Memories of a countryside blighted by mining have long faded in this particular part of the old Yorkshire coalfield where unsightly pithead gear has been replaced by a green and vibrant outlook stretching as far as the eye can see.
Ackworth, itself a former pit village, lies at the heart of just such an expansive landscape with not a blemish to mar its pristine appearance.
The village comprises four linked communities – High Ackworth, Low Ackworth, Ackworth Moor Top and Brackenhill - with a total of 7,000 residents.
This is an ancient settlement founded by the Saxons, its name meaning the place of the oaks. The Domesday Book survey of 1086 records that Hunfrid held it from Ilbert de Lacy, Lord of Pontefract, and that there was a church and a mill at the time of the Conquest in 1066.
The present church of St Cuthbert’s dates mainly from a rebuild of 1852 following a disastrous fire. A famous local name linked to the church is that of John Gully, MP for Pontefract, a renowned 19th-century prizefighter, who is buried there with his family, although his grave lies outside the church wall owing to a fall-out with the rector.
The argument is thought to have centred around Gully’s habit of performing baptisms on demand. Gully, who died in 1863, went 59 rounds in a bare-fist championship bout - and lost. He lived at Ackworth Hall, now demolished, which was situated in Ackworth Park behind the church.
Ackworth’s medieval cross was erected in memory of Father Thomas Balne of nearby Nostell Priory who preached at this spot in the 1400s and who died while on pilgrimage to Rome. The village is now best known for the independent Ackworth School which was founded in 1779 as a boarding school for Quaker boys and girls and is one of only eight Quaker schools in the country.
PARKING: High Ackworth can be approached via the A628 from the centre of Pontefract. On entering village, continue for a short distance – slow down! - to spot the triangular village green on your right and, here, turn right (signpost: Featherstone) into Purston Lane and park in the immediate vicinity near the medieval cross and church.
HIGH ACKWORTH AND FITZWILLIAM
6 ½ miles: Allow 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours. Map: O/S Explorer 278 Sheffield and Barnsley
From the church (or village cross), walk along Purston Lane (pavement) towards Featherstone for about 150 yards to a righthand bend (house called Northlands) and go off left at fingerpost for Hessle. Go down right edge of field past Ackworth Old Hall.
The hall was built in the 1620s on the site of an earlier medieval manor house dating from 1311. The highwayman John Nevison is said to haunt the hall. In 1683, Nevison was one of a band of outlaws active in this area and he is believed to have hidden in a small compartment above the door at the old hall. Nevison was hanged in 1685.
Three-quarters of the way down the field, go through kissing gate on your right and turn left to cross a bridge over the Went Beck. Go up right edge of next field to top corner of field, enter next field via kissing gate and go up its right edge. At top of field, exit via kissing gate to left of a metal gate and just right of a water trough.
Go slightly right up to the next kissing gate and a fingerpost. Now go straight ahead along tarred access drive, passing to left of Hessle Farm House, and immediately turn right (fingerpost) past red metal barrier, along vehicle track, soon sweeping left (fingerpost).
After a short half mile, look out keenly for a tree-lined beck coming up to join the vehicle track at the point where the vehicle track gives out to enter fields – spot the half-hidden fingerpost in trees to your right.
Turn LEFT along the tree-lined beck (trees on your right). This lovely wooded path leads to Hessle Lane, turn right and follow the traffic-free byway to the busy A638.
1: Go straight across the road with great care and enter the vegetated area opposite, 12 yards to the left of a bus stop, where a path opens up. On passing through vegetation, go slightly right through a tiny wooded area and over footbridge with houses and paddocks to your right.
When wooden fence on your right turns right (garden shed), go half right across the huge field (no path) - aim to the right of the row of houses on skyline. On crossing field, root out a tall marker post with yellow tape and arrow – ignore arrow!
Instead, turn right for 10 paces and then turn left along hedge line to find a footbridge, cross it and go half right, under fallen tree, to enter field and go up its right edge. At top of field, go straight on along a raised path between fields. At field end, go past power pole and straight on along vehicle track with school play area to your left (through hedge).
Sweep left, past vehicle barrier, into a street on edge of Fitzwilliam with primary school on left. Turn right and then first left along a street to its end and then turn left. The street soon finishes – go straight ahead to a wide green metal gate and fingerpost (unsightly tipping – yes, you’ve been expecting it! Why do people do this to their own area?).
Enter field ahead and turn right along ditch. Note: The actual right of way follows the metal railings to your right but the path is impassable.
Now stay alert! On passing the first pair of double power poles, turn right across the ditch. On our visit there was – of all things! – a child’s toy car in the ditch. Do not cross at that point, but continue for another couple of yards and cross the ditch where it is less steep.
Turn left for about 40 yards and then, when bushes on your left turn left, go straight on across the field ahead, staying within a few yards of the wood on your right. Brackenhill to your left.
On crossing field – tall metal railings and an industrial site ahead through trees – turn left along field edge and follow it all the way as it bears right to enter a stout path at a couple of large boulders. Turn left and follow path down to a two-sided fingerpost – ignore it! – and bear right along vehicle track.
Go past a green vehicle barrier (Soccer pitch on left) to emerge in a tarred lane and turn left. Follow the lane into Brackenhill, passing play area, to emerge in main road (A638).
2: Cross it and turn right, past a car wash, to a fingerpost at Green Lane. Ignore fingerpost – keep on along pavement for another 50 yards and turn left through gap in wall at road bridge on to the bed of an old colliery spur line which served Hemsworth pit (the line opened 1914, closed 1961).
Follow the tarred path – tunnel under road to your right – through a wide grass strip with houses on either side. This is Ackworth Moor Top. Just before the tarred path enters a road, there is a fork - take the right branch to gain the road.
Cross it and go straight ahead on tarred path. Cross the next road – Flounders Hill nameplate to left – and continue along the tarred path for 50 yards only to a bench and, here, turn LEFT across the grass to exit at a metal horse barrier into a road.
Take the path opposite (fingerpost), go past left side of vehicle barrier and straight ahead to a three-sided fingerpost and turn right for Barnsley Road. Wander through the wood with houses to your right to emerge in the A628 on edge of Ackworth Moor Top.
Cross it and turn left along pavement, past sports field and Mill Lane, to where the road turns left and, here, turn right at fingerpost for Station Road etc. Go past side of house, enter sports field and bear left along its edge, past Soccer pitches.
Keep going to end of field, enter a road, cross it half right to a rusty metal post (arm missing!) which marks the start of a flagstone path between houses. Follow this into a field and cross it slightly left on a well-worn path.
On crossing field, go down a ginnel into street and straight ahead along Hill Drive, soon sweeping left downhill and then turning first right – don’t overshoot! – into a cul-de-sac. At bottom of cul-de-sac, turn left along an enclosed path.
On emerging in A628 at High Ackworth village green, cross with great care and go up side of green to the finish.