02 October, 2006

Dream Come True in Shropshire

With the start of the new academical year looming, Lisa and I squeezed in a trip to Shropshire in the last week of September. Ever since I read Malcolm Saville's "Lone Pine" books as a child I've longed to go there and walk the hills that feature in the stories. That it finally came together, after plans to visit the Chilterns and Brecon Beacons fell through, in the week that Lisa celebrated a landmark birthday was just magical. I booked us in to a guest house in Church Stretton, a town which had the dual advantages af a railway station and direct pedestrian access to the hills I was so keen to explore with Lisa.

So, last Monday, we set off by train from Cambridge and, travelling via Birmingham and Shrewsbury, arrived in Church Stretton in the late afternoon. Checked in to Brookfields Guest House, we strolled across town to the Buck's Head Hotel which seemed the most appealing of guest house proprietor Paul's suggestions for eating in town. We weren't disappointed: the food was better than average pub grub, the Timothy Taylor's Landlord was well kept and the bar where we ate was smoke-free until 9pm.

The BBC Weather Forecast had alerted us to the possibility that Tuesday might be the best day of the week, weather-wise, so on returning from the pub we consulted the guides that Paul lent us to plan a walk that would take full advantage of the good weather in prospect. Breakfast was the traditional guest house "full English" fry-up of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes. Straight afterwards Lisa & I set out through the town and out the other side towards our objective of the day: the Long Mynd.

Following the route proposed in the guide, we left Church Stretton via Townbrook Hollow and, once we emerged from the woods, immediately found ourselves immersed in the full glory of the wonderful scenery of the hills. The walk up to the valley head was everything I'd been hoping for and the warm sunshine made the experience perfect. As we walked, the changing perspective continually revealed new delights and we spent plenty of time drinking in the views. Unsurprisingly, Lisa's efforts to capture some of this in photographs were more successful than mine but even so they provide only a faint echo of the impact of actually being there.

Once up on the Long Mynd itself we soon found a comfortable spot to break for lunch. We made short work of our sandwiches, had some coffee from our flasks and then lay back to enjoy the sunshine for a while. After a couple of hours rest we gathered ourselves and set off to return to Church Stretton, this time by way of Ashes Hollow. The descent was easy-going in the early stages but there were a few stretches lower down that needed a little more care. We encountered several sets of school children surveying sections of the lower part of the valley. As on the way up, the scenery continually delighted us to the point that it was hard to take it all in. All the way we enjoyed great walking weather so it all added up to a near perfect day in the hills.

The Ordnance Survey map I was using seemed to show a footpath back from the foot of Ashes Hollow to near the starting point of the walk but the guide insisted that there was no viable alternative to the road. After some debate we opted for the road so we walked down into Little Stretton, noting the Ragleth Inn as we passed, and trudged back to Church Stretton. Walking so far on the road in walking boots left us very footsore on our return to the guest house. We rested our weary feet for a couple of hours then headed out to the Buck's Head again for dinner.

Wednesday's weather started out dull and offered little prospect of improvement so we spent the day shopping in Church Stretton and walked (not in boots this time!) out to Little Stretton for a delightful lunch in the Ragleth Inn. Amongst our purchases was a number of local walking guides, including an updated edition of the one we used yesterday. Consulting this we learned that the path shown on the OS map was now the recommended way to finish the walk. We bought a second copy of the guide to donate to the guest house and maybe save future guests from unnecessary sore feet! For the third, and last, time we took dinner in the Buck's Head.

Thursday was Lisa's birthday. Gallantry forbids that I mention the number involved but this was a significant birthday for Lisa. We had booked dinner for the evening in the Ragleth Inn while we were there yesterday and Lisa wanted to spend her birthday out in the hills again. Today we turned our backs on the Long Mynd and headed for the nearby landmark of Caer Caradoc. We scrambled our way up the southern flank and spent a while enjoying the wonderful views from the top before making our way, more gently, down the southerly end of the hill. We broke for lunch at the foot of Willstone Hill. The weather wasn't very warm so we didn't dally long after eating and set off up and over the hill: again a steep ascent was followed by a more gentle walk down the other side to the village of Hope Bowdler. From there we returned to Church Stretton following a path parallel to the road as far as we could before taking to the road itself to get back to the guest house.

We rested and freshened up then set off for Little Stretton again for dinner at the Ragleth Inn. We ate in the dining room rather than out in the bar and enjoyed a very nice three course meal with a decent bottle of wine in a relaxed and un-fussy atmosphere that suited us perfectly. We walked contentedly back to Church Stretton and the guest house for our last night.

On Friday we returned home to Cambridge by train via Newport in Wales and London, thus completing a circular route. On Monday we returned to our jobs uplifted, refreshed and ready to plunge into the new academical year. The trip was every bit as special as we'd been hoping and looking through the dozens of photographs we took while away brings back wonderful memories of those magical few days in Shropshire and has us vowing to return soon and often to this uniquely beautiful part of the world!