All is peripheral in the place where I live – my house beside the path beside the field whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient and it has long outgrown the town’s-end frontier along the Sytche Brook. It also lies below its own impressive periphery – the long limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge.
I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it, the dramatic false horizon that the Edge creates and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across the roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood at dawn and at dusk, peppering the skyscape.
In fact most inhabitants of the town cannot quite see the Edge. This is something of a paradox given that its massive limestone presence has shaped Much Wenlock in so many ways, and not only in the fabric of its many stone cottages. You need to be outside the town to get a proper glimpse of it and, even then, it is hard to get the full measure of it. Nevertheless, as landmarks go, it will not fail to make an impression however you come at it: whether wending up the hairpin bends from Shrewsbury; or taking the road over the top from Wenlock to Church Stretton and the Shropshire Hills beyond, or yet meandering down below it along the narrow lanes through Kenley, Hughley, Church Preen and Longville. From the lowland, the Edge’s steep north-west slopes look so heavily wooded that they bristle up like a giant hog’s back. For some fifteen miles this dark spine stretches, bearing down on the scattered hamlets and farm fields. It is unavoidably mysterious.
The south-east slopes, by contrast, have a more domesticated feel, and something of an industrial air, having been dug into for centuries. The road that cuts along the top passes beside vast quarries (now mostly hidden by hedges and woodland and visible only to walkers). These quarries yielded limestone for building and for the iron works of Coalbrookdale where it was used as a flux in smelting, and for burning in lime-kilns to make fertiliser. In more recent times most of the stone went for road building. But now quarrying has stopped and Much Wenlock’s houses no longer shudder in a pall of white dust as they once did whenever the quarrymen were blasting; nor do the streets vibrate with the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.
There are other sources of disturbance of course – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing lorries. They pass by on the other side of my house, which sitting as it does on the A4169 is not so scenic, although it is interesting in other ways. For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges them past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass. We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes while officers at Shropshire Council shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking of when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. One day a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever.
But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, (James several times and said to have worked on Turn of the Screw while staying in the old Prior’s House that adjoins the Priory ruins).
Last but certainly not least, Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb spent her adolescent years living upon the Edge at The Grange and was well known about the town. When, in the 1950s, her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot in and around Much Wenlock. In fact I’m told by my neighbour that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house and was also the town’s projectionist. Perhaps he even showed Gone to Earth in the little cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townspeople alongside Hollywood’s Jennifer Jones.
Wenlock Edge, of course, has much older stories than this to tell. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can even begin to consider such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands that I think I know so well thus lay south of the Equator; 15 degrees south in what is now the Indian Ocean, where they were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean. And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted and the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I also like to imagine, that after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is like coming back to the place where I was; for I miss Africa very much. Also it gives a new connotation on the phrase ‘world travel.’
Wenlock Edge, then, is a fossil hunter’s treasure place and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long. In fact, my house is composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-shaped fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, and all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.
While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore and a teeming shallow sea beyond, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily begin to think that the terrestrial world would be a painfully quiet and very still place, although this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.
Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards.
Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow, is still feudally owned and tenanted and, within these little bounds of landowner imposition has grown a small market centre that has been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.
But then that is only the historical record.* Archaeological investigations show that humans settled this valley by the Edge from at least the Bronze Age. These first Wenlockians were probably early Celts, and as venerators of water, were doubtless attracted to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.
After the Celts came Roman and Saxon settlers, Viking and Norman invaders, and the town not only still has substantial ruins of an eleventh century Benedictine Priory, but many of the present houses and cottages are built from stone plundered from the monastery after its dissolution in 1540. The medieval Prior’s House, however, largely survived this recycling. It adjoins the Priory ruins, from where it may be glimpsed, and has been restored as a breathtakingly beautiful private house.
The common theme, then, that runs throughout Much Wenlock’s settlement history is the belief in sacred water. The town has many holy wells. Excavations of the Priory that sits beside a brook that runs off the Edge yielded not only the carving of a Celtic deity but also a substantial Romano-British residence that seems to have its own Christian chapel. In Saxon times, around 670 A D, Merewald, King of Mercia, founded an abbey there, and his daughter, Milburga, after training at Chelles, near Paris, became the foundation’s second abbess. She is also our saint and the heroine of a local legend that tells how she escaped an assault on her honour by a rapacious suitor. She is known, too, for striking holy springs from the ground and for her miracles of healing. The water from her well near Barrow Street was reputed to cure eye diseases.
The Benedictine Priory that succeeded the Saxon Abbey in 1079 was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. It was he who invested so heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. And to ensure the new priory’s prosperity as a lucrative place for pilgrimage, St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles was duly annexed to the cause and a new shrine to her established.
Today, most of the pilgrims to Much Wenlock are tourists, stopping off briefly en route for Wales. But this coming year we are expecting many more visitors, as news of Much Wenlock’s further claim to fame spreads around the world. For it was here in 1850 that the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the inspirational force behind the modern Olympic movement. It was he who in 1890 (six years before the 1896 Athens modern Olympics) passed on to a young Baron Pierre de Coubertin not only a wealth of experience gained from running the town’s annual games, but also his passionate belief that exercise wrought moral, physical and intellectual improvements in all who took part.
The Linden Field where the Wenlock Olympian Games were held amid crowds of up to 10,000 spectators is still there and is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Since it is only a step from my house, I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there one hundred and fifty years ago. Perhaps such active activity would improve my mind. Perhaps it would spur on the story-telling process. Perhaps I would escape the peripheries and finally get some work done…finish a new edition of my one-time award winning African novella, Jessicah the Mountain Slayer, finally create some new tales from my backed-up story-making stock. Or perhaps, like the Silurian seabed, I will simply go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting, although hopefully not enfolding anything as alarming as a fossilised giant water scorpion. That is a worrying thought.
© Tish Farrell 2011
* for many historical details I am indebted to Vivien Bellamy. See her book A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001