Skylarks and Seismic Shifts

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Country Walking: 

Discover big views, tranquil hollows,ancient rocks, wild horses and avian choirs on the slopes of England’s long mountain …

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GREAT BRITISH CLASSIC: THE LONG MYND

 SKYLARKS AND SEISMIC SHIFTS

by Simon Whaley

“Earthquake!” shouts a young lad to his geology classmates. Playing for laughs, he falls off a small rock and collapses into fits of laughter. His friends join in with their own mock-tremors, but soon get back to their lesson, standing beside the crisp, cool waters of the stream.

As classrooms go, Carding Mill Valley, with its rugged hills and beautiful beck, beats any I was ever schooled in. Inspiration oozes from every rock, but that’s because this valley – and The Long Mynd as a whole – is a place where the formation of Britain is writ large all around. So today, I’m off for a bit of time-travelling.

I start by following a bridleway round into Townbrook Hollow. Already it’s quieter here than the honeypot of Carding Mill: just me, and the occasional sheep. With its Ice-Age moulded rocks beside me, I feel cocooned in this tighter valley. Steadily, I climb through a landscape that hasn’t changed for centuries.

Some things have changed though. Above me, one of The Long Mynd’s newest inhabitants circles gracefully: a red kite. From its sky-high perspective, The Long Mynd probably looks like a vast whalebacked triangle, stretching for nearly seven miles in length and three miles wide at its broadest. It takes its name, Mynd, from a corruption of the Welsh word, mynydd, or mountain. The Mynd is a mash-up of borders dialect: most of its valleys are batches or hollows.

Despite it’s relatively low height of 517m, the Mynd’s steepness soon gets my heart pumping, and about halfway up, I pause for breath by a rocky outcrop, and an isolated rowan tree. The soil here is thin, barely covering the Pre-Cambrian rock which geologists claim began life about 8,000 miles away, not far from the Antarctic Circle. That’s some journey the Mynd has been on.

Ten minutes later, I step onto the springy turf of the Mynd’s shoulders. Here there is more birdlife: summer will bring skylarks but today I see a family of buzzards soaring the thermals instead. The Mynd is regarded as the most important habitat in the West Midlands for upland birds, and those with patience and a good ear should listen out for merlins, hen harriers, curlew and nightjar.

Here on The Long Mynd’s plateau, there’s an overwhelming feeling of space compared to the narrowness of its batches and hollows, but as my path takes me closer to the summit, the view eastwards becomes a geology teacher’s panacea. Despite all these curves, nature can be surprisingly straight, too. There’s an obvious line, stretching for over 16 miles, linking Ragleth Hill, Caer Caradoc, The Lawley, and The Wrekin. Together, they identify the Stretton Fault, a geological feature that was once as active as California’s San Andreas Fault.

Looking eastwards, between these hills, lies another 17-mile geological straight line; the heavily wooded Wenlock Edge. Four hundred million years ago, it was a coral reef submerged under tropical waters.

The walking is easier now and, brushing through bracken, three white horses make me jump as they lift up their heads to see who is disturbing them from their feeding. From Pole Bank, the Long Mynd’s summit, my panoramic view includes the Malvern Hills, the Brecon Beacons, and, if I squint hard enough, Cadair Idris, in Snowdonia, nearly 50 miles as the buzzard flies. I can see the whole of Shropshire, which geologists say contains rocks from 11 of the 13 recognised geological periods. It’s the smallest place in the world to boast so many. You could say my Long Mynd view stretches across 4,600 million years.

Dropping down the Mynd’s western edge I sense a change. The hillside is softer. The track meanders round these curvaceous contours, cutting between heather that is the deepest of purple in summer, thanks to the National Trust’s management. I look for the small rounded leaves of the bilberry plant, which thrives here, and spot a few, but I’m too early to see the tiny purple succulent fruits. Known locally as whinberries, they make a tasty crumble and it’s claimed that eating whinberries can improve your eyesight. During the Second World War, RAF pilots were fed toast with whinberry jam before any night-time missions.

Navigation is straightforward today. A narrow Tarmac lane along the foot of the Mynd’s western edge takes me to the village of Ratlinghope, pronounced ‘Ratchup’. I detour briefly into the tiny Church of St Margaret, with its black-beamed roof and bright-red kneelers. On January 29th, 1865, after delivering an afternoon service here, the Revd E Carr set out to return to his Woolstaston home, during one of Shropshire’s worst winter storms of the 19th-century. Such was the storm’s ferocity, Carr spent a night on the Mynd, stumbling with snow-blindness, falling hundreds of feet down the steep batches and hollows. He lost his boots and gloves, leading to frostbite. Some 20 hours later, he stumbled into Carding Mill Valley, shocking his parishioners who were convinced he’d perished overnight. Even today, Carr’s tale is known as the Miracle on the Mynd.

Clambering up and across Wild Moor, I spy a grassy mound, labelled on the Ordnance Survey map as Shooting Box. Here, Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen hid in a wooden hut to shoot grouse. Today, it’s a popular picnic spot where walkers can still see red grouse, if they’re lucky.

Briefly, I follow in the footsteps of traders from 5,000 years ago, along the Portway, before dropping back into Carding Mill Valley. In 1821, a carding mill was built here, powered by the stream, to process the local fleeces, but trade didn’t take off. Instead, Church Stretton developed, with grand plans to become a spa town, earning itself the nickname of Little Switzerland.

At the National Trust’s Chalet Pavilion, the geology students pack up for the day. Thankfully, there were no seismic shifts to disrupt their studies today. If fact, underfoot, The Long Mynd feels pretty solid. I sense it’ll be hanging around here for a little bit longer.

Ends.

(C) Simon Whaley

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