“We need more kangaroos,” the manageress said to her assistant as I stepped into the shop. Puzzled why a card shop in Ludlow would have any need for Antipodean animals, I paid for my postcard and left. I’d read the Mortimer Trail was a good walk for wildlife, but I didn’t think it included large marsupials.
The Mortimer Trail was born in 1996 and was a collaboration between a local author, numerous landowners and several local district councils and rural agencies. It’s a thirty-mile route linking Ludlow, in Shropshire, with Kington, in Herefordshire. Ironically, just over eighteen years later, when the trail has come of age, the wildlife has flourished, yet nearly all of the administrative authorities and government agencies who brought the trail to fruition no longer exist.
The Mortimer Trail starts outside Ludlow Castle, near the town’s bustling market. Yet the path soon takes me away from this vibrant atmosphere, around the castle’s huge defensive curtain walls. Although a fortified site since the Norman invasion, much of what I walk round today is 14th century.
Within minutes, the River Teme’s steady roar, as it tumbles over a weir, explains why the castle was built here. The fast flowing waters provided a natural moat-like barrier to thwart any Welsh attacks. From Dinham Bridge, I scour the Teme’s clear waters for otters, but they remain hidden. Statistically, my chances of seeing one today are much higher than when the trail was launched. A study of the River Teme between 1977 and 1985 revealed that the otter population had plummeted to a handful, confined to the upper reaches of the River Clun, a tributary of the Teme. Today, the improvement in water quality has revitalised the fish population, and otter spraints are regularly spotted around Ludlow’s three main weirs, including the one visible from Dinham Bridge. The otter population upstream from here is now one of the strongest within the River Severn’s entire catchment area.
The Trail heads into the coniferous plantation of Mortimer Forest, home to a rare breed of deer discovered here in the 1950s, called long-haired fallow deer. Goshawks were almost extinct in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century, but numbers are increasing. In the early 1980s three pairs settled into Mortimer Forest, attracted by the coniferous habitat. By 2012 this had grown to 20 pairs, estimated to be 4% of the UK’s entire goshawk population.
At High Vinnals, Mortimer Forest’s highest point, there’s a huge westwards vista. Mid Wales beckons. There is no power line, conurbation or industrial development destroying the scene, so the sense of isolation is overwhelming. At no point does this trail leave England, yet with the skylarks singing high above and buzzards mewing on thermals in the valleys below, it’s as if I’ve stepped back into yesteryear. Scanning the hilly horizon there is nothing to reveal the time period I’m in.
Slipping into Herefordshire, the trail tracks southwestwards through grazing land, both modern open fields with views towards the Malvern Hills, and traditional grazing areas, such as Bircher and Yatton commons. Altitude is gained once more around Croft Ambrey’s Iron Age earth embankments, where settlements once existed. Today only wildlife remains. Butterfly enthusiasts flutter here to find the dark-green and the silver-washed fritillaries.
A high-pitched shriek circling above me belongs to the unmistakeable V-shaped tail of a red kite. When the Mortimer Trail was first established, there were no red kites in north Herefordshire. Today, there are a handful of breeding pairs in this corner of the county, with several more flourishing in neighbouring Shropshire.
A long descent into the Lugg Valley brings me to the first major road on route, the A4110. Its Roman origins are obvious, and I’m fortunate there’s not a soul on it as I cross over, on the outskirts of Aymestry. Although 13 miles from Ludlow, I’m not quite half way, but the black-and-white timber-framed Riverside Inn offers a logical spot to break the trip.
Day two takes me along the banks of the River Lugg, meandering between Sned and Mere Hill woods, before climbing the tree-covered whale-backed Shobdon Hill. In 2008, an £88,000 grant enabled the Forestry Commission to improve the habitat specifically for the rare wood white butterfly. By 2011 the Butterfly Conservation charity revealed research suggesting a 600% increase in the population of the wood white across the UK, with most sightings in Warwickshire and the Mortimer Trail’s counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire.
The path weaves through the village of Stansbatch and saunters into the Arrow Valley on the river’s Herefordshire journey between Kington and the River Lugg. I follow ancient byways with hedgerows packed with wild flowers. The common blooms, like bluebells, lesser celandine, cow and hedge parsley, and dog violet, are pleasing to the eye in their natural surroundings. My legs are weary, but the trail’s slow pace of life should be savoured.
The higgledy-piggledy route continues westwards, sauntering along the River Arrow, where I catch two glimpses of kingfishers. The final stretch drops me into Kington, close to the Welsh border, with its individual shops, market house and popular pubs. In 1881 the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act forced all Welsh pubs to close on the Sabbath. With the border less than three miles away, Kington’s pubs weren’t too far for a thirsty Welshman to stagger.
It’s fitting to raise a glass of local brew to the Mortimer Trail now it’s come of age. The administrative landscape has changed considerably, the geological landscape is resolute, but the wildlife has flourished. Although wildlife sightings can’t be guaranteed, the Mortimer Trail offers great chances of seeing something wonderful. It’s an escape route. You can disappear from the crowds, the pressures of everyday life, even the mobile phone network in some places, and re-acquaint yourself with the great British countryside. Not everyone will be happy, though. Particularly the Ludlow greetings shop manageress, for there isn’t a kangaroo in sight!
© Simon Whaley