From my house I often watch the late-day sun slip behind the Edge. But which of us is moving: me, or the sun? It’s the sort of displacement-activity question I ask myself when I should be doing something more constructive. It also makes me think about the Edge, the fact that something so apparently static is, of itself, an embodiment of movement; a geological exemplar of extreme process and change.
The limestone ridge on whose foothills we Wenlockians dwell, is 425 million years old. It runs for some twenty miles while rising up to three hundred feet above the land. And so it goes without saying that a structure of this size cannot help but evoke a sense of monumental immobility.
How can it move?
Yet move it has, and move it does, although these days not on quite the colossal scale of the Silurian Age when it was formed. Its constituent parts, the sea-creature fossils that have fascinated the world’s geologists enough to earn them their own Wenlock Epoch, clearly indicate that our Edge is neither where it was, nor what it was in the aeons before fish were invented.
In fact during the Silurian era, and some 200 hundred million years before one cosmic hint of a Stegosaurus or Diplodocus was abroad, the strata that would become Wenlock Edge were quietly forming. Layers of dead and decomposing corals, sponges, sea lilies and molluscs were building up beneath a shallow tropical sea, and in a location somewhere off present-day East Africa and well south of the Equator.
Today, however, this former sea bed is an up-tilted escarpment, a steeply wooded ridgeway of ash, birch, hazel and oak trees. It bisects a temperate, rural Shropshire in the middle of England, which as most people know, is and often feels hugely north of the Equator. The power of tectonic shift and uplift is thus truly marvellous.
For the last couple of millennia, though, it has been humans who have been responsible for the Edge’s biggest movement. They have hacked, drilled, and blasted out the limestone with dogged persistence. At first the spoil would have been carried away on packhorses, then on carts, and finally by train and truck to wherever it was needed. Chunks of fossil sea bed hauled off to build grand monastic houses, feudal mansions, churches and cottages; limestone mortar to make them weather-tight; limestone to burn to make quick-lime for fertilizer; crushed limestone to pour into the top of massive blast furnaces, and so draw the impurities from smelting iron.
One of the many old lime burning kilns on Wenlock Edge
In such ways did Wenlock’s broadcast and reconstituted Edge come to play its part in Britain’s Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Yet way before this, in the late 600s AD of Saxon times, it probably also gave us our curious sounding name. In those days it was the habit to paint the early Christian religious houses with lime-wash so they glowed luminously white against surrounding terrain. It was also around this time that Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, became abbess of a dual monastic house of monks and nuns that stood where the town’s parish church now stands . Gwen/Wen means white, and Loc/Lock means chapel or religious house. So there you have it – Wenlock – the place of the white church.
In more recent times, aggregates for highway construction have been the Edge-product of choice, and supplies are still outstanding in one of the quarries. At intervals convoys of motorway construction trucks come rattling through the town to fill up – and all this so more and more traffic can rush about the place.
The mopping up of the aggregates marks the end of quarrying, although the quarries themselves have now been occupied by other industries – garden fencing and woodchip fuel producers, paint and packaging companies – all taking advantage of the huge spaces left behind by the evacuated limestone.
Yet where the old workings and exploded cliff faces have been left to themselves, there are signs that the vegetation is reasserting itself, slowly extending the habitat for the Edge residents: deer, badgers, hares, weasels and mice.
I find the old quarries fascinating in a morbid, Edgar Allan Poe-ish kind of way. Ravens like to nest there for one thing, which adds to their brooding allure. However, if you turn your back on the quarries, and look the other way, through breaks in the tree cover, you will see broad sweeps of Shropshire’s hills and farmland. And this, for most people, is the main reason why the twenty-mile-long vantage point is one of the county’s great treasures. The National Trust who own a long stretch of the wooded slopes, and manage the woods and paths, want to ensure it remains that way – a valued public resource.
This view looks towards the Welsh borders and, in the past, would have been gazed on by writers such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James, and by Africa’s darkest explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, all of whom were, at various times, guests of the Milnes-Gaskells, Much Wenlock’s erstwhile gentry who lived in the Prior’s House at Wenlock Abbey. The Milnes-Gaskells were good hosts and tour guides and made sure that their visitors always took in the best views.
On reflection, though, I’d say that this particular fieldscape would have looked very different a good century ago – smaller fields, many more hedges and trees back then. Much bigger trees too, for all the huge oaks were culled by the late nineteenth century, and those of us alive today have never seen their like other than in old photos, where their magnificence has been felled and stacked up, ready to serve some apparently pressing human purpose.
Life for ordinary people would have been tough too – with many more labourers working the land, horses pulling ploughs, vistas of scenic rusticity that did not fool Thomas Hardy for one moment. He is said to have been mightily appalled by the impoverished state of Wenlock’s workers.
And so back to the setting sun/moving earth where this post began. The Edge then, is still in motion, although mostly in ways not much noticed by us. The limestone scarps are degrading. Rock becoming soil and mixing with the leaf mould to create new niches and microclimates, the old lime kilns, moss and ivy coated, weathering into the earth, the quarry scars and debris gradually being colonised by trees and plants.
Then there are the kinds of movement that I observe day after day behind our house: the march of clouds, weather; the change of light, dawn , dusk, the stars, the seasons, the rooks and jackdaws going out, and coming home. Everything shifting, transforming, recycling as the earth rotates around the sun. I find that thought – the revolving planet and the endless motion of its life forms – very joy-making. It is good to stand still and watch, and especially as the sun sets, or the earth moves.
Rooks and jackdaws coming home
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell