Surviving twenty-first century beauty-spots in the English countryside don’t have to be hidden away, or difficult to reach, to be genuinely appealing and intriguing. There are surprising gems to be enjoyed not far off the beaten track…
The Staffordshire Moorlands is just such a jewel; a prime example of a rolling English rural landscape, bursting with charm and history, yet minutes from the city of Stoke and a major highway.
Moorland views are just as breathtaking as those in the neighboring – and much better known – Peak District National Park and there are plenty of opportunities for pastimes such as cycling, walking, sightseeing and wildlife watching. There’s also some colorful history to uncover, featuring figures of international influence.
At the heart of the Moorlands is the unspoilt Rudyard Lake, an artificial reservoir built in 1797 to feed the Macclesfield canal and still cloaked by wooded hillsides. The lake is the source of the distinctive name of the much-loved late Victorian poet and children’s storyteller, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), author of “The Jungle Book.” Its beauty inspired his parents, who met there in 1863, to select it as his middle name – his original full name being Joseph Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling himself has quite an American pedigree. He and his family lived in Vermont for several years, in a house they built for themselves and called “Naulahka.” He also developed a close friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, then Under Secretary of the Navy. Both of his daughters were born in Vermont, as was his classic jungle story. The adventures of Mowgli, the foundling child raised by wolves in the Seeonee Hills of India, have been enjoyed across the globe, both as a book and, since 1967, as a Disney film.
Another colorful character connected with this stretch of water is Carlos Trower, an Afro-American tightrope walker who called himself “The African Blondin.” He was engaged by the North Staffordshire Railway in 1864 to walk across the lake on a rope suspended a hundred feet up. Special trains ran from nearby towns for more than 3,000 eager spectators. He repeated the feat on three days 14 years later. And, to mark the 150th anniversary, high-wire walker Chris Bull, aka Bullzini, recreated the daredevil act for a modern crowd.
For those who prefer to get around at ground level, there’s the Leek and Rudyard Railway, a narrow gauge (10.25 inch) steam railway running just three miles along one side of the lake. Operated by enthusiastic volunteers of all ages, it dates back to the 1900s. Today, tourists still travel in its small coaches, enjoying glimpses of the lake through the trees and gently towed along by engines with romantic names from Arthurian legend, like Merlin, King Arthur, Pendragon, and Excalibur.
Private charters and group bookings are welcome, or you can sign up and learn to be an engine driver. The Platform 2 Cafe and the rustic Dam station offer access to the lake for angling, sailing, boat hire or embarking on the circular walk. And, for dedicated railway enthusiasts, there’s another steam railway a few miles away, this time full size: the Churnet Valley Railway, at Cheddleton, weaves through verdant countryside known as Staffordshire’s “Little Switzerland.”
Both these railway lines are near the market town of Leek, 10 miles outside The Potteries area and Stoke-on-Trent. The town is well worth a visit, not least due to the further array of famous names connected with it.
Many of Leek’s buildings are the work of the family architectural practice of the Sugdens. In 1849, architect William Sugden came to Leek to design railway stations for Churnet Valley Railway. You can spot other Sugden edifices around Leek’s market square, the setting of a regular covered market and the outdoor vintage market, every Saturday, with its eclectic antiques, crafts, crockery, and furniture.
An architect from the same family, Larner Sugden, went on to work with the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, and published some of Morris’ speeches and essays. Morris himself lived and worked in Leek between 1875 and 1878. He studied dyeing at a Leek dyeworks and the town provided his firm with silk.
Even refreshment in Leek can hold historic interest. Visit the Roebuck Hotel on Leek’s Derby Street, and you will be met by a bewildering array of beers all bearing the brand “Titanic.” The Titanic Brewery was founded as a craft brewery in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent in 1985 and still brews in the heart of the Potteries area. But how did it come by its seafaring name when this Midlands location is about as land-locked as you can get? Well, their “fleet” (as they like to call them) of award-winning beers hark back to another famous local name: Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated RMS Titanic in 1912, was born in this area, the son of a potter. Hence the ales have names based on the Titanic story – like Steerage, Iceberg and First Class.
One last characteristic that makes this location a relaxing resort is the almost universal dog-friendliness. For instance, pop into the White Hart Tearoom on Stockwell Street to enjoy a traditional English breakfast, and your canine companion is welcome too. Like Rudyard Lake – where humans and dogs travel in rail carriages and along the pathways – Leek operates a formal dog-friendly scheme which has its own logo displayed prominently in participating venues. There’s even a Dog Lane in the town as if their pro-canine disposition were destined.