The recent expansion of the Shropshire Way has created a vast network of routes weaving around the far reaches of the county. We explore one of the latest additions in the north-west, tracing a spectacular route to the edge of Wales and back again via secluded waterways, a wild hilltop quarry, several peat bogs and some angry-looking cattle.
Striking out from Shrewsbury on a crisp, bright Sunday, I can’t help but smile. With memories of a previous, rather more rainy incursion into Shropshire still fresh in my mind, the prospect of walking a fair chunk of this lovely county in the sunshine is an appealing one – though tramping up and down muddy tracks in the mist does have a unique appeal round these parts.
Maybe it’s the very visible history, with Offa’s Dyke marking the exact line where ancient Mercia ended, or the hills which rise out of the plains, shrouded in a timeless haze. Being from Canada, where our oldest cities are only just celebrating their 400th anniversaries, traipsing through time in places like Shropshire evokes the England of childhood stories and fairytales.
For those who think they’re familiar with the Shropshire Way – created 30 years ago – a recent map of the route may come as a surprise. While the original way connected a northern linear from Wem with a southern circular as far as Ludlow, forming a shape some likened to a hangman’s noose, the latest additions have created what can best be described as a broken hourglass, centring on Shrewsbury, with a little sand spilling out towards Telford.
If you’re still with me, imagine the more developed southern half as five interconnected loops criss-crossing the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The newer northern extension weaves out west towards the border, before turning north and branching out around Oswestry, then returning east.
“It’s still a work in progress,” explains Trevor Allison, area footpath secretary for Shropshire Ramblers, who have helped fund, route-check and waymark the path since its inception.
“We wanted to expand it to this part of Shropshire and take in as much as possible of interest. All 27 sections on the map can be walked, but not all are waymarked. There are so many variations – it’s not intended to be done in one huge walk, like Offa’s Dyke, but to be sampled.”
Quarries and border towns
As I sample a section along the River Vyrnwy (above), the Breidden Hills glint in the late-morning sunshine to the south, rising dramatically above the surrounding flatlands. Beneath the forested hillsides, I soon arrive at the timber-framed St Peter’s Church in the riverside village of Melverley, where worshippers have gathered for more than a millennium; the present building was founded in 1406.
Contemplating such timescales, I ascend the creaky stairs to the gallery and gaze down on the silent, sunlit pews. With time seeming to slow down all morning, it now stops altogether.
A tart local apple from the honesty box outside soon snaps my mind back to the present, and it’s time to set off once again. Apart from a small bevy of swans on the river and an unamused-looking bull (who inspires my first of several cowardly, animal-related detours), I have the trail to myself. Despite the confluence of sun and Sunday, I encounter only one couple walking the riverbank all day.
As I approach the former industrial town of Llanymynech, with its 19th-century kiln chimney pointing the way, details on the hills that mark the border with Wales begin to resolve themselves. Even from a distance, the vast rockfaces of a limestone quarry that fed the kiln are evident, and in just over an hour, I’m walking up a steep hill towards them.
At this juncture, the Shropshire Way joins the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail, and I’m keen to explore a fresh section, having walked a stretch near Clun earlier in the year.
High up in the former quarry, I gaze back down onto Llanymynech, which once had a pub that straddled the border, with two bars in England and one in Wales.
Birch and other fast-growing trees are once again taking over the hillside and cliff-faces, which have now been set aside for wildlife and climbers. The change in the landscape is remarkable, and I scan the skies in vain, searching for peregrine falcons.
Striding on uphill along the dyke, a particularly insensitively-placed golf course shatters my sense of natural wonder. I find myself alternating between sun-dappled woods, imagining ancient soldiers pacing along ramparts, and the greens, where a trio of modern corporate warriors are teeing off.
Just as the summit route begins to level off and descend, the path emerges from tree cover and the view opens out spectacularly to the west over an endless succession of hazy, sunlit hills.
The sun is beginning to set as I leave King Offa’s fortified heights and head north on the Shropshire Way again, towards Trefonen. Without a torch, I foolishly push on into the twilight, treading through mud and muck, and accidentally discovering a stream. My sullied boots and trousers are more than compensated for by a silent visual symphony in the sky, as first Venus, then Capella, Vega, Altair and Arcturus, slowly emerge in the gathering darkness overhead. Still, I’m relieved when I finally descend towards the welcoming lights of Trefonen and its 18th-century Barley Mow brewery pub.
Wild paths and peat bogs
The next day, I meet up with Trevor Allison to walk a section of the way that opened only last year. After a detour around Selattyn Hill, we rejoin and trace Offa’s Dyke before turning east to descend towards Chirk Castle. But I don’t have long to admire it as I struggle to keep up with Trevor, who bounds ahead.
At 67, he keeps busy surveying the county’s footpaths and is – at the time of our walk together – 3,717km into a project that should see him cover 5,000km of Shropshire’s rights of way.
“Originally, when we first looked for it, this path was hardly visible,” Trevor says, pointing a stick towards a vague impression on the hillside. “Some of them are quite wild.”
Indeed, as we leave the hills and the famous side-by-side aqueduct and viaduct crossing the River Ceiriog behind and emerge into flatter territory, Trevor spots a missing waymark and consults the map – affording me time to catch my breath.
“In some places, nothing’s been touched since the 1960s,” he says. “Some footpaths are worn out and overgrown.” But for me, it adds to the area’s intrigue and mystique.
I bid farewell to Trevor and head east towards Ellesmere. Tracing the Shropshire Union Canal for much of the afternoon, I pass through quiet farmland and over quaint, hand-operated bridges.
Emerging into the openness of Whixall Moss, the way is surrounded by tranquillity and history again, as the peat bogs give way to small trees and – in springtime – exquisite wildflowers. The final stretch of the way north of here leads to Whitchurch and passes other wetland habitats, including Brown Moss. After another detour, courtesy of some aggressive-looking cattle, I arrive at the old market town, reflecting on the hours, days and centuries my journey has taken me since I first set out.
Walk a section of this route with our Ramblers Route guide!
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow a good five hours for this 22km/13½-mile ramble along the English and Welsh border, which starts in Melverley and ends in Trefonen, following the Shropshire Way as it joins and leaves the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail.
MAPS: OS Explorer 240, 241 & 257; Landranger 126 & 117.
FURTHER INFO: See www.shropshirewalking.co.uk to download the latest route information, plus podcasts and town maps.
Photography: Steve Morgan.