Thursday 26 October 2017

Shropshire Hills: Long Mynd

I've only been to Shropshire a few times and none of those trips involved any serious walking, having been mostly devoted to sight-seeing in Much Wenlock and Ironbridge. We live not far from Shining Tor, which was one of our regular spots for short evening walks over the summer, and The Wrekin became something to look out for as the sun began to set.

The Wrekin from Shining Tor.
It was usually rather indistinct so far south-west across the Cheshire and North Shropshire Plains but it was still a singular presence on the horizon, enough to pique my interest in exploring the Shropshire Hills.

An unusually cheap hotel deal in Telford allowed us to extend the proposed day trip into an overnight stay and thus one walk became two - which in turn meant two new OS maps to add to the collection and what's not to like about that? After an early and turbulent start (the latter mainly due to me "losing" my phone twice in quick succession as we were about to leave the house), we set off into the weekend. The remnants of Hurricane Ophelia were heading across the Atlantic but we'd been promised a brief oasis of mostly fine conditions in Shropshire before the weather system made landfall.

We parked up in the centre of Church Stretton and made our way out of the town in the direction of Carding Mill Valley. It was quite a steep pull up the tarmac lane, which crosses the Long Mynd, and we missed the turn off that would take us down into the valley. This proved to be something (though not much) of a blessing as our unplanned vantage point provided decent views of Caer Caradoc, a handsome hill on the other side of the town that we'd admired as we drove past it earlier. Photo opportunity made use of, we applied our aching calves to walking back downhill again and re-joined the route I'd actually plotted.

Caer Caradoc.

Heading down into Carding Mill Valley.
Carding Mill Valley is managed by the National Trust. There is a large parking area and a fine-looking visitor centre and yes, if I'd done my homework a little more thoroughly, as members we could have parked there all day for free. Still, at least we boosted the local economy to the tune of a few quid - which was very much my intention all along I've decided in retrospect. As you'd expect on a sunny Saturday morning, it was quite busy with families, dog walkers and people out for a ramble just like us. A well-maintained track - and an access road for part of the way - travels north-west up the valley, following the course of and sometimes crossing a shallow stream. A car park at the end of this road means that most of the valley is accessible to people of all abilities.

Although the bedrock of the Long Mynd is composed of sandstone rather than limestone, the scenery in its broad outlines here reminded me a little of some of the larger dales back in Derbyshire, perhaps because we'd been walking in Lathkill Dale the previous weekend. Deep folds in the hillside - cloughs, as we call them further north - brought other brooks cascading down from the watershed above and some of these side valleys were scarred by crags and exposed rock. It was a landscape that invited exploration, demanded it even, a place for spending the day without any plans, roaming as your fancy takes you to discover what lies hidden beyond the next hillock or in the next hollow.

We carried on up the valley until we finally reached its head, below Calf Ridge. Here the path splits into two. Both routes lead you up onto the moorland plateau of the Long Mynd but the left hand route does so via Lightspout Hollow, named after the picturesque waterfall in its upper reaches.

Calf Ridge in the centre - the path splits into two below it.

The path was narrow and stony along here. The rocks have been worn smooth by generations of sightseers, the falls being a popular attraction at least as far back as Victorian times, and the mud deposited by the boots of more recent visitors also made it quite slippery underfoot.

The start of the path along Lightspout Hollow.
Looking back down Lightspout Hollow.
Nearing Light Spout.

We managed to remain upright and avoid a dunking in the stream and it didn't take long to reach Light Spout itself. While the waterfall might not be the highest or broadest in the country, it really is a very pretty spot and you can understand its popularity.

Light Spout.
The drop and the plunge pool.
Looking back along the hollow.

A tumble of rough rock steps allows you to climb up the right hand side of the waterfall from where the path continues onto the Long Mynd. It's worth taking time here to enjoy the views from the crest of the waterfall - in fact, the top of Light Spout itself is scarcely less picturesque than the drop and plunge pool some 15 feet or so below.

At the top of Light Spout.
Looking east - Caer Caradoc and Bodbury Hill.

The trail from here upwards was broader and flatter than it had been lower down in the hollow and it was an easy stroll on a very gentle incline up into the moorland. A group of ponies were grazing in the bracken not far from the path, which was a lovely surprise. They are Welsh mountain ponies, thought to be descendants of pit ponies, and roam wild here on the moor. The two elder ponies paid us no attention but a young foal watched us intently as we passed by.

This upper valley, its sides thick with bracken, began to broaden around us and level out into moorland. The path split off and we followed a course to the north east, meeting up with the Jack Mytton Way and then the Shropshire Way, a section of which runs the length of the Long Mynd. The promised views from up here were disappointing - it was a warm and pleasant day so far but the light was poor and even fairly close landforms like Wenlock Edge to the south east or the Stiperstones to the north west were very hazy. The Iron Age earthworks of the Bodbury Ring Hill Fort certainly stood out clearly though and I made a mental note to include them when I return to explore further.

A hazy Wenlock Edge to the east.
Close-up of Bodbury Ring Hill Fort.
The Stiperstones ridge to the west.

We followed the Shropshire Way south west along the broad and relatively featureless back of the Long Mynd massif.

Part of the trail here follows an ancient track known as The Port Way (also, Portway), an important trade route in medieval times thought have originated as a prehistoric ridge-way. We only followed those centuries of footsteps briefly, however, as the traditional route breaks away from the course of the present-day Shropshire Way to go over the top of the plateau.

When the heather is in full bloom the moorland expanse that stretches out all around you up here is no doubt a breathtaking sight but the purple blossom was long gone by the time of our visit so there was little reason to dawdle. We did pause momentarily, however, at the Shooting Box. This is a decent-sized, Bronze Age tumulus that derives its unlikely-sounding name from a grouse-shooting shelter that once stood within its boundary. Thankfully, that ugly structure was removed in 1992 but the damage to the tumulus had already been done. This vandalism is compounded by the intrusion of a modern path across the site's 170+ feet diameter and an additional depression that suggests another structure might have been built here. It's particularly sad as this site is the only extant example of a disc barrow in Shropshire. It's thought to date from around 1900-2000 years BCE and there around some 20 barrows in total dotted across the platter, testament to the area's longstanding appeal as a place to live and farm.

Shooting Box disc barrow.
The ugly hut that gave the barrow its current name.

It didn't take long to get from here to the highest point of the plateau, Pole Bank, which was just over half a mile from us. There is a trig column and also a toposcope here, the latter pointing out a number of features on the horizon that we couldn't see in the low cloud.

The Wrekin (horizon, left) looking as clear as from 15 miles away as it does from 46 miles away in Derbyshire.
"Summit" about how high we were...
Views that remain to be seen.

After posing for the obligatory trig photos, we doubled back briefly to a junction of tracks, before heading downhill to join a narrow path that leads you down into the increasingly steep-side valley called Ashes Hollow.

The start of our descent.
Looking down into Ashes Hollow.

It was often wet and muddy along here, and the start of our descent wasn't particularly distinguished by the interest of its scenery. We'd pretty much resigned ourselves to having the vast banks of bracken around us as a constant backdrop to our return journey when we rounded a bend and the valley began to open out. The stream and the path became distinct features instead of being all-too-often one and the same thing, and bright green grass brought welcome relief from the dull fern leaves. The sun was beginning to break through the cloud now too, turning their muted hues into splashes of illumination.

A change in the terrain.
Sunlight began to break through the cloud cover.
A dry spot where we had our lunch.
Signs of autumn were all around.

This proved to be a herald of things to come and a huge sandstone outcrop marked the transition into a landscape more akin to the one we'd started our walk in. It was on a wilder and grander scale though - and a more colourful one. The path became a rocky gorge to which the yellow gorse clung and above these crags stretched the bright green slopes of the hills that fringe the Long Mynd. Curious names they bore too, these vast mounds above the hollow - Yearlet, Ashlet, Grindle and Nills. It really was a beautiful location, the ideal subject for a painting. As we made our way down, Ragleth Hill came into view on the other side of the Stretton Valley.

The marker of a distinct change in the landscape.
Looking down into Ashes Hollow.
Ragleth Hill
Looking back up the valley.
Another view back up the trail.
Fording the stream.

We'd seen only a couple of people on our way down but from this point on we passed quite a few walkers on their way up onto the Long Mynd. I think I'd prefer to stick with this route as a descent, though, with the picturesque aspect of the valley something to look forward to.

Lower down, the stream broadened out as did the valley floor. We were coming out of Ashes Hollow now, though it was not without a pang of regret at leaving this beautiful valley behind.

Our route took us through a caravan site on the edge of Little Stretton and then sharply uphill again on a public footpath that traversed the lower slopes of Ashlet, a pasture marked as The Owlets on the map. There were other hills across the valley to the east and I made a mental note to look them up on the map later, already thinking about future visits to the area.

Looking across to Nills.
Hope Bowdler Hill across the Stretton Valley (with a line of hikers on the summit).
Making our way up to The Owlets.

The footpath we were on ran roughly parallel with the Ludlow Road and at one point even descended to meet it before climbing up again, presumably to avoid some private land. The last stretch of our walk was easy enough, along a tree-lined track name Cunnery Road. It brought us to a residential area on the edge of Church Stretton, from where we walked down into the town centre.

The forecast sun, which disappeared in the middle of the walk, had firmly established itself by now. We sought out a pub with outdoor seating, where we could enjoy a pint of shandy and I could broach the tricky subject of making this a three-walk weekend by adding Caer Caradoc to the mix...

Date: October 2017

Walk length: 12 km

Total access: 553 metres


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