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.]
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
View from the loo
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.