The view from the terrace outside the Pheasant pub stretches west across miles of russet, green and gold. I am deep in rural Cheshire, roughly halfway between Crewe and Chester. The pub sits high on the Sandstone Ridge, a distinctive feature in an otherwise level landscape – one that is being considered for an area of outstanding natural beauty status (AONB) by Natural England. The Sandstone Trail runs past the pub, on its way from the market town of Frodsham on the Mersey estuary south to Whitchurch in north Shropshire. Two of the trail’s most impressive castles are close to the pub, linked by a five-mile ramble from the door.
I set off around midday along country lanes, past old ivy-covered barns and mossy walls sprouting ferns. A cobbled track takes me under a stone archway, flanked by silver birches and bronzed oaks, bright holly trees and conifers. Coming out of the woods, huge views appear ahead. I am looking eastwards now across gently sloping wintry fields to the village of Bunbury.
A white disc on the misty horizon is Jodrell Bank. The Unesco-listed site has been scanning space since the 1950s and has what is still one of the world’s biggest radio telescopes. Its First Light Pavilion opened in summer 2022. I reflect it’s mentioned when the Vogons arrive in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The walk goes on, under wide skies, through fields of red soil. The turreted pink gatehouse of Victorian Peckforton Castle (a Doctor Who location to continue the sci-fi theme) stands by the lane. Architect Anthony Salvin, who worked on historic buildings such as Windsor Castle and Alnwick Castle, designed this mock-medieval fantasy in the 1840s for landowner and Tory MP John Tollemache. Complete with arrow slits and arches, an octagonal library tower and an oak-panelled long gallery, Historic England’s Grade I listing describes it as: “The last serious fortified home built in England.”
Leaving the road again, I walk past Peckforton Mere. This watery area is all that is left of a much larger area of mossland, drained for farming in the 1800s. Cheshire’s 60-odd mosses and meres are endangered habitats, supporting flowers like bog asphodel and dragonflies like the white-faced darter. Peckforton Mere has been restored to boggy glory; reed buntings and moorhens are busy in a fringe of flourishing sedge grass. Beyond the mere, the birch branches are studded with twiggy clumps known as witches’ brooms while a nuthatch circles a smooth trunk nearby.
Looking the other way, there are views of both Peckforton and the much older Beeston Castle, topping the wooded crag that rises improbably from a sea of fields and farm cottages. Lit by low golden light, it feels more like a Disney image of medieval countryside than something you might see on a walk in Cheshire.
The Pennines and Wales are clearly visible on a good day from the fortified walls of Beeston Castle. Ranulf de Blondeville, sixth earl of Chester, built this formidable, status‑conscious fortress in the early 13th century, including banks and ditches from an iron age hillfort. Henry III took it over soon after and, centuries later, it was a royalist stronghold in the civil war. Beeston surrendered (and was partly destroyed) after the Battle of Rowton Heath in 1645, having reached the cat-eating stage of a long siege. The triumphant parliamentarians seized the castle to find “neither meate, Ale nor Beere … save only a peece of Turkey pye, Twoe Bisketts, a lyve Peacock and a peahen”.
Visitors today have more palatable options. English Heritage has an outdoor cafe and, a mile away, near the Shropshire Union Canal, the eco-friendly Lockgate Coffee House does breakfasts, brunches and luxurious home-baked cakes. Arriving in Beeston on a winter weekday, the castle and onsite cafe are shut, but I sit at one of the picnic tables near the impressive gateway and share my sandwich with a tame robin before following the Sandstone trail back towards the Pheasant. The trail, with its cheerful footprint waymarks, crams history, wildlife and swirling coral-pink sandstone into its mostly ridge-top 34 miles. As well as castles, there are churches, half-timbered cottages, iron age hillforts and legend-rich landmarks with names like Whistlebitch Well and Mad Allen’s Hole.
The walls and rocks around Beeston Crag are hung with curtains of round green pennywort, sunny winter wallflowers and ivy-leaved toadflax. On the banks of a hollow way through the woods, the bright green stars of sphagnum moss spread like a miniature pine forest. The deep birdsong-rich peace is broken only by squawking pheasants. Peckforton Estate is prime pheasant territory and shooting season runs from October to February. Here in the quiet woods, the birds startle noisily out of the arching holly bushes or pick their way down the wooded slopes, their feathers matching perfectly the shining bronze and green of the old and new bracken.
The pub is soon in sight, at the end of the lane. For a longer ramble, the pub has a leaflet that suggests three walks through the nearby countryside and it’s easy to combine this one with the three-mile-loop up Bulkeley Hill. There’s a smell of cooking towards late afternoon; some of the pheasants have wound up as crispy cordon bleu parcels. With a pint of locally brewed Pheasant Gold, they are an obvious choice. The evening’s post-walk idyll closes with a cherry-pistachio frangipane tart and a tangy wild cherry sorbet from the farm down the road.
Google map of the route
Start The Pheasant
Distance 5 miles
Time 2.5 hours
Total ascent 155 metres
GPX map at Ordnance Survey
A slideshow of old photos near the bar shows one of the Pheasant’s previous incarnations as the rustic, whitewashed Carden Arms. It’s a great contrast with today’s upmarket inn, styling itself as a country retreat and foodie destination, gleaming with copper pans and horse brasses. The Nelsons, who took over in 2004, are only the fifth family to own the pub since 1650.
The Pheasant has 12 smart bedrooms and a cottage. Outside, the original sandstone walls and half-timbering survive while the decor inside aims for classic contemporary: exposed stonework and muted tones. Newly renovated rooms in the big barn conversion have views across the Cheshire Plains and are named after local castles. Names of rooms in the creeper-covered stable wing favour forests and hills like Delamere and Rawhead, the highest point on the Sandstone Trail.
Double rooms from £110, B&B, thepheasantinn.co.uk