Walking England’s green and pleasant land

greenandpleasantladmainpicThe view from the crest of the hill reveals a dozen increments of green in the hillocks and valleys below, from the fresh lime of the young wheat crop to the gothic dark of the Yews in the churchyard just visible in the distance. When poet Edward Blake wrote of England as “this green and pleasant land’’, this view, near Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, surely was exactly the scene he had in his mind. This is not an isolate patch of rural idyll. From here it is possible to walk for days through endless countryside without engaging with frenetic modern life much more than just crossing the occasional major road before clambering over a stile and disappearing back into the land where time can be forgotten.

Shropshire is the most rural of England’s counties. It borders North Wales and was once part of the ancient Welsh Kingdom of Powys although times and allegiances changed and some of its most impressive castles, like Ludlow and Shrewsbury, were later built to see off the rampaging Welsh hoards. All around there are sites which draw a direct line back even further into history like part of Offa’s Dyke, from the 8th Century, or remains of early Roman forts. On its other sides, the county is surrounded by Cheshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, all of which have areas of outstanding natural beauty and unique examples of the cultural and ethnic diversity that made up early Britain. And all this, just about an hour from Birmingham, England’s second city, and even less from the urban sprawl of Birmingham, and with fast, direct links to London.

We had based ourselves at Cleobury Mortimer a quaint town granted its market charter in 1253 and dominated by St Mary’s Church with its distinct, twisted steeple. It lies literally just a mile from border with Worcester and not much further to Herefordshire so it is an easy day’s ramble to travel through all three counties, barely setting foot on a major road. Church named in the DomesdayBookThe footpaths and bridleways criss-cross the countryside through pastureland dotted with curious sheep, orchards and copses, plump prickly hedgerows so high you can’t see over them but into which startled rabbits and other small furry creatures disappear; dark dells alongside small tumbling brooks are carpeted with bluebells or speckled white from the delicate blooms of the wild garlic. The local rambling society keeps the paths in great condition with clear but unobtrusive signs that steer your along your way through ancient villages like Neen Solars and Hopton Wafers. Perhaps best of all, most walks at some time pass close to a pub (like the mysteriously-named Live and Let Live), many tucked away in beautiful locations. Expect cold beer and tasty, generally modestly-Sheeponfootpathpriced, pub grub.   We also spent a fabulous half day exploring the Wyre Forest which straddles the Shropshire/Worcestershire border and is one of the few remaining ancient woodlands in the country, with direct links to early English royalty.

It has one of the richest collections of native wildlife including the Fallow Deer, birds like the Dipper and the Hawfinch and the master of disguise, the Long-eared owl. The Forest is also home to the Gruffalo although he is notoriously shy unless you are a mouse. Three-year-old Thomas searched hard but we only saw evidence of its make-shift shelters although a couple of times we did think we heard Arleysome chuckling from somewhere in the undergrowth. (For Gruffalo devotees it’s worth visiting the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire which has a series of linked outdoor displays in his honour.) There are well-marked walks of varying length throughout the Forest which, in many places, is as dark as dusk even on a sunny day because of the dense canopy. Dotted throughout are wooden benches, donated by the families of local residents who were regular ramblers. A beautiful and useful legacy.

Historic Shrewsbury, on the River Severn, is the county capital. It’s an impressive ancient city founded around 800AD coming to prominence as a commercial center in the 14th and 15th Century through the thriving wool industry which it was perfectly positioned geographically to control. A flourishing market town, it has more than 650 listed buildings GorgeousGladeincluding several with the characteristic timber-framing that date back to the 15th Century, like the magnificent Draper’s Hall and Ireland’s Mansion. Shrewsbury Castle was founded in 1074 followed less than ten years later by the nearby Benedictine monastery.

Smaller, but equally charming, is the Medieval walled town of Ludlow, on the bend of the River Teme, which also boasts hundreds of historic listed buildings beautiful if a little less grand than Shrewsbury. There’s a gentleness and slow-paced old worldliness about the town which is riddled with passages and snickets, and where narrow windy streets suddenly open out into a large square that hosts regular markets. Although there are some clothes and crafts stalls this is principally a food market with a wonderful selection of locally-sourced produce  like plump free-range chickens, game such as venison, pigeon and partridge, a delicious selection of home-prepared olives, cured meats and pickles and crusty fresh-baked bread.

cleoburymortimerstreetDon’t miss the mobile fish and cheese shop which carries a staggering display of cheeses, most made locally on small farms in Shropshire or the neighbouring counties. Show an interest and they are happy to let you try with a “ah, you’re not from these parts then.” Watch out for the startling orange Shropshire Blue, Wrekin White or the delicious oak-smoked Newport. But my favourite was the Gloucestershire blow-in, Stinking Bishop. A cow’s milk cheese it has a soft rind that has been washed in pear perry and is officially Britain’s most malodourous variety. Left uncovered, it has been known to drive people out of their homes, but it tastes fabulous with none of the punch-you-in-the-nose characteristics of its smell.

We took real English afternoon tea in a pretty little shop with chintz sofas and those delicate floral china cups reminiscent of more elegant times even if you can’t always get your fingers in the tiny curvy handles. Fresh scone? With local cream and home-made jam? Well, you are on holiday. If you have time and fancy trying your hand at some ancient skills (many of which are still practiced on a day-to-day basis in these rural counties) there are a number of official Historic Working Farms. They offer courses in traditional crafts and trades like willow basket making, grafting apple trees (this is one of the homes of cider after all) and orchard restoration, hedgelaying plus cheese and breadmaking.

Also well worth visiting is Ironbridge Gorge, the UNESCO World Heritage site, seen as the birthplace of industry. It’s a fascinating collection of ten museums representing a cross section of industries that England once dominated, from iron to the production of fine china. If the kids go into moan overdrive at the mere mention of the world museum (never mind ten) this site is hands-on history, bristling with unique, fun experiences.

Although there are many good hotels in this part of the country it is worth considering one of the hundreds of B&Bs. Although some people get unnerved by the thought of staying in someone else’s house there’s usually a friendly, informal atmosphere and great home cooking. B&Bs in Shropshire range from farmhouses to pubs, old rectories to libraries, tiny wood-panelled cottages to large country mansions.

You can’t say you’ve experienced the real England until you have visited counties like Shropshire and its rural neighbouring counties. This is the gentle, slow-paced life that provides a perfect balance to the all-action stay in somewhere like London.

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