Driving up and out of Wenlock yesterday and suddenly all of Corvedale stretched before us. And so much of it YELLOW!
And so it seems that despite a wild and windy spring, followed by the last two weeks of dry and chilly weather, the oil seed rape is blooming. Its heady scent filled the car as we headed to The Crown at Munslow for a family lunch. The fields of it were everywhere, filling our sights as we rounded bend after bend on the narrow lane, shocking the vision at every turn. Then to the south, there was Clee Hill, rising serenely above a lemony sea. It made us wonder what Van Gogh might have made of this landscape, or if in fact the crop is having the last word: that there is little more to be said about yellow.
This sheep is posing on some of the world’s most ancient rocks, layers of mud-stones, sand-stones and shales laid down when this incipient Shropshire Hill was still lying in shallow seas somewhere in the Indian Ocean off East Africa. This was followed by much shunting and shifting across the planet, tectonic plates smashing and colliding.
Our most local collision was along the Church Stretton Valley, just over Wenlock Edge, some twelve miles from where we live. To the east of it (some 600 million years ago) volcanic ash and lava formed our well loved hills of Wrekin, Lawley, Caer Caradoc and Ragleth. To the west lay the sedimentary formations of Long Mynd, which around 550 million years ago were folded and thrust upwards along the Church Stretton Fault.
Then in recent times (2.4 million to 20,000 years ago) glaciers slipped and slid along the Mynd’s flanks, although the summit was clear of ice. And then during successive interglacial (warming) periods (300,00-15,000 years ago) melting ice fed stream torrents that cut deep valleys and batches…
Ashes Hollow, one of the Mynd’s stream-cut batches
And so it might be timely to ponder on the momentous natural forces that brought about the formation of this single Shropshire hill – begun in tropical seas half a world away, then wrought by collision, compression, ice and melt-water. And all achieved without the meddling of humanity and on a planet that is endlessly reshaping itself.
View from the Long Mynd’s Carding Mill Valley towards Ragleth Hill
Looking east from the Long Mynd towards the Wrekin
Lens-Artists: Earth Story Please visit Amy to see her very stunning Earth Story photos.
Monday morning. Sunshine after days of rain plus hints of spring. A walk to the shops then. We set off down the Cutlins field path, pleased to find it dry underfoot, though we’re pleased too soon: at the path bottom by the kissing gate we find a huge puddle. Ah well. Muddy shoes AGAIN. There are strange sounds too, out on the lane, shattering the peace of the Priory ruins. Chainsaws.
When we reach the Priory Hall (originally a National School that once served Much Wenlock’s poor children, but now is the town’s community centre), this is the sight that greets us. Goodness.
Then we recall the recent planning application. The line of lime trees along the churchyard wall behind the Priory Hall has been scheduled to be taken in hand – three cut down and the remaining ones pruned. Better get a better look then. It’s not often that Much Wenlock provides so much excitement on a Monday morning:
Lens-Artists: Close and closer
Shropshire’s mysterious Stiperstones featured in a recent Square Odds post. Here are more shots in monochrome, plus a few facts for geology lovers.
The grey-white rock of the ridge is quartzose sandstone known as the Stiperstones Quartzite Formation, created some 480 million years ago in the Ordovician era.
The tors and the rubble-like surroundings we see today are the work of more recent events in the last Ice Age (c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago). During this time, the eastern edge of the Welsh ice sheet was nudged up against the Stiperstones, not covering it, but causing the quartzite to fracture during periods of intense freezing followed by thawing.
The highest point (Manstone Rocks) is 536 metres (1,759 ft) above sea level, making it the county’s second tallest hill after Brown Clee. The ridge extends some 8 kilometres (5 miles), the summit crowned with a series of six distinctive outcrops.
For geology buffs there is a detailed overview of Shropshire’s 700 million year geological history by Peter Toghill HERE.
This next photo: men on Manstone Rock, the highest point on the Stiperstones…
Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: rocks, boulders, stones
One mid-summer evening when I was leaving the allotment by the gate rather than by my usual route through the field hedge, I glimpsed, on the far edge of town, over rooftops, and between trees, an astonishing scarlet blaze where I’d never seen one before. Home was forgotten, and off I went to investigate: over the main road out of Wenlock and down a lane beside the old railway bridge, into a field with an abandoned barn by the gate, and there it was: an entire field of poppies.
They looked to have exploded from an oil seed rape crop, but it was hard to tell. Had someone sabotaged the farm seed, or did the farmer do it on purpose? Whatever the cause, it’s not happened since. But it was one of those weirdly wonderful happenings wherein it was hard not to grow very over-excited and run amok. I took lots of happy snaps, then dashed home to spread the news to he had a much smarter camera. And then we went back and repeated the excitement, all fuses fired by poppy power.
The Square Odds #14
In an earlier post this week I mentioned Wild Edric our heroic Saxon warlord who challenged the Norman interlopers and ended up as a ghost haunting the Stiperstones. Now shunt forward a few hundred years to the 1640s, a time when England was locked in civil war: Roundhead Parliamentarians versus Charles 1 and the Royalist army. The Parliamentarians were intent on curbing the king’s proclivities to do as he liked at the nation’s expense; the Royalists were set on protecting the monarch’s prerogative.
We’ve shifted from the South Shropshire hills to Wenlock Edge, a wooded limestone escarpment that rears up above the county’s farming lowland for nearly 20 miles. Enter one Major Thomas Smallman, fleeing on horseback from his home in nearby Wilderhope Manor. He is a King’s man, carrying despatches for the Royalist headquarters in the county town of Shrewsbury, some dozen miles away. On his heels are Cromwell’s troops. Trying to evade them, the major veers off along the Edge. But there’s no escape. He and horse leap over the precipice. It is a two hundred foot drop. The major was caught up in a crab apple tree, and so survived to deliver his despatches to Shrewsbury, but his valiant horse was lost. Perhaps that’s why a ghostly major on horseback may sometimes be glimpsed near this signpost on the Edge footpath.
And to give you a notion of what lay before the major when his horse took off:
The Square Odds #10
I don’t know about you, but I had never encountered a weather fish before. This one is atop the tiny ancient church of a very tiny farming settlement below Shropshire’s Long Mynd. The church is 12th century and you can find out more about it and its location in an earlier post: On the way to Myndtown to see which way the fish blow
For now, just a smidgeon of history.
As you will see, the word ‘town’ in Myndtown is misleading. It should be understood in the old Saxon sense of ‘settlement’. In the Domesday accounts of 1085 it is described as being held by Leofric who in turn holds it from a French lordling nicknamed Picot, otherwise known as Robert de Sai (from the Orne district in France).
Leofric (a good Saxon name) is a freeman, overseeing some 240 acres (one and half hides), enough for three and half ploughs, and on which tax is due. In the settlement there are four villagers, four smallholders with two ploughs and two slaves. There is one hedged enclosure. The conqueror’s accountants state whole is worth 30 shillings, half the amount is was worth in 1066.
Historians surmise that the fall in value at this particular place and time is due to incursions by raiders from nearby Wales.
Fortunately there was no raiding going on during our Myndtown visit. The only sound was a buzzard tracking the Long Mynd foothills. You can just spot it in the next photo (above the porch roof).
And besides the general peacefulness, there were other signs that the weather fish spoke truly: it was indeed a fine day for flying. Look up! Here comes a glider launched from the Long Mynd glider station.
The Square Odds #9
With its series of other-worldly outcrops, the Stiperstones ridge has to be one of Shropshire’s most compellingly strange landscapes. The cragginess was wrought by the scything, crushing and cracking action of ice during the last glacial period. But natural forces alone don’t explain the sense of weirdness. It is also a place of old lead mines (going back to Roman times), and of older-still Bronze Age burial cairns.
And on the supernatural front, there are ghosts there, most notably of Saxon lord, Wild Edric, our local King Arthur, who rampaged against the Norman invaders and is said to have been imprisoned in an abandoned lead mine. When he rides again, it is said the natural good order of things will be restored to the land.
And last, but scarcely least, there are the sinister witchy happenings, especially when the mist falls and Old Nick himself is said to occupy the most mysterious of all the outcrops – otherwise known as the Devil’s Chair. (See Mary Webb’s novel Gone to Earth whose heroine Hazel Woodus is tragically enthralled by the landscape and legends of the Stiperstones.)
As a 6/7th Shropshire lass, I’m ashamed to say I have not yet got myself to the Devil’s Chair. On our last two expeditions we did not get further than Manstone Rock. This year’s ambition perhaps. On a mist-free day of course!
The Square Odds #8
In our secular-minded times it is hard to imagine that there could even be the need for a burial ritual that involved a designated eater of sins. But it did happen, both anciently and more recently, although it is a custom mostly known of in Shropshire, Hereford and the Welsh Marches. Shropshire writer Mary Webb (1881-1927) whose novels are set in the rural lead-mining communities around the Long Mynd and Stiperstones, gave an account of it in Precious Bane. You’ll find the extract at the end of my earlier post In which the Farrells go to Ratlinghope to visit Shropshire’s last sin eater
But to give you the gist, the sin eater played a crucial part in the burial service. A ritual meal – usually bread and ale – was passed over the coffin of the deceased for the sin eater to eat. In this way, the dead person’s spirit was absolved of all wrong-doing and could depart in peace. The people prepared to take on this role might be local wise folk, exorcists, or poor people outcast from the community by some misfortune. As time went on, it was often the last-mentioned who performed the act in order to have a decent meal. A harrowing thought on many fronts.
However, the man who has the distinction of being Shropshire’s last known sin eater, was not a poor man, but a sheep farmer whose family had farmed in the vicinity of Ratlinghope for generations. He in fact chose to revive the custom, and when you read the inscriptions set around his very striking memorial in Ratlinghope churchyard, you begin to understand why. Between 1862 and 1870, Richard and Ann Munslow lost four of their children. And so it is thought that Richard took on sin eating in response to this loss and as an expression of compassion. On a happier note, he and Ann did have two more children who outlived them. Richard died in 1906, his family grave set in the most peaceful of spots and in sight of the Long Mynd where he held the sheep grazing.
The Square Odds #7
copyright 2022 Tish Farrell
As ecclesiastical carvings go this one definitely falls in the rude category. It is one of four known Shropshire Sheelagh Na Gigs, crudely worked images of women (emphasis on reproductive parts and/or breasts) found in parish church walls. According to The Sheelagh na Gig Project there are a dozen more examples known in Britain, but they are also found in early mediaeval churches across Europe.
This particular one is over the door of Church Stretton’s parish church (Church Stretton being Wenlock’s neighbouring town across the Edge). The church is mostly 14th century, but with earlier Norman parts, and it seems likely that this Sheelagh has been retained from the first building phase.
As you can see, she is not easily spotted. But there she is above the side door, further implying that when the Norman church was being rebuilt, she was thought important enough to re-instate. It’s worth remembering, too, that this was in times when the church ruled over every aspect of people’s lives; adherence and attendance were not optional.
So what is meant by these crude effigies?
There have been all sorts of explanations: that they’re hang-overs from pre-Christian mother-goddess worship; are warnings against immorality; meant to confer success in childbirth; are simply part and parcel of the Norman tendency to add grotesque figures to their churches.
In other words, we do not know. It is yet another example of how the ancestors’ thought processes (much like our own) are not easily fathomed. But if you want to see more examples The Sheelagh na Gig Project is well worth a visit.
The Square Odds #6