Square Roots


Some very wintery views here on the wooded flanks of Windmill Hill. Where the trees stop, the land drops off into the massive, now abandoned Shadwell Quarry. Once freight trains from South Wales came chugging into the vicinity to take on cargoes of Wenlock limestone. It was a highly valued resource – mostly used as a flux in iron smelting, but also burned to make fertilizer or ground to produce lime mortar for building; or simply to build with. It’s hard to imagine this place as a hive of heavy industry, but it was – a stinking, dust-palled quarter too. Now the old railway line that runs below the wood is a peaceful footpath, over-arched with ivy-clung ash, hazel and crab apple trees. It’s a good place for pondering on how things are always changing and that it is only our wilful, wishful, often narrow perception that makes us believe that there ever were times when everything was static and predictable.


Shadwell Quarry and an impressive slice of the Silurian sea bed, some 400 million years old, and once located somewhere off East Africa.

sq old railway line100_7810

Tree Squares #6

The Old Quarry ~ Thursday’s Special



I’ve always found quarries disturbing places – the wholesale delving into the earth, the ravaged landscapes left behind. And yes, I know we need the resources. (Our own house is built of this fossilized Silurian Sea, although actually I’d be just as happy with brick or timber).

Shadwell Quarry behind Much Wenlock’s Windmill Hill is only one of the many old limestone quarries along Wenlock Edge. These days they are no longer worked but host various business enterprises that simply need a large amount of storage space. Quarry owners are supposed to do some restoration after the blasting has stopped, but I’ve not noticed much of this actually happening.

These photos show how slowly recolonization of quarried land takes place. (For an aerial view go HERE.) It has been twenty years since Shadwell was decommissioned.

The water in the quarry bottom is also a strange blue, almost turquoise at times, coloured by the limestone deposits. At over seventy feet deep, it lures tipsy young men to prove their manliness by diving in from one of the man-made cliffs while their mates film the act and post the videos on You Tube. Last summer I spotted gangs of school leavers heading off behind Windmill Hill. They were armed with ghetto blasters and towels and I overheard them saying they were ‘going to the beach’.

It’s interesting how people’s perceptions of places differ. One sees ‘exciting resort’; another oppressive dereliction – albeit with strains of desolate grandeur.



I’ve written more about the history of Wenlock’s limestone quarrying  at Hidden Wenlock #4

This week at Lost in Translation Paula’s theme is ‘forbidding’. Please call in there if you want to take part in the challenge. She suggests many possibilities for interpretation.

It’s a wonderful world…


Earlier in the week, and in between leaf gathering for the allotment leaf mould project, finishing off a short story about Swahili spirit possession, I took myself on a wander around Wenlock’s byways to see what was what. We are very lucky in that respect. Our town is compact, having grown up around the medieval Wenlock Priory. One minute you’re on the High Street, the next you’re out in the Shropshire countryside. And there’s just so much to see out there.

This wild clematis, aka Old Man’s Beard, caught my eye (above and below). It was arching over the path beside the abandoned Shadwell Quarry, and had then anchored itself on the fence. I like the congruity of the barbed wire and the twining plant stem.

It comes into its own in the autumn with its feathery seed heads, and as you will see in a moment, it is an impressive climber.

During the summer it mostly creeps greenly through the trees and you tend not to notice it. I’m also grateful to Richard Mabey’s treasure book Flora Britannica for reminding me that another country name for this plant is Traveller’s Joy.  Mabey tells us that the plant was christened by 16th century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard who named it  thus because of its habit of ‘decking and adorning waies and hedges, where people travell’. He sounds like a sound chap, to pay tribute to the joy-making qualities of plant life.


Like many varieties of clematis, this one does have medicinal properties – for kidneys and skin complaints – but as the whole plant is very acrid, it requires careful preparation. The most common traditional use is to roll the dried stems and smoke them as cigarettes, hence the plant’s other names of boy’s bacca and smokewood.

But this next plant is definitely one you do NOT want to consume in any form, despite its being related to cucumbers. All parts of White Bryony are poisonous and cattle deaths from eating it have been well recorded. But in autumn it is so very beautiful, and twines through hedgerows like strings of red and gold amber beads.


The roots, though, are particularly toxic and grow very large. In 18th century Britain they featured in the mandrake root scam. Mandrake is a Mediterranean plant with a root that looks pretty much like a naked man or woman. It was in great demand as an aphrodisiac and narcotic. (If you know your Harry Potter, you will know that mandrake shrieks when it is being uprooted.) Unprincipled persons of the rabbit-catching variety thus began to fashion bryony roots into the highly desirable mandrake root. It was by no means an easy process either, and involved several phases to complete the subterfuge. Presumably the recipients did not live to tell any tales.


And here are some crab apples, Malus sylvestris  in Latin, woodland apples. They make brilliant, jewel like jelly which is good on toast or with roasts. Mabey says they are the ‘most important ancestor of the cultivated apple, M. domestica. More than 6,000 named varieties have been bred over the centuries, of which probably only a third still survive.’

I found these, a little bruised, beside the old railway line that once served Shadwell Quarry. Now a footpath, this is one of the town’s most attractive places to walk. Ash trees and ivy overhang the track these days, and it has an other-worldly feel, far removed from industrial quarrying, trucking and smelting .


It is hard to imagine that steam trains once came chugging down this track. The branch was built specifically to haul away Shadwell limestone to use as fluxing stone in the iron-smelting industry. In 1873, alone, 22,500 tons was shipped out of Wenlock.

You can walk ‘there and back’ along the path, or there’s a longer circular route that takes you across fields, and down the lane to the Priory and into town. Out in the fields I found that the rose-hips, fruits of wild roses,  were doing pretty good jewel impressions too. They are also known as heps or itchy-coos.


The fruit have hairy insides which are a powerful irritant (and presumably much known to aggravate the coos or cows), but once removed, the hips have highest vitamin C content of any common native British fruit. During World War 2 and into the 1950s there was a national campaign to collect hips to make syrup according to Ministry of Food guidelines. It involved much mincing, stewing and straining, and a lot of sugar which I think was possibly counterproductive health benefit-wise. Nonetheless, caring mothers spooned it into their children.  Some of us will still remember the taste.


Finally a note about this post. Apart from celebrating the Shropshire countryside, it’s also inspired by 1) Lucile Godoy at Photo Rehab and Perelincolors who in Tech of the Month have been urging us to ‘fill the whole picture’ in our compositions. See their blogs for some useful guidance. (Photos here taken with a Kodak EasyShare 380).

And 2) by Jo’s Monday Walk.

Happy composing and walking everyone.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #4

100_7003 - Copy

As I’ve been writing these pieces about the less obviously seen quarters of my home town, I’ve been aware that there is a danger of casting all in a glow of antique glamour.

It’s true that these days Much Wenlock is a very attractive place to visit. For a small town, the range of architecture (representing as it does a thousand years of continuous human habitation), is fascinating. There are grand medieval mansions, and  small stone cottages, and many quirky vernacular details. The magnificent timbered Guild Hall glimpsed below, and dating from 1540, is still the town’s council chamber, and with seats that feel like the rock of ages to those of us who have sat through many a council meeting.


But this is all very well. For centuries, life for the labouring people of Wenlock must have been pretty grim, and one of the grimmest places to work must surely have been in the town’s many quarries, known locally as ‘the Rocks’, which I think says it all.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the town sits beneath the twenty-mile limestone scarp of Wenlock Edge, an up-thrust fossilised, tropical seabed. I’ve written, too, of how the limestone has been exploited for centuries, and at least since Roman times. Milburga’s Saxon monastery, parts of which survive beneath the parish church, was built of local stone, as was the grand Norman priory that superseded it. Later, after the Dissolution, much of the stone was re-purposed in many of the town’s buildings, and often used to clad earlier  timber-framed buildings. So it is that many of the town’s oldest surviving dwellings, including a medieval hall or two, are quite hidden from view behind much later stone facades.


Other key uses for the quarried limestone were as a flux in the growing iron industry (i.e. from at least the late 17th century) and for lime burning to make fertiliser and building mortar.

For centuries quarrying would have been a manual task with heavy hammers, rammer bars, stone rakes and barrows as the quarrymen’s main tools. The use of black powder explosives, and then gelignite for blasting, was a much more recent practice, and not without its own serious hazards.

Lime-burners also had their kilns near the quarries, but operations were seasonal, and lime-burners did not appear to make much of a living despite the demand for their products.

The quarry featured in this post is Shadwell or Shady Well Quarry. It lies directly behind Windmill Hill, and is the nearest one to our house.



Workings here seem to have begun only in 1849 when Francis and John Yates of Ironbridge took a 14-year lease of a new quarry in Windmill Hill field, later called Shadwell Rock. They expected to dig 9,000 tons a year ( Glyn Williams Much Wenlock’s Limestone Quarries). In the 1860s the arrival of the railway plus the provision of a dedicated siding, saw Shadwell develop into an industrial operation. The South Wales & Cannock Chase Coal & Coke Company took over the lease, and in 1873 despatched 22,500 tons of iron fluxing stone to the Black Country in England’s industrial Midlands.

The quarry continued to be worked until 1996. Since then it has been left amid growing desolation. A few years ago there were plans to open a diving school with fifty cabins in the woods below the windmiill, but nothing came of it. The water has a strange blue-green hue which makes me think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. The pool is said to be over 70 feet deep and, from time to time, daft young men who have had too much cider, film themselves diving off one of the cliffs. There have been a few near misses survival-wise.

But at least some life forms have been making good use of the cliff faces. Since the blasting stopped peregrine falcons have begun to nest here. The same is apparently true for the other abandoned quarries along the Edge. There are ravens there too, although not yet at Shadwell. Perhaps they will come. It’s a pleasing thought: a case of positive re-purposing.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell



Sun setting over Wenlock Edge: Or did the earth move?

Old stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea


5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge

Pauline at Memories Are Made of This nominated me to take up this challenge. The idea is to  “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.

So today I would like to nominate Hanne T Fisker. She takes stunning photographs. Her blog is called Simplicity of Being, but her compositions brim with textural drama, and the light-and-shade complexities of the natural world. Please take a look at her work.