Across the Top of Shropshire
My carefully planned route now took me across the narrowest and least scenic segment of this otherwise broad and beautiful county, but even this short and suboptimal stumble encompassed a wild and woolly marshland reserve, a miniature Lake District, a pretty canal and a branch of Greggs. Not necessarily in order of importance.
But first, after reluctantly parting from kind Ali and her lovely family, I found myself at Loggerheads…
My gear was dry, I’d been generously stuffed with healthy granola and it wasn’t raining; on any one of these grounds I’d have felt quite light-hearted as I stumbled along the last of the Staffordshire footpaths – surely Shropshire’s couldn’t be any worse?
Near the village of Wharf there’s a series of strange pools, one overlooked by a steep drop. Some tragedy had recently occurred here, judging by the garden plants and the pile of mementos at the foot of a tree. I couldn’t help wondering whether these might be more helpful kept indoors for future reference, rather than being left outdoors to fall apart in the rain, but then so far I haven’t lost a loved one, so what do I know? Ultimately, though, caches like this always end up resembling a pile of litter, which isn’t the look I’d personally choose for my own memorial.
Finally here I entered Shropshire, passing under the Shropshire Union Canal and into Market Drayton, where there isn’t much happening on a Sunday morning apart from campanology. In fact the large church of what’s obviously at some point been a wealthy town was full of sound, much of it mixed on a massive Audio-Technica desk far more complicated than the one George Martin would have used to record Sergeant Pepper. There were multiple PowerPoint screens as well. ‘Oh yes, you don’t need a hymn book here’ said an elderly usher proudly, perhaps hoping this game-changing simplification of religious observance would lure me in.
Even though it was now once again pouring with rain, I managed to resist and went instead to a slightly bizarre traditional non-chain tea shop run by two quite large men who could barely fit together behind the tiny counter and didn’t seem especially pleased to be working on the Sabbath. Their speciality seemed to be raising the activity and noise levels of small children to fever pitch with ‘luxury hot chocolate’ confections about a foot high. I drank my weak lukewarm latte then slummed it into Greggs for a stash of pies as I couldn’t find anywhere more artisanal. Judging by the coffee that may have been a blessing.
Shropshire is a properly rural county with only 136 people per km², which is similar to Norfolk’s 155/km² although Norwich and its suburbs account for nearly 400,000 of those. It is large and, unlike Norfolk, has lots and lots of public footpaths. It has no cities and its economy is small. You can imagine what this adds up to in terms of path maintenance.
At Bletchley it was completely impossible to find the footpath around a recent commercial development and after a couple of hours of such navigational nonsense it was a relief to stumble upon the stately Castle Inn on the A41. They were gearing up for a very busy Sunday lunch session, the car park was rapidly filling with Jags and Audis and everyone getting out of them was rather smartly dressed. Still, they didn’t seem to mind me lurking in a corner with a swift refreshing pint. I was then supposed to avoid the road via another obscure path alongside it, but as a tractor was at that moment cutting the verge I just walked along that instead.
At Prees Lower Heath I simply could not find a public footpath off the B5065 that was clearly marked on the map. Zooming in the GPS I had to take a best guess but I ended up in a maze of game rearing pens. Every time I tiptoed around a shed corner thousands of young birds were panic-stricken at my appearance, crashing about in the pens like mad things. I felt so sorry for them but also worried for me as if anybody had observed this fiasco they’d have been justifiably upset.
I didn’t mean to frighten the poor birds and just one visible ‘public footpath’ sign might have saved them from disturbance. Eventually I found my way through the maze and back onto Shropshire’s finest paths…
By now, in case you’re wondering why I haven’t moaned about them for a while, most of my blisters were better. Unfortunately though I’d managed a particularly large one particularly incompetently. On the top of my left big toe I had now a bloody open wound the size of a 10p piece. All I could do was pile dressings onto it, but in the wet weather nothing would stay stuck on for more than a few hours. By this point in the journey there were long periods each day when every time I put my left foot down sweat literally popped from my brow with the pain; an extraordinary sensation I can still powerfully recall a year later.
Ah well, Shropshire had some pretty red stone churches to distract me.
Also, in the rain that had now restarted, a variety of riveting spectator sports…
This was actually quite a long day, more than my habitual 30 km daily target, and I began to be quite interested in finding somewhere to kip down.
Unfortunately the plan showed that before bedtime I was still supposed to be taking a scenic and educational diversion around Whixall Moss, a legendary nature reserve and historical site. It was actually a relief to find that Whixall Moss was more like Whixall Mere as the flooded conditions got me out of walking round the history trail.
Instead I just trudged onto and along the towpath of the Llangollen Canal which seemed altogether more bijou than the bigger, more industrially oriented Trent and Mersey.
I was so tired and footsore that in the end I just plonked the bivy down rather informally on the towpath. A couple of dog walkers laughingly said hello as I bedded down, but after that I had the place all to myself. By the way, if you zoom in the map at the top of this post you’ll see that completely unbeknownst to me at the time I was actually sleeping in Wales! The canal at this point slices across a small protruding triangle of the Principality.
When I awoke at midnight I felt quite smug; it hadn’t rained and my gear was bone dry. I went back to sleep. In the small hours it started to rain. Heavily.
Day 13 – into Wales
Ellesmere lies at the heart of a sort of Shropshire Lake District with not just one but multiple meres. I decided to divert slightly onto the main road past the biggest mere in hope of refreshment and was not disappointed; there was a lovely big mereside café with hot coffee, great cakes and spacious well-appointed loos for a bit of hikers’ housekeeping. I then headed back up onto the castle mound which was decorated with thousands of orchids.
It was then back to the stern business of hiking. It had rained torrentially between four and six on the morning so the lanes and footpaths were particularly moist. Here are a few of the more amusing ones…
It was a relief to get onto a bit of slightly higher ground. Nettles like slightly higher ground…
It was a relief to get out of the nettles onto more open ground…
Quiet suddenly, as I came to the brow of a small rise, I saw something amazing. In the distance, as if at the end of a long, straight road, hills. The hills of Wales, no less.
I was so excited I came over quite hungry. Luckily at St Martins I found an excellent pub, The Keys, where despite it being only about eleven-thirty they served me a slap up meal involving a large pie, copious chips and lashings of beer.
It was then a case of pushing through some woods on a well-known (and suspiciously Welsh-sounding) Way…
…until I returned to the pretty Llangollen Canal, which had taken a big diversion to the south.
After a short while on this towpath I arrived at the Chirk aqueduct…
…at the far end of which, after nearly thirteen days of walking, there was a rather momentous development…