Telegraph – Hazel Plush – 15th June 2020
As Britain’s tourism hotspots navigate their way out of lockdown, many are still pleading caution. The widespread call to ‘Stay Away’ may have changed, but the Peak District is warning day-trippers to “think carefully about when and where they visit” – and others, like Cornwall, are urging outsiders to postpone their plans.
But as summer approaches, one British county has announced it’s already welcoming visitors “with open arms”. Indeed, as its tourism marketing team quietly tells me, this year may be the big comeback it’s been waiting for.
Shropshire, you see, could well have been designed especially to suit our ‘New Normal’. It boasts not a single city, and is one of England’s most sparsely-populated counties (a mere 136 souls per square-kilometre) – with oodles of pure, unsullied countryside. A quarter of its land is a protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – encompassing the Shropshire Hills, an idyllic interlude between the Midlands and Wales – but really, the entire region is rich in rural splendour. You want seclusion? Shropshire has it in spades.
“We’ve been doing this social distancing thing for a couple of centuries now,” says Mark Hooper, Project Leader of tourism group Visit Shropshire, “and we’re really quite good at it. While we might have lamented our lack of honeypot destinations before, that’s now Shropshire’s appeal: you won’t have to fight off the crowds because, quite simply, we haven’t really got any.”
For Hooper and team, that ‘Stay Away’ plea was “never an option” in Shropshire. “We are, and always have been, welcoming visitors with open arms,” he says. “We want to put the county back on the map, and this summer – we hope – will be the ideal opportunity.”
Of course, Shropshire has never been ‘off’ the map, but it has perhaps been lost in the fold between pages, overshadowed by its limelight-hogging neighbours. To the west, the peaks of Snowdonia are catnip for visitors, as are the Brecon Beacons (to the south) and Stratford-upon-Avon (to the east). But these are the days for quieter, humbler charms.
“I think we’re one of the best-kept secrets in Britain,” says Jon King, founder of the DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival and long-time resident of the region. “In fact, Shropshire is a microcosm of the country’s best bits. The meres of north Shropshire – beautiful wetlands where wildlife thrives – are like a tiny version of the Lake District. The Shropshire Hills are an approachable alternative to the Brecon Beacons, with some truly glorious walking routes. And Shrewsbury is akin to a miniature York; it’s got the history, the Medieval abbey, a great museum, and all the fascinating artefacts of Roman occupation and the Iron Age.”
Hike to the top of the Wrekin, and you’ll have 677 million years of geology at your feet. Mooch around Quarry Park, and you’ll spy ponds where a young Charles Darwin – who was born in Shrewsbury – once fished for newts. Explore the Flaxmill Maltings, and you’ll see the ‘world’s first skyscraper’. Built in 1797, this iron-frame prototype influenced every city skyline in the world.
Indeed, the more you nose around Shropshire, the more you’ll berate yourself for not doing so sooner. I was one such latecomer: despite growing up over the border in Worcestershire, I didn’t cross the threshold for two decades. Nor, it turns out, did poet A. E. Housman – but that didn’t stop him penning A Shropshire Lad in 1869, arguably the most famous literary work to feature the county. His lyrical ode to its ‘blue remembered hills’ was, in fact, based solely on the distant views from his home in Bromsgrove (eventually he did visit, and is now buried at St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow.)
Of course, Shropshire hasn’t always enjoyed arcadian bliss. The Industrial Revolution brought fame and fortune to the region – the ‘birthplace’ of this world-altering period, thanks to its iron-smelting advancements. At Ironbridge, the impressive gorge-straddling structure was the first of its kind. Now, it’s one of England’s 23 Unesco-listed cultural sites – the closest the county gets to a ‘honeypot’, perhaps. However, Covid-19 isn’t the only storm it has weathered this year: in February, the area suffered devastating floods.
If the government’s restrictions on tourist attractions are, as hoped, lifted on July 4, it will be welcome news indeed. Especially for Shropshire’s hospitality businesses – many of which seem quietly optimistic about summer. “We opened our booking system in June and were overwhelmed by the amount of interest,” says Edward Goddard, owner of Morris Leisure Holiday Parks, which has three caravan sites in the county.
Catherine Evans, the owner of Broome Park Farm, a B&B in Cloebury Mortimer, is also hopeful. “We only have two rooms, so can tailor everything to guests’ needs and concerns,” she says. “I’m crossing everything for a long hot summer, so we can all try to recoup some of the losses we’ve suffered.”
The signs are already positive. Attingham Park, an 18th-century estate in the heart of the county, is currently the National Trust’s busiest property, says Hooper – it’s welcoming 8,000 visitors per week in pre-booked slots. On July 4, the Shropshire Drive-In will transform a Shrewsbury car park into a socially-distant concert venue. And, as you read this, market towns all over the county are reopening to shoppers – with wider pedestrianised zones and one-way systems throughout their historic high streets.
To paraphrase Shropshire’s famous son, it’s not the strongest species that have the best chance of overcoming diversity, but those that are most adaptable. His home county, I think, will do him proud.
More information: visitshropshire.co.uk