Walking the wyre

With 1,200 species of butterflies and moths and some of the UK’s oldest woodland, the West Midlands’ Wyre Forest is a boon for walkers and naturalists alike. Yet for a long time, the Forest’s westernmost boundary in South Shropshire (which borders private land) was inaccessible to walkers. That is, until Cleobury Mortimer Footpath Association and the Forestry Commission created four routes opening up the Wyre’s western border and creating an important link between the town and the Forest, improving access to the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

I'm sitting with Susan Sharp, the South Shropshire Ramblers footpath secretary, in Cleobury Mortimer Golf Clubhouse, the start point for the new Wyre routes. Judging by the friendly waves we've been receiving from golfers, this corner of South Shropshire doesn’t look like a walker-unfriendly zone.

The Wyre ForestSusan unfolds a map and points out a little section of farm and woodland lying between the Wyre and Cleobury. “This is what walkers had to put up with.”

I see what she means. The paths are, well, a mess; they disappear, reappear, and even lead into a pond!

“Of course, that’s the old map. Things are very different now,” Susan says, looking proud. We leave the clubhouse and head east over the fairway for elegant Neenshill Coppice, where my tour begins.  We hit a pine wood and the path divides, forking left onto a broad forest track and right into dense clump of bracken and trees.

Susan nods to the right and says, “That’s the old path. The new route goes up here now”. She taps a new looking fingerpost behind her onto which a ‘path diverted’ sign is tacked, and we walk ahead, sweeping up and down between the pines on the forest track. Below the old path runs in tangled counterpoint, disappearing entirely at one point where, Sue tells me, it also vanishes on the map. At a junction, a new signpost makes a splash against the trees: “The old path came out here,” she points downhill into an impenetrable mass of trees, “ then went that way!”

We take the new path instead, following a fern-filled track into the trees where yellow stumps of newly cut bracken reveal how much work has gone into creating this route. As we walk along, Baveney Brook rattles away to our left in a tangle of fern and hazel, growing louder as more streams sliding down the bank to join it. Crossing a solid little bridge – “there wasn’t one before”, Susan says – we climb up the bank and walk north along a broad forest track to a T-junction. A sea of meadow flowers cuts a swathe through the forest, as far as the eye can see, undulating along the route of the Elan valley pipeline from Powys to Birmingham. The slightest touch on the bracken sends a frenzy of wood white butterflies into the air.

“Come closer. Look.” One metre away from my boot, the ground cuts away about 100 foot into the near perpendicular ski-jump of Breakneck Bank and the brook below. “People were actually scrambling up that bank, because it was the only way through.” Ahead lies a series of enchanting groves and still pools, the Silligrove Fishing Pools, which mark the border between Neenshill and the Wyre Forest. Skirting the biggest - “The path used to lead right into that pool - the owner had dug the pond over the right of way!” - we walk to a little boathouse perched at the corner of the wood. A gravel path stretches out behind it, flanked by a field edge. “That," Susan says, “is the link to the Wyre Forest. “It was the issue I heard the most complaints about; the owner had built this boathouse over the path, cutting off access to the forest."

A foxglove in the Wyre ForestI prepare to walk ahead for the Wyre, but Susan turns me back. Instead we head north along the forest edge and the path becomes increasingly wild as we pick our way through sedge on sandier soil, where water collects in oily little pools. The work of the Cleobury Mortimer Footpath Association becomes very visible as bracken takes over each side - “We walk this path early in July every year and clear the bracken” - but a clear path through it still remains.

Passing from Neen Savage into Kinlet, where another local footpath group have clearly been equally as active, we emerge from the forest to a spectacular view. To the west, the rearing blue line of the Titterstone Clee marks the Southernmost tip of the Shropshire Hills. Immediately to our left, the hill curls down into a valley where the single red roof of a cottage sticks out in a clutch of pines through which runs a stream.  Behind that, a huge field sprawls across a hill, stretching to the horizon. We can see almost the entire route back to the golf course laid out before us.

Except… Susan points to the huge field: “All the footpaths in the area connected in that field – five in total. It’s a crucial link for any circular walk here, but every summer it was blocked by potato crop. Even if you did get through, you’d stumble into Baveney Brook as there was no footbridge.” Into the trees, at the right of the cottage, Susan points out, “that is the only bridge, and it was private.”

As we walk down the hill towards the stream, however, and the bridge comes into view, I notice that the gate sports a new post. On it, two crucial words are engraved: ‘ Public footpath’. Finally we arrive at the foot of the enormous field. I prepare to meet potato – or more accurately, sweetcorn – crops but we turn left round the field edge and follow a clear path all the way back to the golf course.  There has clearly been a happy ending.

Susan Sharp walks the now open path in the Wyre ForestOver another coffee at the golf course shop, I ask Susan how they did it.

She explains: “When I first moved here ten years ago and tried to walk that path through Neenshill Coppice, I knew something was terribly wrong. When I became the local Ramblers Footpath Officer, my first priority was getting the owner to unblock the paths at Silligrove pools that were cutting off access to the Wyre.

"I lobbied Shropshire County Council and they negotiated with the landowner to remove the blockage. Looking at the paths on the map again – one of which even ended in a complete dead end at a parish boundary - I realised that there must have been an administrative error when they were recorded back in the fifties.

“Shropshire council agreed with me, and about two years ago they negotiated with the landowner to divert all the paths through the woods. As for diverting the paths through the blocked field by the golf club it occurred to me that if you diverted the footpath around the side of the field – and then over the bridge - it would be better for the landowner and for walkers. The golf course and the landowner were really happy with the idea and were happy to pay some of the cost. But the council wouldn’t contribute, even though it saved them the expense of a large bridge.

For four years we reached deadlock - I thought I’d never see a solution. Then Grow with Wyre, who were trying to promote walking here, ask me to help create some walks that linked the Forest with the west. I suggested the golf course as a start point, but explained the blocked paths prevented me creating circular walks. They loved the idea –so much they funded the diversions and leaflets too."

Thanks to Susan's tenacity and the willing efforts of volunteers, there are now 22 walks available, funded by Awards for All & Shropshire Council and developed by Susan and the Cleobury Mortimer Footpath Association. Now everyone can enjoy the delights of the Wyre Forest. Definitely a happy ending.

This blog was originally posted in 2012.