Blue Remembered Hills: Rediscovering Shropshire

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.

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

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

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

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

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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