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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Odd Rocks On The Stiperstones

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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.)

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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!

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The Square Odds #8

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.

Harebells Colonize An Old Industrial Wasteland

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This photo was taken at Snailbeach Mine in the wilds of the Shropshire Hills. From the 1780s through the nineteenth century this was the most productive lead mine in the world, employing over 300 workers. But the history of lead mining in the area is much older than this, and for centuries the mineral was mined all over the nearby Stiperstones hills.

The Romans were certainly here. They left behind a great lead ingot weighing over 87 kilos and impressed with the inscription ‘IMP HADRIANI AVG’. This meant that not only did it belong to the Emperor Hadrian, but also that Snailbeach was an imperial mine between the years of his rule, 117-138 A.D.

The Romans used lead for water pipes, cooking vessels, paint and to sheath the hulls of ships.  Of course some of these purposes proved highly toxic to the users.

And it is now hard to imagine an association between something as hard, industrially wrought and poisonous as lead and these delicate harebells that seem to thrive on the waste ground near the mine ruins. In fact this whole area, with conservationists’ help,  has been so reclaimed by wildlife it is now part of the Stiperstones Site of Special Scientific Interest. The birdlife of the area includes red grouse, ravens, buzzards, peregrine falcons, curlew and the rare ring ouzel. There  are grayling and green hairstreak butterflies, fox and emperor moths. The vegetation includes heather, cowberries, whinberries and rare mountain pansies.

It is so heartening, isn’t it, when so much on the planet seems environmentally challenged. Here in this corner of Shropshire at least, the natural world has overcome – reclaiming this once poisonous, highly industrial environment.

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For those of you interested in mining history there is more about Snailbeach HERE and HERE. The latter link includes lots of useful teaching information and has a great video of aerial views of the area, which is anyway worth a look if you want to see more of this fascinating part of Shropshire.

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DP Daily Prompt: overcome

“What Are Those Blue Remembered Hills”?

Anyone who saw July’s To The Mysterious Stiperstones post might just recognise those distant heather-covered hills. Last month they were captured under looming skies, but this was how they looked yesterday when we went to Wentnor.

This off-the-beaten-track South Shropshire village must have some of the best views in the county – the Stiperstones to the west, and the Long Mynd to the east, and nothing but rolling farmland in between. The nearest towns are Church Stretton and Bishops Castle (6 and 5 miles respectively) but take note: Wentnor miles are at least twice as long as other people’s miles. It is a world all its own.

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Coming up next is a glimpse of the Long Mynd looking east from the village. The name, unsurprisingly, means long mountain. It does not allow itself to be photographed in one shot.

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And here’s the northerly end, taken from the car park of the village pub:

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Talking of which, this was the objective for the outing – lunch at The Crown at Wentnor along with our best Buffalo chums, Jack and Kathy. The last time we four had been there, Graham and I were still living in Kenya, and only briefly in the UK on annual leave. We decided it had to be a good twenty years ago. How time flies.

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After lunch we wandered about the village, and paid a visit to the parish church of St. Michael. None of us are subscribers, but when out together we often seem to find ourselves in country churchyards. Besides, Wentnor church is welcoming, and vistas within and without most picturesque. In fact I was so taken with the charm of the kneelers along the pews,  I thought I might even like to join the people who had made them in a spot of hymn-singing – All things bright and beautiful of course; nothing like some tuneful gratitude as harvest festival time approaches.

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The church was rebuilt in the 19th century, although parts date from the 12th century. I was particularly struck by the craftsmanship of the ceiling, and have never seen anything quite like it before. It made me think of the ornate wooden Viking churches of Norway.

Out in the churchyard with its ancient spreading yew, there were views of the Long Mynd and the hills towards Clun and Radnorshire:

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And it was all so very quiet with few signs of the locals as we wandered up and down the lane; only a couple of horses waiting for new shoes from the travelling blacksmith, the village noticeboard, old barns and cottages. And then the skies turned threatening and it was time to leave, back to the real world beyond the Mynd.

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N.B. The title quote is from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad  no. XL

 

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Six Word Saturday