Grey at the start and at the end, lots of brightness otherwise9th December 2022
The trouble with trip reports is that they can descend to being a direct factful recollection of a route followed on a day hike. That may explain partly why I have been tardy with sharing these, but the lockdown period of the pandemic has had its impact as well. Sometimes, it works best to leave things a while so that their associated emotional intensity wanes. The vantage point at the time of writing matters too; when there is nothing much happening in one’s life, it can result in uninspired scribblings.
This is being written in a time of tumult, when looking back on the past can offer a brief diversion from a life beset by strikes, wars, ongoing works and increasing costs of living. Public transport is not as dependable as it once was, so getting into the countryside now involves a mix of patience and creativity, unless you have your own transport. In fact, many will rely only on their own resources when others appear to be letting them down.
When I went to Shropshire in February 2018, none of this lay in my mind. Then, I was on a career break and contemplating my next career moves. This was a matter of rest, healing and reflection after a few years of upheaval, bereavement and legal works that wore me out more than I had realised. Only later did I learn how caffeine consumption covers up a lot of this weariness.
The prospects for a sunny day out did not look good when I arrived in Church Stretton. Skies were grey and gloomy, and there was a hint of drizzle in the air. None of this deflected me from heading for Carding Mill Valley, and my first encounter with this part of Shropshire may have been on a grey, cold December Sunday, assuming that my memory is not failing me.
Shropshire’s hills may be low in stature, but many of the ascents and descents are steep and joint-testing. Thus, there was quite a pull to get into the Carding Mill Valley, and it got tougher on the way up Mott’s Road. This did nothing to deter others who were going the same way, persisting as I was.
In time, gradients eased and people peeled off on my going onto a bridleway leading me towards the Port Way. Instead of continuing on towards Woolstaston, I turned left towards the Betchcott Hills. Around there, clouds broke overhead to give more hope for the rest of the day. Clouds were still going to obstruct the sun at times, but there were photographic opportunities to come too.
Farm tracks were what was going to convey me across the Betchcott Hills to Wilderley Hill. Until there, navigation was a simple affair. Near Thresholds, things became a bit less clear, so my route finding was not as smooth as I might have liked on someone else’s land. The size of the field meant that it probably was ideal for map and compass work, but I found my way without any untoward encounter or any exchange of cross words.
After becoming more confident about where I was going around Cothercott Hill, views of the Stiperstones opened up before me. There was a catch though because there was a stiff descent down to the road near New Leasowes Farm. Some of the going was muddy, too, especially as I neared the road. From there, I went around by Leasowes Bank Farm by byroad and farm track until I met with another lane.
While I fancied cutting the amount of road walking by following a right of way that lead through Hollies Farm, this did not look like such a friendly option even if it was part of the Shropshire Way. Going through farmyards never appeals that much to me anyway, so I opted to walk the quiet road instead while marvelling at how many larger vehicles were travelling along the one linking Stedment and Stiperstones. The surrounding countryside appealed to me too, which lessened the length of the journey for me.
Near Stedment, I turned right to close in on the Stiperstones ridge. On the final approaches to that turning, I noted how old my paper map was. There was an entire farmyard missing from it, so it was time for a replacement. Given that I was backed up by the Ordnance Survey app on my phone, there was no chance of a wrong turn based on old information. A new paper map was acquired soon afterwards.
Gaining height meant opening up more views of what lay about me. If there was more traffic on the road crossing the Stiperstones than what I saw earlier, it largely is lost to my recollection now. What I do remember is seeing a tractor being used to put out winter feeding to otherwise grazing sheep. Seeing the size of it caused me to remark to myself how large tractors had become these days compared to what they were when I was growing up on an Irish dairy farm.
Since it was half-term time and I may have seen more people about because of that, I chose to overshoot the obvious way up to the top of the Stiperstones ridge in favour of a quieter approach. That meant that a father could ask me about a good way up there for kids with trainers. As I often find myself doing, the answer included perhaps vaguer directions than I might have liked to give. The way that I was going might have been one suggestion, but I directed them to where I had deliberately overshot. In any case, I was not seeking company and my line may have been too muddy for them anyway. Not everyone goes out in the countryside equipped for what they can meet; there was a car park and visitor centre not far away, which explains the encounter we had.
My way towards Manstone Rock was the quieter one, and I relished both that and the well sunlit views that going that way offered. In time, I was to join the main track, which was surfaced in a better way for trainer travel, so my instincts had been the rights for that family who I met earlier. The surface may have uneven, but it was not muddy like what I had traipsed. These rocky outcrops probably fascinate kids anyway, since many would clamber onto them. That certainly was what was happening to one concerned mother who was having her patience tested by her boisterous boys around the trig point on Manstone Rock. Quite why Ordnance Survey surveyors placed the trig point upon such a difficult to reach site is beyond me. What is equally beyond my understanding is how they got their heavy equipment onto the thing afterwards. The sighting of these things can amaze.
My own desire was to get back a sense of grater calm. Beyond the Devil’s Chair, that really proved to be the case, and I relished this in the late evening sunshine. However, I did not get it all to myself on the way to Snailbeach. Still, I managed to get myself as much solitude as I could by veering away from my preferred route, and the final descent was a steep one.
My heart sinks a little whenever I see a large rambling group out on perambulations. They take up a lot of space if anyone needs to pass them, and I wonder just how present one can be in a scenic spot when chatting with others, as they often do. It also prompts the following question in my mind: can groups like these just get too big to be in the countryside? We are social animals, though, so I can see the attraction this holds for many, and they are often friendly to more solitary creatures like me.
Once I reached Snailbeach, I saw the minibus that was awaiting them, for this was an organised outing. They reached it while I was awaiting my bus to Shrewsbury, and one said to me that they thought I knew my way down. In reality, I only was finding my way on the go, as it is with so many things in life. They left before I did, and I then wondered if my bus would show up, or if I would need to consider later alternatives, possibly from elsewhere. As I continued my vigil, rain arrived, but this was no dampener on my spirits given the day that I had enjoyed. The bus came too, and I started on my return home after a very satisfying outing.
Train journey from Macclesfield to Church Stretton. Bus service 552 or 553 from Snailbeach to Shrewsbury, followed by a train journey from there to Macclesfield. Doing this walk on a Saturday, like I did, now needs a route reversal since later departures from Snailbeach have been removed from the timetable.
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