A Rip Van Winkle kind of place – that’s how Shropshire writer Mary Webb described Much Wenlock around a century ago. It was the home town of her teenage years, and the place where I now live and indeed have known for much of my life. Even when we lived in Africa we would visit Wenlock whenever we were on ‘home leave’. We had friends who drew us, and finally led us to settle here on our return to England.
And once we had arrived, we soon found that many of our neighbours, pitched up from far-flung places themselves, had also lived and worked all over Africa. I was therefore only briefly surprised to find that Henry Morton Stanley had once been in Wenlock, staying as a house guest of the Milnes Gaskells, the local gentry who once lived in the old Prior’s House and owned the ruins of Wenlock Priory from which the town had grown up throughout the Middle Ages.
Stanley is not a man I admire, although his brute tenacity is certainly impressive. We also have him to thank for selling the idea of the Congo to another brute of a man, King Leopold II of Belgium, a circumstance from which that Central African state has probably yet to recover.
Still, I won’t go into that now, but I do have a mind’s eye image of Stanley sitting up on Wenlock Edge (the Milnes Gaskells took all their guests there), and picture him scanning the Shropshire plains below as he contemplated the writing of In Darkest Africa.
The landscape that spread before him, with its distant ranges of Welsh hills, could well have reminded him of that continent. I have seen such vistas in East Africa. But he was a man who ever took his darkness with him. And this makes me wonder. What might our grim legacy have been, in PR terms that is, if he had written of ‘darkest Shropshire’; would the tainted words still be sticking to us today?
It’s a rhetorical question obviously. And I mention all these dark tones and undercurrents only as counterpoint to the quaint, quiet images above. Much Wenlock definitely has ‘chocolate box image’ tendencies in its now gentrified, ancient streets. I find it good to remember, once in a while, that all is not necessarily what it seems.
This post was inspired by Paula’s Black & White Sunday Challenge: ‘surreptitious photography’. It is a fascinating theme. The role of surreptitious photographer is something I rather relish, but rarely put into practice. I have a feeling that in this Rip Van Winkle place it risks becoming an obsessive pursuit and, as a writer, I already have enough of those.
But please visit Paula at the link above and be inspired by her photographs. There’s still time to take part. Also check in HERE to see her gallery of slide shows of all participating photographers’ work. It’s a real treat.
copyright 2016 Tish Farrell