Cicerone guidebook author John Gillham explains what’s so great about the new and improved Shropshire Way.
Although the original Shropshire Way was a well-conceived circular route devised by local Ramblers Association groups in 1978, with a northern extension to link Cheshire’s Sandstone Trail, by 2014 it was obscured by 32 different loops. In the latter days there was no distinction between those loops and the main route on the ‘buzzard’ waymarkers and followers were sometimes confronted by signposts with the Way pointing in three or four different directions.
In 2015 at the Shrewsbury Ramblers AGM proposals were made to identify a single main route and to reform the Shropshire Way Association. The result of their fine efforts is a new 182-mile circular route based on Shrewsbury and retaining the Sandstone Trail link to Grindley Brook, which would increase the total distance to 200 miles. A new orange waymarker, complete with a buzzard, now graces the whole route and it has been said that the waymarking is ‘as good as any national trail’.
When I was asked to write a new Cicerone guidebook to the Way I jumped at the chance. I had discovered the county writing Hillwalking in Shropshire and I had fallen in love with the hills. I was about to discover pastures new in the north of the county. And I was not disappointed.
So what’s good and what’s great about the Shropshire Way?
Well for a start Shrewsbury is one of the finest historic towns I’ve seen. Many of the beautiful half-timbered buildings that line the streets of the town today were built in Tudor times. The town centre still retains its medieval street pattern with numerous narrow passages known as shuts. The way out by way of the leafy Rad Brook and Rae Brook valleys gives walkers more greenery and beauty than they have the right to expect in the suburbs of a sizeable town. Then early in the day there’s Lyth Hill with its airy ridge, its blossoms and its wide panoramas. The day ends in Bridges, which lies sheltered beneath the low slopes of the Long Mynd and those of the Stiperstones. A Gothic youth hostel and one of the best of the county’s pubs are waiting to make you stay comfortable and cosy.
The Stiperstones have to be the highlight of the route. Here, jagged tors protrude from heather and whinberry slopes tempting the would-be climber to clamber up the mini summits. The Way then deposits its followers back into the valley before whisking them back up to the heights of Linley Hill. Here a gentle decline on a grassy ridge leads to the fields of the West Onny valley.
Just one short climb and a gentle descent away lies Bishop’s Castle, a small, quirky medieval town full of colour and history.
The next few days are spent on a verdant and undulating landscape of squat hills and pretty valleys. The route meets Offa’s Dyke at Churchtown but leaves it a few miles later, near the summit of Hergan in the heart of the Clun Forest – the ‘forest’ consists largely of hills not trees. It then strides across the ridge with the Welsh name of the Cefns (which means ridge). The rooftops of Clun and the castle get ever nearer as the wayfarer descends the ridge. AE Housman described the border town of Clun as the quietest place under the sun in his book, A Shropshire Lad. There’s a splendid 15th-century five-arched stone bridge and a fine church, the resting place of playwright and actor, John Osborne (1929-1994), who wrote Look Back in Anger among many other works. The fine medieval stone castle, which lies on a mound to the west of the town, was sacked by Welsh Prince and Shakespearian character Owain Glyndwr in his war with the English. Beyond here the Shropshire Way heads for Craven Arms, then Ludlow via the 13th-century fortified manor house of Stokesay Castle.
Described by John Betjeman as ‘the loveliest town in England’, Ludlow’s church and its great 11th-century castle form recognisable landmarks for many miles. The town walls had seven gates. Many sections are quite well preserved but Broad Gate is the sole surviving gate.
Beyond Ludlow the Way climbs the Clee Hills. Brown Clee is the highest Shropshire peak: Titterstone Clee the third highest. The latter, which is topped by white radomes and some rocks known as Giant’s Chair, comes first and the Way scales it using an old tramway that takes the route to the fascinating Dhustone quarry buildings near the summit. At one time over 2000 people worked the hill.
Brown Clee Hill, when seen from the south east at Wheat Hill, looks very gentle and unspoiled, with pasture and forest cloaking the sides. But it has the same geology as its neighbour and the top is scattered with the relics of mines and quarries, not to mention the communications masts.
But what a viewpoint. I could go on for several paragraphs so go see for yourself!
The long limestone escarpment of the Wenlock Edge allows a splendid promenade all the way to the pretty market town of Much Wenlock before you descend into the Severn Gorge at Ironbridge. You are now in the world of the Industrial Revolution, where the first cast iron bridge was forged and where they produced tiles, clay pipes and bricks, which would become famous throughout the world. Today Ironbridge is pristine with none of the grime from the past. It’s cafés, inns and museums make it one of the most popular of the Midlands’ attractions.
The Wrekin has to be near the top of the list of reasons to do the Shropshire Way. Formed by volcanic eruptions triggered by the nearby Church Stretton fault, the Wrekin has a huge Iron Age summit fort that was in use by the Celtic Cornovii tribe who were engaged in a long battle with the Romans. The hill’s isolation means it has uninterrupted views in all directions.
Now the Shropshire Way heads to the north of the county. The landscape is less hilly but just beyond Upton Magna it comes across Haughmond Hill, one of several red sandstone outcrops you’ll see in the next few days. On the other side there’s the 12th-century Augustine Haughmond Abbey. The ruins are still impressive and are in the custodianship of English Heritage.
North of Wem and Whixall the route will be fascinating for naturalists. First the Llangollen Canal is joined and this leads to landscapes of meres and mosses with ombrotrophic raised peat bogs whose only source of water is rainfall. The reserves are home to many rare species of moss and there are over 600 species of moth and 32 species of butterfly, including the brimstone, the green hairstreak and the large heath, which thrive on the heathland and cotton sedge. The old Saxon town of Ellesmere lies next to an expansive lake, the Mere, one of nine in the area. Like the mosses of the region, the meres were formed in the last Ice Age, when blocks of ice from retreating glaciers formed deep kettle holes in the glacial moraine, thus trapping the water.
The Llangollen Canal, then the Montgomery Canal, lead the way through the fields of the north, past Frankton and Maesbury Marsh.
With no hills to climb you’ll be able to march quite quickly, leaving more time to relax in one of the inns or cafés or to visit the fascinating quarries at Llanymynech, a small town that spans both sides of the Welsh border.
Llanymynech is the start of the home run to Shrewsbury. For much of the morning the Shropshire Way follows the flood barrier of the River Vyrnwy, which meanders like a snake on the move, all the way to Melverley, where there’s a charming black and white half-timbered church.
The Vyrnwy flows into the Severn and the Way is now following a course across the plains of this great river. Rising out from the pastures and crop fields ahead lies the last summit, Nesscliffe Hill. It’s small but it’s a good place to be, with sandstone crags poking through the trees. The summit, Oliver’s Point (named after Oliver Cromwell), lies by another of those Iron Age forts. From it you can see back into Wales and trace the last three days of the Way. Down some steep steps to the base of some sandstone cliffs is Kynaston’s Cave, once home to the notorious highwayman Humphrey Kynaston but now a protected home for Pipistrelle, Daubenton’s and Natterer’s bats.
On the last day the Shropshire Way visits the chocolate box village of Shrawardine then follows the banks of the Severn into the heart of Shrewsbury, past Charles Darwin’s childhood home, under the great Welsh and English bridges beneath the church spires, the quaysides and the riverside park – a splendid finish to a splendid walk.
OS Explorer 201, 203, 216, 217, 218, 240, 241, 242 and 257
Transport: Trains: Shrewsbury has a mainline station mostly served by Transport for Wales Trains, which run direct services from South Wales, Manchester, Holyhead, Birmingham and Chester. Buses National Express service 410 runs from London to Shrewsbury via Birmingham and Telford.
For up-to-date information on transport and accommodation visit the Shropshire Way Association website
Official Guidebook Walking the Shropshire Way by John Gillham (Cicerone)