The Staffordshire town of Cannock is on the southern boundary of the Cannock Chase, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with similar protections to a National Park.
So a lot of the interest for visitors lies in the countryside, where you’ll come by visitor centres, birch woodland, pine plantations, large tracts of heathland and a bumper choice of activities.
Mining was a way of life around Cannock until the 20th century, and the excellent Museum of Cannock Chase is set on what was once a training colliery.
The Chasewater reservoir is a watersports hotbed in summer, and on its shore there’s a heritage railway pulled by former mining locomotives.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cannock:
1. Cannock Chase AONB
Cannock is at the southern edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a patchwork of landscapes on what used to be a Royal Forest.
In this region there’s beautiful birch woodland, heathland, large plantations of coniferous trees from after the First World War and also traces of long forgotten coal mines.
As we’ll see, you’ll have a good choice of visitor centres and little museums to check out, as well as a system of signposted walking trails and some worthwhile historical sites.
Not far east of Cannock is Castle Ring, an Iron Age hill fort, which at 242 metres is also the highest point in the entire AONB, while in the north is the Neoclassical Shugborough Hall, ancestral seat of the Earls of Lichfield.
2. Birches Valley Forest Centre
The first stop for families in Cannock Chase has to be the Birches Valley Forest Centre, which sits in the heart of one of the AONB’s coniferous plantations.
The centre has a cafe, children’s play area, picnic area, and is the starting point for circular hiking and cycling trails, one of which leads you around a series of pools.
If you don’t have a bike you can hire one from the Swinnerton Cycles bike shop, which also offers trikes for littler visitors.
When summer comes, nearby Chasewater is a go-to for all sorts of activities on land or water.
This 270-acre water reservoir was built at the end of the 18th century to feed the Wyrley and Essington Canal and maintain levels in the Birmingham Canal Network.
Today Chasewater is all about leisure, and whether you’re experienced or just starting out you can come for sailing, paddleboarding, wakeboarding, waterskiing, canoeing, donut rides or zorbing.
On land there are walking and cycling trails around the water, as well as a crazy golf course and a pedal go-kart track for youngsters.
4. Museum of Cannock Chase
A much-loved free attraction, the Museum of Cannock Chase is on what used to be the Valley Colliery, a training pit for young miners.
The pit has since disappeared, to be covered with 30 acres of greenery at the edge of the Hednesford Hills Nature Reserve, which we’ll come to a little later.
At the museum you can investigate Cannock Chase’s industrial history, as well as its military connections and find out about the animal and plant species in this habitat.
The coalmining gallery has a crawl-through tunnel for children to navigate, as well as the interior of a miner’s cottage, a room dedicated to the 1940s and an interactive vintage toys and games gallery.
5. Boscobel House and the Royal Oak
After his defeat to the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 the future Charles II made a long, perilous journey from the West Midlands down to Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast.
One of his first hiding places was this farmhouse not far from Cannock and now run by English Heritage.
You can take a look around the half-timbered lodge, tour the Victorian farmyard still equipped with historic tools and machinery, and discover the Royal Oak.
This is a descendant of an oak tree Charles hid inside.
In the lodge, Charles spent the night concealed in a former priest hole (created to hide Catholic clergy in the Reformation), which you can see in the attic.
Outside there’s a 17th-century-style knot garden, complete with an arbour, where Charles is thought to have spent time reading in 1651.
6. Castle Ring
That Iron Age hill fort is a matter of minutes from Cannock and warrants the journey for its views alone.
At this elevation you can see big swathes of the county of Staffordshire, as well as almost all of Cannock Chase to the north and the Trent Valley.
Castle Ring was founded around 50 AD by the Celtic Cornovii tribe and would have had great ceremonial value.
The main evidence of their occupation can be found in the intact perimeter earthworks.
When the hill fort was at the height of its powers, these orange sand ramparts would have been visible for miles.
In the 1780s when Castle Ring was on the Beaudesert Estate, the north and west sides of the rampart were landscaped into the current walkway, while two carriage drives were laid out on the site.
7. Chasewater Railway
Arcing around the west shore of Chasewater is a two-mile heritage railway that once served Cannock Chase’s coalfields.
On Sundays and certain weekdays during the summer school holidays, steam and diesel trains run from Brownhills and Chasewater Heaths stations to Chasetown Church Street, pausing at a halt, Norton Lakeside.
While most of the locomotives were built for heavy industry, you’ll travel in a mid-century British Mark I coach or retired diesel multiple unit cars.
The railway owns a wealth of rolling stock and other railway memorabilia dating back more than a century, all now on show at the recently opened heritage centre.
8. Go Ape Cannock
Another reason to pay a visit to the Birches Valley Forest Centre is to take on the highly rated Go Ape high ropes course.
Tree Top Adventure, the main course for grown-ups and bigger kids, is set five metres over the forest floor and has the longest combined crossings of any Go Ape course in the UK. These add up to almost 1,500 metres, and there are lots of tricky obstacles to overcome like rollers, a slack line, log balance and rail track.
At the culmination of two to three hours of hard work there’s a 260-metre zip wire with knockout views.
Tree Top Junior is a 292-metre course for all ages, while down in the forest you can take a one-hour family Segway trip through the woodland.
9. Prince of Wales Theatre
For a shot of live entertainment, the Prince of Wales Theatre has a lively programme of plays, musicals, comedians, musicians, tribute artists and shows for children.
The theatre mostly receives touring productions, but if you’re keen to see Cannock’s creative side there are also regular community shows, as well as a popular pantomime around Christmas.
Also on the agenda are flower shows, wrestling matches, beer festivals and art events, so it’s a good idea to find out what’s on in advance.
The box office is open six days a week apart from Sunday.
10. Rodbaston Animal Zone
South Staffordshire College’s Rodbaston Campus is one of the UK’s top higher education institutions for animal husbandry and agriculture, and so has a big zoological collection.
You can come and see these 750 animals on weekends and during school holidays.
Among the inhabitants are lemurs, alpacas, rabbits, monkeys, capybaras, a fennec fox, meerkats and a host of birds.
The Animal Zone has also just opened a reptile room, with green iguanas, a rainbow boa, leafcutter ants, a crested gecko and green anole.
In spring you can meet and feed newborn lambs, while you can also book special Animal Encounters, allowing you to enter the lemur or meerkat enclosures for rare insights and hands-on feeding sessions.
11. Hednesford Hills Nature Reserve
After calling in at the Museum of Cannock Chase you can stretch your legs on this expanse of hilly heathland and acidic grassland.
The environment on Hednesford Hills has hardly changed in hundreds of years and was donated to the council by Marquis of Anglesey on 7 March 1933. If you can pick your time to come, be here in early autumn when the heather’s purple blooms are breathtaking.
The heathland is a key habitat for moths – in fact, 546 different moth species have been counted here.
One of these is the Welsh clearwing, which is extremely rare outside Wales.
One way that the heathland mosaic is preserved is through grazing, so you’ll have cows for company on your walk.
12. German Military Cemetery
We mentioned that Cannock Chase has military heritage, and this can be experienced on a thought-provoking visit to the German Military Cemetery in Brocton.
The cemetery was founded after a treaty between Britain and the FDR in 1959, which included plans for a burial place for the German nationals who had died on British soil in the First and Second World Wars.
One reason that this location is thought to have been chosen is because Cannock Chase’s pine woodland and heathland resembles the German countryside.
There are almost 5,000 burials here (2,143 from WWI and 2,786 from WW2), including the crews of the four zeppelins shot down over England in the First World War, as well as flying aces, a general and a field-marshal.
13. Mitton Manor Gardens
Slightly further afield, this seven-acre garden surrounds a Victorian manor.
Visiting now, it might be difficult to imagine that before 2001 the garden was an overgrown wilderness.
There’s a tapestry of styles to discover, like a prairie planting, woodland fringed by a stream and a refined formal topiary.
There are delightful views of the Staffordshire countryside, as well as lots of whimsical water features and sculptures.
The garden is part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) and can be visited on open days taking place several times a year and also providing afternoon tea.
14. Pelsall North Common
On the other side of the M6 on the way to Walsall, Pelsall North Common is an expanse of low wetland heath.
This habitat is increasingly rare in the UK, and is vital for wildlife like heathland butterflies, rare bees and all sorts of birds and mammals.
The Wyrley and Essington Canal cuts across the landscape and is the last remnant of the heavy industry that once took over the common.
Up to the 1920s there was a gigantic iron works on this very site.
On a summer walk you may catch sight of a common spotted or southern marsh orchid, as well as bats at twilight, a lizard and maybe even a polecat.
As with Hednesford Hills, Pelsall North Common is at its best in August and September when the heather is in flower.
15. Hednesford Hills Raceway
Touted as the “fastest quarter-mile oval” in Europe, this short circuit racing track dates back to the early 1950s.
The steep-sided raceway follows the banks of a former reservoir and is somewhere to catch hot rod racing, stock cars and bangers.
If you like the sight and sound of twisted metal you should make a note of the annual Civil War (January) and Bill Morris Veterans Day (June) events.
The two high points of the calendar are the National Championship Weekend at the start of August and the bizarre Caravan Grand Prix on the May Day Bank Holiday weekend.
If you’re in town at the start of November the raceway also stages one of the best Guy Fawkes night fireworks displays in the West Midlands.