Blue Remembered Hills: Rediscovering Shropshire

Folklore, fantasy and life on the margins as one Shropshire lass rediscovers devil’s county for Vol. 32: Homegrown.

This article appears in Vol. 32: Homegrown.

The rocks rear up from the hill in jagged piles. From afar their silhouette is stark, a dark mass of angles and edges against blue sky. Up close, the individual stones become clear: huge, haphazard heaps of them, clumped as though someone accidentally dropped them there. According to local legend, that's exactly what someone did do. If you can count the devil as any old "someone".

If you believe the story, a long time ago the devil peevishly flew over the sea from Ireland wearing an apron loaded with rocks, ready to dam up a valley (aptly known as "Hell's Gutter") just beyond where we are standing today. However, the devil grew tired, as one might do when single-handedly transporting a great big batch of quartzite, and sat down to rest before his journey's end. Unfortunately, when he got up again to complete this vindictive mission the tie on his apron broke and the rocks tumbled across the hill, dispersed to where they lie today. Some say that the Devil's Chair - as the most prominent of the tors is known - was where he paused to rest. Others claim that this is a throne he returns to on the longest day of the year, holding court over the county's assortment of witches, ghosts and other unsavoury beings. Apparently, sometimes the air up here is tinged with sulphur. Apparently, if you spend a night at the foot of the Devil's Chair, you will either be dead or a poet come morning.

Sitting on the edge of south-west Shropshire, with sweeping views over Wales and the Shrewsbury plain, the Stiperstones is a place packed with folklore. If it's not the devil and his acolytes, it's accounts of a Saxon earl named Wild Edric who married a fairy woman called Godda and still lingers with his knights in the mines beneath the hill, doomed to wait until England is imperilled enough to need his assistance. If it's not Edric, it's whispers about a witch imprisoned in the middle of a nearby stone circle, known as Mitchell's Fold. It was her punishment for milking a magic cow (who had been keeping the local community fed during a famine) dry on a moonless night. Wherever you go in this sparsely populated county, there's some kind of strange story to be found, but here they cluster especially close.

I grew up in Shropshire. These tales were ones familiar to me from an early age, folding into my understanding of my surroundings alongside its prosaic past of Norman churches and Civil War power struggles. Perhaps inevitably, I found the mythic elements much more interesting. What better as a child than for every old house to come complete with a ghost to call its own, and each hill possess an origin story involving a sleeping giant or the devil or whatever else someone's wonderfully weird imagination once conjured?

Now I am back, sitting atop those glinting rocks, retracing these myths once more. I'm here with photographer Chanel Irvine, attempting to view this county not just through the familiar lens of "home", but as an enchanting destination too. It's not hard. Shropshire is a beautiful place, packed with majestic landscapes and pretty historic towns. You can hardly move for castle ruins. Or sheep. Or, given that we are here in early September, fields decked out with hay bales.

We are staying in a B&B in nearby Bishop's Castle. Located halfway up the curving high street, Bank House is a gorgeous renovated Georgian townhouse full of olive- green velvet chaise longues and blue-and-pink antique rugs that I want to pilfer. I was informed on arrival by our lovely host Gerry that the en suite in my bedroom contains the oldest plumbed bath in all of Bishop's Castle. The B&B - and, crucially, the bath - will prove a welcome anchor for the duration of our stay, each day our starting point for a different direction on the map.

After the first afternoon's foray to the Stiperstones, we make tracks to Ludlow the following morning. Known for its food festival, the town typifies the picturesque side of Shropshire (pretty streets - check. Castle ruins - check). It's also great for a swim. On summery days the riverbank is thronged with young families and groups of teenagers. However, despite the sunshine, it's now too close to autumn for most people to dare get in. We, though, are foolhardy and eager to earn our coffee, clambering over to the weir. The weir is what makes swimming here so spectacular. On a bright, calm day - a day just like this one, in fact - the smooth curve of water over rock gives the impression of plunging into a deliciously freezing infinity pool.

As I pass patches of minnows at the edge and push out, immediately breathless, into the cold, I'm reminded of the watery stories around here: of drowned girls staring up through iced-over lakes, and fish taking on the guise of women (as with all folklore, there's a lot of Ovid-style metamorphosis). I emerge feeling not quite transformed, but certainly enlivened. We warm up on the patio at the adjacent Green Café, which does an excellent breakfast, watching the water glide by. After that, it's up into the town centre, where a huge medieval castle looms over the rooftops and offers framed snatches of sky through its many empty window arches.

This castle has its own ghost, naturally: a 12th-century lady who left a rope dangling from her window to let a secret lover climb up undetected. One night he used this to his advantage, letting his soldiers use the rope to gain access to the castle and claim it as their own. When she realised what he'd done, she murdered him with his own sword and threw herself from the castle tower. As with all good gothic stories, this one now comes with occasional spectral sightings and the odd disembodied scream. Somewhat disappointingly, the sole noises we hear are the cries of birds flitting between the roofless walls and church bells drifting across the town.

In fact, the only place I find remotely haunting during our trip is both unfamiliar and relatively modern. That afternoon we drive to Titterstone Clee Hill, which is reached by one of those fantastic roads that threads through increasingly sparse countryside like a thin, pale ribbon. I've never been here before, but know the road climbs to a Bronze Age hill-fort overlaid with the industrial remains of a site used for dolerite quarrying. I am unprepared for how this will look though. A green plateau - like so many around here - gives way to a vista so far-reaching that it blurs blue at the horizon. Dotted along the hill and cut into the slope behind it are a series of concrete blocks and structures. Some of them have cracked, spilling forth thick wires like guts. Others stand intact, covered in decades of graffiti.

As we eat custard tarts and wander through the ruins, it makes for a captivating scene. But when the sun goes in and haze descends, it takes on an almost ominous feel. The air is so still that we can hear the sounds of dog barks and roosters rising from the valley below. The two strange golf-ball structures further up the hill - one a weather-radar station, the other an air-traffic monitor - add to the sensation of being located somewhere out of time, halfway between a post-apocalyptic landscape and a lunar outpost. It's funny; unlike the surrounding natural phenomena, these man-made structures have no mythic story to explain their presence, but their eerie aura makes it feel like they should.

We go to bed early after dinner at The Castle Hotel back in Bishop's Castle (there are, impressively, six pubs in this tiny town) and rise with the sun, driving to the Long Mynd - or rather, up to it. I nervously ask Chanel how she is with steep, single-lane roads with an abrupt drop on one side and she gamely says she's navigated worse. The Mynd is formed from a vast upland stretch of heath and moorland, which is one way of saying it's another set of hills offering views comprised of endless gradations of green. This morning, those many greens are softened by mist. As we ascend, we find great swathes of the stuff ahead too. It drifts over the heather like white curtains at an open window: sometimes gloomy, sometimes letting the light through in sudden bursts. As if to complete this half fairy tale, half Wuthering Heights-style vision, just past Pole Cottage a group of wild ponies appear. They roam freely up here, sauntering among the bracken, boggy ground and criss-crossed footpaths.

In the Victorian era, a reverend named Edmund Donald Carr got lost up here during a blizzard. He stumbled for a day and a half, nearly perishing, and was eventually found in the neighbouring Carding Mill Valley by children playing in the snow. He wrote a bestselling memoir about the experience, contributing to a Shropshire literary tradition that later included folklorist Mary Webb's novels (her 1917 book Gone to Earth was made into a brilliantly moody film by Powell and Pressburger in the 1950s) and poet A.E. Housman's evocations of "blue remembered hills" in A Shropshire Lad. Even in diaphanous mist, one can well imagine the perils of this landscape though - especially in the days before cars, phones and the ever- present reassurance of Google Maps.

The Long Mynd forms one side of the valley that cups the town of Church Stretton, with the Ragleth Hill on the other. Down in the town we pause for tea and slabs of raspberry loaf at Heather & Batch café and take a looping walk through Rectory Wood past a gothic folly sheltered between the trees. Then we leave the mist behind and make for Shrewsbury. One of the county's largest towns and the only place one could go on a decent shopping trip as a teenager, Shrewsbury has, in recent years, been spruced up: now it's stuffed with coffee shops (we go to Ginger & Co.), record stores and restaurants. We eat excellent dumplings at Moli in the Market Hall, which looks unprepossessing from the outside but inside offers several floors of stalls, cafés, oyster bars and other nice things. Afterwards, we traverse the town's cobbled backstreets, nosing in the windows of bookshops and nodding at the statue of Charles Darwin, who was born here. To return to the car, we cross back over the River Severn, the water grey as pigeon feathers.

I wake the following day thinking about the river, known as Sabrina in Latin and Hafren in Welsh. One legend has it that Hafren was a water goddess drowned by her stepmother. Another suggests she was one of three princesses, the other two named Wye and Ystwyth, tasked by their king father with reaching the sea by the following nightfall. When they did, each dissolved into a river, its route carved out by the path they had taken. I wonder exactly what it is these tales offer. Do they give context: to place names, to old rites, to the horrors humans wreak upon one another, to the age-old intermingling of theology, storytelling and magical belief? Do they offer another form of history, in which the line between fact and fiction blurs? Or is it just that they make for enjoyably surreal trivia?

Luckily, this morning we are meeting the artist and folklorist Anne Marie Lagram at Mitchell's Fold, who I hope will shed some further light. As mentioned, this stone circle comes with a potent tale of a witch who wished ill on her community and was punished for it. Lagram, who cuts a glamorous dash among the stones, has lived near this circle for ten years. "I had this strong sense of history and of the land underneath my feet," she says of the atmospheric spot. "Who's trod here before?" Inspired by Mitchell's witch, Lagram produced an Arts Council- funded project focused on the witch as an outsider figure, exploring what we might take from the tale if read into as a parable of isolation and social rejection. "Folklore is of the people," she explains. "You're finding out about fears, celebrations... superstitions, all those things people were doing to live in places like this." You're also, she adds, aware of contemporary parallels. Shropshire is a place where it's still easy to feel like one exists on the margins.

I hold onto this idea of marginality as we approach our last stop. Technically this is not in Shropshire, but just over into Wales. This area is known as the borderlands for a reason, with roads wiggling back and forth between the countries and many places possessing both English and Welsh names. After pausing in the handsome town of Montgomery, where it is market day, to pick up bread, cheese, biscuits and apple juice like we are in some sort of wholesome children's book, we reach The Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture in Berriew.

Camp, extravagant and amazingly glitzy, the museum is wholly unlike its surroundings. Or anywhere else, really. It also claims to be the only museum in Europe devoted to a living artist. Logan, who specialises in sculptures incorporating found objects and mirrored mosaics, has had this space for nearly 30 years. It is a joy to behold, from its technicolour homage to legendary drag queen Divine to the ginormous, shimmering cosmic egg at the entrance. Logan and his partner live in Berriew and the museum is deeply engaged with the local community, holding annual (very flamboyant) pageants and other festivities. It feels like an apt, final high note, I think, while staring at a spangled statue: a remarkable place in a sleepy, little village, existing in the midst of all these hills and rivers and roads and centuries of history, steadily creating new traditions as time goes by.

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