Written by Julia Thorley
(One of two winning entries in the Heritage Writing Competition.)
The Black Lion in Consall, North Staffordshire, isn’t the sort of pub you simply happen upon. To get there by road you need to deviate from the A52 and head for Kingsley Moor and Cellar Head towards Wetley Rocks – such wonderful place names! – and then turn into Consall village. Follow the signs for the pub and don’t be perturbed when you seem to be heading into the wilds of the Staffordshire countryside – because you are. You are now in the beautiful Churnet Valley.
Eventually, you’ll reach the pub’s car park. Then you will need to walk over the bridge that crosses the canal and the railway line and then, finally, you can climb the steps into the pub. Trust me when I say it’s worth it. Speak to the landlord, Jason, to order yourself a plate of Staffordshire oatcakes and a pint of something lovely from the Peakstones Rock Brewery in Alton (this is a CAMRA pub), then sit outside and take in the view.
You’re looking at the Churnet Valley Railway. The route is now a heritage line, running for 10½ miles and offering steam and diesel-hauled trains at certain times during the year. However, when the North Staffordshire Railway came to the valley in 1849, it became a crucial artery in the industrial life of this part of the Midlands. Like so many stations that served village communities, Consall closed in the mid-1960s, but the restored building, 100m from the beer garden, away to your left, now serves the preserved line.
The Churnet river runs across the top of Staffordshire in a north-west to south-east diagonal. Part of it has been engineered into the Caldon Canal, which offers perhaps the simplest way to reach the pub and it is for these waterborne customers bringing passing trade that the pub stays open all year round. There are moorings right outside it at the Consall Forge.
The canal was built to carry raw materials into the heart of the industrial Midlands: limestone to be used in the iron industry and flints for the potteries. Later, the route of the canal was altered between Consall and Froghall to make way for the railway. A 13-mile extension of the Caldon Canal from Froghall to Uttoxeter was completed in 1811, but obliterated by the new railway after less than 50 years of somewhat inconsistent use. The Etruria to Froghall section was spared, however, and continued in commercial use for another century.
For further evidence of the industrial heritage belied by the tranquillity, take a short stroll along the towpath on the car park side of the canal and you will come across the remains of a bank of four lime kilns dating from the 19th century. They were restored in 2002 and are now designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. They are owned by the RSPB; this part of the quiet valley is home to many special woodland birds, including the pied flycatcher.
The kilns were built between 1806 and 1816 for the Leigh family who lived at Consall Hall. In the industry’s heyday, thousands of men were employed in the dangerous business of extracting quicklime from limestone brought over from nearby Cauldon Lowe. The adjacent railway brought in coal from various local collieries, and lime was carried out. However, the company overstretched itself and was declared bankrupt in 1840. All work at the kilns had stopped within eight years. Consall Hall is now a wedding venue, but its landscaped gardens are open to the public on Sundays throughout the summer.
If you want to explore further afield on foot, there are four marked trails of up to five miles long in the Consall Nature Park, which has SSSI status. The Staffordshire Way, which spans the length of the county for 92 miles from Mow Cop to Kinver Edge, passes right in front of the Black Lion.
Heritage isn’t just about stately homes and beautiful countryside. Our true heritage is founded in grit and dirt and hard work. Sites such as Consall that remind us of this are as valuable as all those stately homes and formal gardens.
POSTED 1st FEBRUARY 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of JULIA THORLEY. Photographs 1, 3 and 4 were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged. Photographs 2 and 5 were supplied by the Black Lion pub.