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Staffordshire: An Insider's Guide | House of Coco Magazine

Updated: Nov 23

This feature was created for and published in print by House of Coco. It can be found in the 'Perspectives' volume of the magazine, which can be purchased in hard copy here or digitally here.


All words and photos in the article are my own.

Despite marrying striking countryside, industrial relics and historical intrigue with idyllic charm, creative subcultures and tangles of canals, Staffordshire still soars far under the vast majority of radars. Not for our guest contributor HANNAH FOSTER-ROE though, who makes a compelling case for it becoming the next alternative Great British getaway.


Sometimes you have to leave a place to learn how to truly love it.


There was a moment, in the restlessness of my youth, when I couldn’t wait to get out of Staffordshire; longing to swap the rural slowness of the remote village I grew up in for somewhere much bigger, grubbier and noisier. But after lengthy stints in both Birmingham and London, I found myself retreating home to roost – and now could not be more content with the surroundings I once took so thoughtlessly for granted.


Eclipsed by Jane Austen’s beloved Derbyshire to the east and the tempting outdoor pursuits of Shropshire to the west, Staffordshire is perhaps better known for bull terriers, brewing and Branston Pickle than it is as a destination in its own right. But acres of crosshatched forests, stubbly moorlands and wedding-cake country estates, coupled with a backstory implicating characters from Anglo-Saxon warriors to Scottish royals and authors to artisans are just a few of the surprising reasons that make me question why travellers frequently neglect this oft-forgotten fraction of the Midlands.


WHERE MERCIA MEETS MIDDLE EARTH


Staffordshire has a rich and formative past, switching hands between the Romans, Saxons and Normans during its early days. In the small settlement of Wall, near Lichfield, explore an unearthed Roman staging post and social complex at Letocetum before visiting Tamworth – ancient capital of Mercia. Having relentlessly defended her kingdom from advancing Danes, a monument dedicated to the Lady Aethelflaed presides today over the site of Tamworth Castle.


Fortresses such as Tamworth speckle the county, marking turbulent times and a tapestry of eras. Stafford Castle, built on the orders of William the Conqueror, is one of the eponymous town’s oldest-surviving structures and hosts a Shakespeare theatre festival most summers beneath the ominous shadow of its crumbling keep. Just outside Burton-upon-Trent lie the ruins of Tutbury Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots is understood to have endured a period of her nineteen-year imprisonment.

Stafford Castle.


More recent history saw Staffordshire become the adopted address of JRR Tolkien, who was stationed here during the First World War and spent time recuperating and writing after the Battle of the Somme. Fans of his stories may wish to follow the Staffordshire Tolkien Trail, encompassing three circular routes that trace his local life and literary inspirations over Essex Bridge – a bridge where two rivers meet, like his fictional Tavrobel – through Shugborough Estate and Cannock Chase Forest.

Essex Bridge.


CALL OF THE WILD


My fondest childhood memories revolve around Cannock Chase, which as a family we would drive through each weekend to visit my grandparents; either stopping off to stretch our legs and fill our bellies with ice-cream, or crawling carefully by in the car – in case a deer, or several, appeared unannounced from the understory. It is the UK’s smallest ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, with hiking trails to suit all ages and abilities, as well as a ‘Go Ape’ aerial adventure centre.

Cannock Chase.


Green pockets of National Forest cover part of the county, too. The project began over 30 years ago in a bid to rewild land previously used for coal-mining and other industry. The establishment of the National Forest Way means long-distance walkers can traipse around 75 miles from the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas to Beacon Hill Country Park, near Woodhouse Eaves in Leicestershire.


In the Staffordshire Moorlands, the Peak District’s southernmost tip spills over the Derbyshire border. As the brooding landscape of Blackshaw Moor rises into jagged outcrops, the Roaches segment of the Dark Peak emerges. The Roaches and its rock formations with fairytale names – The Winking Man, Hen Cloud, The Queen’s Chair, Lud’s Church – draw ramblers, scramblers and climbers from all corners of the country. Fun fact: this is where you’ll find Flash, the highest village in Britain.

Peak District National Park.


The Capability Brown-designed gardens of Trentham Estate are absolutely divine, but no visit to Trentham would be complete without an afternoon at the Monkey Forest; home to 140 endangered Barbary macaques who roam as freely as they would in their native habitat. Animal enthusiasts will also enjoy the numerous nature reserves cultivated by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which may not have their own monkey populations, but are known for skylarks, weasels and brown hares.


THE QUAINT, CRAFTY & QUIRKY


Having never lamented upon its landlocked position in the heart of England, Staffordshire chooses instead to celebrate the remarkable scenery and unique identity it does have, which can be linked significantly to an earthy heritage of agriculture, milling, mining and pottery-craft.


The region’s canals are a lasting reminder of this, but are now equally famous for boating breaks and tours. Anyone wishing to sample life on the water could board a narrowboat with Black Prince, who specialise in both hires and short holidays, or try the Heritage Canoe Trail from Stoke-on-Trent to Froghall. Walking and cycling the towpaths are also a lovely way to experience the canals; my favourite stretch runs from Great Haywood Junction to Wolseley Bridge, which I like to combine with short detours to drink in the architecture and grounds of Shugborough Hall and to pick-my-own strawberries at Canalside Farm when the season permits.

Great Haywood.

Shugborough Hall.


Throughout the swathes of pretty countryside, quiet hamlets melt the heart with their book-swap telephone boxes, honesty shops peddling locally-farmed produce, thatched roofs, and untidy hedgerows bursting with foxgloves and cow parsley. Fields and meadows merge into market towns like Leek; all timber-framed terraces, antique window displays, weathered brick and bunting.


The county carries itself with an eccentricity that, if human, would be like a ditsy professor who wears their glasses on a beaded necklace. It possesses a creative, eclectic spirit which is fittingly summed up by the Victorian gardens at Biddulph Grange. Visitors here will pass under a canopy of well-travelled trees and plants to a Chinese pagoda on a jade lake, an Egyptian courtyard and a Tudor-English cottage – via a transcendent Himalayan glen.

Biddulph Grange Gardens.


Another two of the county’s most curious features are joined by the 92-mile Staffordshire Way, which starts at Mow Cop in the north and concludes in the south at Kinver Edge. Sometimes styled as Mow Cop Castle, it isn’t really a castle at all but a folly, originally used as an aristocratic summerhouse. Down at the other end of the scale, the rock houses of Kinver Edge were once the dwellings of hermits and cave people. Carved into the rust-coloured sandstone, some of these have now been restored and are open to the public.

Mow Cop Castle.


CITIES OF CERAMICS & SPIRES


There are only two cities in Staffordshire: Lichfield and Stoke-on-Trent. Lichfield is the smaller and more obviously aesthetically-pleasing of the pair, famed for its medieval three-spired cathedral: the only one of its kind in the UK. The city also hosts the multi-disciplinary Lichfield Festival every year, and has its own Heritage Trail.

Lichfield Cathedral.


Stoke-on-Trent, an urban amalgamation of six endearingly scruffy towns, has evolved so much in my lifetime; transforming into a cultural hotspot with its sights set on becoming the City of Culture. It lost out to Coventry in 2017, but being the ancestral home of ceramics has always put Stoke on the map. There is no shortage of museums, galleries and factories that chart this artisanal history. Among the most popular are World of Wedgewood, The Potteries, Barewall Gallery and the Emma Bridgewater Factory, which runs its own decorating masterclasses.

The Emma Bridgewater Factory.


Something else synonymous with Stoke-on-Trent is the Staffordshire oatcake, a sort of dense crêpe that can be stuffed with anything from a full English to a few slices of cheese. It’s a divisive snack, either viewed as a tasty breakfast treat or a bit like a soggy flannel; there is no in-between. Regardless, they are a local treasure: there is even a ‘Stokie Oatcake’ gin, if you’re searching for a souvenir to perfectly summarise your trip to Staffordshire!


For further information and recommendations, visit: enjoystaffordshire.com.

NEED TO KNOW


EAT


The Orangery at the Moat House, Acton Trussell | Serving afternoon teas, Sunday roasts, three-course dinners and gourmet tasting menus | moathouse.co.uk


Ye Olde Dun Cow, Colton | A fuss-free friendly local priding itself on quality ingredients, cosy classics and killer puds! | yeoldeduncow.co.uk


The Boat Inn, Lichfield | Bringing fine-dining to the cathedral city with three AA Rosettes and a place in the Michelin Guide 2021 | theboatinnlichfield.com


STAY


Secret Cloud House Holidays, Cauldon | Happy glampers will adore this fleet of luxury yurts; each with its own wood-burning stove and private hot-tub | secretcloudhouseholidays.co.uk


The Duncombe Arms, Ellastone | Taking the “pub with rooms” concept and elevating it with a touch of English country magic | duncombearms.co.uk


The Tawny, Consall | One of the hottest hotel openings in the UK this year, this new eco-resort features boutique boathouse accommodation, outdoor baths and an enviable pool | thetawny.co.uk


PLAY


The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme | The continent’s first ever purpose-built theatre-in-the-round | newvictheatre.org.uk


Moddershall Oaks, Stone | A serene spa retreat offering an indulgent range of treatments and tailor-made packages | moddershalloaks.com


Halfpenny Green Estate, Bobbington | A vineyard, craft centre and epicurean paradise specialising in award-winning English wine | halfpennygreen.co.uk

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