A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 95
I want to visit the battlefield at Shrewsbury but it’s several miles out of my way and the evening is starting to stretch out before me in increasing shadows. The Battle of Shrewsbury was the moment when a king, who had seized power by force, ended forceful opposition to his reign. It forms the dramatic climax to Henry IV Part One, which, to my mind, is the second best of all Shakespeare’s history plays. (I may not agree with Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Duke of Gloucester from an historically accurate point of view, but from a theatrical perspective Richard the Third is something else). We read Henry IV at school in Huddersfield and the play came alive. We’d enjoyed the dissolute youth and drinking company of Prince Hal. We’d delighted in his friends and for us, Falstaff, Poins and Bardolph were as good a gang as ever Robin, Alan-a-Dale, Will Scarlet and Little John had been in our younger days. We’d hung on his speeches where he sets out his good intentions and we’d been taken aback by his rejection of the glorious Falstaff.
It was the battle scene that made the play. Like many Shakespeare plays, we sort of knew what the ending would be, but we were held in thrall anyway. All of the characters we’ve met before are in the fight, with the exception of the mysterious Owen Glendower. If the Globe Theatre was the “wooden O” which held the “vasty fields of France”, then a small classroom in Huddersfield was the brick and plaster cube which held the warlike fields of fifteenth century Shropshire. I’ve wanted to go there ever since but the front wheel of the bicycle says no. It will wait until I have time to do it properly.
I’m looking for a minor road out of a major town and this isn’t always as easy as it seems.
“No, you just follow this road into Ditherington and you’ll come to a pub called the Heathgates. Not a bad pint, but you turn there and follow signs to Newport.” And that is exactly what I do. Soon I’m passing through a leafy semi-detached suburbia and out onto the Shropshire plain.
I’ve cycled a lot of miles already. I started the day on the coast at Aberystwyth and now I’m leaving behind a town I didn’t think I’d reach or even get close to. There is an inertia in the pedals. So long as no external forces come into play I’m happy to continue at a constant velocity for just as long as daylight permits. I want to cover the ground. To put as many miles as I can manage. It’s a trial of strength and endurance and it fills me almost top full of a feeling of well being and happiness.
I pass Sundorne Pool, I pass Shrewsbury Rugby Club and I pass Haughmond Abbey. There are so many breathtaking abbey ruins that I have never heard of in England. Each and every one is worth a visit. Not only are the stones a living record of events from the past but those monks knew where to build. Anyone looking for the ten most attractive landscapes in Britain could do worse than pick out ten abbey ruins and visit them.
This is England. Fields of pasture, fields of wheat and of oilseed ready for harvest. Fields of stubble ready for the plough. Piles of straw bales the size of barns. Villages of houses built from local bricks, as distinctive from other brick as red sandstone is from cob. Orchards and beech trees. On a bicycle you are higher up and not closed in. There is no comparison with looking at the world through the windows of a car. The road is just what you travel on. What you see is a countryside that is only a few elm trees and some working horses short of what would have been seen before the first world war. To travel through England without a sense of history is to miss most of what is there.
At High Ercall I’m expecting to be on Ercall Hill but I’ve been fooled by the name. Ercall Hill can be seen a few miles further south. It’s one of two lower lying hills and a bigger one that make up an skyline that is genuinely turning blue in the evening light. Houseman would be pleased. The big hill is the most famous geographical landmark in the county of Shropshire; The Wreakin. In many ways it’s the most English hill in the whole country. Not only is it a decent climb and can be seen for miles around. It also has an iron age fort, is the site of many a blazing beacon (the radio mast on the summit is known locally as the Wreakin Beacon … it rhymes in the local dialect), and has it’s own set of folklore and legend. The most famous is a recurring one in the British Isles. It’s the disgruntled giant who has dug up a spadeful of earth story to vent his anger on the people of Shrewsbury for some long forgotten grievance. He meets a man with a sack of worn out shoes who asks the giant where he is going. The giant tells him. “I’m going to Shrewsbury to block the River Severn with this shovel of earth and I’m going to flood the town.” Our quick thinking Salopian Cobbler tells him that Shrewsbury is an unbelievable distance. “Just look at how many shoes I’ve worn out coming from there!” he says. The giant, losing heart and spirit for his enterprise leaves the spade full where they stand and this forms the Wreakin. Before leaving for home he kicks the mud off his shoes and this forms Ercall Hill.
For further giant built geographical features, visit The Hole of Horcum on the Pickering to Whitby Road or even The Giant’s Causeway on The Antrim Coast.
The rural splendour stretches out unto the horizon. This is true English countryside at it’s best. All farms and woods and legendary hills. It hides a secret. It is actually the true birthplace of heavy industry. That haze to the left of The Wreakin is Telford. It is one of the new towns created in the 1950s and 60s. But this new town is made up of several old towns and one of them, Coalbrookdale has a claim to be the most important place in the history of the modern world.
It would be easy to claim that, if it weren’t for events in this little town on the banks of the river Severn, the world would be a different place. Easy, but wrong. What happened here would almost certainly have happened somewhere else at some time or other. But the fact remains that it happened here. What is now one of the most rural of English counties was once the furnace of the world; the cradle and crucible of the industrial revolution. It’s worth a visit.