Trek and Mountain magazine:
A challenging UK 24-hour hillwalk doesn’t have to be based in a national park. Simon Whaley discovers one such event, less than 50 miles from Birmingham City Centre.
Stand beside the oversized bull statue in Birmingham’s Bullring Shopping Centre and a challenging hill walk seems another world away. Yet those in the know follow a few quiet A-roads westwards for less than 50 miles to the Shropshire market town of Church Stretton. Nestling at the foot of the Long Mynd, (Mynydd is Welsh for mountain), this quiet English town, often referred to as Little Switzerland, becomes a mecca for hillwalkers from across the world during the first weekend in October. Starting at 1pm on Saturday, entrants have up to 24 hours to tackle the 50-mile circuit, involving 8,000 feet of climbing over eight peaks.
“Many entrants are accomplished fell runners, some of the best in the country,” said Brian Faulkner, one of the founders of the hike, “and those tackling it for the first time don’t realise how tough it is. We may be in the Welsh Borders, but our hills still provide a challenge,” he continued. Whilst the fell runners tackle the route for speed, it’s the ordinary hill walkers who enjoy the challenge of the distance within the time limit in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, one of the first to be designated back in 1958.
Shropshire is a geological marvel; one of the few places in the world to contain rocks from 11 of the 13 recognised geological periods, so the going underfoot can be varied. Caer Caradoc, the first summit to conquer, is grassy covered mound of Pre-Cambrian volcanic rock now grazed by sheep, and the Long Mynd is a heather-covered plateau. But the Stiperstones ridge out to the west comprises ankle-jarring quartzite rocks. The beauty of the Shropshire Hills is that the geology is easy to see. Standing on the summit of Caer Caradoc leaves no one in any doubt that they are standing on is a geological fault line, one that still produces earthquakes today. Thankfully, they’re minor tremors, but occasionally they are strong enough to make a hiker’s knees wobble! The hills along the route of the hike do not offer the heights of the mountains in neighbouring Wales, but the ascensions can be steep, which surprise many. This may be England, but it is still a challenge, as the hike’s statistics bear out. “We find,” said Brian, “ that in most years, about two thirds finish the course and a third drop out. It is a personal challenge.” This year’s event offered 550 places.
The 2010 Long Mynd Hike is the 43rd in its history, and is organised by the 2nd Longmynd Scout Group. But back in the late sixties it was three local friends who put the route together. “It all came about when we were much younger,” remembered Brian. “George Davies was a local postman and his round covered most of the Long Mynd. We were both used to doing long distance walking and heard about the Fellsman Hike in Yorkshire. We decided to give it a go, along with a friend of ours, Mike Alley, but we didn’t complete it. But we were determined to tackle it again the following year. George finished it in time, I finished, but outside the suggested completion time, and poor Mike ended up in hospital. When we got back, we thought we could do one of these in Church Stretton. In our first year, there were about 50 who took part.”
The Long Mynd Hike is not just an endurance challenge but a navigational challenge too. There is no official route as such, entrants are given grid references identifying the 18 checkpoints on route and it is up to them to navigate their way using public rights of way only (with the exception of a short section on Black Rhadley Hill, which is in private ownership).
Once registered at the Hike’s head office for the weekend at Church Stretton’s school, entrants move across the A49 to the starting checkpoint at Old Cardington Lane. From there, the route heads up to the summit of Caer Caradoc, once the site of an Iron Age hill fort, the ramparts of which are still visible. The view from the summit here, extends across much of Shropshire, and includes the Cheshire Plain, The Wrekin, Wenlock Edge and on a clear day, view of the Brecon Beacons far to the south. From here, the next summit is visible, The Lawley, before the route drops across the Stretton Valley and begins its first climb up onto the Long Mynd, at High Park. Entrants then have to climb to the summit of the Long Mynd, at Pole Bank, before dropping down its steep western flank into the small hamlet of Bridges. The western side of the Long Mynd is much quieter, and when the hike is not taking place, it’s possible to wander through the area without seeing a soul.
After crossing over the East Onny River, the route climbs up to the 15-mile marker on the summit of the Stiperstones, by which time for some entrants, the light is beginning to fade. If the weather is good, it’s possible to pinpoint Cadair Idris, near the welsh coast in the far distance. From here, the hike heads northwards to Earls Hill, site of another Iron Age hill fort, and then back southwards to Bank Farm. Continuing in a southerly direction, the village of Shelve is reached, marking the 27-mile point.
The Long Mynd Hike now crosses the border into Wales briefly, in order to conquer Corndon Hill before slipping back into England to Black Rhadley Hill. Reaching this summit requires the route to cross private land, to which hikers only have access during the Hike event itself, thanks to the co-operation of the local landowner. Heading north, returns hikers to the Stiperstones again, in preparation to drop down across the East Onny River once more, to clamber back up onto the Long Mynd at Pole Cottage. The route then travels southwards to the small hamlet of Minton, a place favoured by local, award-winning actor Pete Postlethwaite, whose films include The Omen, The Constant Gardener, The Shipping news, Jurassic Park and Brassed Off.
With only four miles to go, the hike crosses over the Stretton Valley to climb the southern edge of Ragleth Hill, before running along its entire ridge, to make the final descent back down to the school, some 50 miles or 80 kilometres later, and hopefully within the 24 hour time limit!
There are many trophies available for successful completers of the route, including:
- the Longmynd Staff for the fastest completion,
- the Junior Longmynd Staff for the fastest completer aged between 18 and 20,
- the Swain Shield for the fastest completer aged at least 50,
- Peggy’s Plate goes to the fastest female completer aged 50 or more,
- and the Over-The-Hill trophy is awarded to the fastest completer aged 60 or more!
Of course, organising an event like this takes a team of volunteers, and it isn’t just the scouts who get involved. “There are almost as many volunteers as there entrants,” said Brian. “We even have a couple of lads who come up from Torquay, just to help out.” And the skilful organisation of the event is something that many entrants comment on. “We travelled over from Ireland to compete in the event and thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Norma Rae and David Ewart, from Belfast. “The atmosphere was great and the organisation superb. I think the event really benefits from being a Scout organised event – you get the feeling that it is very much part of the local community. Thanks to everyone to made it such a great experience.”
In some ways, many perceive the Stretton Hills to be a relatively safe walking environment, and it is for those who take sensible precautions. The proximity to the centre of the West Midlands conurbation, and the fact that Church Stretton lies on the main Manchester to Cardiff railway line, means that civilisation isn’t far away. But having an understanding of its location is important because of the weather. The winter of 2009/2010 was particularly harsh in the area, with snow on the ground before Christmas and remaining there right through January, February and into March. If weather forecasters mention the mere hint of snow in Shropshire, the Stretton Hills will be capped in it, hence why it is often called, Little Switzerland.
The exposed hilltops and plateaus can be buffeted by strong winds and there is little shelter from rain. To the west there are no large conurbations between Church Stretton and the Irish Sea, merely the Cambrian Mountains and a few welsh towns and villages. Organisers place a strong emphasis on safety, making it a condition of the rules of entering, that hikers have complete OS maps in their pockets (not photocopied sections), compass, whistle, survival bag, emergency food rations, and highly reflective material that must be worn at all times. During the night, entrants are grouped together in threes at the various checkpoints for safety, and are not permitted to split again until told to do so at a checkpoint in daylight.
Church Stretton’s local hero, the Reverend E Donald Carr, survived a night on the Long Mynd during one of the worst winter storms to hit Shropshire during the 19th century. With the responsibility for providing services at two churches on either side of the Long Mynd, the Rev Carr spent years walking between the two on a Sunday afternoon. But in January 1865, the weather deteriorated during an evening service, and as he made his way back home, found himself wading through waist-high snowdrifts, plummeting down steep ravines, or batches, as they’re known locally. He lost his boots and gloves, and the ice hanging from his chin stretched to his waist at one point. Another man died on the Long Mynd that night, so when Carr failed to return home, the villagers issued news of his death. When he finally returned home, 27 hours after having left it, local people were so astounded at his survival that they referred to the event as ‘the Miracle on the Mynd.’ A local booklet details the account in full, and includes the route it is believed Carr took on that momentous night, parts of which are used by Long Mynd hikers during the 24-hour challenge.
Ironically, it wasn’t bad weather that saw the only ever cancellation during the hike’s 44 year history. “We have never cancelled because of the weather,” said Brian. “We only cancelled the event in 2001 because of Foot and Mouth. We rely heavily on the co-operation of local landowners and farmers – without them agreeing to giving us access to their land, we couldn’t do the event.”
Such is the popularity of the event that registering for a place begins months beforehand, and closes two weeks prior to the event. And despite all the aches and pains, entrants enjoy themselves. “Never having attempted anything like this before,” said Stuart Lambie from Shropshire, “I was working on the theory that one mile for every year I’ve lived on the planet couldn’t be such a problem! In the end I was very glad to see Church Stretton from the top of Ragleth, but who is the sadist that thought of that at the end of the route! A great day and night.”
One 2009 entrant, James Tattley from London, sums up the event well. “The few low points – horizontal rain after Pole Bank, that long cold drag down into the valley from Pole Cottage – were nothing compared to the highs: the view from the top of Earls Hill at dusk, hiking by moonlight, the atmosphere at the checkpoints, and particularly the biscuits at Shelve, and finally hitting the top of Ragleth. A few days on, the aches have pretty much gone, but I’m still re-living the best bits. I seem to remember saying ‘never again’ as I limped into the showers, but I have a feeling I might end up reconsidering …”
Of course, you can explore the Shropshire hills at any time of year; Church Stretton is a ‘Walkers are Welcome’ town. And it’s much more interesting than Birmingham City Centre!
The Eight Peaks of the Long Mynd Hike
Caer Caradoc SO478954 469m
The Lawley SO495975 377m
The Long Mynd SO415944 516m
The Stiperstones SO367986 536m
Earls Hill SJ409048 320m
Corndon Hill SO305969 513m
Black Rhadley Hill SO343956 402m
Ragleth Hill SO451917 393m
Long Mynd Hike Checkpoints
Start Old Cardington Lane SO463940
1 Caer Caradoc SO478954
2 The Lawley SO495975
3 High Park SO449970
4 Pole Bank SO415944
5 Bridges SO393965
6 Stiperstones SO367986
7 Earls Hill SJ409048
8 Bank Farm SJ389040
9 Shelve SO333992
10 Corndon Hill SO305969
11 Woodgate Farm SO311953
12 Black Rhadley Hill SO343956
13 Stiperstones Car Park SO369977
14 Pole Cottage SO413938
15 Minton SO430908
16 Ragleth Hill SO451917
17 Church Stretton School SO455944
Books and Guides
Walking in the Shropshire Hills by David Hunter, £12, www.cicerone.co.uk
Best Walks in the Welsh Borders by Simon Whaley, £11.99, www.franceslincoln.com
Mid Wales and the Marches Walks by Laurence Main and Neil Coates, £10.95, www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk
www.churchstretton.co.uk (links for Walkers are Welcome scheme, accommodation and visitor information.)
(c) Simon Whaley