5 festive walks in and around Cheshire

waterfowl on the Sankey Canal

Feed the waterfowl on the Sankey Canal at Spike Island - Credit: David Dunford

Five to go festive walking... with lashings of fun and, perhaps a ginger beer or two.

We’ve decided not to give you one big present this year, but instead here are five stocking-fillers – short, gentle walks that won’t tire out little (or ageing!) legs, each with a nearby child-friendly destination that can be deployed as an inducement to your flagging mini-hiker. And ideas for refreshments along the way.
Happy holidays. 

Bridge over river

West Bank at Spike Island is dominated by the Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 - Credit: David Dunford

Spike Island and Catalyst Museum 

This is a short, hourglass-shaped walk with duck- and swan-feeding opportunities (the RSPB recommend grain and vegetables such as defrosted peas or sweetcorn, rather than bread), in the shadow of the spectacular Runcorn bridges, which can be followed by an educational visit to the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum.

Look out for a yellow-billed whooper swan, an injured bird that was apparently released here earlier in 2021 and which seems to have taken up residence with the large herd of resident mutes. 

Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum is a science-based family attraction, reflecting its location in the former offices of Gossage’s soap works overlooking Spike Island, a pivotal site in the early years of the British chemical industry.

As well as the regular child-friendly exhibits, during December weekends there will be a Light Show (investigating the properties of light) at 12:30pm and 3pm, and a Frozen Science workshop (hands-on activities involving 'all things cool') at 11:30am and 2pm. Admission to these events costs £1.75 in addition to the standard entrance fee.

The centre is closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. 

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Paths are mostly level, and surfaced throughout, so pushchairs and wheelchairs are practical and there’s no need for wellies. There are playgrounds next to Catalyst and in Victoria Gardens. The route can be shortened by omitting the loop round West Bank. 

Compass Points 

Area of walk: West Bank, Widnes 

Start point: Spike Island car park WA8 0DE (free) 

Distance: 1½ miles 

Time to allow: 1 hour 

Map: OS Explorer 275 Liverpool 

Refreshments: Mersey Hotel merseyhotel.com 0151 538 6028 

Child-friendly: Catalyst Science Discovery Centre catalyst.org.uk 0151 420 1121 – £7.95 adults, £5.95 children 4 to 16. Family tickets available. 

The Walk 

1. From the car park, walk down to the Sankey Canal and cross at the lock gates. 

2. Cross the grass and turn left in front of a large pond, the former Widnes Dock. Walk between clumps of trees and past two barrel-roofed buildings, which are former pyrites kilns used in the manufacture of sulphuric acid. Follow the path to the right as it curves to the Mersey shore, with impressive views of the Mersey Gateway Bridge (opened 2017). 

3. Turn right and follow the path alongside the estuary back to the lock. 

4. Cross the canal and turn left. When you reach a residential road, bear left towards the church. 

5. At a road junction, turn left beyond the Community Garden and return to the water’s edge. Turn right and follow the Victoria Promenade to the end; the red-brick building is the powerhouse of the former transporter bridge, demolished in 1961. 

6. Turn right up the slope and follow Mersey Road (ahead, between the Mersey Hotel and the former Transporter Bridge Offices) back to Catalyst and the Spike Island car park. 

Interactive fun at Delamere Forest

Interactive fun at Delamere Forest - Credit: David Dunford

Delamere Forest and the Gruffalo Trail 

The Gruffalo himself is looking a little forlorn – he’s currently imprisoned by security fencing as, according to Forestry England, 'he’s been living in the forest for quite a long time now and isn’t really up to hugging and climbing at the moment.'

Hopefully he’ll get a touch of TLC at some point. However, he’s now accompanied by his fellow characters from Julia Donaldson’s well-loved children’s book on a series of interactive boards along a short trail within the forest, each with an associated fun activity via an augmented-reality app for smartphones.

My representative sample cohort from the target demographic (Emily, aged nine) got the hang of it soon enough, and certainly seemed to enjoy waking the fox and flapping her arms at the owl. Older children might prefer the Forest Segway or the Go Ape Treetop Challenge. 

The trails are level and should be OK for buggies, though expect leaf mould and a little mud at this time of year, and bear in mind that the routes are shared with cyclists, Segways and horse-riders. The vast new £9m visitor centre opened just over a year ago and includes a new café and accessible toilets. 

Please note that from Wednesday to Sunday through December, and all week from 26th to 31st, a paid event will take place each evening at Delamere Forest and a 3.30pm closing time will be applied for daytime visitors.

Compass Points 

Area of walk: Delamere Forest 

Start point: Forest Centre car park, Linmere, Delamere CW8 2HZ (£5 for two hours) 

Distance: 1¼ miles 

Time to allow: 1 hour 

Map: OS Explorer 267 Northwich & Delamere Forest 

Refreshments: Delamere Station House Café delamerestationhouse.co.uk 07375 892 872 

Child-friendly: Download the Gruffalo Spotter 2 app from Google Play or the Apple App Store via forestryengland.uk/delamere-forest 

The Walk 

1. From the Forest Centre, walk back to the car park entrance and turn left along the service road. Just after the wooden bollards, turn right into the forest. Mouse is the first Gruffalo character you’ll encounter. 

Shortly afterwards, turn right at a junction and then cross the railway bridge. Fox is the next character to interact with – turn right just afterwards, and then it’s Owl. 

2. At the Gruffalo sculpture and picnic tables, turn right and look out for Snake on the left. 

3. Next up is the Gruffalo himself, and once you’ve successfully scared him off you’re on the home leg. The track leads back past a barrier and buildings to the Forest Segway and Go Ape entrance on the left, and over the railway again.

Turn right to return to the Visitor Centre. 

Country church

St Lawrence's Church, Stoak: most of the visible fabric dates from 1827, though there are remnants of the original 15th-century building - Credit: David Dunford

Stoak and Blue Planet Aquarium 

This is a short circular walk featuring a handsome church and a section of the Shropshire Union Canal towpath. 

Paths are level but only suitable for all-terrain buggies (with one awkward moment down onto the towpath, and there may be muddy spots).

Care is obviously needed beside the canal, and also on the short stretch along the road through the village on the return, which has only intermittent pavements. There is a small play area on the left as you enter the village towards the end of the walk. 

A trip to the Blue Planet Aquarium will complete your day out: tickets cost £14.50 for under-13s and £20.45 otherwise (toddlers under 90cm go free).

The aquarium is open from 10am to 5pm (last entry 4pm) every day except Christmas Day. Older children might be more tempted by the retail opportunities offered by the Cheshire Oaks designer outlet just up the road. 

The Bunbury Arms is child- and dog-friendly and has a kids’ menu and a small play area. For the whole of December, the pub is offering a Christmas Fare menu with traditional yuletide favourites. Parking is for patrons only. 

Compass Points 

Area of walk: Stoak 

Start point: Bunbury Arms CH2 4HW (parking for patrons only; there are a couple of roadside spaces next to the parish church) 

Distance: 0.8 miles 

Time to allow: 45 minutes 

Map: OS Explorer 266 Wirral & Chester/Caer 

Refreshments: Bunbury Arms bunburyarms.co.uk 01244 951833 

Child-friendly: Blue Planet Aquarium blueplanetaquarium.com 0151 357 8804 

The Walk 

1. From the Bunbury Arms, walk down Church Lane, shortly passing the parish church of St Lawrence. Within the churchyard is the stump of a medieval standing cross, and an interesting but tragic memorial to nine-year-old Nelson Burt, who drowned in the Mersey during a 'hurricane' in 1822. 

2. Having visited the church, return to Church Lane and continue to the gate at the end, and beyond along a rough track. Pass an entrance on the left and proceed to Denison’s Bridge over the canal (see map for a rare blunder by the Ordnance Survey!). The path ahead gives access to Gowy Meadows Nature Reserve, should you wish to extend your walk. 

3. A slightly awkward gap and step down on the right, with tree roots as a trip hazard, gives access to the towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal.

Follow it left, away from the bridge. Continue along the towpath for 500 metres, passing under Stoke Bridge (numbered 137) until you reach the road bridge (Picton Lane Bridge). Pass under both the new and old bridges then turn sharp left past the noticeboard for Stoak Nature Park. 

4. Cross the old bridge over the canal and join the road beyond. Just before the first houses, there is a playing field on the left with a small playground. To finish the walk, continue along the village street past the end of Bunbury Close and Croughton Road back to the Bunbury Arms. 

The lake at Brereton Heath

The lake at Brereton Heath - Credit: David Dunford

Brereton Heath and The Little Cow Shed 

The 15-acre lake at Brereton Heath was the result of sand extraction for glass- and mould-making.

The surrounding area was planted with Scots pines, mostly felled during the First World War, but much woodland remains and there are also areas of heathland and grassland under active management.

The path around the lake is level and well surfaced, and suitable for buggies and wheelchairs. Dogs are welcome but must be kept under control. 

Opposite the car park entrance is the Little Cow Shed, an innovative operation run by the Dale family, who have farmed in the area since the 1940s.

Here you can buy unhomogenised whole milk from the farm’s own herd, and flavoured milkshakes, via self-service vending machines.

They are hosting a Christmas Market on the weekend of  December 4/5, with evening opening from 3pm on Friday 3rd and then daytime opening from 10am on the Saturday and Sunday, featuring market stalls and seasonal food. 

Compass Points 

Area of walk: Brereton Heath 

Start point: Brereton Heath car park CW12 4SU (£1 for 1 hour, £2 for up to 3 hours) 

Distance: 0.8 miles 

Time to allow: 45 minutes plus dawdling time 

Map: OS Explorer 268 Wilmslow, Macclesfield & Congleton 

Refreshments: The Bear’s Head, Brereton vintageinn.co.uk/restaurants/north-west/thebearsheadbrereton 01477 544732 

Child-friendly: The Little Cow Shed thelittlecowshed.co.uk 01477 533239 

The Walk 

1. From the car park with the lake on your right, head past the visitor centre near the entrance 

2. Follow the surfaced path, which curves right and returns to the lakeside. After a wooded section, walk alongside an open grassy area to a woodpecker statue and a birdwatching screen. 

3. Continuing round the lake, you pass the heathland area (on your left) before entering the main block of woodland. 

4. Keep right at a stone marker and you will soon find yourself back at the car park. 

Canal

Canal architecture on the Trent & Mersey at Wheelock - Credit: David Dunford

Wheelock and Wheelock Hall Farm 

This short walk uses the towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal and the Wheelock Rail Trail (part of the former Kidsgrove to Sandbach branch railway) to provide a satisfyingly varied little circuit, with the area around locks 65 and 66 on the canal and the adjacent River Wheelock being particularly attractive. 

Odd spots may be muddy, so wellies are recommended, and the soft ground and the flight of steps down from the rail trail probably rule out pushchairs and buggies. 

Kids will enjoy nearby Wheelock Hall Farm, which has a large play area featuring go-karts and ride-on tractors, and farm animals including pigs, sheep, goats, calves, donkeys, chickens and ducks (sadly this means that dogs are not permitted, apart from guide and assistance dogs). 

There is a garden centre and farm shop, where you can pick up fresh-cut Christmas trees and home-produced turkeys throughout December. 

The farm is open to visitors every day except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Entry to the play area is £7.50 for children and £2 for adults. For a quick go on the swings, there’s also a free play area off Crewe Road just beyond Mill Lane at the end of the walk. 

Compass Points 

Area of walk: Wheelock near Sandbach 

Start point: Mill Lane car park, Wheelock CW11 3RL (free) 

Distance: 1 mile 

Time to allow: 45 minutes 

Map: OS Explorer 257 Crewe & Nantwich 

Refreshments: Cheshire Cheese cheshirecheesewheelock.co.uk 01270 346600 
Barchetta Restaurant thebarchettarestaurant.co.uk 01270 314183 
Shampaan Indian Restaurant shampaan.com 01270 753 528 

Child-friendly: Wheelock Hall Farm wheelockhallfarm.co.uk 01270 764 230 

The Walk 

1. From the car park just off Crewe Road, follow Mill Lane and turn immediately left into Cotton Lane. Cross a stream by a bend in the River Wheelock and pass the house called Watersmeet. Pass under the A534 bridge and continue to the locks on the Trent and Mersey Canal. 

2. Stay on the right-hand side of the canal past lock 66, then at the entrance to Canalside Farm follow the path straight ahead, bisecting the cottage and the towpath by lock 65. The route briefly leaves the canal, before turning left at a footpath sign for the Wheelock Rail Trail. 

3. Cross the canal on the old railway bridge and follow the trail for 170 metres, before turning left down steps and through a gate at the bottom. Ignoring the railway arch ahead, turn right through another gate and follow the path through a third gate and past the canal cottage back to lock 66. Cross the canal again via the bridge below the locks. 

4. A narrow gap on the right gives direct access to the towpath but it’s easier to swing left and then through the fence onto the towpath by the lock, and pass under the canal bridge. Follow the towpath under the main road bridge and continue for ¼ mile. Walk through the car park by the Barchetta Restaurant and out to the main street. 

5. Turn left past the Cheshire Cheese and follow the village street back to the Mill Lane car park.