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Episode 12: Shropshire

Where is Shropshire?

In our twelfth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Shropshire-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:


In 1986 the Ironbridge Gorge was one of the first locations to be designated as a World Heritage Site within the U.K.

This designation recognised the area’s unique and unrivalled contribution to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century; the impact of which is still felt across the world today.

It was the achievements of pioneering industrialists including Abraham Darby, William Reynolds and John Wilkinson that led to the Ironbridge Gorge becoming by the close of the 18th century the most technologically advanced area in the world.

The surviving built and natural environment with its museums, monuments and artefacts, including the world famous Iron Bridge of 1779, serve to remind us of the area’s unique contribution to the history and development of industrialised society.

The Wrekin

The Wrekin is a very distinctive 400m hill which dominates the views of mid Shropshire near the new town of Telford. So strong is its presence that it has entered the language of the Midlands people.

All round the Wrekin” means ‘going the long way‘ or ‘not explaining something clearly and directly‘, i.e. “He went all round the Wrekin“.

At the time of writing, The Wrekin is jointly privately owned by Raby Estate and a neighbouring estate. Access is via public rights of way or permissive footpaths or by specific permission, like in most areas of working countryside.

The Wrekin was also the inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle Earth in the acclaimed series of books – The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien used to live nearby and drew inspiration from the magnificent Shropshire landscape.

The Raven's Bowl

Wroxeter and the Ruins of Viroconium

The ruins of the Roman town of Viroconium Cornoviorum can be seen at Wroxeter.

Though a small village today Wroxeter was the fourth largest town in Roman Britain. It was a fortress from about AD 47, then became a civilian settlement from about AD 90 and thrived for 400 years.

The Roman Army first appeared in the Wroxeter region in about AD 47 when it advanced along the line of the modern A5, which largely follows the course of the Roman road, Watling Street.

By the late 50s AD it was a Legionary Fortress, the base of the Fourteenth Legion and then the Twentieth Legion.

Virtually all the buildings were of timber, as were the defences. While the fortress was occupied a small civilian trading settlement seems to have developed close by.

When the legions left in AD 90, the street grid and some of the buildings of the fortress were used to form the nucleus of the first town that replaced the fortress. This town was the seat of government for the tribal authority who now governed the region in the name of the Cornovii, the local tribe. They set out the boundaries of the town, which included the site of the fortress.

This site is now in the care of English Heritage.

The Wolverhampton Pillar

Offa's Dyke and Watt's Dyke

Offa was the King of the Mercians, a warrior tribe from central England, from AD 747 to 796.

He had seized power during a time of great unrest caused by friction between Wales and England in the border region. Offa was determined to quell the unruly Welsh and impose his authority, and this he did by building one of the most remarkable structures in Britain.

Sometime during the 780s, Offa decided on the construction of a great earth wall and ditch, or dyke, running from ‘sea to sea’.

The work required thousands of men, and each section seems to have been built by people from a different district. The fact that this mammoth undertaking was achieved illustrates the cohesion of the kingdom at this time. The dyke was never garrisoned but would have been manned by relatively small local forces.

Offa died in 796 in a battle against the Welsh. It is believed that he was trying to establish a final link in the dyke to the Irish Sea in the north.

After his death his kingdom gradually declined until it was completely crushed by the Viking invasion. The border area, however, remained crucial in British history.

Lilleshall Abbey, Wenlock Priory and St Milburga

Lilleshall Abbey

The tranquil ruins of Wenlock Priory stand in a picturesque setting on the fringe of beautiful Much Wenlock. An Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded here in about 680 by King Merewalh of Mercia, whose abbess daughter Milburga was hailed as a saint. Her relics were miraculously re-discovered here in 1101, attracting both pilgrims and prosperity to the priory.

By then Wenlock had been re-founded by the Normans as a priory of Cluniac monks. It is the impressive remains of this medieval priory which survive today, everywhere reflecting the Cluniac love of elaborate decoration. Parts of the great 13th century church still stand high.

Wenlock Priory

Pilgrims flocked to Wenlock, and when several miracles occurred they were taken as confirmation that the relics were indeed those of St Milburga. Two people were cured of blindness, and two others of leprosy. Another person suffering from a wasting disease vomited a hideous worm after drinking water that had been used to wash the relics.

At about this time a Life of St Milburga was written, probably by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a monk renowned for his hagiographies (idealised saints’ lives). This recounts how Christ, working through the saint, restored a dead man to life; and how thanks to Milburga’s prayers, geese which were eating the abbey’s corn were banished, never to return – a miracle also attributed to other female saints of the Anglo-Saxon era, including St Hild of Whitby.

Ludlow Castle

The construction of the Ludlow Castle started around 1085, with many later additions in the following two centuries.

It is one of the most interesting castles in the Marches, in a dominant and imposing position high above the river Teme. It features examples of architecture from the Norman, Medieval and Tudor periods.

The building of the castle led to the development of Ludlow itself, at first grouped around the castle; the impressive ruins of the castle occupy the oldest part of Ludlow.

Clun Castle

Clun Castle started as a motte and bailey castle, built by the Norman, Robert de Say, around 1140-50, as part of the Marcher lordship known as the Honour of Clun.

Overlooking the River Clun and close to the confluence of the Clun and River Usk, the site was chosen for its defensive advantage and the presence of a natural rocky mound which could easily serve as the motte. The castle was originally built with timber defenses, but, probably within 20 years, stone replaced the vulnerable wood and Clun Castle became a typical Norman fortress.

In 1196, Clun Castle was besieged and burned by the Welsh, under the leadership of the great Lord Rhys in 1196. However, it became the property of the prestigious Fitzalan family, who modified the structure into its present form (sans ruins!) and is responsible for the establishment of the associated village.

The Fitzalans, lords of Clun and Oswestry, are better known as the Earls of Arundel, builders of mighty Arundel Castle in Southern England.

Arundel is now the home of the Dukes of Norfolk, but many of the Fitzalans are interred in the adjacent chapel.

While Clun Castle pales in comparison to the Fitzalan's fortress at Arundel, it is a marvelous example of a Marcher castle, intended to keep the unruly Welsh under Norman control.

Eadric The Wild

A prominent English Saxon lord from Shropshire defiantly resisted the Norman Conquest. His name was Eadric the Wild, also known as Wild Edric, a man whose resistance took on legendary status and was documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In time, these stories would evolve into legends, with tales of Eadric and his wife peppering the pages of English folklore and story-telling for years to come.

Eadric’s supposed imprisonment led to another folk legend, that of Eadric, his wife and supporters being placed in lead mines in the Shropshire hills with a curse being placed upon them. Eadric and Lady Godda would be forced to rise and defend England should she be threatened or in danger.

Threat defeated, they were to retreat back to their underground incarceration to await the next threat to their land.

The Stiperstones and The Devil's Chair

As with many tales in Britain about the Devil, this one also has him carrying an apron full of stones, in this case from Ireland.

He sat to rest upon what is now called The Devil’s Chair and is the highest rock on this ridge. As usual, the apron strings break and he drops his load of stones. This story is the usual tale told to explain the positioning of certain groupings of stones.

If it is not the Devil carrying stones in an apron it is usually giants. A cairn of stones upon the ridge is supposed to have been formed when a giantess who was stealing some stones from the Devil, dropped them from her apron. This time her apron string was cut by the Devil to prevent the theft.

The Devil's Chair

The Monster Fish of Bomere Pool

It is said that this at the bottom of Bomere Pool, which is just a few miles south of Shrewsbury, lies the remains and ruins of an entire ancient city. It drowned in a single night because the Saxon (or perhaps Roman) inhabitants refused to accept Christianity and mocked the missionary priest who tried to convert them.

As these legends grow in the telling, some counter-intuitive facts weasel their way into the tales as well. Apparently the church the missionary built also sunk, because if you sail over the middle of the mere at midnight on Christmas Eve, you can hear the bells ringing. Also, on Easter even one may see the ghost of a young man rowing desperately on the lake hoping to rescue the pagan girl he loved from the waters.

Bomere was once thought to be so unfathomably deep as to be bottomless. People had tried to measure it by tying ropes end to end with a weight at the bottom, but no bottom could ever be felt; others had tried to drain it, but all the work they did by day was mysteriously undone by night, so the attempt was abandoned.

There is also a legend of the Monster Fish of Bomere Pool - a huge fish which swims about with a sword belted to his side, that no one has ever caught. Stories tell he was once caught in a net and dragged to shore, but drew his sword, sliced the net and cut his way free, and slid back into the water. This famous sword once belong to Wild Edric, an 11th century hero from Shropshire; the fish has guarded it ever since he disappeared - one day it will be returned to the rightful heir of Condover Hall.

Fox's Knob at Hawkstone Follies

The Fox's Knob is a sandstone rocky outcrop at Hawkstone Park & Follies in North Shropshire.

You may know the stories of Reynard, they are told throughout these Northern Lands. They tell of his wile and cunning, but also of his skill and nobility.

Now I shall tell you how, even in death, he had the last laugh on those dullard hounds.

Reynard was old, his speed had slowed and his stamina was failing. He was very aware that it was only a matter of time until the hunt would catch him. He could, of course, try to avoid the chase, but he knew they would be back again and again until they ran him down and stole his brush. He must have the last laugh on these red devils.

That day, as he heard the yapping hounds and the wailing horns, he knew his time had come. He lured them on, and then ran, and as he ran he felt young again. He led those hounds a merry dance over rolling hill and down dank valley.

He was tiring when he saw Hawkstone ahead and quickly decided what his future should be. He ran straight as a dart for the hill top, slowing to allow the hounds to snap at his heels.

Right to the edge of the cliff he ran, and onward. The huntsmen would have no pleasure from this kill. Falling, falling he looked around to see he had taken some of his pursuers on their last journey too.

Alas, poor Reynard lay dead at the bottom of the stark, red cliff.

A sad end? But no.

He left a large family; all taught well, who hold his banner high and live with his memory.

Dick Whittington

Although there are other towns in the country that lay claim to the origin of the Dick Whittington story, Whittington which can be found 3 miles away from the town of Oswestry on the Shropshire border is a strong contender.

St Oswald's Well

The legend locally is connected to Shropshire through the Fitzwarine family and their ownership of Whittington castle. Dick is said to have travelled from his home near Ellesmere to London to seek his fortune.

After his long walk he managed to get employment in the home of Sir Ivo Fitzwarine (cousin to the Fitzwarine family who owned Whittington castle). Perhaps he had his apprenticeship papers to allow him to work for the Mercers company in London or his letter of introduction which enabled him to work for the Fitzwarine family. Whatever his poor start he ended up marrying Alice Fitzwarine the daughter of Sir Ivo his boss.

It is believed that Richard Whittington 1354-1423 was a medieval merchant and a politician.He is also the real life inspiration of the English folk tale of Dick Whittington and his cat. He was four times Lord Mayor of London, a member of parliament and a Sheriff of London.

In his lifetime he financed a number of public projects, such as drainage systems in poor areas of medieval London, and a hospital ward for unmarried mothers. He bequeathed his fortune to form the charity of Sir Richard Whittington, which, nearly 600 years later, continues to help people in need.

The Elstrack Portrait - note the skull!

Despite knowing three of the five Kings who reigned during his lifetime, there is no evidence he was knighted.

Whittington died in March 1423. In 1402 (aged 48) he had married Alice, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwarin of Wantage in Berkshire but she predeceased him dying in 1411.

And here is a broadside ballad about Dick Whittington, popular during the 17th and 18th Centuries, also known as 'An Old Ballad of WHITTINGTON and his CAT' or 'Londons Glory, and Whittington's Renown'

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