By Joe Bindloss – 24th August 2020 – The Telegraph
Tell anyone you are going to Shropshire, and you may get a look of polite confusion. People know Shropshire exists, obviously, but the precise location of this singularly green and pleasant sprawl of English countryside has never fully cemented itself in the national consciousness.
But the patch of England slightly to the east of Wales has hidden depths. This overlooked corner of the country was the birthplace of British brewing, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and the gritty western front in the Norman invasion of England – which explains the line of romantically ruined castles dotting the Welsh border between Ludlow and Shrewsbury.
Even better, obscurity keeps away the hordes. Social distancing has always been the norm in Shropshire’s plunging valleys, making this perfect country for walking and cycling, with mile after mile of steep climbs and giddying descents to keep the circulation pumping and the spirits soaring as an antidote to pandemic anxiety.
Arriving by train into Ludlow (bikes go free), the first thing you notice as you follow crooked, medieval lanes to the main square is the robust castle thrown up by Walter de Lacy. Tottering by the riverbank, it’s an orderly ruin today, but the fortress saw action in everything from the Norman conquest to the War of the Roses and the English Civil War.
Ludlow’s other big claim to fame is food. This pocket-sized market town has become an unexpected hotbed of gastronomy, with foodie farmers’ markets, gourmet gastropubs and unplucked pheasants dangling in the windows of local butcher’s shops.
A meal at Mortimers on Corve St is de rigueur; feast on beautifully-presented small morsels, made with fresh Shropshire ingredients, then track down a pint of Ludlow Gold – produced by the Ludlow Brewing Company near the train station – in one of the timber-framed pubs dotting the old centre.
For a first taste of Shropshire’s rugged hills, test your calves on the 540m climb up Clee Hill, rising due east from Ludlow. It’s a steep walk or cycle, dodging erratic flocks of sheep, but the views from the top are inspirational. Soak up the scenery atop Brown Clee, Shropshire’s highest point, or head to Cleehill village, where the landscape plunges downwards then rises in a distant wave to meet the Malvern Hills.
Moving on from Ludlow, swap the busy A49 for the idyllic, uncrowded Shropshire Way, which starts immediately behind Ludlow Castle. An undulating path tracks the River Onny for 11 miles to Craven Arms, passing Stokesay, where the fortified 13th-century manor house of Laurence of Ludlow emerges from a curve in the river like a prop from Lord of the Rings – a bulging stack of timeworn timbers atop hewn stone foundations.
History is etched into the landscape in the Shropshire Hills. The Shropshire Way cuts west from Craven Arms through sheep-dotted farmland to the grass-covered whorls of the Iron Age hill-fort at Bury Ditches and on to the village of Clun, whose 11th-century motte-and-bailey castle was ransacked by Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.
Things get culturally interesting in this corner of the county. During the Green Man festival in May, a mock battle is held in Clun between the Green Man and Frost Queen to mark the arrival of summer (think of it as Groundhog Day with pagan overtones and bonus Morris dancers). A few weeks later, nearby Aston on Clun holds a curious tree dressing ceremony that dates back to the restoration of the monarchy.
Whether on foot or two wheels, the last stop before you hit Wales is Bishop’s Castle – worth visiting not for the long-vanished castle, but for the Three Tuns Brewery, the oldest licensed brewery in Britain. Folk have been foaming up ales in this timbered public house since 1642, and the Cleric’s Cure IPA is fine fortification for the trails ahead.
North of Bishop’s Castle, the land rucks up into glorious wind-scoured moorland – the Long Mynd, centrepiece of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Victorians called this area ‘Little Switzerland’, which may be a slight exaggeration, but the wild ponies who graze the broken heath above Church Stretton lend a certain angelic quality to the scene, perhaps more Jerusalem than Schweizerpsalm.
The only challenge is getting up here. On foot or by pedal power, the climb from the Industrial Revolution-era Carding Mill at Church Stretton is a steep slog. Once on top, however, the hills open up in an empty tableaux, like the Peak District without the people. In mixed weather, regular rainbows give the scenery a celestial seal of approval.
From Church Stretton, Victorian sightseers travelled on to Shrewsbury by train, but cyclists can follow the Longden road along the western flanks of the Mynd, while walkers can trace the Shropshire Way past trickling brooks and Enid Blyton-worthy patches of woodland all the way to the town limits.
With this being Shropshire, there’s the inevitable castle – a remodelled Norman keep above the train station – and a repeatedly ransacked Norman abbey, but a more fitting reward at the end of the journey is a pint of Paper Planes IPA from the Salopian brewery, the beer that put the county on the map in the 2019 International Beer Challenge. Shropshire, found!