The Shortest Day And A Trip To Ironbridge

IMG_2185edIt seemed like a good way for the Farrells to mark the winter solstice – a little wander through Ironbridge town and over the bridge itself. It was anyway a glorious day, and the bridge was looking its festive best in its ochre-red livery.

A fine exemplar of Shropshire’s heritage.

Those of you who come here often will know that this is reputedly the world’s first cast iron bridge, built by Abraham Darby III and opened for the carriage trade and other toll paying traffic in the New Year of 1781.

Of course, as was intended all along, it became the sightseeing phenomenon of the age. Everyone who was anyone had to come, look and pronounce on this pioneering wonder. The Coalbrookdale Company of ironmasters were naturally well prepared. They had also built the Tontine inn, a smart hostelry at the foot of the bridge.

Here it is with its mint green shutters, and still open for business. Also if you squint, you can ‘see’ the church clock is just striking noon. Can  you hear the chimes ringing out on the cold December air?

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The middle of the bridge is a good spot to stop for views of the Severn Gorge, now a World Heritage Site.

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Once, this upstream view would have been filled with busyness. There were boat builders’ yards along the left bank. Then there was the river traffic itself, Severn trows, the great sailing barges up from Gloucester and Bristol, putting in at the Coalbrookdale Company’s warehouse, just visible at the river’s vanishing point. The trows brought in luxury goods: fine glassware, casks of port, Madeira, Spanish wines, sugar, molasses, serge cloth, the latest hats and bonnets, peach wood for cabinet making, blocks of marble, tobacco, salt fish.

On the return voyage the trows took on consignments of pig iron and castings of every kind, in particular the iron cauldrons, latterly known as missionary pots. They came in all sizes from the family porridge pot to large scale containers for industrial processes. They were rarely, if ever, deployed for the braising of missionaries.

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This downstream view suggests unchanging tranquillity, but think again. Come the February flood season, the force of water rushing down from Wales and through the Gorge can be devastating. Even these days, with flood defences in place, there can be extensive overflow.  The Great  Flood of 1795 saw every Severn bridge damaged or taken out. Only the Iron Bridge remained unscathed.

Times of drought brought other perils. Large sandbanks formed and well loaded barges could find themselves grounded, often for weeks at a time. Such eventualities were catered for by a string of inns along both banks.  And these were not only places of respite for the stranded. The riverside taverns were also said to be the haunt of industrial spies, out to gather company secrets over a jug or two of ale.

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On Wednesday noon, 21st Dec. 2022, the Wharfage slumbered in the winter sunshine. There was barely a sign of a Christmas shopper. No coach and horses clattering up the hill to the Tontine. No carts unloading and loading precious goods in transit. No crowds of merchants’ clerks checking the cargo lists, or shouts of boat masters cajoling their crews. Or the pounding of the steam hammer at the riverside ironworks, that caused the men who worked it to grow deaf; the thud and thud and thud rebounding down the Gorge. Some things change for the better.

Happy New Year One And All

And whatever our beliefs, or lack of them, a strong prayer for more sanity and truth will not come amiss

Zero Degrees And Getting Colder

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This morning over the garden fence: frosted crab apples and brilliant sunshine. The weather people tell us there will be more frost tonight and tomorrow (temps around –5 C), but slightly milder weather over the weekend.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying the frost-art around the garden, and especially the glistening spent flower heads of the Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria). Truly a tree for all seasons.

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And then there were the spider installations on the garden shed window:

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We also checked on the MacMoos this morning. They seemed in meditative mood, soaking up the sunshine.

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Much Wenlock’s Church Green this morning

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And finally before lunch there was a quick tramp to the allotment, the wheat field iron-hard, and hard on the feet too, even in boots.

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Townsend Meadow

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Allotment windfalls – the robins are enjoying them

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Stiperstones ~ On The Diagonal

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In an earlier post HERE I said the Stiperstones ridge has to be one of Shropshire’s most compellingly strange landscapes. And that its cragginess was wrought by the scything, crushing and cracking action of ice during the last glacial period some 150,000 – 11,000 years ago. Periods of alternating thaw and freeze also made their mark. But now I’m also noticing another striking feature – the way the geology is so determinedly set on the diagonal, the outcrops’ pitch  a piece of ‘set-in-stone’ evidence attesting to recent epic earth forces.

When I say ‘recent’ I am of course wearing my prehistorian’s hat. Also I should make clear that the word ‘last’ as in ‘the last glacial period’ does not mean ‘final’, or that we have seen the end of ice ages. We are currently in an interglacial period, otherwise known as the Holocene. In the past, ice ages have occurred in regular cycles, beginning in the Quaternary about 2.5 million years ago, coinciding with the formation of the Arctic ice sheet. There is no reason to suppose that that this cycle has stopped. Today’s sudden drop in temperature is also giving me pause for thought. Thank goodness for alpaca leg warmers and woolly socks is all I can say (and that’s in the house).

Now for more Stiperstones diagonals:

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Lens-Artists: diagonals  This week Patti sets the challenge and provides an inspiring photo-essay on making the most of diagonal vistas and subjects.

Castle in the Air?

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Does this look real to you?

It doesn’t to me, and I was there, a coupld of days ago on All Hallows Eve, taking this photograph. It’s a view I’ve captured before, but somehow these ruins of Ludlow Castle set high above the River Teme, always manage to look like some idealised Victorian watercolour; or a film set; even dream-like. Yet there was nothing dreamy about the conception of this massive fortification. Its construction began in the 11th century with the sole intention of keeping the Welsh princes in their place behind the nearby England-Wales border.

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It’s other significance, in my mind at least, is that in the winter of 1501 Prince Arthur Tudor, heir to the English throne and Henry VIII’s older brother, spent his honeymoon here. He had married the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, both of them still in their teens.   You can read more this story here: Honeymoon Destination Anyone?

But in any event, even with the walls intact, and some well tapestried royal chambers somewhere within, it takes a great leap of imagination to consider this an ideal honeymoon venue. Presumably Arthur’s presence  was a political gesture to impress the Welsh neighbours. In any event, it did not end well. It seems that both Arthur and Catherine fell ill with the ‘sweating sickness’, a strange and passing disease of Tudor times. Catherine recovered but by April 1502 Arthur was dead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My own experience within the castle walls dates back to the late 1960s. It was a summer’s evening and the time of the Ludlow Arts Festival which every year staged a Shakespeare play inside the castle’s massive inner bailey. Open air of course and on very hard wooden seats. My mother had tickets for Shakespeare’s Richard III. It had poured with rain all day, and I (in grumpy teen mode) didn’t want to go. But by early evening the sky cleared and so we set off for Ludlow, armed with cushions and blankets and a flask of coffee.

There was no set to speak of. Only a platform with a throne against the looming backdrop of the bailey walls. Swifts and swallows whisked by overhead, but as it grew dark it was the turn of the bats to swoop and dive around the battlements. And then came Act 5 scene 3 – the night before the battle of Bosworth Field when Richard is visited by the ghosts of all those he has murdered. And out of the shadows, from different spots around the castle walls, echoed the eerie voices. It was thrilling. Unforgettable. And to think I hadn’t wanted to come.

#Lens-Artists: Flights of Fancy  Johnbo has set this week’s challenge. Go see his different approaches for this theme.

On the Road In Much Wenlock ~ ‘A Rip Van Winkle Kind Of A Place’

Much Wenlock Sheinton Street towards Holy Trinity Church

Sheinton Street looking towards Holy Trinity Church

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It’s a while since I posted any photos of my home town. These shots are all from the archive, but I had a notion to edit them in sepia tones, along with a touch of over-exposure here and there to accompany  the century-old quotation from Shropshire writer Mary Webb. I mean to say, even with all the cars, it still has that  look. There’s definitely a sense of Winkle time-slippage. This may well have something to do with the fact that this small town has been continuously occupied for  more than a thousand years. And before that, there would have been Romans and Romano-British wandering around the place with the likelihood of a villa/bathhouse on the site of the medieval Wenlock Priory. And before that, itinerant Bronze Age smiths may well have passed through, one of whom lost his stash of arrow and axe heads in the River Severn not far from Wenlock. Or maybe it was a donation for a safe crossing.

Many of the facades you see in the photos have been added on the front of much earlier buildings – this during periods of particular market-town prosperity when there were attempts at gentrification. I say ‘attempts’ because by all accounts even in the late nineteenth century there was a smelly open sewer running through the town. Also the place was regularly doused in limestone dust with every blasting at surrounding quarries. And there would have been some evil smog too from lime burning kilns (this to produce lime for building mortar and fertiliser).

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Looking down on the High Street

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Much Wenlock The Bullring

The Bull Ring where once  the popular sport of bull baiting took place on fair days and holidays

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Much Wenlock The Square

The Square (looking past the church towards Wilmore and Sheinton Street)  with the Museum on the left (once the Butter Market and then a cinema) and the 16th century Guidhall opposite. The assizes were held on the upper floor, the lock-up down below. These days the town council holds its meetings there.

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Much Wenlock Queen Street

Queen Street and Brook House Farm, one of the last surviving town farms, now ‘done up’ into several desirable residences. I remember it with cattle in the barn.

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Much Wenlock High Street with Reynalds Mansion

The High Street featuring our star timber-framed residence – Reynolds Mansion, a fifteenth century hall with a grand 1682 frontage

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Much Wenlock High Street towards Gaskell Corner

Top of the High Street. This row of stone clad cottages contains some very ancient inner parts.

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Much Wenlock High Street and Wilmore Street with Guildhall

Much Wenlock Sheinton Street towards New Road

Looking down Sheinton Street from the Farrell house

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Much Wenlock lane beside Priory ruins

Downs Lane beside Wenlock Priory

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Related: Wenlock: “A Rip Van Winkle kind of a place

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: roads

Over The Home Hill: More Hills

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Wenlock Edge behind our house runs for twenty odd miles, a wooded escarpment that bisects the county of Shropshire on a north-east-south-west axis. It’s not always easy to see out for the tree cover, but here and there, a few choice viewpoints give you a glimpse of Shropshire’s other hills, the Long Mynd living up to its name in the distance here. I’m fumbling for the name of the hill in the middle distance (not recognising it from this angle). It could be Caradoc.

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If we turn right round in the other direction, then we can see Clee Hill:

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Closer to home, you can take the National Trust footpath out of Much Wenlock and head for the Edge landmark, Major’s Leap, from where, on a winter’s day, you may be treated to an other-worldly view of the Wrekin, subject of many quaint Shropshire tales. (My version here).

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And coming down the Edge footpath behind our house you have a fine view of Much Wenlock hugged round by hills, Walton Hill and Shirlett Forest:

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And while I’m showing off our local hills, I can’t leave out the town’s favourite landmark: Windmill Hill with a small turquoise person heading over it:

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Lens-Artists: over the hill  Donna at Wind Kisses has set this week’s challenge.

Stranger Than Fiction

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And Shropshire’s Stiperstones with its brooding Devil’s Chair outcrop has indeed provided the setting for several works of fiction: the novels of Mary Webb, Malcolm Saville’s still popular Lone Pine adventure stories for children, and also D.H. Lawrence’s novella St. Mawr. And naturally, given its dramatic looks, it also features in local myths and legends, particularly those associated with Wild Edric, the Saxon earl who refused to surrender his lands to the Norman invaders and stirred up rebellion, allying himself with the Welsh princes of Gwynedd and Powys just over the border.

In real life it is an utterly strange place. These photos were taken on a summer’s day, but somehow, when we reached the hilltop, the light leached away. Even so, the grey-white quartzite outcrops seemed to have an unsettling luminosity.  The photos I took using the monochrome setting on my camera are especially other worldly. There also appears to be an odd patch of mist on the next photo. I can’t explain it.

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And in colour, too, the landscape’s disturbing presence is scarcely diminished:

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Lens-Artists: Surreal This week Tracy challenges us to post some surreal images, and believe me, she has her own very original take on the topic. Go see for yourselves.

On The Ice-Sheet Path ~ Stiperstones Revisited

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This time we approach from the west, the Shropshire border with Wales below and behind us.  The path from The Bog climbs up through sheep pasture hedged with gorse. The gold is dazzling. In sun-sheltered hollows, out of the wind, the flower-mass gives off coconutty scents. The grassland too is flushed with gold – a mass of buttercups.

After a steepish climb, the path sets off more evenly along the foot of the Stiperstones ridgeway, the quartzite tors of Cranberry Rocks and Manstone Rock standing proud on the skyline. We are making for the Devil’s Chair (header photo), but it is still invisible at this point along the path.

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The tors’ rubble spill  (stone runs) makes them look more like man-made spoil heaps than natural phenomena. And of course this was an industrial landscape across nearly two millennia:  from Roman times to the early 20th century. Although back then the activity was mostly hidden from sight in the deep mine shafts and caverns dug for the extraction of valuable lead ore.

The tors, though, are their own work, their response to environmental pressures – the fractured tumble created by the freeze-thaw cycles of the last glaciation when the Welsh ice sheet nudged up against the hillside, but did not cover it. In fact, as we follow the path, we must be walking over terrain where the ice would have lain feet deep, the far edge below the tors ebbing in surface melt-water in summer, resuming the deep-freeze lock-down in winter.

It’s surely not too hard to imagine?

For as we walk here under the sun, the bright gorse and lush new bilberry bushes, bleating of lambs, distant mew of a buzzard, I note that even now in late May, the wind still has a piercingly icy edge.

It reminds me, too, that for some reason most of us have decided, on the basis of nothing in particular, that the planet has somehow done with ice ages; that they must be a thing of the past. Yet the last ice sheets only retreated 10,000 years ago; we are presently in an interglacial, the Holocene.

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Within interglacial periods there are phases of warming and cooling. E.g. It is generally accepted that around 6,000 years ago that the northern hemisphere was much warmer (Holocene thermal maximum) than it is today (NOAA National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration US). There is likewise evidence from analysis of pollen and other prehistoric deposits in peat bogs across Europe of  periods of dramatic climatic decline e.g. the Late Bronze Age Britain (from around 3,000 years ago) when it became much wetter and cooler. Yet by the time the Romans had taken over the land, there was another warm phase. And again in the Medieval period, this before the general descent into the Little Ice Age of 14th-19th centuries for which there are also historical accounts. (I mentioned the London Frost Fairs of the Little Ice Age in a recent post on chaotic weather.)

The cycle of ice ages and climatic variation within interglacial phases is apparently dependent on shifts in the inclination of the earth on its axis, plus associated so-called ‘wobbles’, together with variations in the sun’s energy output. In other words, there can be  no doubting that here we have in play planetary cycles that are stratospherically beyond humanity’s capacity to control. Anyway, it’s making me think that hanging on to the woolly jumpers and thermal underwear might not be a bad idea.

And talking of woolly jumpers, as the Devil’s Chair comes into view I find myself the subject of ovine scrutiny…

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And now for the Devil’s Chair, long the subject of Shropshire myth and witchery:

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And the view from this spot, back towards Cordon Hill, the border and Wales. Remember that ice sheet. This was the land that it covered. At the glacial maximum around 22,000 years ago the ice was estimated to be up to half a kilometre deep. Sheffield University has produced some interactive maps.

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The dark tussocks are heather which will bloom in late summer. The bright green bushes are bilberries, locally called win- or wimberries – our native version of blueberries, ready to pick around August time, but presently flowering. The little rosy bells are hard to see, but the bees are finding them:

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As we retrace our steps to The Bog where we’ve left the car, I’m stopped in my tracks by  the sight of a mountain ash tree seedling. There it is, growing so strongly atop a weathered gate post. It makes me smile. It seems like a sign: the earth, the real world, has much to teach us when we choose to pay attention.

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Corvedale In Late April

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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. IMG_0387re

Long Mynd Wrought By 600 Million Years Of Earth Change

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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…

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Ashes Hollow, one of the Mynd’s stream-cut batches

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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.

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View from the Long Mynd’s Carding Mill Valley towards Ragleth Hill

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Looking east from the Long Mynd towards the Wrekin

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Lens-Artists: Earth Story    Please visit Amy to see her very stunning Earth Story photos.