Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why I love the Stiperstones

Longstanding readers of this blog will know that I return, in thought and in person, to the Stiperstones – a range of hills in south Shropshire. When I wrote a much mourned (at least by me) column for the New Statesman website I pretended to live there. Why do these hills mean so much to me?

First, I have been going there for over 20 years: I first visited them on 3 June 1989. I can date my first visit so exactly because I recall carrying a radio in my backpack and hearing, rather unexpectedly, England play well and beat Poland 3-0, a victory which did much to ease their path to the 1990 World Cup. Goals by Lineker, Barnes and Webb. When you have been visiting a place for a long time and been happy there, then returning there, simply thinking of the place makes you happy.

Second, 20 years before I visited them I was familiar with the Stiperstones from the Lone Pine books by Malcolm Saville. My favourite children’s author (unlike Enid Blyton, whose publicist he had been) set his stories in “real places you can explore for yourself”. One of those places was the Stiperstones, although one of his sons, the late Revd Jeremy Saville, once told a meeting of the Malcolm Saville Society that he was sure that when the first Stiperstones book, Seven White Gates, was published, his father had not visited these hills. Its forbidding atmosphere was copied from the novels of Mary Webb.

Third, the Stiperstones are a striking landscape. The crest of the hills is crowned with strange rocks likes the tors of Dartmoor, one of them known as the Devil’s Chair. And when you round the corner on the way into Stiperstones village from Tankerville you encounter the “purple-headed mountains” you were promised by the childhood hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. Let no one tell you the Midlands are flat.

Fourth, there are the remains of the 19th-century lead-minding industry. There is the great complex at Snailbeach and the remains of lesser undertakings scattered elsewhere. For a time the deposits of lead ore here were the richest in Europe, but they proved to be limited and were soon worked out.

Fifth, there is the areas dark folklore and social history. On the night of St Thomas’s Day (21 December) all the ghosts of Shropshire are supposed to gather around the Devil’s Chair. And in 1945 the death of a boy caused a revolution in the treatment of children in public care. The Stiperstones are not conventionally pretty and they can be bleak and brutal. That is part of their attraction.

Sixth, the watering holes in this remote area are far better than you are entitled to expect. The Stiperstones Inn welcomes everyone and serves food and good beer all day. Its lack of competition has not made it uncaring, like some rural pubs I could mention. And The Bog Centre, with its homemade cakes and local crafts, is surely a model for the Big Society.

The photograph shows Shelve Pool. It is not, as I imagined, a remnant of lead mining, but was dug in the 17th century as a fish pool by the More family. It can be reached only on foot, which makes the walker feel comfortably smug.

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