The Christmas edition of This England magazine includes the miraculous journey of the Revd Carr as he battled a night in the snow during one of Shropshire’s worst storms of the 19th century.
On 29th January 1865, Shropshire experienced one of its worst winter storms of the 19th century. For the market town of Church Stretton, known by many as Little Switzerland because of the frequency of snow on the surrounding hills in winter, it was also the night residents would refer to as the Miracle of the Mynd.
Church Stretton huddles along the eastern flanks of the Long Mynd, a 21-square-mile whale-backed plateau, reaching over 1,600 feet at its highest point. Crossing it in winter can be dangerous, and in the late 19th century, drovers taking livestock to markets along the summit ridge Port Way track had to decide whether to press on, or drop into one of the many valleys, or batches or hollows as they’re called locally.
Even the St Andrew’s Day fair became known as Deadman’s Fair, because men perished on the Long Mynd as they struggled to return home through the winter weather.
Nine years earlier, in September 1856, the villagers of Ratlinghope, on the west side of the Long Mynd, found themselves without a vicar. The Revd Donald E. Carr, who took services at Woolstaston Church on the east side of the Long Mynd, agreed to help if he could. Getting to Ratlinghope from Woolstaston by horse and cart meant Revd Carr either had to travel a 12-mile road route around the Long Mynd, or he could use the Burway, a precipitous road across the top of the Mynd, frequently completely closed in winter.
Instead, he trekked on foot, a direct distance of four miles. Doing so enabled him to deliver a morning service in Woolstaston, an afternoon service in Ratlinghope and then be back in Woolstaston for the evening service. Over the following years, he trekked back and forth across the Mynd, getting to know his eight-mile route intimately.
The week before the 29th January 1865 saw unprecedented snowfall. Many of South Shropshire’s roads were blocked and impassable.
Unsurprisingly, Revd Carr’s Woolstaston morning service was poorly attended. But he was determined to deliver his afternoon service in Ratlinghope. He did not have lunch. Instead, he took a few mouthfuls of soup and then poured three ounces of brandy into a small flask to take with him, something he’d never done before.
Carr set out on horseback with a servant, but this had to be abandoned when the snow encountered on the lanes came up to the horse’s neck. So Carr told the servant to take the horse home and he would continue on foot.
Taking his usual route over the Mynd was challenging. Sometimes, the exposed hillsides have little snow because it gets blown into the valleys. But on this occasion, snow drifts on the Mynd still reached above knee level. At times, Carr had to crawl on his hands and knees.
He found walking easier on the top of the Long Mynd, because it is a huge moorland plateau. That afternoon’s weather was dry and bright. The snow dazzled, but navigating his usual route was simple. The drop into Ratlinghope was as treacherous as the climb up, though. However, at 3.15pm, two-and-a-quarter hours after setting off from Woolstaston, Carr arrived safely to deliver the afternoon service. Few Ratlinghope parishioners had expected him.
At 4pm, Carr began his return trip across the Mynd for his 6pm service at Woolstaston. A gale had developed during Ratlinghope’s 45-minute service, so when Carr reached the Long Mynd summit, he was battling driving snow and icy sleet. The wind frequently blew him off his feet, and the sleet stung his eyes, making it difficult to see. Carr was reassured when he spotted a mountain pony skeleton he’d passed earlier on his journey to Ratlinghope. He rested briefly and took a sip of brandy.
As Carr pressed onwards through the driving snow and sleet, he reached another landmark he recognised. He rested again beside this frozen pool, confident of his location.
The wind gained strength as he crawled uphill, barely able to see further than a yard ahead. He was aiming for his next landmark, some fir trees. But he never found them.
Suddenly, Carr slipped and plummeted down a steep ravine. He hit something, which spun him over, head first, deep into the valley.
He knew he had to stop himself, otherwise he risked being dashed on the rocks at the bottom. Kicking his foot deep into the snow, he bent his knee, using it like an ice axe. Eventually, he slowed, coming to a stop, upside down, on a steep section. Slowly, Carr manoeuvred himself upright and shuffled down the ravine.
From here, Carr hoped he could follow the valley into the nearest village, but the snow was over twenty feet deep in places. His only option was to climb back out of the ravine, in waist deep snow. Carr prayed for the strength to continue.
Cresting the ridge, Carr battled on, then plummeted into the next valley, spinning and sliding head first. Once again, he used his feet as an ice axe, bringing himself to a halt. But this time, he lost his hat and gloves.
Tired, hungry and thirsty, Carr ate snow. His brandy was gone, but his hands were too cold to hold the flask. Icicles stretched from his short beard to his waist. His hair was a solid block of ice. Frequently, he broke ice crystals from his eyebrows and balls of ice from under his knees.
Exhausted, Carr fell down after every few steps. He was so tired he wanted to lie down and rest, but knew he would perish if he did.
Somehow, he continued for several hours, and when dawn finally arrived, it brought a dense fog. Carr realised it was snow blindness. His vision was blurred and indistinct, and colours were misrepresented. With failing eyesight, Carr continued to fall, often plummeting hundreds of feet down steep ravines.
Forcing his ungloved hands through the snow, he grasped at the tufts of grass underneath to slow his deadly descent. After two hours, Carr heard running water, then tumbled over the upper cascade of Lightspout waterfall. Knowing the lower cascade was taller, and that tumbling over that would kill him, Carr knew he had to climb out of the valley again.
This time, he lost his boots. His feet became as cold and numb as his hands, so when he trod on gorse bushes, he felt no pain.
Struggling in drifts up to his neck, Carr suddenly heard voices. He cried for help, but no-one came. The voices trailed off. He later learned they were children’s voices, who’d run away to tell their parents of the bogeyman they’d seen coming out of the snow.
He headed towards the voices, continuing to stumble as he battled blindly forward. Suddenly, a voice asked, “You look like Mr Carr of Woolstaston.”
“I am,” he replied.
The children who’d run away earlier soon surrounded Carr. They helped him into a cottage in Carding Mill Valley, where they gave him bread and butter, and tea, and saw how unable he was to hold the bread or the teacup. Once refreshed, they helped Carr to the Crown Hotel in Church Stretton, where he arrived at 2pm on 30th January 1865, twenty-two hours after setting off from Ratlinghope.
So severe still was the weather, the horse and cart that had arrived to carry Revd Carr back to Woolstaston got stuck, forcing Carr to walk the final two miles. It was on this journey that he met a man coming from Woolstaston, with letters to post at the Leebotwood Post Office. His parishioners had written to all the local dignitaries, announcing the Revd Carr’s death.
The previous evening, twenty villagers had searched for him, but were forced back by the severe weather. One nearly died. They set off again the following morning, reaching Ratlinghope, only to learn Carr had left for Woolstaston the night before. So when they found another man’s body in the snow near the hamlet of Bridges, they assumed Carr had also perished.
Eventually, Carr arrived home at 4pm, twenty-seven hours after originally setting off from Woolstaston. His local parishioners referred to him as the man who came back from the dead.
Shropshire’s 1865 winter was one of the worst on record, which is why, even today, the Revd Carr’s experience on that horrendous January night is still called the Miracle on the Mynd.
To read a fuller account of this event, written by the Revd Donald Carr himself, check out A Night in the Snow on Amazon.
© Simon Whaley