Walking: Tread carefully - alligators: Making the most of the winter sun, Paul Gosling strides out snappily in Staffordshire

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The Independent Culture
'ALLIGATOR farm - trespassers will be eaten,' we read on the notice as we quickly passed by the farm. It was not quite the welcome to walking in Staffordshire we expected.

The village of Prestwood appeared to be so quiet and sleepy , not at all the place for alligators. And so it proved - later inquiries revealed it to be a name, not a description. Presumably just someone's idea of a joke.

The weather was pleasantly sunny, our final chance for a winter walk on one of the last days of the season. Snow was still lying in deep drifts, and we lobbed snowballs at each other.

Leaving Alligator Farm behind, we headed north towards an attractive lake, keeping the sewage works safely hidden behind a hill to our right. The lake was still frozen at one end, while at the other, little segments thawed in odd patterns, much like the shape of leaves covered by hoar-frost.

A buzzard passed overhead, but we felt hounded at ground level by the constant flow of construction vehicles. Apparently these are regularly tested by the local JCB factory, which, to the owner's credit, is marked at its front gate by a strikingly avant-garde sculpture of a JCB's digging arms.

We headed for Wootton Deer Park, which has a public right of way across it. The entrance was through an enchanting, hidden door in the wall of the grounds.

Passing through an attractive garden we entered the rolling parkland, and to our left was the imposing Wootton Lodge, set against the mixed colours of evergreen and deciduous woodlands behind it. Deer could be seen on two horizons.

Wootton Lodge was built at the end of the 16th century for Sir Richard Fleetwood, probably by Robert Smithson, a well-known Elizabethan mason architect. Badly damaged in the Civil War, it was restored at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The grounds were freshly landscaped about 20 years ago, after the estate was purchased by the Bamford family, owners of the JCB business. The deer park dates to the 13th century.

Nearby Wootton Hall also has an interesting history: The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau lived there while he wrote The Social Contract and Confessions. Locals were apparently perturbed by his appearances in an Armenian cloak.

After leaving the park, we followed the footpath to Wootton village. The notice clearly instructed us to keep to the path, but this proved difficult as the melting snow was turning the sunken footpath into a brook.

Beyond Wootton we headed for the Weaver Hills, with its sequence of small peaks. Our goal was the last and highest hillock, which on the map appeared to give a panorama over Wootton Park. The view was worth it, but we had to keep our backs to two gigantic limestone quarries to the west. The strong wind dissuaded us from lingering.

We regained the footpath, and with some difficulty followed it between the two quarries. After crossing a road we followed a path through a farmyard, helped by that rare and much appreciated thing, a farmer who is polite and helpful to walkers crossing his property.

We travelled through Ramshorn Common, which turned out to be a piece of rather unattractive swampland, sprouting small, malformed trees that had difficulty in getting a grip on life. That grip could soon become more tenuous, because a road is being built through the common.

A planning notice warned that a development of holiday chalets was to be constructed. This threatens to become quite a little holiday development, with a caravan park already sited next door.

For several hours we had looked forward to a pub lunch. Alas, when we reached the Olde Star Inn it had finished serving food, leaving me to curse myself for not packing sandwiches. To heighten our irritation the pub's piped music proved to be Petula Clark and Vera Lynn. It was not the place for us.

Our walk went literally and metaphorically downhill from then. That most common problem for walkers then beset us - a difference of opinion on our route.

One of us wanted to walk along the river bank, I wanted to follow the ridge opposite, and the third wanted the shortest way back. We found a compromise which kept us all equally unhappy, and started following the road back alongside the river.

What appeared on the map to be a little track turned out to be a well used road, unpleasant to walk along. I lost my battle to follow a bit of the Staffordshire Way, so we missed the nearby Ousal and Dimmings dales, as well as the view from Toothill Rock of the so-called 'Staffordshire Rhineland'.

We found compensation in following the riverside Churnet Valley footpath, which was formerly a single track railway. A charming old rail station, had now, it seemed, been converted into a stylish home. Towering over our path was Alton Castle, a 19th century mock-Gothic building, designed by A W Pugin for the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury. We occasionally glimpsed the Alton Towers leisure park on our left, but it was mostly hidden by Abbey Woods.

Transferring from the Churnet Valley footpath to the path that took us back to Prestwood proved hazardous. We had to cross part of the River Churnet, but the bridge marked on the map turned out to be barely crossable.

The wooden slats had disappeared, making it impossible to walk across. The steel support structure was in good shape, so we clambered across using the railings. The river flowed fast underneath, heading towards a spectacular weir a little downstream.

Returning to the car, we knew we had walked too far, and too much of it on metalled roads. But crossing Wootton Park had made our day.

And it was reassuring to learn later that there was no chance of the alligators eating the deer.