An Olympian Walk Under Arcadian Skies

UK weather — as many walkers will attest — favours the brave. The forecast yesterday was dreadful as the rain and high winds of the previous night’s storm were still to work their way through. Still, I donned by rain weather gear and took my rewards. I waled for a tad shy of 20 miles without seeing a soul; it sometimes felt as if I had the land to myself.

I’ve always thought of the ridges of South Shropshire as a landscape of transition. Star to the west from the limestone drama of the Stipperstones of the heather uplands of the Long Mynd and you gaze out of tiny fields and a series of undulating hills that rise in size towards the horizon. Looking west from here is the magical and misty land of Wales. To the west there be dragons.

A little to the east though the great ridge of Wenlock Edge presents itself as something more quintessentually English. For most of its length the Edge is forest or woodland but breaks in the foliage reveal a landscape of carefully tended hedges and lush, rich, farmland all framed by the hills out to the west. This is a landscape the rallies to the words of A.E. Houseman and shimmers and glides to the lyricism of Vaughan Williams.

For the first few hours I walked through the narrow, but dense, forest that sits above Much Wenlock. There’s not much to see on this walk but forest but the real joy of tis walk comes from the other senses. The birdsong was simply gorgeous. At one point I head somewhere in the mid distance, a cacophony of crow calls. The sound was so intense that a first I thought it the sound of a flock of sheep being rounded up. A few years further on and I heard the sound of a farmer’s gun. Walking the Edge always makes me think of the blind hikers who love to walk through forest trails, there is so much hear to find joy in. On several occasions I walked around a corner to be knocked over by the intense scent of wild garlic.

During the most boring bit of the walk — and extended trot along a disused railway line — the rain did indeed begin to fall but it had ceased again by the time I gad entered the beech woodland to the south of the edge. As always the woodland catches me out on yesterday, as always, I had to recalibrate on finding that I was much further back along the trail than I had imagined. Still, there is nothing to be done but to stride on through the wood taking advantage of the occasional venture onto the edge of lovely undulating farmland. By now I was back in the waterproofs again but the non visual pleasures of the wood kept me going. The trick to this walk is to ignore all of the woodland paths that head down the ridge and to keep ploughing on, fighting your way through brambles and taking advantage of almost secret pathways. This way it is possible to almost walk into the centre of Craven Arms and its train station for the journey home.

At the start of the walk Much Wenlock had revealed itself as a village en fete but sadly the rain had left the streets more or less deserted during mid morning. Much Wenlock can lay claim to being the home of the modern Olympic movement as here in the 1850s local doctor William Penny Brookes was inspired to create the Wenlock Games “.. to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”. The initiative of Penny Brookes caught the imagination of Baron Pierre de Coubetin and the modern Olympic Movement was born. So, this year’s festival I imagine would have been an important one in the history of the village. I hope they get some dry weather before the month is out.

There is a small but fascinating museum to the work of Penny Brookes and his Olympic Vision at the local school which is well worth visiting if you are in the area. The connection with the London Olympics is acknowledged in the naming of one of 2012’s mascots, Wenclock.

The people of Much Wenlock have great staying power and theirs is no fleeting tribute to the Olympic ideal. This year sees the 126th Wenlock Olympian Games.

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