February 21, 2014 7:59 pm

A walk with the FT: The Cannock Chase route

The actor Rupert Evans, star of ‘Fleming’, swaps the late-night streets of London for the rural Staffordshire of his childhood
View from Punchbowl car park looking towards Alder Carr in Staffordshire©Robin Friend

View from Punchbowl car park looking towards Alder Carr in Staffordshire

Rupert Evans doesn’t find much time to walk in the countryside these days but that doesn’t stop him enjoying his hobby. The star, alongside John Hurt, of Hollywood blockbuster Hellboy, and of British television costume dramas such as Fingersmith and Sons & Lovers, learns his lines while pounding north London streets late at night.

“I pull on a coat and hat, slip the script into a plastic folder and start walking,” he says. “It’s usually in the early hours and I probably look like a lunatic talking to myself, head down, but it works. Walking is one of my great passions and I’ve yet to find a better way to remember my lines.”

Map of the Cannock Chase route

Map of the Cannock Chase route

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IN Pursuits

Today, however, Evans is joining me in Staffordshire, close to his parents’ arable farm near Shugborough. Evans now lives in Stoke Newington but this is where he grew up. We’re on the edge of Cannock Chase, a former hunting ground created by William the Conqueror. It’s Britain’s smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and its 25 square miles of rolling wood and heathland are a haven for red and fallow deer, otters and red squirrels. We meet at Seven Springs car park in driving rain.

Leaving the car park, we cross the River Trent via Weetman’s Bridge, and head north towards Little Haywood. “I just love this part of the country,” says Evans. “The contrast between the industrial past and the stunning landscape is unique. I grew up cycling around these tracks, playing with friends, grazing my knees and having adventures.”

Evans, 36, will be seen in British cinemas later this year playing the lead role in The Canal, an indie psychological horror movie filmed in Dublin. He is currently appearing in the biopic Fleming on Sky Atlantic and has just finished filming American drama series Rogue with Thandie Newton. Next month he starts work on another series of BBC drama The Village, with Maxine Peake and Juliet Stevenson. But he started his career playing Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. “I remember enjoying being up there and showing off. I liked the idea of being alone on stage but also sharing the experience with a wider audience. Both my parents loved the theatre, so we often travelled down to Birmingham as a family to watch a play or musical.”

Rupert Evans standing in spring where the old brook becomes the short brook at the end of the walk near the car park©Robin Friend

Rupert Evans standing in spring where the old brook becomes the short brook at the end of the walk near the car park

After sixth form, he successfully auditioned for the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “I realised during my A-levels that I could make a career of acting. I became completely hooked on theatre and from then on all I wanted to do was act.”

Half a mile on we meet the Trent and Mersey Canal, where it skirts the village of Little Haywood. The 93-mile waterway was completed in 1777, encouraged by Josiah Wedgwood, who operated his pottery works in nearby Stoke-on-Trent.

“What I love about canals is the pace of life, a lack of speed that makes travelling not about the destination but the journey,” says Evans. At this point and bang on cue, a longboat comes into view from underneath Bridge 73 and chugs past. The helmsman nods in our direction and a splash of water cascades off his cap.

Shugborough Hall now dominates the skyline to our left, surrounded by parkland and several follies. This towering mansion was the ancestral home of the Earls of Lichfield, until it was gifted to the National Trust in 1960. As a teenager, Evans remembers playing at the hall with his friend Thomas, the son of photographer Patrick Lichfield and now 6th Earl of Lichfield. “We painted their Wendy house and played hide and seek in the grounds.”

The parkland around Shugborough is on a river plain and still swamped with water from the January downpours. The walk takes us over a railway bridge, then up a gentle incline towards the A513. We decide to walk single file at this point, as lorry after lorry roars past just a few feet away.

It’s an uncomfortable 10 minutes and I become even more anxious when Evans shouts back at me: “I was quite accident prone as a child – I fell into a window once and almost severed my arm. Then I was chased by a semi-tame lion in Zimbabwe during a school cricket tour to Africa. I patted it on the head and it came after me.”

At Punchbowl car park we cross the road and leave it behind, following a wide track that leads uphill into Cannock Chase. The path then turns right towards Mere Pool and a further junction, where we head left through mature woodland – we know the deer are there but we don’t see any – and on towards Stepping Stones.

Sher Brook is usually a gently flowing stream but today the dozen or so stones that provide safe passage across the water are close to being swamped. Evans’s wellies suddenly come into their own, while I jump from stone to stone and make the far bank without incident.

“When we were kids, we used to come down here and play in the summer. We’d put paper boats in the water and race each other along the stream. I haven’t been here for 10 years,” says Evans.

Trent and Mersey Canal looking south east from the Meadow Lane Bridge©Robin Friend

Trent and Mersey Canal looking south east from the Meadow Lane Bridge

The last mile through woodland to Seven Springs follows a rutted track that has been turned into a muddy mess, thanks to cyclists and logging vehicles that are working in the area. Despite the difficult terrain, Evans remains as enthusiastic as ever. Would he ever consider moving back to Staffordshire to live?

“I’d love to but so much of the acting world revolves around London, it would almost be impossible. At least I have my parents here and I can see them whenever I’m not working. I’m destined to be walking around London at night for a good few years yet.”

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