Charming Church Stretton

Charming Church Stretton - published in The People's Friend - 16th jan 2016 issue
Charming Church Stretton – published in The People’s Friend – 16th jan 2016 issue

It’s not difficult to see why Church Stretton is known as Shropshire’s Little Switzerland when there’s been a fresh dusting of snow overnight. If weather forecasters predict snow in Shropshire, you can guarantee Church Stretton will get some!

This idyllic Welsh Border market town acquired its Little Switzerland nickname in the late Victorian period, when there were plans to develop it as a health resort. With its rugged hills, fresh air and clean water, a few days in Church Stretton was seen as the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of city living; something that still applies today.

Snow always gives the town the impression that it’s huddling to keep warm in the confines of the Stretton Valley. With its back against the Long Mynd, the town faces the Stretton Hills, comprising Ragleth Hill, Caer Caradoc and The Lawley. Together those hills form a straight line on the map. Geology students soon identify this is a classic fault line. And yes, the town has experienced the occasional earthquake!

I’m picking my way through the bustling town to climb the Long Mynd and find myself in St Laurence’s churchyard. The church helped give the town its name. Stretton is a derived from an old English word, stræt, which means Roman road, and Watling Street runs through the narrow valley. St Laurence’s has been here since the 12th century, so the place became known as Church Stretton, to differentiate this settlement from it’s neighbouring smaller villages of Little Stretton and All Stretton.

Suddenly, my feet slip from underneath me and I land, with a bump, on my bottom! At least the fresh snow cushions the fall. Beside me is the grave of Ann Cook, who died in 1841, aged 60. Although the inscription has been weathered away, it’s still possible to read the four line summary of her life:

On a Thursday she was born,

On a Thursday made a bride,

On a Thursday a leg was broke,

And on a Thursday died.

Thankfully, my legs are okay and it’s not a Thursday! From the churchyard it’s only a few steps into Rectory Field, where I discover the town’s younger generation enjoying the snow. Its gentle slopes make it the perfect place for sledging and ski-ing. The dangerous bit is dodging the speed-freaks as I pick my way across the field.

I sneak off through the woods into Townbrook Hollow, one of the Long Mynd’s quieter valleys. There are many of these on the Long Mynd’s eastern edge, all draining water away from its 1,595 feet summit, although most are not called valleys. Locally they’re known as batches or hollows. Within minutes, I’m alone, negotiating the path, as it winds its way towards the top, with a half-frozen stream gurgling past my feet.

A sudden, high-pitched screech draws my eyes upwards. I’m not on my own, after all. There, in the clear sky, is the unmistakeable forked-tail of a red kite. These magnificent birds of prey have been making their way eastwards from their Welsh stronghold of Powys and are now breeding here. They’re not the only ones. The Long Mynd is home to merlin, hen harriers, curlews and skylarks, making it one of the most important habitats for upland birds in the West Midlands.

Gaining altitude, I need a breather, so I stop and turn round to look at my progress. In front of me are the majestic snow-capped peaks of Caer Caradoc, once the site of an Iron Age hill fort, The Lawley and, in the far distance, near Telford, stands The Wrekin. This was once thought to be an extinct volcano. It isn’t, but it is made from volcanic rock. Panning the horizon, there’s a Swiss Alp-like feel to my view, and Church Stretton, deep in the valley below, is no longer visible. It’s difficult to believe that Birmingham City Centre is only 40 miles away, as the buzzard flies.

At the top of Townbrook Hollow my vista opens up as I step onto the Long Mynd’s plateau summit. In summer this is a mass of purple heather, buzzing to the sound of the National Trust’s local bee population. Mynd is a corruption of the Welsh Mynydd, which means mountain, so Long Mynd actually means long mountain. It’s an apt name, because looking at the contour lines on my map the hill is shaped like an upside down isosceles triangle, stretching for over seven miles in length and nearly three miles at its widest point. Now the views really open up, and I can see the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, and the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. On a really clear day it’s possible to see Cadair Idris, a mountain near the Welsh coast, some fifty miles away.

A large shadow engulfs me momentarily. Who turned the lights out? Ah! Looking up I spot a glider on a winter thermal. The Midlands Gliding Club has its base up here, and the skies above Church Stretton are often filled with gliders and paragliders soaring, like buzzards, on the thermals the Long Mynd produces. The club has a winching rope they use to pull the engine-less planes into the sky, however, it is possible to take to the skies without the winch. Because of the Long Mynd’s extremely steep western edge, gliders can throw themselves off the side and get airborne that way! It’s one of the few places in Europe where they can do this.

My path joins up with The Burway, a single-track road that climbs out of Church Stretton onto the top of the Long Mynd. It’s not for the faint-hearted driver, for it is open to two-way traffic and there aren’t many passing places. But today the road is closed due to the wintry conditions.

After a short while I pick up a wide track known as The Port Way. This was an ancient droving route farmers and shepherds used to get their animals to market. They often followed high mountain ridges, because there was nowhere for thieves and poachers to hide and attack them. The cold wind gets up, sending a shiver round my neck, so I pull up my collar.

This reminds me of Church Stretton’s most famous story, called the Miracle on the Mynd. It happened during one of the worst winter storms, 150 years ago in January 1865. The Rev Carr would deliver a Sunday service in the village of Woolstaston, and then after lunch he would cross over the Long Mynd, to Ratlinghope. There he would take a Sunday afternoon service in the tiny church, before making the return four-mile journey over the Mynd to Woolstaton, in time to deliver the evening service.

He did this eight mile journey regularly every Sunday for many years, and set out as normal on Sunday 29th January 1865. As he clambered over this steep terrain the weather deteriorated, but he managed to reach Ratlinghope in time. During this service the conditions worsened and villagers begged Rev Carr not to make the return journey, but the wind had dropped so he decided to go.

But as soon as he started climbing heavy snow began falling. Within hours he’d lost his way, tumbling over rocky outcrops down into deep ravines. He lost his gloves, and his walking boots and spent the whole night in the snow. His eyelashes froze, blinding him, and he even fell over the top of Lightspout waterfall, near Carding Mill Valley. His frostbitten fingers and toes made climbing and walking extremely painful.

The following morning, Woolstaston’s parishioners feared the worst. When a search party found the body of another man who’d perished in the snow overnight, they assumed the same fate had befallen Rev Carr.

But Rev Carr was eventually found by children playing in Carding Mill Valley. They warmed him with hot drinks and food before helping him home to Woolstaston, where they bumped into a parishioner carrying a letter to post announcing Rev Carr’s death! No one could believe he’d survived, which is why it is called the Miracle on the Mynd. Rev Carr finally reached home 27 hours after first setting off.

Thankfully, my downhill journey into Carding Mill Valley is less troublesome than Rev Carr’s and I slip into the National Trust’s Chalet Pavilion for some hot soup and a cup of tea in front of a roaring log fire. That’s cosy! Once warmed through, I step outside again to be greeted by the delightful screams of children and adults sledging down the side of the valleys. Some are trying to jump the small stream that once powered the carding mill that processed the wool from the sheep on the surrounding hills, hence the valley’s name.

It isn’t long before I’m back in the centre of Church Stretton, with its tourist shops, cafes and huge antiques market. Life goes on here, whatever the weather. Its hills might not be as high as the Swiss Alps, but Shropshire’s Little Switzerland is just as stunning.

© Simon Whaley