The newly revived Shropshire Way is a long-distance tour of rolling hills, charming villages and other quiet places that will stir the soul – and it’s a shining example of collaborative path work.
By Matthew Jones, photography by Ellie Clewlow
I pick my way carefully along a scree slope, trying to enjoy the stunning scenery while also keeping a watchful eye on my feet. Broken fragments of quartzite glitter in the sunlight as I step over them. This is the Stiperstones, a shattered ridge of rocky outcrops surrounded by heathland. Looking west, I can just make out the hills of Mid Wales in the far distance. East is the unmistakable flattened hump of the Long Mynd, and to the north is the Shropshire Plain – a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of fields in earthy hues.
This panoramic ridge is the first real high point of the Shropshire Way. It’s the perfect showcase for the varied topography of this quiet county. I’m told that Shropshire’s diverse landscape is down to its unusual geology, and here on the Stiperstones the backbone of the land is clearly visible. Quartzite tors protrude from the heather-clad turf like rocky thrones. Indeed, one of the most prominent features of the ridge is the jagged Devil’s Chair.
Up ahead, I spot a wooden post among a jumbled pile of rocks. It carries an eye-catching orange roundel bearing the image of a buzzard, wings outstretched. This is the apt waymark for the Shropshire Way, for these elegant birds are a common sight along the route.
A buzzard’s eye view of the Shropshire Way would reveal two large loops that form a giant figure of eight, centred on the county town of Shrewsbury. The southern section makes for the southern Shropshire Hills via the Stiperstones, before swinging east from Clun to Ludlow and the Clee Hills. The route then passes over Wenlock Edge before descending to Ironbridge Gorge. From there it takes you over the Wrekin and visits Wellington before returning to Shrewsbury via Haughmond Hill – a total circuit of a little more than 120 miles.
In stark contrast, the 74-mile northern loop traverses the great Shropshire Plain, visiting meres and mosses – lowland peatbogs that form an important habitat for all manner of insects, birds and plant life. The route also follows a stretch of the peaceful Shropshire Union Canal. The northern loop’s westernmost point is Llanymynech, which straddles the Welsh border. An optional northern spur connects to Whitchurch and the Sandstone Trail.
The notion of a long-distance path for Shropshire was dreamed up nearly 40 years ago. ‘In about 1980, members of the Ramblers and other local walking groups devised a southern extension from the end of the Sandstone Trail at Whitchurch, going to Wem and the Shropshire Hills,’ explains Audrey Menhinick, a volunteer walk leader with Shrewsbury Ramblers and chair of the Shropshire Way Association. ‘This later developed into a 140-mile circular walk from Shrewsbury, linking with the Whitchurch extension, which was outlined in a guidebook published
by the Ramblers. That is really why local Ramblers felt they had ownership of the Shropshire Way.’
Unfortunately, the trail’s subsequent history became, like some of its footpaths, somewhat muddied. Over a number of years, Shropshire Council created a second northern loop and a series of easy circuits based on the route. This morphed into a huge network of 32 links, requiring continual maintenance. In the process, the original vision for the Shropshire Way was lost. There was no longer a clear long-distance path, and in some places fingerposts and waymarks pointed in three directions.
Rectifying the route
‘There was nobody to coordinate the route,’ says Audrey. It was decided that something needed to be done, and in early 2016 the long-dormant Shropshire Way Association was reformed. ‘We convinced the council of the value of the Shropshire Way as a long-distance path and negotiated with them to produce a definitive main route – that’s how we got to where we are now.’
The route was agreed through extensive consultation. It retained the Whitchurch spur and used existing branches of the Shropshire Way, though one section was rerouted through the Walkers are Welcome town of Wellington to take advantage of its rail link and help local businesses. The majority of the work was completed by summer 2019 thanks to a huge collaborative effort.
‘We recruited a mix of Ramblers members and other volunteers, including Parish Paths Partnership groups, who coordinate path maintenance with local authorities across Shropshire. Lots of work has been undertaken in the last few years, with a survey of the entire route, followed by new waymarking, improvements to the poorest paths and so on,’ says Audrey. Funding for new fingerposts came via a grant from Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust and an anonymous donation. This backing also enabled the Shropshire Way Association to launch a dedicated website, featuring PDFs of all 15 sections of the route, plus new mapping and GPS tracks.
With the route now so easy to follow, all that’s left to do is enjoy the walk. I wander through stubbled fields, green valleys and rolling pastures, where sheep and cattle graze contentedly. The trail frequently creeps alongside field edges, beneath spreading beeches and mighty oak trees.
Spiders spin webs in the hedgerows and the sun casts long shadows across the landscape. All of England is here, wrought in nature. Crossing stiles, brambles occasionally tug at my sleeves. Stopping to disentangle myself, a forager’s paradise is revealed – juicy blackberries, rosehips, inky sloes and dangling clusters of elderberries.
It’s easy to think that this pastoral setting hasn’t changed all that much in the last century. It has the same bucolic feel as that evoked by the poet A E Housman in his 1896 work, A Shropshire Lad. Housman’s evocative vision was an emotionally charged reimagining of the real Shropshire, which became a backdrop for poems of adolescent courtship, heartache and loss, alternating with late-Victorian notions of patriotism and sacrifice. One of the most frequently quoted verses in the collection is Poem XL:
‘Into my heart an air that kills / From yon far country blows: / What are those blue remembered hills, / What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, / I see it shining plain, / The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.’
Those lines resonate strongly as I follow the route, which links farms, churches and pubs, hinting at the ancient origins of these footpaths and bridleways. Audrey’s favourite section of the Shropshire Way is one such example: a stretch along a lovely old byway after a climb up to an airy viewpoint called Reilth Top, outside Bishop’s Castle.
Yet Shropshire was not always a peaceful idyll, as a look at the Ordnance Survey map reveals. The profusion of motte-and-bailey fortifications and other ancient sites hints at the power struggle that went on here. This is, after all, the Welsh marches – border country. One stretch of the Shropshire Way joins the Offa’s Dyke Path, the 177-mile National Trail that follows the great dyke built to delineate the western border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
Meanwhile, the little village of Clun is announced by the ruins of Clun Castle, peeking through the trees. The castle was built in the late 11th century by Picot de Say, a Norman Marcher Lord, to proclaim dominance over a vast tract of land known as the Honour of Clun.
The Shropshire Way visits dozens of other charming market towns and villages, from Craven Arms and Much Wenlock to Bishop’s Castle, with its several pubs. Indeed, measured by the half-timber and carved lintel, Shropshire must have some of the prettiest villages in the country. They are the picture of the English countryside – this is surely where countless artists and illustrators drew their inspiration.
As well as artists and poets, filmmakers and location scouts have been drawn to Shropshire. Its yesteryear landscape has provided the backdrop for film adaptations of novels including Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
There are regular reminders of the county’s industrial past, too. Passing through numerous farmyards with tractors gleaming in the sun, shafts of light occasionally illuminate outbuildings housing rusting tools, rendered obsolete by the march of progress. These old implements discarded in favour of newer, more efficient machines speak of the seismic upheaval that was the Industrial Revolution. And that’s brought even more clearly into focus when I reach Ironbridge Gorge. Dubbed by some ‘the birthplace of industry’, its cradle was Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, where Abraham Darby made huge advances in the smelting of iron, and where the eponymous iron bridge – the world’s first major bridge made from cast iron – was built in 1779.
The next high point from here is the top of the Wrekin. The four towers of Buildwas power station loom in the distance, with blue-tinged hills on the horizon beyond. On the way down I pass mountain bikers, runners and walkers heading uphill, with grim determination on their faces. As well as being a prominent local landmark, getting up and down the Wrekin seems to be how a lot of locals keep fit. It’s good to see residents making the most of what the area has to offer.
‘Oh yes, the Wrekin is very popular,’ says Audrey. ‘Plenty of people say what a beautiful county Shropshire is, and that they have fallen in love with it.’
It’s a love affair that Audrey would like as many people as possible to experience. That’s why the Shropshire Way Association is securing the long-term future of the trail through a programme of volunteer champions, who look after specific sections. ‘We’ve got 28 Shropshire Way champions on the southern loop and about 10 along the northern loop. They are mostly Ramblers volunteers or representatives from Walkers are Welcome towns, such as Ludlow, Wellington and Whitchurch,’ she says.
A new guidebook from Cicerone has just been published, written with the cooperation of the Shropshire Way Association. And, importantly, they have also recently secured charitable trust status. ‘That will greatly aid our fundraising efforts by giving us more standing,’ Audrey says.
I feel assured that the Shropshire Way will thrive under such conscientious stewardship, and I’m equally confident that many more walkers will fall for its charms.
Time/distance South Route
197km/122½ miles in total, split into 10 stages, ranging from 8 to 20km (5 to 12½ miles); North Route 119km/74 miles in total (excluding the 23km/14½-mile Whitchurch Spur); split into 5 stages, ranging from 8 to 22.5km (5 to 14 miles).
OS Explorer 201, 203, 216, 217, 241 and 242; Landranger 126, 127, 137, 138 and 148.
There’s plenty of accommodation in the many market towns and villages along the route: shropshiretourism.co.uk