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Walking the land

You can discover a lot about a stretch of country simply by looking at it. When you have found out how and why the country looks as it does you can say that you are beginning to understand it. Another part of understanding lies in seeing how things and places lit together as part of a pattern or structure. But looking at the country from any single spot often means that we are too close to be able to see the pattern, and we need to stand back a little. If we could make a tour of the West Midlands in a helicopter we should be able to see how the hills and mountains are grouped together, how the rivers and valleys fit in, and where the flatter farming land is. But since we cannot do this, we have to use maps and pictures to help explain what we see from the ground.

Just looking at what is above ground does not tell us the whole story either. The soil and the rocks underneath it are really the most important part of the pattern and so that is where we shall begin.

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Soils vary in colour throughout the whole of Britain and this is an area where almost all the soil is red. When I say red, that is only a very general description to cover all the shades of pink and orange and pale purple which show in the rocks, and wherever the land is ploughed, from the Severn estuary almost as far north as the River Dee. In some places it is sticky clay and in other places it is gritty red sand, but it all derives from the sandstone rocks which lie beneath most of this part of the country. On the higher ground, or wherever a river cuts its way through, or where men have driven a road or railway line, the rocks themselves are exposed to view. Geologists call the rock sandstone and divide it into the Old Red and the New Red varieties, but they are talking in terms of many millions of years and the newest rocks here have existed for many, many thousands of years.

The mountains and hills of the west of our region, and most of those in the southern part of it, are composed of Old Red Sandstone. It is quite easy to recognise as a pinkish-purple stone full of minute shining particles of mica, which sparkle in the light on the surface of a broken piece of rock. The New Red Sandstone, an orange-pink rock, is found on rather lower ground to the east and north of our region.

In the southern part of Shropshire there is a famous tongue of high ground called Wenlock Edge, which is composed of limestone. This small area is described by A. E. Housman in his collection of poems called A Shropshire Lad, but it has other secrets beneath the surface. From Ludlow up to Much Wenlock, and across to Wigmore, are some of the most important spots for fossils in the whole of England. This land was once beneath the sea and the Silurian rocks which formed there from the muds contain dozens of different types of creatures trapped in the stones.

The best place that I know of to find out more about these fossils IS the little museum over the Butter Cross 1n Ludlow. There you will see a collection of specimens that have been found, and the Museum Guide to Ludlow Fossils gives you lots of useful advice on where to find them for yourself, and how to gather them.

Further south, in the Forest of Dean, is more limestone, of a different type, and both this and the Wenlock stone are used for building.

You will have noticed that I have referred to the mountains in this region. Strictly speaking, a hill which is over 1,000 feet high is a mountain, yet although many of the West Midland hills are higher than this they are usually called hills. These hills and mountains form the western boundary of the region and if you look at the map you will see that they form a wall from north to south, broken only where the river valleys emerge. Jutting out from this wall, like the fingers on a hand, are Long Mountain, the Long Mynd (and the Wrekin), Wenlock Edge and the Clee Hills. The only other really high ground is the Malvern Hills, standing rather isolated near the River Severn and joining Herefordshire with Worcestershire.

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The truly high mountains are all in Wales and form the boundary to our region and the border between the two countries. We normally use a capital B in writing of this border, and sometimes describe it as the Welsh Border Country.

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The Berwyns, Breidden, Clun and Radnor Forests, and the Black Mountains formed a barrier which armies found difficult to pass. King Offa, who ruled most of Britain between A.D. 757 and 795, fought his way into part of that country and built a great ditch and wall to mark out and defend his territory. Parts of Offa’s Dyke still remain today and you can see how good a barrier it was. Nearly three hundred years later William the Conqueror had the same problem and his knights established themselves in their castles along a similar line. Even so, a fair amount of what is now Wales was then part of England, and one way of discovering the former boundary is to trace out where the English place names change to Welsh.

Boundaries, unfortunately, are not always agreed peacefully and this one between England and Wales, which is also our regional boundary, was fought over many times before the people were able to live in peace. Long before the Romans arrived, the warring tribes of Britain fought all over this countryside and the evidence of this is still there if you know how to look for it. I shall have a good deal to say about maps later on, but perhaps a few words here might be useful. If you take a Bartholomew’s Half-Inch, or an Ordnance Survey Onc-Inch map*, and look at the high ground you will often find marked ‘Camp’, ‘Fort’, ‘Castle’, ‘Circle’. If you visit some of these places you will fmd mounds and ditches which will still give you some idea of what they must have been like at least two thousand years ago. One of the most exciting of all is British Camp, on the Herefordshire Beacon between Ledbury and Malvern. (And ‘beacon’ is another word which gives a good clue to what has happened in a particular place in the past.) If you are lucky enough to visit British Camp and manage the long climb to the top, try to imagine what it must have been like to hurry up those slopes when you heard that your enemies were approaching. Try to imagine, too, that you were attacking a fort on top of that hill. There. were no stone walls as in the castles of later days, but deep ditches, and steep walls built from the soil which had been dug out. There was a whole series of these walls, built one above the other. The entrance to such a fort was through a steep, . narrow entrance which could be overlooked on three sides, and from which missiles could be hurled down on the attackers. Not just thrown though, because the Celts, the inhabitants of Britain at this time, were experts in the use of the sling, their long-distance weapon.

When under really severe pressure, the defenders of a fort would retreat upwards from one rampart to another. Looking down from the summit of British Camp it is easy to understand the meaning of the expression ‘a last ditch stand’. It was from a similar hill fort near Bucknell, in Shropshire, so the tradition runs, that Caractacus fought his last battle against the invading Roman armies. Caractacus was King of the Silures, (this area is sometimes still referred to as Siluria) and after his defeat he was taken prisoner and sent to Rome.

Life in a country where groups of people are fighting each other is not very safe, and when under attack, one of the best moves is to find a position where you cannot be taken from behind. Failing this, taking a stand on high ground at least means that you can see your enemy approaching, and it is much more difficult to fight up than downhill. For as long as castles were in use in this country, they too were normally built on high ground and as we shall see, there were plenty of castles in the West Midlands.

If the earlier inhabitants of this region retreated to the hill and mountain tops in time of severe danger, they certainly did not live there for the rest of the time. These peaks and crests are far too wild and inhospitable places to live in, windy and exposed to all the storms blowing in from the Atlantic. As in other parts of Britain, people chose to live in more sheltered spots, places where it was possible to live and work in greater comfort.

To the west, and deep in Wales, lie the Cambrian Mountains, some of the very oldest mountains in the world. High on Plynlimon, one of the peaks, and within only a mile of each other, rise the two great rivers of the West Midlands, the Severn and the Wye. Both flow down to the sea in the Bristol Channel, and both gather into themselves other rivers and streams on the way, but to begin with the Severn flows northwards while the Wye flows south. Each river has its own beauty, each has its own admirers who will claim it as the best. The Severn is the longer, in fact the longest river in Britain. In the past, it was certainly more important than the Wye because it served as a route for carrying goods by boat right into the heart of England and Wales.

The River Severn, or ‘Sabrina fair’ as it has been called (Sabrina was the Roman name for the river, and John Milton called it ‘Sabrina fair’ in his masque Camus), starts its journey by Howing north and east. It slows its pace as it reaches the flatter country and has time to make great loops and bows. One of these almost completely encircles Shrewsbury town and another has nearly cut back to make a lake above Buildwas. From there the river changes. Before, it had been a boundary alone, separating the mountains from the plain. At Buildwas there was once a large lake and at the time of the Ice Age the waters broke through and cut their way through the rocks to make the Ironbridge Gorge. The river still rushes and tumbles through this stretch before it quietens down again to flow with dignity to Bridgnorth and to Bewdley. It is difficult now to imagine cargo-carrying vessels sailing here from Bristol to be loaded and unloaded, but Charles Hulbert described the Gorge in 1837 like this’: ‘From Coalport to Ironbridge, two miles, the river passes through the most extraordinary district in the world; the banks on each side are elevated to the height of from 3 to 400 feet, studded with Ironworks, Brickworks, Boat Building Establishments, Retail stores, Inns and Houses, perhaps 150 vessels on the river, actively employed or waiting for cargoes; while hundreds of busy mortals as assiduously engaged. . . . ’ Today you may see a canoeist negotiating the shallow waters that have not been dredged for a hundred years, or perhaps a fisherman on the bank or wading in the pools. The river has not changed, merely the use that men make of it. ,

Down then to Bridgnorth and Bewdley, both busy river ports in their time, with packhorses carrying goods overland into the Midlands and what we call the Black Country. So, on to Worcester. The river is wider, slow and deep and much more powerful. Small vessels still carry goods from Avonmouth but it is the Stratford, or Warwickshire, Avon which joins the Severn at Tewkesbury and so downstream to Gloucester. This is a true port with wharves and docks and its own Custom House. From Gloucester to the Severn Bridge is a real river estuary, two miles wide in places, and ships must take on a pilot to guide them up to the city. Rivers flow slowly but strongly in such places, and also meet the tide sweeping in from the sea. Salt water meets the fresh but they do not mingle without a struggle. Twice a year espeeially, in spring and autumn, when the tides are at their highest, this river meets the sea in a most spectacular way. Then, where the estuary narrows at Sharpness, a large wave forms and surges up river as the Severn Bore. After plenty of rain to swell the stream, and with a stiff wind behind the tide, this wave can be anything from three to nine feet high.The biggest Bore in Europe!

Downstream again, and right under the Severn Bridge itself, the Wye Hows into the Severn. Though their sources are only a mile apart, it has taken some two hundred miles for the Severn to come back to its companion. Compared with the Severn, the Wye is a very winding river, meandering along its valley bottom throughout most of its course. From the eastern slopes of Plynlimon the Wye iiows fast through mountain country with only a narrow valley bottom and just enough room for the road to follow alongside. This is the Welsh stretch of the river, as the town and village names quickly show: Llangurig, Rhayader, Builth Wells and Llyswen. These are the roads and the stretches of river that William and Dorothy Wordsworth walked, and that William called ‘the finest piece of scenery in South Britain’.

Between Llyswen and Glasbury the river swings northeastwards and the valley opens out to the flatter farming land. By now it is a West Midland river, meandering more slowly towards Hereford and the south. The Rev. Francis Kilvert was curate at Clyro for seven years and knew this river well. In his diary for Saturday 5 March 1870 he wrote: ‘The view from the banks lovely, the river winding down from Glasbury like a silver serpent, iiowing beneath at the foot of the poplars. Hay [the town of Hay-on-Wye] in the distance bright in brilliant sunshine. Every watercourse clear upon the mountains in the searching light. As the sun went down a pink and then a deep purple glow bathed the mountains and Cusop Hill and a keen frost set in.

For a short stretch, from Hay-on-Wye to Rhydspence, the river still forms the boundary between England and Wales, as it did in F rancis Kilvert’s time: ‘About midnight I passed over the Rhydspence border brook, and crossed the border from England into Wales. The English inn was still ablaze with light and noisy with the songs of revellers, but the Welsh inn was dark and still.’

From Hay the river winds on under the old toll bridge at Clifford and down to the new concrete bridge at Hereford. Crossing places were always important and this city’s name means ‘wide crossing place’, from the time when men and horses waded through the shallows. South of Hereford and down through Ross, the loops and bows get larger and larger until the river thrusts its way between the hills again. There, at Symonds Yat, the Wye turns in an almost complete bow to make what is the best known and most beautiful stretch of the whole river. A beautiful place with a strange name, but one that describes it perfectly when you understand it. ‘Yat’ comes from the Old English word ‘geat’, which sometimes means ‘a gap in the hills, pass, deep ravine’, which is exactly what this is. (If you say ‘ge-at’ out loud to yourself you will see how close the sound is to Yat.) ‘Symonds’ is probably a corruption of Sigemund’s, so we discover that this is the ravine which Sigemund owned or where he lived.

Below Symonds Yat the Wye flows on between steep wooded hills, marking the border again, the boundary' between England and Wales, and the left bank marking the western limits of the Forest of Dean. Mid-way between Monmouth and Chepstow the river has left a small level terrace, and there, tucked in against the hills, are the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Downstream just a few more miles, the River Wye flows past the cliffs at Chepstow to join the mighty Severn, almost two miles wide, below the new suspension bridge.

Until about five hundred years ago there were many more forests, and much more of the country was wooded than we can easily imagine today. Certainly the lower slopes of many of the mountains and larger hills were covered with trees and what is now open country given over to farming, or even covered by towns, was once thickly wooded. Some of these forests still remain, but are very much smaller than they once were. Gone now are the Clun Forest, Wentwood Forest, Kinlet Forest, the Forest of Shirlett and others,  but the Wyre Forest and, of course, the F orest of Dean remain. Wentwood and the F orest of Dean both had their Speech Courts, or F oresters’ Courts, where all matters concerning grazing and other rights were decided. Right up to the present day the Court still meets at The Speech House, near Coleford in the Forest of Dean. One of the names which you may hnd on the map, near Ludlow, is that of Bringewood Chase. A chase was a forest where royal hunting rights were maintained and the deer were protected for this reason. But apart from hunting and grazing, the forests had other very important uses: they provided fuel and timber for building. Wood was burnt to heat many thousands of homes, but it was also partially burnt to make charcoal and this played a very important part in the iron industry in both the F orest of Dean and in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. .

Timber for building obviously explains the very large number of timber-framed houses, barns and even churches in the Border country. It also meant timber for building great ships, and for this the best was English oak. There are many places in the region which have a reference to oak trees in their name, as for example, Mawley Oak, not far from ,Cleobury Mortimer. There are also the places which have stories about oak trees. At Cressage, near Much Wenlock, there was a very ancient oak, where, according to the Venerable Bede,the English bishops gathered to meet Saint Augustine. At Boscobel, however, there is real evidence that Charles II hid in an oak tree during his flight after the Battle of Worcester, though rather sadly it is not the tree standing there today. King Charles described that day in 1651 ; he ‘got up into a great oak, that had been loped some three or four years before, and being grown out again, very bushy and thick, could not be seen through, and here we staid all the day . . . while we were in this tree we see soldiers going up and down, in the thickest of the wood, searching for persons escaped, we seeing them, now and then, peeping out of the wood.’ Royal Oak Day is still celebrated in the West Midlands, and in other places too, on 29th May each year.

We seem to have come rather a long way from the forests which once covered much of the landscape, but when you start thinking about trees, and about oaks especially, you do find yourself discovering a lot of very interesting history. Most of the English hardwood trees have long since been felled for fuel and building and to clear the ground for farming. The planting that has taken place in recent years is almost all of softwoods on the hills and mountain slopes towards the Welsh Border. The dullest of these plantations are those where only one variety has been used; where they are mixed they look much better. Best of all, though, are those private plantations where soft and hardwood have been planted together. Those woods have a mixture of greens in the spring and summer, with all the colour changes in autumn. When the time comes to fell the larches and firs, the remaining trees will have grown strong enough to stand unprotected and will last for another hundred years or more before it is their turn to be used and replaced.

On the wilder hill slopes there is little but grass and bracken, but lower down the soil is rich enough to grow a vast variety of crops. On the flatter lands north of the Severn, where it sweeps round through Shrewsbury, thousands of acres are given over to grazing for dairy cattle, black and white Friesians that have replaced the English breeds. This is damp country and always has been. In north-east Shropshire there are many pools and lakes known as meres. Mere is the Old English word for a pool and a number of the town and village names reveal their origin quite clearly. Ellesmere takes its name from a longdead owner called Elli, and Colemere may mean ‘the pool surrounded by hazels’. Other parts of that damp land have names like Fenns Moss or Whixall Moss. ‘Fen’ means marsh, and ‘moss’ means bog. Not surprisingly, this is an area where peat is still dug.

South of the Severn, and along the eastern margins, the country is more varied; there are more hills and valleys and farmers are as much concerned with crops as they are with cattle. On the heavy clay land they grow potatoes, but especially sugar beet, which is sent to the factories at Wellington and Kidderminster for processing. As the forests were cleared, hrst in small patches and later to make the sort of fields that we would recognise today, men discovered just how rich this red land is.

Between the Forest of Dean and the great turn of the Severn near Shrewsbury lies some of the most fertile land in Britain. The great stretch of Herefordshire and both banks of the Severn up to Bridgnorth have helped to fill our granaries for hundreds of years. Between Bewdley and Bridgnorth the country on the west bank is known as the Wheatland and that is precisely what you can expect to find there, wheat, oats and barley in hundreds of acres. Although it is perhaps not the best known crop of Herefordshire, it has been a staple one for centuries.

This region has been famous for centuries for its fruit trees, and in Herefordshire and Worcestershire there are very large areas given over to orchards. The range of fruit grown is both wide and varied. There are cooking apples and dessert apples, and of these latter, one is native to the country. This is the Worcester Pearmain, one of the earliest eating apples to ripen, and I believe one of the best. It is crisp, white and juicy inside a bright red skin, but it has to be eaten soon after picking, for unfortunately it will not keep. Quite apart from apples for eating, there are those that are used for cider-making; small and hard and bitter, they are crushed for their juice and pulp. This is the fruit that has helped to make Herefordshire famous. Less well known, but every bit as much a local fruit, are the hard pears used for making perry, a drink very similar to cider and one which I think is not made anywhere else in Britain.

But apples and pears are not the only fruits to be found here; another speciality is damsons, that relation of the plum which seems to be going out of fayour. The older variety is small and almost black, with a grey ‘bloom’ to it, very sour and almost all stone. But stew it with sugar, or make it into jam or ‘cheese’, and it is truly delicious. The newer variety, Merryweather, is the same colour, but much larger and therefore easier to pick ; the flavour is similar but perhaps not quite so good.

Worcestershire offers yet another fruit in the Teme valley and thereabout, the cherry, growing on the steep clay slopes of the valley sides. Whereas the Vale of Evesham grows great quantities of fruit on fairly Hat land at the foot of the Cotswolds, and away across to Pershore (famous for its plums), the Teme Valley is tight and compact, full of twisting steep lanes. Each year in April or May, according to the season, the ‘Blossom Route’ is announced and signposted from Worcester. This takes you through country which is splendid at any time, but in blossom time is quite breathtaking. It is like travelling through a sea of flowers:pale pink for the apples, white for cherries and plums, and silver on the taller pear trees. Paintings usually have short titles like ‘Landscape near Bewdley’, but the landscape here seems to make even artists want to use more words than usual. A picture which I bought a few years ago has this written on the back: ‘A very fine cherry orchard at Rock’ (near Bewdley; the picture was painted in the orchard belonging to a friend of mine).

One other crop I must mention is hops. These were once grown fairly widely in England whereas now, apart from Kent, Herefordshire and Worcestershire are the principal areas concerned. As with other crops, they create their own particular pattern in the landscape. In autumn and winter the poles of the hop fields make a strong geometrical pattern; in spring and summer this disappears behind the exceptionally high hedges which protect the bines (as the stems are called) from the wind.

Looking at the country and the scenery can mean more than just admiring the view. The view will have a great deal to tell you if you learn how to look and what to look for: how the scenery was formed and who had a hand in it, what happened there in the past as well as what is going on today. It all depends on what you are looking for.

There is a story about a visitor who was admiring a view and said so to a farmer. ‘Durn the view,’ he answered, ‘I bain’t lookin’ at no view. I be lookin’ how they dratted rabbits ’as 21th up my tunnips.