The Shropshire hills form a quintessentially English landscape: rolling contours, muted colours and quirky, Tolkienesque names, patchwork views, tangles of historical human exploitation, mind-bending geology, unexpected car parks, overgrazing. They’re much more compact and less frequented than the Lake or Peak Districts. There aren’t any lakes. Or much in the way of peaks, really. I rather like them.
Church Stretton is easily accessible by train and has marketed itself as a walkers’ destination since Victorian times. It still has at least five shops in which one can buy an OS map (Explorer 217) and one in which I was even able to buy an obscure guidebook to one of Scotland’s more remote trails. I’m sure it’ll come in useful, I said to my companion as she womanhandled me out of the shop.
We stayed in a singular AirBnB called The Garden Flat which anyone would love if they weren’t fussed about showers or modern furniture; it had neither. In exchange for a short walk from the station and what seemed a very modest payment we found ourselves in a spacious flat with a sitting room full of charming vintage pieces, a cosy sleeping area with massive, comfy bed and a vast, warm bathroom with an enormous butler sink and a huge freestanding roll-top bath (with a hand-held shower thingy). There was also basic self-catering gear and an outdoor deck with lovely views of the peaceful garden and Caer Caradoc, what was not to like? We couldn’t think of anything once we’d hidden the TV in a cupboard.
A stroll through the oldest park of town past the interesting church and through the intriguingly-named Cunnery takes you by various random routes through pretty woods and up the Town Brook, directly onto the Long Mynd.
An exploratory afternoon amble brought us up to Boiling Well Spring, anticipating Rotorua but finding in fact a small and entirely insignificant bog by an unexpected road. This anticlimax didn’t matter, as I was on a Whinberry mission.
The Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus is an increasingly scarce native plant of European uplands and acid bogs. It’s easily dominated by bracken and scrub incursion and suffers both bush truncation and berry nobbling by the ubiquitous hill-munching woolly maggots (Ovis aries). As Wikipedia will tell you, the small, elusive and delicately-flavoured fruit are Blaeberries in Scotland, Whortleberries in the south and Whinberries in Shropshire and Yorkshire.
On the Lancashire moors of my childhood visits they were Wimberries and we could easily gather enough for an entire oven full of juicy, mouth-staining, sugar-crusted pies in an afternoon. And if we couldn’t be bothered, we knew we could buy the pies from any decent bakers on the way home as even in the sixties the berries were still a significant commercial crop. In still earlier times they were harvested in quantity for dyeing as well as eating.
Even where grazing is light or prevented, the tiny berries are hard to spot and delicate. Hence picking them is time-consuming, so now they’re hard to buy too, although I’m told the foodie stalls on Ludlow Market are worth a look in late summer. They were particularly hard to spot on this walk as it was September, the tail end of the season. After a lot of meandering and grovelling, I managed to forage a tiny handful. Not enough to make a pie, so I ate them. Superfood paleo-antioxidants and micronutrient complexes coursed through my pastry-clogged arteries, unless it was the therapeutic sheep wee.
The next morning it was time to meander up Caer Caradoc, surely one of England’s most romantic and interesting smaller hills. Not only is it crowned with an ancient citadel, provoking profound meditations on the lives and concerns of our forebears and affording far-reaching and fascinating views, it’s formed of staggeringly old rocks; tilted strata of Precambrian lavas and ashes called the Uriconian Volcanics and if that isn’t a name to conjur with I don’t know what is. Even more mind-bogglingly, Caer Caradoc is made of completely different rocks from the hills of the Long Mynd that look so close at hand just over the Church Stretton valley, which itself is an actual real live geological fault. On top of all that, it even has an exciting cave which, annoyingly, we failed to find.
The weather was perfect and there was a pause en route for sketching in the sunshine, although not by me as I can’t sketch for toffee. I was entertained instead by an interesting parasitoid that settled on my hand, luckily not mistaking it for a large, grub-nourishing caterpillar.
Back in the AirBnB later I looked at the NBN map and found that although this wasp isn’t rare there were no Shropshire records, so I tried manfully to submit it. The Hymenoptera recorder’s e-mail address on the county museum website was wrong and just bounced. I ended up contacting a random freelance entomologist in Shrewsbury who promised to forward it. Six months later I’ve still no idea if my wasp even got through, let alone was correctly ID’d. I know it’s all down to volunteers’ best efforts, but is it any wonder hardly anybody bothers submitting biological records?
We picked a rather steep descent from Caer Caradoc, which made the walk more interesting, then further down we allowed ourselves to be inveigled into a steep-sided holloway, which soon became absurdly muddy. One should definitely walk a holloway at some point during any visit to Shropshire, though, they’re very much of a piece with the ancient feel of the landscape. The boy Macfarlane has written one of his slightly overweening books about them; they do, as he says, evoke a feeling of being drawn down into a land of shades. This particular holloway was so shady and wet I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet Gollum on a quadbike.
Leaving my companion to her watercolours in the pretty AirBnB garden I wandered into Church Stretton on my Whinberry pilgrimage. ‘Shropshire’s secret superfood’, trumpeted Shropshire Life magazine, well, they were certainly a secret in the chi-chi delis of Church Stretton. In one especially upmarket provisioners I could have bought dried organic Goji berries and Iranian mulberries among a baffling plethora of global comestibles but the girl had never even heard of the Whinberries that allegedly grow on a hillside half a mile away. ‘Bit like Blueberries, but smaller’. ‘Blueberries, oh, try the Co-Op.’
The town had a distinctly prosperous feel, in fact I ended up taking issue with a trendy chap in the bookshop who’d made the hyperbolic claim that austerity was dragging life in England ‘back to Tudor times’. I’m no Pollyanna, but I couldn’t resist pointing out the flower baskets on the lamp posts, the upmarket menus in the clearly prospering pubs and the herds of well-heeled pensioners in taupe golfing jackets and pastel slacks crowding the gift shops and waving their John Lewis credit cards in the delis. Not to mention the total absence of vacant shops, beggars, lepers, and poachers strung from gibbets.
Hungry on the way home, I ventured into a retro and atypically downmarket-looking bakery, the kind of place you might expect antique pasties and stale puff pastry horns with synthetic cream. Inside there was a wonderful display of traditional crusty bread, including some beautiful hand-made cottage loaves, something you hardly see any more. There was also a heartening array of proper pies, including, ta daah – whinberry! I bought a family-sized example and cautiously asked the friendly and knowledgeable lady if it was local fruit. She looked a bit sheepish. ‘Sorry, I think they’re from Poland’.
Next day was Thursday so I leapt from the warmth of the AirB and rushed out before nB to the small but perfectly-formed market which has just half a dozen stalls, all lovely. The magnificent Bridgnorth Pies spoiled me with their choice of great value picnic foods, as well as apologising for the lack of Whinberries, explaining the season for viable picking was over. The gliding school on the Long Mynd is the place, they told me, sheep are excluded from its precincts for obvious reasons so the fruit are still abundant. I took their tip and bought a Shropshire Fidget Pie which was basically an entire Sunday lunch in a pie and stunningly good.
We eventually ambled out, through a housing estate and up Ragleth Hill which has informative views of the Long Mynd opposite and of Little Stretton below.
Little Stretton has not one but three pubs; we paused for a refreshing half in the Green Dragon and it looked a magnificent place, in fact we’d have eaten there if I hadn’t taken the precaution of investing in a backpack full of pies. These we ate on top of Grindle (459 m), just because we liked the name. The descent into Ashes Hollow was a bit steep and my companion retreated down the valley with her sketchbook leaving me to puff my way up an even steeper slope onto Yearlet (465 m).
It turned out I’d climbed Yearlet by the second-silliest route, the silliest being the sheer rockface up from Ashes Hollow. In fact the summit with its excellent views is an easy walk out of Church Stretton via Town Brook woods and Ashlet, which I skipped down in cold, sleety rain, glad of my waterproofs even in September. The geology of the Long Mynd is mind-boggling, it’s a massive syncline, ancient strata upended and contorted into a huge U by terrifying forces. It’s quite something to realise you’re strolling across an epoch every few hundred yards.
So, Shropshire is great but what, I hear you cry, about the famous Stiperstones?? Well, we were travelling by train and so based ourselves, carless, at Church Stretton. I suppose we could have got up early and walked to them along Wild Edric’s Way but quite frankly we were on holiday and couldn’t be bothered.
We did, however, return to Shropshire in the car the following January and then we did ascend the legendary ridge with its peculiar and distinctive quartzite outcrops. It was absolutely perishing up there (ha ha, in January, who knew?), our walk was ventilated by a bitter wind I flinch to remember and punctuated by snow showers, stinging hail and, thankfully, intervals of warm sunshine. I prefer more obscure tops and quieter byways, and I thought the Stiperstones were a bit sort of obvious and in your face, really. Apparently it’s a zoo up there in summer, like a Shropshire Dovedale. Anyway, everybody writes about the Stiperstones so I’ll leave you with some photos.