Sunday afternoon, and the sudden need for fresh horizons spurred us out the door to explore parts of Wenlock Edge we cannot reach on foot from the house. The escarpment, wooded for the most part, is some twenty miles long, and though crisscrossed from end to end with paths and bridleways, we are not committed walkers of the long-distance variety, more amblers than ramblers. The expedition thus required a short car sprint – along the Edge from Much Wenlock and a sharp turn left in Longville-in-the-Dale for Wilderhope Manor. This Tudor mansion sits above Hope Dale, its back to the Edge. It is owned by the National Trust but run by the Youth Hostel Association, and its car park is handy for a number of cross-country paths.
The house was built in the 1580s for one Francis Smallman and it was a Smallman scion, Major Thomas Smallman, who, during the Civil War (1642-51, Charles 1 versus Oliver Cromwell) performed a feat of dashing bravery. He was a staunch Royalist and when he learned that the Roundhead army was approaching Wilderhope he mounted his horse and headed for Shrewsbury, a dozen miles away, to warn the Royalist forces there.
The Roundheads followed, and in a bid to escape them, the Major and horse took a flying leap off Wenlock Edge. Sadly the horse did not survive the 200 foot drop, but by a stroke of luck the Major’s fall was broken by a wild cherry tree (or apple tree depending on which version you read). He thus completed his mission on foot, rousing the Royalist forces who launched an attack at Wilderhope. The Major apparently bequeathed us his ghostly presence, said to be seen by some still plunging over the precipice on horseback. The supposed spot, ‘Major’s Leap’, is now a popular viewpoint.
But enough dawdling. Back to the walk. We had decided to follow a 2 mile stretch of the Jack Mytton Way which itself is a 70-mile foot and cycle path named after another local personality, Mad Jack Mytton, a somewhat surprising association for a facility promoting healthful pursuits. Mytton, born into wealthy Shropshire squirearchy in 1796, died in Southwark debtors’ prison at the age of 37, a drunken, spendthrift, philanderin’, huntin’, roisterin’ rake of the first water who, it is said, claimed to have seen a mermaid in the River Severn. Not following in his footsteps then!
The path from Wilderhope starts off on the farm drive, passing through pasture and a very fine herd of Hereford-Friesian cattle who gave us the once over as we passed.
Then it was across the lane into the wheat field. This (and the header view) is Hope Dale looking from Wenlock Edge with Corve Dale and the Clee Hills in the distance
At the field boundary the path heads into Coats Wood, and the rest of our walk to Roman Bank is under dappled shade: oak, ash, beech, an ancient yew, field maple, holly, birch, lime, rowan, the odd sycamore, and many coppiced hazel trees. The woods that covered all of Wenlock Edge in ancient times were a valuable resource for fuel gathering, timber cutting and stock grazing and, in the Middle Ages every township within a mile of the Edge (most of Saxon origin) had common rights there.
Coppicing is the ancient practice of cutting a tree’s main trunk so encouraging the growth of multiple upright stems. These were used in hurdle making for fencing in farmstock, stakes for hedge laying, for bean poles, basket making, and in early times before forges and furnaces ran on coke, to make charcoal. These days coppicing has been re-introduced in a bid to manage woodland sprawl and encourage the re-establishment of dormouse populations.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we retraced our steps. There was a sense of somnolent wildlife stirring. (All had been silent on the outward meander). Blackbirds were bobbing about in the leaf litter, and overhead we heard ravens cronking. Then as I was surveying an area of coppiced hazel, I found two roe deer looking back at us. They melted away – woodland ghosts. But the fleeting glimpse made us glad we had stirred ourselves to take a trip out, this even though we had managed to miss lunch and were by then very hungry. But even that was catered for. On the Wilderhope Manor drive we found a wild cherry tree hanging in delicious dark fruit, and later I wondered if the National Trust had planted the it as a reminder of Major Smallman’s heroic leap. And next there were apples, astonishingly early, but all the better for being scrumped.
copyright 2020 Tish Farrell