Over The Edge And Far Away ~ In Search Of Heath Chapel Beneath The Clee

crop Clee

Between Wenlock Edge and Clee Hill.

[This photo is by way of a prologue, just to give you a gist of place – a glimpse of the ‘lost world’ where we found ourselves last Friday. This is actually an autumn scene taken from the Wenlock Edge viewpoint, the freshly sown winter wheat just sprouting in the field to the left. Beyond the middle horizon lies Corvedale, one of the loveliest valleys of the Shropshire uplands. Today this country is mainly agricultural land, arable and pasture, but back in the Middle Ages coal was mined on the Clee Hills and the valley then would have gushed with fumes and smoke from blast furnaces and iron foundries – an industrial scene then, and well before the actual  Industrial Revolution of centuries later. And generations before the fumes, in 7th century Saxon Mercia, all this land was a small part of the domain held by Milburga, a Saxon princess and abbess of Much Wenlock’s first convent – a double house for both nuns and monks. Doubtless the Saxon villagers who farmed this land back then would have paid tribute to Milburga’s establishment, or to one of its daughter houses.]

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If in a madcap moment you turn off the Craven Arms-Ludlow road that runs out of Wenlock and along Corvedale, and then head down one of the many side-lanes, you will soon find yourself meandering through tiny hamlets of old stone cottages, farmhouses and the occasional manor with surrounding parkland. Oaks and ash trees shade the narrow byways that dogleg round wheat fields and cattle and sheep meadows, nudge between tall hedgerows of wild flowers, scuttle across farmyards, elbow their way in and out of cramped cottage-clusters where the signpost to the place you are seeking is hidden by trees. Progress, then, can be slow and also nerve-wracking. Mostly the road is only wide enough for one vehicle, and passing places, by way of field gateways, are sometimes scarce. One may spend much time going backwards.

There are no shops or inns and and, now and then, only the sight of an isolated notice board at a crossroads alerts you to the fact of a community’s existence, somewhere behind all the greenery. Of course there are old churches whose towers you may glimpse as you wend and bend through the hinterland. And then there are VERY old churches, and it was the pursuit of one particular ancient chapel that last Friday had lured us into uncharted territory (for us that is), if barely a dozen miles from home.

In short, we were having ‘a day out’, a break from the ongoing domestic chaos that had begun with exchanging an old bathroom for a new one, but then morphed into an unexpected schedule of re-decorating – one big mess somehow multiplying into several others. Also, after last Thursday’s 24 hours of rain, we had seen more than enough of the chaos in particular and of indoors in general.

The road out of Wenlock and into Corvedale is narrow and steep, and as main roads go, is more of a lane to begin with. It wanders up and down through Bourton, Brockton and Shipton, then straightens and widens through Broadstone and Hungerford. But before we reached Munslow we left it, turning off at the staggered crossroads where there’s a sign for Wildgoose Nursery (more of which in another post), zigzagging through Baucott down Sandy Lane, skirting Bouldon (though it looked beguiling), taking a sharp left to Heath, peering through overgrown hedgerows.

And suddenly there it was, alone in its field – and looking just like the Shropshire guide book photos – Heath Chapel built around 1150 CE, and at some point in the late Middle Ages left high and dry by its community which, for reasons unknown, simply ceased to be. In a nearby field you can see the humps and bumps of house platforms that were once its village. In fact the map shows a number of deserted medieval village sites along the dale. All rather mysterious.

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The notice board at the chapel gate tells you that key is hanging behind it. At first I was sceptical. But here it was. A good 10 inches of it.

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I was further surprised to learn from the board that loo facilities are available behind the chapel, along with car parking. I also noted the paths that have been mown across the meadow, and the wrought iron seats placed for quiet contemplation in this secluded spot. Although I soon saw we were not quite alone. Across the field I spotted a small graveyard where three young calves were grazing. While Graham manhandled the huge key to open the chapel I went over to say hello to them.

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Back at the chapel door I considered its rustic Norman arch and the time-line progress of humanity that has passed beneath it: the Saxon serfs of some local Norman overlord, monastic labourers perhaps, since the reach of Wenlock Priory under the rule of the French-speaking Cluniac monks was long, and they had diverse money-making projects, most especially in sheep wool. Later, after 1540 when monastic rule was broken, and Wenlock Borough managed by burgesses, town worthies of the rising merchant classes, perhaps the manor’s lord and lady and their retinue worshipped here. No one knows. The chapel is simply there, silent about its history although there are some tantalizing hints inside.

And inside it was dark, dank and musty, though apparently still sometimes used for worship. Only by holding the door wide open was there enough light to photograph the font.

I weighed up the box pews and thought they would have been little defence against the cold rising from the stone flag floor, or a winter’s wind under the door. But I also noticed something else. Here and there, where the white plasterwork had fallen damply from the walls, there were faint outlines of Gothic text and more besides.

It seems there were once religious texts illuminating the walls above the pews. Later I discovered these were added in the 1600s, inscribed atop the whitewash that had blotted out the earlier medieval wall paintings. And then astonishingly up on the south wall there is the ghost of such a painting, and said to be the image of Saint George. It is a full-scale work, and even these faint vestiges suggest that this modest little chapel was once very grandly adorned. But by whom and why here?

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It was good to step back out into the sunshine. Graham locked the door and the chapel continued to keep its secrets. We walked around the field perimeter and, under a large tree at the furthest point from the chapel, we found a small, and discreetly placed garden shed. The loo. There really was one and provided there by the thoughtful chapel custodians. It also proved an attraction of sorts in its own right and made us laugh when we looked inside.

A valuable introduction into compost toileting arrangements then. The same kindly people who created these facilities presumably had also put a pack of bottled water in the chapel. Heath is in on a popular walkers’ route, and so if you’d forgotten, or finished your own water, you could help yourself to a bottle and drop a donation in the box. It was all so heartening; a piece of English heritage that was well loved and cherished and generously shared by unseen souls.

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View from the loo

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The key re-hung and the gate string re-looped, we returned to the car that Graham had parked tidily in a hedge, and meandered on. More narrow winding lanes – more unfamiliar terrain with Clee Hill now looming on our right, more searching for signposts in the overgrowth which involved a U-turn or two. We headed for Abdon, then Tugford, inching past farm vehicles, slowing for a girl on a horse, narrowly missing being run over by a speeding parcel delivery van, admiring picturesque stone houses with pretty gardens, the well farmed fields, and at last regaining the road home at Broadstone.

Back in Wenlock, we felt we’d been a long way away, and for a very long time. It was that well known Rip Van Winkle effect that often happens in Shropshire if, in a madcap moment, you choose to leave the main road.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists ~ Taking A Break  This week we’ve followed Tina’s wise advice.

53 thoughts on “Over The Edge And Far Away ~ In Search Of Heath Chapel Beneath The Clee

  1. Thanks for the wonderful tour of this strange spot Tish! Surely not something you’d come across anywhere near us here! Loved the little loo humor, and the very people-friendly bovines 🙂 . How bizarre that the community simply disappeared – one could write an entire novel about this one. A lovely break from your re-decorating duties indeed!!

    1. Thank you, Tina. It is a puzzle as to where the community went to. Though in the 18th century big landowners did have a habit of clearing away villages that spoiled their views from the stately home terraces. I don’t think this is the explanation here though.

  2. Well I know that (Ludlow) Munslow to Wenlock road very well, having driven it weekly for several years on the way to the M-i-L in Cross Houses. But we never ventured down any of the side roads, except sometimes turning off at Bourton. I do remember one spectacular winter driving along the Corve Valley with banks of snow piled high at either side, creating a single track. What a lovely chapel you found, and how lovely to go off-piste in Shropshire 🙂

    1. It’s fascinating how many quite isolated communities seem to be thriving away from the mainstream. The Corve Valley between high banks of snow must have been very beautiful, though maybe a bit hair-raising too.

    1. Thank you, Laura. Am glad we weren’t there long enough for the need to rearrange myself on the loo, though I seem to remember using one at the Centre for Alternative Technology. That one felt very mossy.

  3. Always amazed the amount of time, money and effort put into these churches and chapels (mostly by wealthy lords of the manor looking to book their ticket to the pearly gates). Whilst the poor old peasant, sharing his timber shack with various livestock, disappears without trace.

  4. Thank you, Tish, for documenting this journey which I have so much enjoyed. I did hear that pilgrimages along old routes have been re-initiated in Britain and you can see why: care has been taken here, there, and in many places to preserve the old chapels, the old walkways and even relics.

    In the photo with the cows are some gravestones with lettering in shiny gold. Does this mean, do you think, that people are continuing to be buried here? Those gravestones look pristine.

    At some point in the 1600s someone painted a St. George high up. Of course, the 1600s were full of war and religious tension, the execution of kings etc. Do you know on which side of the Catholic/Anglican divide this chapel stood in this century? I have the idea – no doubt the result of Anglican indoctrination! – that St. George came to defend the Anglicans and that the Catholics would not have painted a St. George. And that is why he is high up: more difficult to get rid of in the event of a return of a Catholic monarchy!

    In any case, thank you for this heartening account on another day full of death for us here in the United States. Thank you! Sarah

    1. The gravestones were indeed fairly recent, Sarah. And it was rather puzzling to find them in the corner of the field. i.e. without older stones that might suggest connections with the chapel. I think it was pretty much abandoned in the Victorian era. It almost seemed like a private burial ground.
      As to St. George, I think he belonged to earlier medieval period, which is even more amazing. There are not many surviving examples of medieval wall painting in English churches. All lost under layers of whitewash, which is what we have come to expect of sacred ‘decor’. As to the lastest rounds of killings in the US, it makes one weep. I’ve just read Barack Obama’s heartfelt statement. If Americans can’t break the power gun lobby, they can’t have control of their own lives.

  5. It often seems to me that we have been working on an international mass world pollution efforts as long as we’ve had something like civilization. We just needed BETTER ecological disimprovements to get a full bore effort going. This has been such an international effort, all the finger-pointing and blaming isn’t fixing anything. I wish folks would just cut it out and recognize that we all need to work together.

    1. Thanks, Jennie. That key was a real whopper. It also made me smile that the notice board told everyone so boldly where it was. Usually with locked churches you have to hunt for someone to let you in.

  6. The light is great on the first photograph, which gives it faint colors
    I’m starting to read your text, image taken in autumn … this is all the more normal, it’s the season when (for me) the light is the prettiest, because very grazing
    I think the light in the chapel was good enough (with the door ajar) for the shots I admired
    It is true that in old places, ruins sometimes we can still see old inscriptions that remain

    If you click on the link, it was during a visit of a ruin in 2015, you will see on one of the photographs of the slideshow (not the one where we see the inside of the chapel, no, on a picture wholesale shot of a stone, you will see as a drawing and figures I tried to “know” the meaning but did not find
    https://yoshimiparis.wordpress.com/category/urbex/chapelle-sur-les-traces-de-joanne/

    Thank you for your publication and the quality of your photographs, I really, really liked

  7. What a fab excursion Tish. Thanks for sharing it so generously and with such a beautifully-told history.

    I just love the spirit of trust and compassion shown by the community. Last time I tried to go into a little English chapel — in the grounds of a manor house where we’d once had a flat — I was swooped upon by a very stern lady determined to escort me from the premises. I virtually had to find an old entry in the church visitors’ book to prove my bona fide. I understood her suspicion, so it is heartening to know that trust is still possible.

  8. What a wonderful little mystery! Your poetic words pulled me right into this adventure with you.

    I love that it’s being maintained for use by the passerby understanding the needs of the wanderer for shelter, water, washroom facilities.

  9. Wow. Great photos, very well written history. I worked in Swindon ’88-’92, as it was going techie long after the railroad industry ‘ran out of steam’ for locomotive manufacture. I lived in Wanborough, Chippenham, and Bath. I didn’t visit the area you describe, but loved the country lanes, villages, and old churches near where I was. What a beautiful country.

  10. How blessed are you to have such beauty, both Mother Nature and man made, right off your doorstep. And with such blue skies after yet another deluge. Hard to imagine that this was once a industrial, mining wasteland. Nice to see ‘progress’ trending in the right direction.

    1. That is a very good point, Lisa, re. ‘progress’. Come to think of it Shropshire has rather a lot to answer for on global warming front – so much technological innovation on the iron and steel front began here. But as you say, very hard to believe now with all the farm fields covering most of the county. And yes, we ARE lucky to be here.

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