I’d noticed the sign on several occasions as we’d passed by – a brown heritage sign at the turn to Wentnor on the Bishops Castle road. It sounded tantalising: 12th century Myndtown Church 1¼. On Saturday, after a fish and chip lunch in Poppies in Bishops Castle we decided to take a look.
To say it’s off the beaten track succinctly sums it up. The lane is narrow, a car’s width between verged hedgerows, gateway glimpses only of the pasture and wheat fields on either hand. No sign of habitation, only the Long Mynd looming ahead, and so it’s not long before we are questioning the wisdom of the excursion. For one thing its another of those odd Shropshire moments: here we are in wide open country yet apparently heading for a place with ‘town’ in the name? Surely not.
Surely is right. After about a mile we pass the sign to Myndtown Cottage. No house is visible, only the name board and dirt track approach. And finally, around the next bend, and on a little plateau above another sign, this time to Myndtown Farm, there it is – Myndtown Church of 12th century origins.
The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, its east end nudging towards the Mynd. There is also a barn and a venerable house nearby. And in the field opposite a pony under an ancient apple tree, a snoozing sheep for company. And finally, views of Shropshire hill country all around.
But have you spotted the fish? As one brought up with 1950s I-spy books to ensure I passed the time quietly on long car journeys, I feel sure a ‘weather cock’ in piscine form would have merited a good 25 points.
And while I have you looking skywards, look higher still. There are gliders up there too, drifting silently between the clouds. They are launched from the top of the Long Mynd where the Midlands Gliding Club has its HQ.
Back to earth in the church yard, all is peace and late summer sunshine, blackberries ripening on the wall, no sounds but wind-rush and bird call. Listen! says Graham. No traffic noise. I listen. There isn’t. It’s almost unimaginable these days. Also the white painted church door suggests an airy welcome somehow, and inside we’re struck by the amazing roof timbers, the tub-shaped early medieval font, the simplicity of the place that began in the 1100s or possibly earlier still, and was rescued from ruin in the 21st century by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Services are still held here once a month although not in March because this is lambing time. These days it is one of a group of neighbouring rural churches – Norbury, Wentnor, and Ratlinghope – all served by a single rector.
By the door we find all sorts of interesting historical snippets on a series of notice boards. For instance Myndtown makes its historical debut in 1086, during William the Conqueror’s famous auditing exercise, otherwise known as the Domesday Book. At this time the manor, then known as Munete, was part of the hundred of Rinlau whose lord was a Norman incomer, Robert de Say. He let the manor of Munete to a free man called Leofric, presumably a Saxon. The assets included 1½ hides of land, about 240 acres, sufficient for 3½ ploughs. Of the population at this time, there were 2 slaves, 4 villagers, and 4 small holders with 2 ploughs between them. Before the Conquest the holding was valued at 60 shillings, but only 30 shillings at the time of the audit, a reduction, historians suggest, possibly due to predation by raiders from over the border in nearby Wales.
In a later, and sombrely touching account from 1341, the tax assessors reduce the Chapel of Munede’s bill to the Crown from £4’s worth of parish lamb, wool, wheat, to less than half this amount: “because the lands lay fallow and untilled, the Tenants being poor.”
And so the Myndtown name turns out to be misleading. There never was a town here, or hardly even a hamlet. In 1708 under the lordship of Richard Clough there were 4 houses and 4 cottages. In 1793 there were still 8 households and a population of 39. During the 18th century the manor was bought and sold to and by members of the local gentry who received rents from the 3 tenant farms therein. The last sale was in 1797 to the Plowden family who own it today and have lived nearby since the 1200s.
In some ways, then, and in some key matters, things have changed less than we imagine in the almost thousand years since William of Normandy effected regime change in Saxon England. So it does make me very happy to know that since 1965 the Long Mynd itself – the 7-mile long hill that you can see looking down on Myndtown – has been owned and managed by the National Trust, the degraded uplands constantly being improved and made ever more accessible to anyone who cares to hike, bike, trek, wild swim or wander there – definitely a change to celebrate. Incidentally, now I come to think of it, it’s also the way the fish is blowing – towards the Mynd.
But finally another nugget of information gathered while inside Myndtown Church – that from 1155 until 1752 the English year began, not on 1st January, but on the 25th March, Lady Day. This is still a date when estate rents are traditionally paid, which as it happens, also includes the rent for my allotment plot.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell