The Welsh Borders
This was our first trip since the Covid-19 lockdown and because of the contradictory government advice, we decided to head to Shropshire rather than to go abroad. Shropshire is one of my favourite counties in the UK and since Ruth had never been before it seemed like a good place to spend a few days. In the end we spent as much time in Wales as in Shropshire hence the above title.
Traffic being very viscous, the drive to Shropshire took a bit longer than expected but after 4 or 5 hours on the road we arrived at our Airbnb in Pentre, about 10 miles north of Shrewsbury. We had a rough plan what we wanted to see during our stay which included various castles and walks. Luckily neither the weather nor Covid-19 messed up our schedule too badly apart from one or two little hiccups. I had not realised that although the National Trust Properties were open, the buildings itself remained closed. This put a tiny little dampner on our visits to Chirk and Powys Castle but we nevertheless enjoyed ourselves and spent several hours at both properties exploring the gardens and the surrounding parks.
Chirk Castle and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The first day we pootled across the border to visit Chirk Castle . The castle was built in 1295 by Roger Mortimer de Chirk as part of King Edward I chain of fortresses across the north of Wales. The castle itself only became a stately home in 1595 when it was bought by Sir Thomas Myddelton who was one of the first investors in the East India company. Under his stewardship the fortress was slowly transformed into a stately home which remained in the Myddelton family until the 20th century. Since the house was closed we wandered around the garden and the park for a couple of hours. One of the highlights of the walk was an ancient, gnarled oak with a circumference of about 8 m – we had never seen a tree like that before.
After leaving Chirk Castle we saw a sign for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, so we made a small detour to go and visit this little known UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a navigable aqueduct that carries the Llangollen Canall across the River Dee in the Vale of Llangollen. The bridge is 307 m long and consists of a cast iron trough supported, 38 m above the river, on iron arched ribs carried on eighteen hollow masonry pillars. Each of the 18 spans itself is 16 m wide. The aqueduct was designed and built by the civil engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop and was completed in 1805, 10 years after its design. In 1846, the canal and the aqueduct became part of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company whose intent was to build railways at a reduced cost, by using the existing routes of the canals they owned. By 1849, however, the plan to turn canals into railways had been dropped and during WW1 the Shropshire Union Canal – which the Pontcysyllte aqueduct was a part – served the war effort with its fleet of more than 450 narrow boats.
The next day we hopped over the Welsh border again but this time we headed to Powys Castle with its pretty amazing garden. Unlike Chirk Castle, which was build by King Edward I to protect the English border from the Welsh, Powys Castle was built in the mid-13th century by a Welsh prince (Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn) to protect his lands from the Welsh, more precisely against against the aggressive princes of North Wales (Gwynedd). By the late 13th century, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd had established himself as Prince of Wales, and in 1274 he destroyed Powys Castle, forcing Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn into exile. However, within three years Llywelyn’s principality had crumbled leaving Gruffudd of Powys to regain his lordship and rebuild the castle, with the blessing of King Edward I, whom he had served loyally in the Welsh War. The present castle probably dates back to 1530 when Edward Grey, Lord Powys, began a major re-building programme that made Powys the most imposing noble residence in North and Central Wales. The garden at Powys has survived the 18th-century reaction against the formality of earlier garden design, and Powys is thus one of the few places in Britain where a true Baroque garden may still be fully appreciated. The garden is definitely worthwhile a visit with its terraces, its amazing hedges and its little apple orchard.
After visiting Powys Castle we headed to Welshpool for some lunch at the Royal Oak before going for a little hike along the Montgomery Canal. Much of the canal is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Welsh section is of international importance, designated a Special Area of Conservation for its aquatic plants. Along the towpath you can find a whole series of Q-codes which allow you to access information about the canal via your mobile phone.
The next destination on our trip was Stokesay Castle, which meant that we finally got to stay in Shropshire. Stokesay is one of my favourite castles in the UK (this being the third or fourth time I visited) mainly because it was build in its present form during the late 13th century and has not undergone any major upgrades. Laurence of Ludlow, one of the leading wool merchants in England, started construction shortly after 1285 and 4 years later he moved into his new residence. Stokesay Castle was always intended as a “fortified” manor house rather than a serious fortifications although Laurence of Ludlow undertook some fortifications in 1291 having been granted permission by the King to do so – this being called “a licence to crenellate”.
Laurence’s descendants continued to own the castle until the 16th century, when it passed through various private owners. By the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1641, Stokesay was owned by Willim Craven, the first Earl of Craven and a supporter of King Charles I. After the Royalist war effort collapsed in 1645, Parliamentary forces besieged the castle in June and quickly forced its garrison to surrender. Parliament ordered the property to be slighted, but only minor damage was done to the walls, allowing Stokesay to continue to be used as a house by the Baldwyn family until the end of the 17th century.
After having had lunch in their teashop we drove to Much Wenlock for a hike along the Wenlock Edge, a narrow limestone created 400 million years ago when Shropshire could be found just south of the equator and boasted a Caribbean type of environment. The escarpment, which runs from Craven Arms to Ironbridge, is about 300 m high and offers pretty good views of the surrounding countryside. We started at Much Wenlock at the National Trust carpark, walked along the edge until we reached Ippikin Rock where we came off the edge. We then headed towards the small village of Hughely, turned right and walked towards Rowley Fram always keeping the Wenlock Edge on our right. Near Rowley Farm we turned right again and eventually hiked up over Edge and back to the car park. A detailed description of the walk can be found here.
Next we went to explore Shrewsbury, a pretty much unspoilt medieval market town with a rafter of beautiful half-timber buildings, several churches and a castle. The town’s origin dates back to a 9th century Anglo-Saxon settlement. In the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries) the town reached the height of its commercial importance. Shrewsbury became very wealthy due to being a major centre for wool production, hence all the wonderful half-timbered archtitecture.
However, the weather was pretty awful which meant that we did not enjoy the architecture quite as much as we would normally have. Nevertheless, we still managed to amble through the streets and “shuts” (narrow passages that pass through buildings from one street to another) and along the River Severn for several hours.
The Breidden Hills consists of three peaks namely Moel y Golfa at 403 m, Middletown Hill at 376 m and Breidden Hill at 365 m. All three of these hills are relics from violent active volcanic past. Although the volcanoes themselves never actually made it to the surface, their activity pushed newer, younger rocks out of the ground and up into a dome formation. After the (first) coronavirus lockdown this hike was just what the doctor ordered. We first hiked up the Moel y Golfa as we thought it prudent to do the highest peak first after a long period of physical inactivity. We got to the top without any major incident, enjoyed the amazing views and then headed down again. As a result of losing the path, we ended up scrambling and sliding downhill over rocks and through trees which was kind of fun. At the bottom of the Moel y Golfa we were a bit lost but some friendly hikers pointed us in the right direction. After a short bit of a flat walk, the path started to climb again and after a little while we reached Rodney’s column on top of the Breidden Hill.
George Brydges Rodney was an admiral who achieved some spectacular naval victories against both the French and the Spanish fleets in the 18th century and this tall grey pillar was erected by the local gentry in recognition of the fact that the ships he used were built of oak wood supplied from what was then the county of Montgomeryshire. After a short break we headed down again for our last ascent of the day, namely up the steep slope of Middletown Hill. This was hard work, as the path up was steep and muddy. But eventually we emerged at the top between the earthworks of a pretty impressive Iron Age hill fort. This fort is said to have been the site of the last stand of “Caractacus” who was a historical British chieftain of the Catuvellauni tribe and led the British resistance to the Roman conquest. From the top of Middletown Hill it was (luckily) all the way downwards to our car.
After this very satisfying hike we drove to Shrewsbury via our “local pub”, the Royal Oak at Pentre and our B&B to have dinner at Darwin’s Kitchen, so called because Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury (a fact I had not known before).
The last day of the trip we had planned to visit an abandoned water mill in Bromfield near Ludlow and to do a small hike up the Carding Mill Valley. However, the weather was so terrible that I could not face exploring the mill and we returned to our B&B shortly after having arrived in Bromfield, giving the Carding Mill a miss altogether. (Note that the mill is not open to the public and any exploration will involve trespass !!!)