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Potteries Orienteering Club

West Midlands Orienteering Association

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First published in The Potter March 2006
Text © Copyright John Heaton 2006

Downs Banks

Geography

Downs Banks is a small area of heath land midway between Barlaston and Stone, sometimes referred to as Barlaston Downs. Rectangular in shape it is about 1.0k × 0.6k. An unnamed stream runs N-S through the middle and the slopes to the East and West are very steep. The area stands out from its surroundings of more gently sloping farmland and the to the west the disused wasteland that was part of the demolished Meaford Power Station site.

History

I had drawn a blank here. The National Trust own the site and all their website says is that it is an important area of lowland heath near Stone comprising 300 acres. I had a theory that this area was once part of the estate of a large house. Meaford Hall is close by, but no information relating these could be found.

However, at the last minute I noticed an article tucked in the old Downs Banks file. I knew it had no information prior to 1996, but there was an article by Rob Whiteman, the National Trust Warden, written in 1997 and also published in the Potter!.

Downs Banks was donated to the NT in 1950 by Joules Brewery in Stone. They used their land in the war years to grow hops. Before the NT took over visitors were turned away by the local farmer and the land was extensively grazed by cattle, so the vegetation has been altered over the last 50 years. Rob also gives a vivid description of the plant life and wildlife which I will summarize below.

In 2000 the Rural Parish Council of Stone and Barlaston erected a “millennium” stone. It is what they called a toposcope, a panoramic viewpoint guide fixed on the top of a 4 foot pillar of York stone. It was erected on the highest point at the top of the east bank of the valley.

Map and Event History

The earliest map I had initially found is dated 1989, produced by Austin Farr at 1:10000 which gives a 16cm × 10cm map. This was the version used until very recently for all our events. Local events were held in 1987 and 1988 on an earlier version of which I had no information. However I again have received some last minute information from the Farrs and Tony Smith. Our club was formed in 1975 by members of Walton Chasers. They brought with them the use of Downs Banks, which Tony recalls a first version being created in 1974. Then, in 1975, as part of POTOC he and his brother created a new map, initially at 1:5000, then, in the following year, redrawn at 1:10000. Tony feels sure that our first local event as a club was sometime in that first year at Downs Banks. It was on May 4th, but still under a WCH banner and attracted a staggering 500 competitors. He also recalls that there was another version of the map produced later by Mike Eccles (looking at an old Potter this seems to have been produced at the end of 1980) which would have probably been the one used in 1987 and 1988.

The last event used an OCAD version of the map, returning to the original 1:5000 which fits neatly on an A4 sheet. Austin Farr has been updating the map recently. The NT has been doing some major improvements on paths and produced some enclosed areas with a view to bringing back grazing.

Date Event Planner Competitors
4 May 1975 CATI Tony Smith (then WCH) 500
6 January 1980 Club
17 January 1981 Club
17 October 1987 Local Judy Douglas
19 November 1988 Local Judy Douglas 75
2 December 1989 Local Paul Graetz 46
8 March 1992 Local Tony Smith 127
14 March 1993 Local Andrew and Mark Rowe 144
19 February 1994 Local Paul Graetz 81
28 June 1995 Local Brian Billington 10
16 December 1995 Night John Heaton 23
16 November 1996 Local Austin Farr 45
16 November 1996 Night Robin Baker
24 January 1998 Local Austin and Barbara Farr 18
13 March 1999 Local John Heaton 46
11 November 2000 Local Geoff Hollins 21
10 November 2001 Local Henry Morgan 26
16 November 2002 Local Gerry Riley 27

Permanent Course

By 1976 Tony and Mike Smith had established a permanent course for the area. In recent years some the sites have come into disrepair or disappeared. This has now been rectified and the map updated, and some revisions done to the courses.

Flora and Fauna (ref. Rob Whiteman)

Cattle grazed on the hills up to 1950 and the slopes were covered by a mosaic of grasses, heather, bilberry, gorse and broom. It is now mainly a jungle of bracken and dense scrub birch trees. Some remnants of the old vegetation remain at the edges of some of the paths. In the lower reaches of the valley the land is an extensive marsh where alder trees flourish and on the damp ground marigold and golden saxifrage grow.

Snakes and lizards were quite common but are now rarely seen. Buzzards were also a common sight, but now are sometimes seen in winter when the bracken is low. The marsh area of the valley attracts many species of birds including redwings, jays and woodpeckers.

Rob concludes his piece by stating an aim to return the land to its original state. We would all be glad to see the bracken retreat, even though there may be a few cows in the way.

John Heaton