There is something about walking in heat. Yes it can be exhausting but I like the way the body just works better, like a motor engine where the lubricant is at its most efficient in the warmth. Our current warm summer should be an inspiration to hikers but on yesterday’s walk — eighteen miles or so across Shropshire’s Hills — I encountered only one other walker! We stopped for a while and talked about this phenomenon. He assumed that most people thought it just too hot but up on the tops — with a gentle and lilting breeze — was he most pleasant place to be.
The earliest train out of New Street saw me walking through Craven Arms early enough for only the keenest of shoppers to be about. In this weather the hiker is advised to make an early start; strong sunshine warmed the limbs but the humid of the day had yet to excerpt its grip.
In high summer this landscape is at its most inspirational. Gentle hills rise to provide stunning views of small fields, lanes almost buried in hedgerows, copses and woodland. Horses grazed on the hills. Sheep sheltered under fine old oaks and chestnuts. Red kites glided effortlessly above patiently searching for breakfast. From the highest hills it is almost obligatory to take a breather and gaze out to the mystical land of Wales to the west.
These views have inspired many artists, painters, musicians and writers amongst them. But probably the most famous artist associated with these hills is the poet and ’Shropshire Lad’ Alfred Edward Housman. It is widely assumed that Housman was a local lad but he grew up in neighbouring Worcester and only discovered the county later in life. As a boy he would set out on summer evenings to climb local hills and to gaze out in wonder at the Shropshire landscape of patchwork fields and hills stretching out to the horizon. These images stayed with throughout the years and provided inspiration for poems and life, love, romance, death and the destruction of war. Today, these same hills remain a place to linger in the warmth and reflect on all life. Housman wrote A Shropshire Lad while living in London’s Highgate, never having set foot in his idealised county. Walk through any South Shropshire village today and it is hard to ignore any many of restaurants or coffee shops named after the county’s most ‘famous son’.
Shropshire’s landscape provides no less inspiration for a growing army of walkers and hikers. While there was no sight of them yesterday evidence of them was all around. Tracks and paths are now far more regularly walked these days than even they were ten years ago. Narrow paths have flattened and widened. Stiles and maintained and often replaced by kissing gate to make walks more accessible to many more. The evidence on the ground about the growth of hiking is matched by academic analysis of the tourism industry.
Most of the thinking about the future of tourism rests with the European Union who’s expert seminars and programmes look to capitalise on what is increasingly the major economic earner for the rural world. A friend of mine who is big on these things tells me that walking and hiking is one of the biggest growth areas in European Tourism. That the biggest growth of all is to found along pilgrim trails shouldn’t surprise us combining as they do stunning landscapes and the unmistakable heightening of spiritual awareness that comes from self powered travel through stunning landscape. But, he tells me, there is another factor in the growth of hiking.
The generation that few up in the late fifties and sixties became the first that had access to significant leisure time and who began to engage in sport and other physical pursuits en masse. Now these same folks are at the age when the strains of five a side football, running, squash and the rest, have simply taken too much of a toll. Hiking and backpacking is increasingly the physical challenge that the baby boomers are moving to.
My walk ended at a village that announces itself to be a Walker Friendly Town; they are rightfully proud that they were the first place in England to carry this designation. No matter how muddy, grubby or smelly you are there will always be a welcome for you here. The true end of my journey was the Buck Inn which has been welcoming walkers for most of my adult life. The Buck remains a real pub and although the beer garden is popular and the restaurant tables may carry reserved signs there is nothing pretentious about the place. Locals include you in conversation in the most natural of manner without expecting much back. And when you leave there is a courteous thank you. There’s no need to develop faux friendship here for you will simply find the place as welcoming next time you arrive.
This solitary yet inspirational walk was just the thing to set me up for a family evening event as well as the rest of the weekend. There was only one real downside. Without thinking I had planned a walk that was water free for the first three quarters of its length. By the time I made my way up the southern edge of the Long Mynd the humidity had begun to take its toll. I decided to abandon the usual good paths down to follow the line of a small stream that cuts its way, invisibly at first, down towards one of the major access batches the cut their way through the stretched-out Eastern side of this ridge. This detour would have me in sight of cool, running, water half an hour earlier than otherwise. The water was welcome and I drank litres of it as I made my way slowly down the bed of the emancipated stream, hacking through the densest bracken that I have seen here for many years.
As the mountain streams flattened out small children paddled in the shallows and the rock pools while Mum, Dad and Grandparents dozed in their portable camping chairs. At the campsite high canopies and awnings were the congregating places for those who had little energy than to open the beer bottle. Barbecues had been lit and the Shropshire air was filled with the smells of burgers and sausages.
It was all that high summer should be.
- When I was one-and-twenty
- I heard a wise man say,
- “Give crowns and pounds and guineas
- But not your heart away;
- Give pearls away and rubies
- But keep your fancy free.”
- But I was one-and-twenty,
- No use to talk to me.
- When I was one-and-twenty
- I heard him say again,
- “The heart out of the bosom
- Was never given in vain;
- ‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
- And sold for endless rue.”
- And I am two-and-twenty
- And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.