Sentinels Along The Way – The Countryman

They stand, like two rows of regimented soldiers, lining the long ridge of Shropshire’s Linley Hill. It was once thought these sentinels were planted by Napoleonic prisoners of war, but tree-dating technology proves that these beech trees were planted circa 1740, long before there was even a Napoleonic prisoner-of-war camp at nearby Bishop’s Castle.

Today, the wind merely whispers through the fingertips of the leaves, yet westerly storm-force winds have taken a couple of near-300-year-old casualties. This is unsurprising, exposed as they are, only minutes as the gale blows, from the Cambrian spine of Wales. That so many remain standing is remarkable. Despite their storm-battled war wounds, this one-and-a-quarter-mile-long avenue of beech trees accentuating this isolated rural ridge is an incredible sight.

It’s obvious to Shropshire Way walkers, whose route descends through the avenue, that it’s here through Man’s intervention, for few trees grace the surrounding moorland plateaus of the Long Mynd to the east, or the jagged Stiperstones to the west. These beeches wouldn’t naturally choose this hostile location. That they are here, is down to one man: Robert More.

Eighty years ago, in the spring of 1937, another of More’s tree avenues was replanted, a sight Shropshire Way wanderers can also appreciate when they descend the lower slopes of Linley Hill and join a minor road leading past More’s ancestral home, Linley Hall. Stretching in a south-south-east direction, for more than three-quarters of a mile, stands a magnificent double-row avenue of oaks. These replaced More’s original avenue, planted in the eighteenth century, but felled in 1916 to aid the war effort.

Linley’s drive, hall and grounds are private, but the minor public road passing between them offers the best vantage point to appreciate these natural structures approaching their majestic coming of age. Here in the Welsh Borders, tradition has it that an English oak takes 100 years to grow, 100 years to live and 100 years to die. Thankfully, those 1937 replanting efforts mean we can appreciate More’s vision that locals enjoyed throughout the late eighteenth, entire nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1742, More commissioned the construction of Linley Hall (Grade I), designed by Henry Joynes, an architect who spent time at Kensington and Blenheim Palaces. Before that, between 1727 and 1741, More served as MP for nearby Bishop’s Castle, and he served again from 1754 to 1761 as MP for Shrewsbury. But politics wasn’t More’s only passion. He was a keen botanist, travelling extensively to broaden his knowledge.

Between 1749 and 1751 he explored most of Europe, becoming acquainted with the botanist Carl Linnaeus (known today as the father of modern taxonomy, because he formalised the way we label organisms). These travels led More to make another arboreal impact upon Shropshire and England: the reintroduction of the larch. Larches were first introduced to the UK in 1620, but Historic England credit Robert More with re-introducing them and popularising them across England in the mid-eighteenth century.

Another private drive cuts through the northern part of the Linley estate, from the A488 towards the hall, around a small hill called Cefn Gunthly. A minor public road runs parallel to this drive, through the River Onny West valley, flanked by the thickly wooded hills of Black Rhadley and Linley Big Wood. Best wandered on foot, this minor road offers fine views of these hills, thick in places with larches, some of which are believed to be More’s original plantings.

Just before the minor road forks right, towards the hall, there’s another vista of More’s Linley Hill beeches, cresting the ridge that may once have formed an important thoroughfare some 6,000 years ago. No one’s really sure why More wanted the beeches to line the hillside here. But just like his driveway oaks, replanting recently took place, thanks to grant funding from DEFRA.

Linley Hall’s grounds are listed on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens for its avenues and drives of trees that exploit the scenic potential of the landscape.

Although More served Shropshire in a parliamentary capacity, a wander around this quiet corner of the county suggests his most enduring legacy is the stunning arboreal impact on the county’s wonderful landscape.

© Simon Whaley