Friday 10 November 2017

Shropshire Hills: Caer Caradoc

There must be something in the beer in Shropshire. Normally, two walks in the same weekend would be a "hard sell" but by the time we were finishing our shandies, I'd clinched an unprecedented second walk in the same day and achieved it without bringing the next day's hiking plans to the negotiating table.

To be honest, our exploration of the Long Mynd hadn't been particularly strenuous - and we were spurred on partly by the increasingly fine weather and by Caer Caradoc itself. In terms of size it's a fairly modest hill but its prominence and the outcrops of ancient, Precambrian rock along its ridge make it alluring aesthetically. It had caught the attention of both of us as we approached Church Stretton that morning. In addition, the historical interest of the hill is more than geological, as an extensive set of earthworks lie around the summit, the remains of an substantial Iron Age hill fort.

We set off out from the town over the railway line and then across the thunderously busy A49. It was a relief to leave this behind and turn onto a quiet residential road, Watling Street North. This was named after an ancient track that had once passed through the valley, which had subsequently been paved by the Romans when they occupied the region. Eventually we came to a narrow thoroughfare that led to New House Farm and this we took, wondering where we'd squeeze ourselves in its neatly cropped hedges should a tractor come rolling along.

When we reached the end of this lane un-squashed, we took a public footpath. This right of way runs beside a stream around the edge of a field but the river bed was dried up. Happily, the ground underfoot was dry too, which made for very easy walking. Ahead of us, the late afternoon sun crowned the top of Caer Caradoc and, looking back, we could see its golden light falling on the Long Mynd. The trees that hid the houses of Church Stretton from view hadn't yet taken on their autumnal colouring and still looked lush and in rude health.

Neatly-cropped hedges.
Caer Caradoc comes into view.
Three Fingers Rock.
Long Mynd.

In the eastern corner of the field, a massive gate provided access to a gravel track and for a short period we were enclosed by trees. Another stream - one that actually contained water this time - bubbled away below us as we headed east. The map showed a path leading up the steep southern slope of the hill and this we plumped for, a short sharp climb that would get us to the top quicker than a gentler approach. Crossing a little bridge, we emerged from the trees onto a scrubby grassland of bracken and gorse, and began our ascent.

The start of the ascent - it was steeper than it looks.

Fortunately, the views that opened out with our climb afforded plenty of excuses to stop and have a breather. We were about two thirds of the way up to the ridge (though not the highest point of the hill, which is around another hundred feet higher), when we crossed the public footpath that curves around the western side of Caer Caradoc. The well-trodden flat ground provided some respite for our ankles and calf muscles in the midst of an unrelentingly steep gradient.

Church Stretton from the path around the side of Caer Caradoc.

Helmeth Hill, site of an ancient wood, was completely covered in trees directly behind us and ahead of us stretched the sloping ridge of Caer Caradoc. This runs SW-NE so the summit was clearly in view from where we stood on the hillside.

Helmeth Hill.
The summit of Caer Caradoc.

A short pull up from this path and we found ourselves on gentler terrain. We still had height to gain but the ground had levelled out a bit, turning the walk into more of a gentle stroll. A line of smooth grass cut through the swathes of fading bracken here, looking almost as though someone had swept over the hillside with a giant set of hair clippers. We weren't far below Three Fingers Rock, first of several significant tors on Caer Caradoc and - although not the largest - the only one accorded a name on the OS map.

Approaching Three Fingers Rock.
Looking back along the summit, Hope Bowdler Hill dominates the view south east.

For the second time that day, I was reminded of Derbyshire - not of the limestone dales on this occasion, however, but of the gritstone escarpments in the Dark Peak. Appearances were deceptive though, as the sedimentary stone of the Long Mynd we'd seen earlier actually had more in common with millstone grit than the rocks we were now clambering over. Where the hills of the Long Mynd had once been the muddy bed of a shallow sea, the rock beneath our boots had been laid down as lava and ash from volcanoes. No trace of the volcanoes themselves remains of course but the fault line that drove this geological upheaval still exists underneath the Stretton Valley.

Looking north west from Three Fingers Rock.
Looking east, Willstone Hill on the left.

Appetite for climbing on rocks sated, we carried on along the ridge. The bracken was left behind with Three Fingers Rock but there was still a clear path in the grass. Looking back, Caer Caradoc was revealed as one of a chain of hills that snakes away below you - Helmeth Hill, Hazler Hill (with its mast) and Ragleth Hill all draw your gaze south west into the Welsh Marches.

Three Fingers Rock, Helmeth Hill covered in trees, Hazler Hill and Ragleth Hill.

In fact, Wales itself was within sight - the closest point of the border lay due west, some nine miles away as the crow flies, but the Long Mynd dominated the skyline in that direction. Looking north west, however, the fertile Shropshire Plain offered uninterrupted views into the distance. The setting sun made trying to to pick out Welsh mountain ranges a fruitless endeavour  but I already have a return visit planned that'll take in this viewpoint in the morning with the sun behind me.

Long Mynd.
View north west towards the Welsh border.
View south east - Willstone Hill with Wenlock Edge on the horizon.
Onwards and upwards...

It was only a short distance now to the top of the hill. The Iron Age stronghold that once stood here gives Caer Caradoc its name - Caer is Welsh for fort and Caradoc is a variant of Caractacus, the famous Welsh chieftain. The language is indicative of how spheres of influence and borders have shifted in this region over the centuries and it came as no surprise we passed several signs with Welsh words on them while we were in this part of Shropshire.

If not the highest point on the summit, the cairn does mark out a great view point.
Looking north east, the distinctive shapes of The Lawley on the left and The Wrekin on the horizon.
Yours truly, posing.
Looking across to Hope Bowdler Hill from the summit.

Even in their current state, the remains of the fort are impressive - and distinctive too in the way their defences incorporated the extensive rock formations on the summit (rather like Carl Wark in the Peak District). Caer Caradoc is also notable for being a large multivallate fort (defined as having two or more ramparts) and is one of only fifty in the country, most of which are found in this area and in Wessex. There is an extensive description of the fort, which explains why it is a scheduled monument of national importance, at the Historic England website. The ramparts below would likely have supported a wooden stockade.

We could easily have spent longer exploring the summit area but on this occasion we were conscious of the time. It was already five o'clock and the October sun was creeping towards the horizon. So we turned and began our return journey. A path led diagonally down the south-eastern flank of the hill and we followed this until we came to a stony farm track.

The route we took down.
Heading for the farm track below.

This was a continuation of the track we'd walked on through the trees earlier. It eventually brought us around the southern end of Caer Caradoc to the metal gate and from there we retraced our steps into Church Stretton.

Down on the track.
Looking back up to Caer Caradoc.

It'd only taken up a couple of hours in total but our unplanned visit to this small hill turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend and we both really enjoyed exploring it. And there was plenty more there to explore if we'd had the time, including Little Caradoc, a subsidiary summit on the northern descent, and a cave. These features and neighbouring hills were bookmarked to return to on another trip. For now, though, it was time to head to Telford and build up our energy levels with wine and pizza for the Stiperstones the next day...

Date: October 2017

Walk length: 7 km 

Total ascent: 271 metres


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