finally arrived the following morning which gave me an opportunity to swagger around looking faintly butch with a tool kit, although the effect was rather undermined when I used a toilet roll tube as part of my plumbing-in (don’t ask). That aside we’ve adopted a splendid pub as our local and been on a brief expedition exploring walks around our area, including an exciting walk/slide down an almost vertical (at least to us southern softies) hill. Alison blamed her new walking boots, honestly, they had one job to do…
 I.e. When I can be bothered.
Thank you for stopping by and reading our blog. If you don’t know who we are, what we are doing and you're wondering what this is all about you can read up on our project here.