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Small, but perfectly formed


Cannock Chase Museum
Shugborough Estate
Mountain Bike Trails
At 26 square miles, Cannock Chase is the smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in mainland Britain. Nevertheless, 1.5 million visitors a year are attracted by its forests and heathland. Hiking is the most common way to explore; there are hundreds of unmarked trails, plus plenty of official ones. Long distance routes pass through sections of the park. The Heart of England Way, for example, winds its way along the entire Chase, before carrying on to its eventual destination in the Cotswolds, 100 miles away.
On the way, it passes Castle Ring, an Iron Age fort and the highest point within the AONB's borders. The building is long gone, so only the earthworks remain.
For the full story, you have to go to the Cannock Chase Museum. It's on the south side of the park, where the valley colliery used to stand. Here, young men would learn the techniques of coal mining. They'd practice in simulated conditions, before going underground and doing it for real. This, along with crafts like glass-making, used to be the big business in this part of the country.
The museum building was once the colliery's corn store, where the pit ponies were stabled. Inside, they have examples of the narrow tunnels the miners would have to work in. You can try crawling through yourself, to see if you could have handled such a claustrophobic job. Elsewhere, a recreated miner's cottage shows what each employee earned after their long hours underground.
The 1940s room looks at the Second World War, when large parts of the Chase were taken over by the military for training purposes. The conflict's casualties are remembered through several memorials, dotted across the landscape.
For the residents of Shugborough Estate, in the north, the war hasn't happened yet. There, time is stuck permanently the 19th century. Costumed staff live out the lives of the lords and ladies who owned the manor, and the servants that kept them comfortable. They still believe it's the 1800s, so don't mention anything that happened afterwards. It'll only confuse them! If you ask about their life and work, however, you'll hear some interesting and surprising stories. Shugborough's 900 acres include a Georgian farm, walled gardens and vast expanses of parkland. It's the UK's only complete working historic estate.
On the east side of Cannock Chase is the Birches Valley Forest Centre. This is the start of the mountain bike trails for which this AONB is well-known. One in particular, the purpose-built "Follow the Dog" route, is seven miles of the best biking that Britain has to offer.
Birches Valley is also the location of the Route to Health Sculpture Trail, where local artists have installed works to promote healthy eating, relaxation and exercise. You can begin the latter immediately at Go Ape, an adventure playground of rope bridges, climbing nets and zip lines, suspended from the trees.
Lucky explorers of Cannock Chase may spot one of the park's wild deer. They're not native; they were introduced in Norman times so the upper class could go hunting. Of course, this practice has long since stopped, and the flourishing herd now numbers over 800.

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