BBC Countryfile magazine
The astonishing survival, despite the fury of the elements, of one very determined Reverend …
When the Rev. E Donald Carr failed to return after conducting a service at a neighbouring village church, 24 hours after setting out in one of Shropshire’s worst winter storms, on 29th January 1865, his parishioners announced his death. Rev. Carr had other ideas though.
Rev. Carr’s Woolstaston parish nestles on the eastern side of Shropshire’s Long Mynd, a large upland area with steep ravines and valleys. When, in 1856, worshippers at St Margaret’s Church, Ratlinghope, on the Long Mynd’s western edge, asked him to conduct Sunday services for them, he agreed. By using a four-mile upland route across the Long Mynd, Carr calculated he could undertake his Woolstaston Sunday morning service, trek to Ratlinghope for their afternoon service and be back at Woolstaston in time for the evening service. For eight years, and several hundred crossings of the Long Mynd, Carr successfully delivered services in both villages.
Shropshire’s 1865 winter was the worst during the 19th century. Knowing a difficult journey lay ahead, Carr skipped lunch when he set out on 29th January to Ratlinghope, taking with him a small flask of brandy and a servant with a horse. The sensible twelve-mile road trip was impassable, so they attempted Carr’s Long Mynd crossing. However, the horse soon became stuck in deep, impenetrable snowdrifts. Within a mile, Carr sent the servant and horse back, continuing alone, on foot. Battling through thigh-deep snow, Carr found the only way to negotiate deeper drifts was on his hands and knees. Some 2 ¼ hours and four miles later, Carr arrived safely in Ratlinghope. After his short 45-minute service, he declined offers of board and lodgings for the night, and began his return trip for Woolstaston’s 6 o’clock service.
During Ratlinghope’s service the weather had deteriorated. Struggling through gale force winds, driving snow and sleet stung Carr’s eyes, frequently knocking him off his feet, disorientating him. As night fell, Carr grappled against the elements. Suddenly, he slipped, plummeting steeply into a ravine, hitting rocks, spinning him headfirst into the rocky valley below. “The pace I was going in this headlong descent must have been very great, yet it seemed to occupy a marvellous space of time,” Carr wrote, “long enough for the events of my whole previous life to pass before me, as I had so often heard that they did in moments of extreme peril.”
Kicking his foot deep into the snow, ice axe-like, Carr brought himself to a halt. Manoeuvring himself upright, he gingerly dropped to the bottom of the ravine, into 20-foot snowdrifts. Carr clambered up the other side of the valley. Cresting the ridge, he soldiered through waist deep snow, before plummeting again, into another ravine, this time losing his gloves. Icicles formed in his short beard, stretching to his waist, his hair was a block of solid ice and balls of ice formed under his knees. Exhausted, Carr continued, falling into deep snow every two or three steps.
As dawn broke, Carr realised he was snow blind. Unable to see, he fell numerous times, often dropping several hundred feet, and once, over the upper drop of Lightspout waterfall, near Carding Mill Valley, when he lost his boots.
Carr’s Woolstaston parishioners had embarked on a rescue mission the night before, but been beaten back by the weather. In the morning, they searched again, reaching Ratlinghope, only to learn that Carr had set off home over twelve hours earlier. When a body of another man was found in the snow nearby, the parishioners returned to Woolstaston convinced that Carr had perished in the snow too.
On the morning of 30th January, with frostbitten fingers and toes, Carr heard children’s voices. Scared of the ice-covered creature, they ran off, telling adults about the bogeyman in Carding Mill Valley. Curious locals soon realised it was Carr and welcomed him into their homes. After some warm refreshments, Carr was helped to nearby Church Stretton, where a horse and cart was instructed to take him home. Further snowdrifts meant Carr had to abandon this at Leebotwood for the final two-mile journey home, on foot.
Battling through the deep snow, Carr met a Woolstaston parishioner bound for Leebotwood’s post office, with letters formally announcing his death! Amazed at his survival, this man helped Carr back to Woolstaston, 27 hours after having left to make his way to Ratlinghope. Throughout Shropshire, the Rev. Carr became known as the man who came back from the dead and, even today, his night in the snow is still referred to as the miracle on the Mynd.
(c) Simon Whaley