Steve Gilbert (Fell Finder) is the real oracle on the Shropshire hills; a local lad who’s moved north but still feels the pull of his home patch every now and again. It was Steve who really opened my eyes to just what a huge tract of walkable land there is if you take in The Stiperstones, Clun Forest, Pontesbury, The Caradoc Hills and The Lawley; plus, of course, the hills of The Long Mynd. And that’s by no means the complete list.
We’re still a long way short of covering all of it but we have made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to get a better feel for the place. This has been partly by means of a few longer outings, where the priority has been mostly covering ground, but also by days where we’ve just ambled around the valleys and tops, getting our bearings and trying to make sense of where we are standing right now in relation to where we were last time and the times before.
It’s a surprisingly complex area: straight lines are few and far between; climb out of a valley and chances are you’ll emerge not quite where you anticipated; head for a point on the skyline and be prepared for it to take a bit longer to get there than you might have expected; the vegetation obscures paths in summer and gradually reveals them again from autumn. And, as any local – Steve included – will tell you, mist and fog are not exactly rare occurrences. I couldn’t think of a better place for anyone to learn and practice navigation skills.
Carding Mill Valley draws people in the most numbers, particularly the summer weekend and bank holiday crowds, but even on the busiest days it doesn’t take too long to access quieter spots; and there are plenty of them. Our most recent ‘mooch’ actually started from Carding Mill valley, albeit on a quiet, midweek morning; the apparently erratic and unstructured nature of the route is plotted on the map below and is totally in keeping with the approach we’ve been taking…
If it looks like madness, I can well understand. All I can say is that it feels better in the walking than it looks in print.
Standing on the topmost of the National Trust car parks and looking west across the burn (which I think is called ‘Ash brook’ lower down but appears to be unnamed here), there is an obvious ridge which takes a clearly defined line towards a rocky outcrop (Cow Ridge). There are a few straightforward scrambling opportunities along the route, most of which can be avoided by minor detours. For most of the ascent the rocky bluff looks like the top; it isn’t, but by the time you get there the hard part is done.
Crossing the gently rising ground, heading W/SW will bring you fairly quickly to a tarmac road which climbs out of Church Stretton. Turn right as the road is joined and then look for an opportunity to step off the tarmac and onto a path which runs parallel to it; not that the road is particularly busy. Eventually the road splits and one fork peels away to the left, but the path keeps straight ahead and then slightly right, always climbing gently towards a level horizon. At the crest of the ridge, the Shropshire Way is joined and – if visibility permits – there should be 360º views.
Just beyond the Pole Bank top there is a small copse, which can be a useful lunch spot on a wet day; there is not much in the way of shelter once you’re out on the high ground.
The copse is fenced, but the trees overhang the fence far enough to afford cover. There are beehives inside the enclosure and a non-stop procession of honey bees to and from the heather, when it is in flower. However many there are (and there must be hundreds of thousands), they will fly all around you without once bothering you. The accumulated noise they make is astonishing.
Lunch consumed, we retraced our steps along the Shropshire Way and, ignoring the path down into Carding Mill Valley (which we were saving for later), crossed the moorland on a springy, green track, which meets a fence just as the ground begins to fall away. Turning left and following the line of the fence, eventually brought us back to the Shropshire way, near to the site of a pair of bronze age barrows marked on the OS map as ‘Robin Hood’s butts’. In all honesty, they are pretty unprepossessing and without prior knowledge, and closer inspection, you would see them as just a couple of natural undulations in the terrain.
Rejoining the Shropshire Way, we walked until we met the junction with the path down to Carding Mill Valley and Church Stretton. This path is usually saved for the final walk back down, as it gives some of the best views and is often busy with birds, taking advantage of the relatively small number of trees, which mostly cluster on the lower slopes around the bed of the stream. A stream which can frequently be heard long before it is seen. We have seen stonechats, chiffchaffs and wheatears, among others; a pair of kestrels – understandably enough – seem to have this part of the hills as a regular beat.
Speaking of raptors, we have – on different days and at different times of the year – spotted buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk, red kite and the occasional peregrine. There are, by reliable accounts, both merlin and hen harrier in the vicinity, but we’ve never been fortunate enough to come across either; the terrain and habitat would certainly support both. Ravens, in decent numbers, are pretty much guaranteed year round.
The Long Mynd, and the neighbouring hills, have a distinctly different character to most others which are easily accessible from the west midlands (we can reach them in under an hour). Much closer, in texture, to some of the Welsh ranges and we often comment that they have a feel of The Berwyns.
Perhaps it’s the climbing in the company of water that does it. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty high praise.