CHOCOLATE BOX TOURING 2 : BLACK AND WHITE
The Felden villages of Warwickshire, the eternal stone of the Cotswold gallery of the picturesque, had been left behind along with rural Worcestershire. The third day of Stephen Dyster’s midland tour commenced after a healthy breakfast at YHA Leominster. In common with the first two days, the journey on began with an anabasis.
The Leominster rush hour was a tame affair. In any case, small towns are quickly escaped on quiet lanes. This morning, my search was for Herefordshire’s Black and White villages. Not that it is much of a search. They’re all over this part of the county and there’s even a leaflet with a suggested motoring route. The cyclist should ignore that advice and use the country lanes.
First planned stop was at Weobley, but the ride there was worth extending. Scenery typical of the area; steep-sided, often wooded hills sharply defined from the lower country of orchards, streams and isolated farmsteads. The rising road enhanced the view of a fertile plain; no wonder Offa built his dyke a few miles to the west to grab it for the English and give the Welsh the hills of Radnor.
So much steady pedalling. A diversion was called for. King’s Pyon wasn’t far out of the way and was an attractive enough spot. Yet it was when I turned to leave and found, just around the corner a beautiful timber-framed hall-cum-farmhouse standing by a pond and next to it a timber-framed dovecote. Stopping to take a closer look, a gentleman with a walking stick ambled over and invited me to take a closer look. He explained how he was restoring the dovecote which dated from the Jacobean period. He had dug deeply into his pockets, but it was now weatherproof and further progress would be made when finances allowed.
Black and white village show
Weobley, three or so of easy miles on – a distance that included a red phone box with a Union flag roof – is a large village with a range of shops, cafes and pubs. I spent some time looking around, especially at the information boards that begin to explain some of the features of timber-framed buildings. Some of the cottages still have the supports for the boards which lay across their frontage and acted as shutters when pulled-up. Such were shops in the middle-ages.
Whilst the buildings of Weobley look of a piece, they demonstrate stages in the development of timber-frame construction, from “Cruck” building onward. Though the Cotswold towns are just as ancient, they are more tourist-orientated. Would Weobley want to have so many tourists? My straw poll, of two people, suggested opinions were divided. I’m not sure that I do not find the rather less-pristine Weobley a more attractive spot that Chipping Campden. All a matter of taste, of course. After a look round the church, it was time to go.
There was a minor traffic jam on the narrow lane between Dilwyn and Sollers Dilwyn. Consisting of five bicycles pulled across the road at various angles, three horses, with riders, and four pedestrians, all chatting away happily until a car pulled around the corner and they were forced to disperse. Dilwyn is by-passed by the main road, which once, presumably, passed close to the now peaceful green surrounded by black and white and less-trail-friendly cottages.
Away from the village – traffic jam apart – the roads were perfect for daylight cycle touring; narrow, bound by hedges displaying a rainbow of wild-flowers, and with the grass-strip badge of off-the-beaten-track quality. Not so pleasant at night or after rain – some of the pot-holes would have set Danny MacAskill's eyes alight.
A couple of miles beyond the A44 – re-routed around the village a few years ago – I pedalled into Eardisland. If ever there was a place that demanded tea-rooms this is it. There are a couple and both delightful. The pubs are temptingly ancient, the old dovecote by the river is used for community exhibitions, the main street is full of houses with beams and roofs at unlikely angles, whilst the high wall around the old manor house just begs to be peered-over. A wander is called for and one can only admire the determination of the community to protect a village that could provide a lid-picture for so many chocolate boxes.
The valley of the Arrow to Staunton-on-Arrow, along lanes on the north side of the river made for perfect, easy cycle-touring; hills ahead, a river at one’s side and trees lining the way. Staunton’s church stands on a mound next to a motte; not an untypical combination hereabouts, but especially prominent here.
Skirting the flanks of the forested and hill-fort-topped Wapley Hill, to pick up the B4362, I headed for Wales. Presteigne (Llanandras) stands on the bridge of a beak that stabs into England bounded by the Hindwell Brook and the River Lugg. One café was full of touring cyclists, seven of their bikes filling an arched alley way whilst they worked their way through tea and cake for fourteen. I pottered round this characterful metropolis of the Marches – of which there are many.
Expect the unexpected on the border between England and Wales. Personality and eccentricity mixes with everyday necessity in these places far from major urban centres. Presteigne became county town of Radnorshire having been the scene of the assizes for years. One can imagine the hotel full and the assembly room buzzing with “society” – a strata of society Radnorshire was short off. The old verse from the seventeenth century was not too far from the mark two hundred years later;
Poor Radnorsheer, poor Radnorsheer,
Never a park, and never a deer,
Never a squire of five hundred a year,
Save Richard Fowler of Abbey-Cwm-hir
Abbey Cwm-hir would be left to another day, as the main visit was to Presteigne’s award winning tourist attraction, The Judge’s Lodgings. As this was a short day mile-wise, an enjoyable time was spent learning about law, its enforcement and the people on the bench and in the dock.
A little way down the road from the museum, in the direction of the Lugg Bridge, is the Church of St. Andrew, a building on a scale to reflect the town’s once elevated status. In its grounds are two stones commemorating Mary Morgan, hanged for the murder of her new-born child in 1805, after appearing at the Assizes just a little distance away. Her case has caused much controversy.
For me it was over the water to England, little more than a couple of pedal strokes across the ancient bridge. Following the Lugg eastwards to Lower and Upper Kinsham before bearing over the hills northwards to Lingen only to be brought an unexpected halt. Outside a Primitive Methodist Chapel was a sign; tea, coffee and biscuits on a serve-yourself and honesty-box basis. I did and I was honest. Must support these historic places and encourage others to do the same, in my opinion. Whilst sipping, I read of preachers tramping miles to provide religious succour away from the established church just across the stream.
Easy-rolling continued to Brampton Bryan in the valley of the Teme. Despite the main road which seemed to have as little traffic on it as the lanes down which I’d just come, this is a peaceful spot. Such an idyllic atmosphere was absent during the English Civil War.
Brampton Bryan Castle was the scene of stubborn resistance by a Parliamentarian garrison, led by Lady Brilliana Harley, besieged by a much larger Royalist force. They and Hopton Castle, a short way over the border in Shropshire, were the only places here about to declare for Parliament.
The castle was besieged twice, falling on the second occasion – Lady Harley had died – when the garrison was commanded by the family doctor. If you are around on the night of September 3rd it is said that the Devil charges about the castle grounds with Oliver Cromwell’s soul – so mind where you wild camp.
The garrison of Hopton Castle did not escape lightly either. Apart from the commanding officer, they were shot. Hopton Castle was a pleasant ride over the Teme, through Bucknell (with its pub, shop and useful railway station on the mid-Wales line) and under the slopes of Hopton Titterhill. Once again, this was fabulous touring cycling, peaceful and beautiful.
It doesn’t take much of an eye to recognise that Hopton Castle had been built to look much stronger than it actually was; more of a vanity hunting-lodge than a grim border fortress. There are huge display books in the little car park that tell the tale of the castle, its demise and preservation. Fans of Time Team will recognise it.
A glance at the map showed how close I had got to my day’s destination, Clun, without really registering that I had cycled very far at all (by comparison to the previous day, I hadn’t). Bimble as best a touring cyclist could through Twitchen and Clunbury, stop for coffee at the café by the cross-roads in Little Brampton, investigate the old sign post on the opposite side of the road and search unsuccessfully for war graves in the cemetery just outside Clun, I arrived with a couple of hours before the hostel opened its doors, officially.
Time in Clun
Fortunate for me that Clun has much to explore and ,whilst you get the feeling that time moves at a different pace to the rest of the modern world, it does not stand still. You couldn’t imagine a large hotel in the centre of Stow-on-the-Wold being boarded up for long, but on is in Clun. This is a village visited by tourists, but not in the throngs that swamp the Cotswolds. Merry drinkers sat outside the pub opposite the empty hotel and enjoyed the sunshine; the convenience store on the sharp bend in the road did a steady trade; further away people sat by the ford and the bridge or scrambled over the earthworks of the castle. Cafes and pubs were doing well; B&Bs presented a wall of no-vacancies.
The castle ruins can be visited for nothing. I chained my bike to the footbridge – a few cycle racks would be nice – and took the path that climbs into the old site. Boards explain how this was once a planned town, with settler brought in to develop the local economy and pay rent to the landowners. Looking across the fields to the hill where Offa’s Dyke runs and beyond to Wales, this was something of an outpost. Perhaps it is the fact that it is a long drive from major centre so population that valleys like that of the River Clun owe their peace.
Variously described in rhyme as “quietest” and “wickedest” places under the sun, Clunbury, Clungunford, Clunton and Clun aren’t, but they are just the ticket for cycle touring.
YHA Clun Mill is a little way outside the village. Often let to groups at weekends, I’d tried to get a bed in the past but always ended up having to find B&B. This time was different. The hostel has its own little tour taking in the various parts of the preserved mill. Restoration has made the hostel both comfortable and attractive, with many original features maintained – mind you head!
I rang the bell. The volunteer warden eventually popped down and was surprised, initially, to see me. She had thought it was her husband playing knock-down-ginger and so had not hurried. Husband turned up and looked suitably hurt at the thought that he’d play such silly tricks on his busy wife. We then got chatting about bicycles.
Camping in the grounds were several cyclists and ramblers. A good option, with access to hostel facilities, I’ll think about bringing my tent next time. As the evening drew on, we exchanged traveller’s-tales and fettled the brakes of a stubbornly seized up MTB. One couldn’t help feeling as night spread down the valley and the hill-tops fell into darkness that this had been, pretty much, a perfect cycling day.
Into a different world, briefly
This left the last day of the tour. Returning home is a necessity for most of us. However, does one spin the day out or go for home and get on with those jobs one knows must be done? Deciding on the latter course, a bit of planning showed that I could take-in some places of interest and have morning coffee in Much Wenlock – home, some say, to the real Olympics.
Thus an early morning belt along the B4368 soon had me well on the way to Craven Arms. A hazy, rather misty, morning light hung around the hillsides, making for good concentration on rapid progress. This was broken, for short period, at Aston on Clun. The pub, named the Kangaroo, is unusual as it is named after a ship – seemed to me that we were bit far from the sea for that, let alone Australia. There are also some unusual circular cottages, but the village’s unique claim to fame is its Arbor Tree, decorated each year, amongst pageant and festivity, with flags of various nations. This year’s event was yet to come, so the winter-worn flags hung faded and tattered and awaited renewal.
A little further on is a different world. Craven Arms, astride the River Onny, does not fit categorisation easily. It is not “pretty” – though it has an attractive street or two; it has elements of modern new town mixed with the functional stature of Victorian town planning; a grand hotel and a huge supermarket. Owing its growth to cattle-markets and the junction of the mid-Wales railway line with the Marches main line, it is well-worthy of a wander.
Onward went the B4368 along the dip slope of Wenlock Edge. Gentle countryside, pretty villages, the occasional pub and old mill, went by rapidly. To stay the charge, I investigated one or two side-turnings and played with the idea of following bridleways though the woods up to the Edge itself. Rejecting these whimsies and turning onto the B4378 the sight of Shipton Hall brought me to a halt. Grand Elizabethan residence, massive Georgian stable and coach house, parish church; I knew where I’d have been. The current house replaced a timber-framed manor house. It is part of the Historic Houses Association network and is, occasionally, open to the public.
Gawp over, it was not much further to Much Wenlock. The ride was, however, rough. The lengthy descent to the small town was on a hedge-line road, with increasing levels of traffic, deteriorating surface with crumbling edges and ruts to drop your wheels
The end of the Edge
Fortunately, the priory, guildhall and narrow streets of Much Wenlock are a suitable reward. Try the market for grand cakes – especially when the WI have a stall – or visit one of the cafes; this is a charming, higgledy-piggledy place. It is also quite a busy one, so expect a bit more traffic in this part of Shropshire than to the west of the Onny.
For the cyclist heading north or east there is the prospect of a major descent to the Severn Gorge, followed by a good climb up the other side. Skirting Broseley, my favourite crossing place, other than at Coalport YHA where the bike has to be carried over a footbridge, is at the eastern end of the village, where a narrow bridge is perfect for a couple of cyclists abreast.
Beyond was the climb away from the river and a return to more familiar country; peaceful lanes through quiet farmland and villages about which one can become complacent. Perhaps the cyclists of the Cotswolds, the Black and White villages and the Clun valley feel the same about their home country?
OS 1:50000 sheets 127, 137, 149 cover the route, although Sustrans’ pocket-sized guides to the National Cycle Network numbers 15 and 22 were perfectly adequate. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/shop
For YHA Clun Mill see http://www.yha.org.uk/search/apachesolr_search/clun%20mill
For Black and White villages see http://www.blackandwhitehouses.co.uk/blackandwhitetrail.php
For the Judge’s Lodgings, Presteigne, see http://www.judgeslodging.org.uk/
For Shipton Hall see http://www.hha.org.uk/Property/402/Shipton-Hall
PUBLISHED APRIL 2016