For a small community a lot goes on in Much Wenlock. In fact you never do know what you will find even a stone’s throw from the doorstep. So it was that on a recent foray up Wenlock’s Windmill Hill, and for quite another purpose, G and I met up with this astonishing little horse. Given its newness on the planet, I was impressed by its air of stolid self-containment. It did not move an inch as I walked around it snapping photos. I asked it a few questions of course, but it seemed lost in thought. I even felt it might be having an identity crisis: I am a real little horse, aren’t I? Or am I?
Then at last it reached a happy horsey conclusion and went off to do a bit of grazing with the other little ponies. But please do not ask about the man in the next photo. He has the most irritating habit of walking into my shots. Does anyone else have a man who does this? Here, though, he is perhaps adding some sense of scale, a factor drilled into me as important during my student-archaeologist days. And archaeology, not little ponies, was the real reason for this outing to Windmill Hill.
In the background you can see the limestone tower that gives the hill its name. It is a famous local landmark, and only a short walk from our house. In its time, it has been both a watch tower and a windmill. Carved stones from its interior suggest construction dates of 1655-57, but none of the members of the Windmill Trust, the volunteers who look after the monument, has been able to discover quite what the mill would have looked like during its working life.
On the day of our visit a small archaeological dig was taking place beside it to investigate the possibilities of earlier human activity on the site. We went to see how the diggers were getting on, but disappointingly they said they had not found much that was particularly old. There were broken clay pipe stems of course– a feature wherever you turn a spadeful of earth around the town. Clay pipes were an important manufactured product here in the 17th century, and clearly used extensively by the locals as well as being exported.
On finding there had been no great discoveries, we wandered off across the hill. In early and late summer the pasture here is covered in wild flowers typical of a limestone meadow – orchids, cowslips, agrimony, wild thyme, St. John’s Wort, knapweed, drifts of yellow Lady’s Bedstraw, but now the grassland has a tired look, though clearly tasty enough for the ponies.
We scanned the fields all round. Recent lidar remote sensing surveys have revealed the existence of extensive mediaeval remains a few fields away from the windmill, and also the possible outline of a Roman villa. In any event, there would have been much human activity in the area from at least 680 AD when Milburga, the daughter of the Mercian king, Merewahl, became abbess of Much Wenlock Abbey. Her land possessions were extensive. She also later became a saint, renowned for all manner of odd miracles.
But great antiquity apart, the views from the hilltop reveal everyone’s idea of a typical English farming landscape, although it does not come without its adjacent ‘blot’. The ground immediately behind the hill falls away into a bleakly huge quarry with a deep pool of strangely turquoise water.
Now disused, the workings are screened by conifers, and also by this astonishing display of hawthorn berries. Plans to turn the site into a diving school with log cabins seem to have to been dropped.
At the foot of Windmill Hill is the Gaskell Recreation Ground, or Linden Field. Having long been used for village cricket and bowls, it was bequeathed to the people of Much Wenlock in the 1930s by a descendent of the Gaskell family who owned much of Milburga’s former domain. It was here too, from 1850 that the first modern Olympian Games took place every year, attracting athletes from across the country. The man responsible for reviving this prestigious sporting event was the town’s local doctor, William Penny Brookes.
Every year, thousands of visitors would come to watch the games, arriving on the Olympian Special train. The station was conveniently situated beside the field, the bringing of the railway being another of Penny Brookes’ successful projects for the benefit of Much Wenlock. The field was bare of trees in those days, so spectators could sit on Windmill Hill, amphitheatre-style, and have a fine view of track and field events.
Penny Brookes was also a campaigner of national standing. It was he who argued for the introduction of physical exercise into Victorian schools. He even did clinical trials to prove how young bodies grew well as a result of it. His fame spread, and in the 1890 Baron Pierre de Coubertin, charged by the French Government to improve the physique of the French army, came to Wenlock to see Dr. Brookes’ Olympian Games for himself. An elderly Penny Brookes apparently took this opportunity to share his ideas with the younger man, but sadly died four months before the launching of the first international Olympics in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin did, however, pay tribute to the Shropshire doctor’s vision:
” If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes.”
The Much Wenlock Olympian Games still take place on the Linden Field every July, and attract sportsmen and women from around the world. The Olympic Association also acknowledged Much Wenlock’s contribution to the modern movement with the naming of the Wenlock Mascot in the 2012 games.
But now here we are heading homewards, taking the path that runs down edge of the Linden Field, and beside the old railway line. Here William Penny Brookes left another legacy. He planted an avenue of lime trees – the Linden Walk. Many of the trees are around 150 years old and still going strong. The scent of the blossom in summer is transporting, but the walk is beautiful any time of the year. It is one of the town’s many treasures, and accessible to all.
As I stopped to take this photo, a young woman went powering past me, clearly in training for some event. But as you can see, that man is also there again. It is a puzzling phenomenon – how he is ever in my sights.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell