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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Shropshire’s Most Unsettling Hillscape: The Stiperstones

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Well, the name alone is enough to set the nerves jangling. Stiperstones. There’s more than a hint of menace here, and local Shropshire folk will tell you exactly what that menace is. They will say that when the mist settles on this ridge of strange and craggy outcrops, that the devil has come, returned to his quartzite throne to preside over a gathering of witches and evil spirits.

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These photos were all taken on a summer’s day, though it’s hard to believe looking at them here. For more about that particular visit and more about the Stiperstones go here.

Lens-Artists: creepy  Ann-Christine has set the challenge this week. She has posted some marvellously creepy images. Please take a look.

On The Way To Myndtown, To See Which Way The Fish Blows

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I’d noticed the sign on several occasions as we’d passed by – a brown heritage sign at the turn to Wentnor on the Bishops Castle road. It sounded tantalising: 12th century Myndtown Church 1¼. On Saturday, after a fish and chip lunch in Poppies in Bishops Castle we decided to take a look.

To say it’s off the beaten track succinctly sums it up. The lane is narrow, a car’s width between verged hedgerows, gateway glimpses only of the pasture and wheat fields on either hand. No sign of habitation, only the Long Mynd looming ahead, and so it’s not long before we are questioning the wisdom of the excursion. For one thing its another of those odd Shropshire moments: here we are in wide open country yet apparently heading for a place with ‘town’ in the name? Surely not.

Surely is right. After about a mile we pass the sign to Myndtown Cottage. No house is visible, only the name board and dirt track approach. And finally, around the next bend, and on a little plateau above another sign, this time to Myndtown Farm, there it is – Myndtown Church of 12th century origins.

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The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, its east end nudging towards the Mynd. There is also a barn and a venerable house nearby. And in the field opposite a pony under an ancient apple tree, a snoozing sheep for company. And finally, views of Shropshire hill country all around.

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But have you spotted the fish? As one brought up with 1950s I-spy books to ensure I passed the time quietly on long car journeys, I feel sure a ‘weather cock’ in piscine form would have merited a good 25 points.

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And while I have you looking skywards, look higher still. There are gliders up there too, drifting silently between the clouds. They are launched from the top of the Long Mynd where the Midlands Gliding Club has its HQ.

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Back to earth in the church yard, all is peace and late summer sunshine, blackberries ripening on the wall, no sounds but wind-rush and bird call. Listen! says Graham. No traffic noise. I listen. There isn’t. It’s almost unimaginable these days. Also the white painted church door suggests an airy welcome somehow, and inside we’re struck by the amazing roof timbers, the tub-shaped early medieval font, the simplicity of the place that began in the 1100s or possibly earlier still, and was rescued from ruin in the 21st century by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Services are still held here once a month although not in March because this is lambing time. These days it is one of a group of neighbouring rural churches – Norbury, Wentnor, and Ratlinghope – all served by a single rector.

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By the door we find all sorts of interesting historical snippets on a series of notice boards. For instance Myndtown makes its historical debut in 1086, during William the Conqueror’s famous auditing exercise, otherwise known as the Domesday Book. At this time the manor, then known as Munete, was part of the hundred of Rinlau whose lord was a Norman incomer, Robert de Say. He let the manor of Munete to a free man called Leofric, presumably a Saxon. The assets included 1½ hides of land, about 240 acres, sufficient for 3½ ploughs. Of the population at this time, there were 2 slaves, 4 villagers, and 4 small holders with 2 ploughs between them. Before the Conquest the holding was valued at 60 shillings, but only 30 shillings at the time of the audit, a reduction, historians suggest, possibly due to predation by raiders from over the border in nearby Wales.

In a later, and sombrely touching account from  1341, the tax assessors reduce the Chapel of Munede’s bill to the Crown from £4’s worth of parish lamb, wool, wheat, to less than half this amount: “because the lands lay fallow and untilled, the Tenants being poor.”

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And so the Myndtown name turns out to be misleading. There never was a town here, or hardly even a hamlet. In 1708 under the lordship of Richard Clough there were 4 houses and 4 cottages. In 1793 there were still 8 households and a population of 39. During the 18th century the manor was bought and sold to and by members of the local gentry who received rents from the 3 tenant farms therein. The last sale was in 1797 to the Plowden family who own it today and have lived nearby since the 1200s.

In some ways, then, and in some key matters, things have changed less than we imagine in the almost thousand years since William of Normandy effected regime change in Saxon England. So it does make me very happy to know that since 1965 the Long Mynd itself – the 7-mile long hill that you can see looking down on Myndtown – has been owned and managed by the National Trust, the degraded uplands constantly being improved and made ever more accessible to anyone who cares to hike, bike, trek, wild swim or wander there – definitely a change to celebrate. Incidentally, now I come to think of it, it’s also the way the fish is blowing – towards the Mynd.

But finally another nugget of information gathered while inside Myndtown Church – that from 1155 until 1752 the English year began, not on 1st January, but on the 25th March, Lady Day. This is still a date when estate rents are traditionally paid, which as it happens, also includes the rent for my allotment plot.

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copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Happy Earth Day From The Shropshire Hills, Some Of The World’s Oldest Rock Formations

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Not so much Monarch of the Glen as Sheep on the Long Mynd,  a hill so old that it has some Pre-Cambrian geology named after it. I’m talking here of Longmyndian shales, siltstones and sandstones (sedimentary rocks) that were laid down in shallow seas at a time when this part of the earth was moving up the planet from Antarctica.  This would be around 560-550 million years ago.

The Long Mynd (mynd means mountain in Welsh) lives up to its name too. It is a very long plateau with steep valleys, and was formed by a very big CRASH when sea levels fell and the seabed deposits collided with a plate of volcanic hills to the east. The result was the folding, tilting and compressing of the Longmyndian shales, siltstones and mudstones along the Church Stretton Fault. This was around 550-400 million years ago.

The Longmynd then continued to be knocked into the shape we see today by the following Ice Ages when glaciers shunted around its flanks, making it an island amongst frigid wastes. When the ice finally began to retreat around 30,000 years ago, rain and melting snow fed streams that cut steep valleys or ‘batches’ into the Mynd’s sides.

Isn’t geology wonderful when you forget about the hard words, the mind-boggling quantities of time, and just admire the consequences?

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One of the Mynd’s best known features is Carding Mill Valley where these photos were taken. Since Victorian times it has been one of Shropshire’s most popular countryside resorts. Generations of Salopians (Shropshire folk) will have fond childhood memories of spending Bank Holiday Mondays picnicking there, feeding egg sandwiches to the sheep, getting soaked in the stream, and going home with green bottoms from sliding down the hillsides.

Today both valley and Long Mynd are in the guardianship of the National Trust that not only manages the landscape, but provides very excellent homemade refreshments in the Edwardian Pavilion tea-room  that’s coming up next.  If, while you are looking at that, you also scan towards the top of the hill, directly above the pavilion’s main roof, you might just discern the verge of a very hair-raising single-track road that takes you over the top of the Long Mynd to the small village of Rattlinghope, known locally as Ratchup. I have a grim memory of driving down there in a car with dodgy brakes, and only intermittent passing places beside precipitous drops.

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Unlike the geology, the landscape you see in the shots is not natural, but man-made. The valleys would once have been wooded. Archaeological finds from c 3,500-2000 BC indicate that Late Stone Age (Neolithic) people were travelling along the open top of the Long Mynd ridgeway, an ancient trade route between Cumbria in the north, Wales to the west, and Cornwall in the south-west. Earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers came this way too. But the main clearance probably took place during the Bronze Age (c.2,000-1,000 BC). These people farmed in the Shropshire Hills and buried their dead in cairns and burial mounds all along the ridgeway.

In the next photo you can just see the green ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort Bodbury Rings. It is lying right along the hilltop skyline towards the summit, and ending directly under the moon. This was a summer herding camp of the Cornovii people, and dates from around 400 BC.

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We may not know very much about the past peoples who lived and died in this landscape, but they did leave behind clues that showed us that they honoured it in significantly sacred ways. That would be a good thing to remember on this Earth Day. Much of the world is in dire need of loving care. We are lucky in Shropshire to have so many people, and charitable bodies who do take care of the place for everyone’s pleasure and inspiration.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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Earth  Daily Post Prompt

I’m also linking this to Jo’s Monday Walk for when she’s regularly back with us. I think she would like this walk up Carding Mill Valley.

#ShropshireHillsAONB  #NationalTrustShropshire  #CardingMillValley