CYCLING THE SHROPSHIRE CYCLEWAY: WEST SIDE
WHITCHURCH TO LUDLOW
Having cycled the Shropshire Cycleway’s east side, from Whitchurch to Ludlow via Bridgnorth, Steve Dyster, took on the west side, from Whitchurch to Ludlow, via Oswestry. Very much a ride of two halves.
At 185 miles, with a fair selection of south Shropshire’s finest hills mixed with the gentler north, the Shropshire Cycleway keeps as close as it can to the county’s boundary. Almost entirely on road through quiet countryside, riding down the west side rolls gently, becomes almost pancake flat, and then come some very fine hills.
A word to the wise. Don’t underestimate Shropshire’s hills. When planning this venture, I planned to stop overnight in Churchstoke, just in Wales. En route, quiet, but with necessary facilities, it would have been perfect, leaving a shorter, hilly, second day to reach Ludlow and a train home before tea-time.
Why did I not stick to the plan. “We’ll be at the Stiperstones Inn. Come and have a pint or two and why not stay there? We’ll be in the camper van.” The siren call drifted across the hills and valleys to Old Churchstoke. A detour. Not long on paper, but at the end of a hilly afternoon? Struggling over the shoulders of Corndon Hill, with a final climb to The Bog at the southern tip of the castellated Stiperstone’s ridge with its shattered tors overlooked by the Devil’s Chair; beautiful, but leg-work that may produce short-term muscle memory.
Reversing the route and riding from Ludlow would give a hillier start. I’d like to think that the steeper slopes would be avoided in that direction, but that is only because it felt like I’d climbed a mountain. There will be some corkers whichever direction you take.
Whitchurch is skirted on a section of traffic-free path. The town centre is missed out, but it isn’t far to go off route and stock up with the necessaries. There are few pubs or shops on the route once you get past Oswestry. So best to be prepared.
Between Whitchurch and Welsh End, the Shropshire Cycleway coincides with NCR45/455. Thereafter it follows 455 all the way to the edge of Oswestry. Well-Signed, in gentle terrain, in pleasant surroundings, there are few distractions, though lots of “pretty” places. The Llangollen Canal is crossed a couple of times before the “linear pond” of the never completed Prees Branch Canal is reached. Never completed, its financial failure has been boon to wildlife.
Eagle-eyed, or confused, cyclists will spot that the Shropshire Cycleway map calls the canal from Whitchurch to Ellesmere the Shropshire Union Canal. Then changing this to the Llangollen Canal beyond Ellesmere. The Ordnance Survey disagree. Shropshire Union is a throwback to the original plan to build a network of canals between the Mersey, Chester, Wrexham, Shrewsbury, Montgomery. They are now generally regarded as canals in their own right. OS designate it as the Llangollen Canal all the way.
After getting a bit of hill-work in on the approach to Ellesmere, you’ll find cafes and shops in the centre of the little town. The canal heritage (very much Shropshire Union) and the meres that some optimistic folk have used to designate the area “Shropshire’s Lake District” are off-route, but well-worth a few extra yards.
More warm up hills follow on the way to Gobowen, where there is a station on the Shrewsbury to Wrexham line. The big railway centre in the area was at, now station-less Oswestry. On the way you’ll pass the mass of Old Oswestry, one if the UK’s largest hill-forts. If you are not in a rush a walk to the top gives great views.
The route into Oswestry is a bit perplexing and diverts form the NCR455. It avoids the busier roads that run round the town centre, whilst the NCR route crosses a busy road near the former Cambrian Railway headquarters and heads through the town centre. Take your pick.
Near here, in the seventh century, was fought the battle of Maserfield between the christian Northumbrians and pagan Mercians. in victory the Mercians dismembered the body of Oswald, the Northumbrian King. An arm was, we are told, removed from the battle-field by a raven. It ended up attached to a tree which developed miraculous properties. This was good for the pilgrim business and a small town developed.
The big change in Oswestry came in the nineteenth century. Massive population growth followed the Cambrian Railways choice of the town for its headquarters and hub of its railway lines. Coal, iron and minerals from around Wrexham, the products of quarries and farms from mid-Wales, brought wealth, not to mention some spectacular civil engineering projects to their network of lines. At present there is an interesting, though rather higgledy-piggledy museum. Tourists must have loved the Cambrian Railway, too.
Stock up in Oswestry. The next shop en route is a long way off over the Breiddin Hills and the Long Mountain. Initially the going is flat and a little convoluted, so keep an eye on the map or the GPS. The highlight is the timber-framed church at Melverley, a few yards off the route. A most English spot, almost, but not quite in Wales.
Shortly after Melverley the River Severn is crossed on the old railway bridge, now converted to road. Winter waters can flood the roads around here, close to where the Vyrnwy joins the Severn (or the Efyrnwy the Hafren - this is border country).
At Crewgreen the Cycleway invades Wales for a short distance, though probably not a short time. A left turn marks the start of the climbing with a vigorous and strenuous ascent. One of those that when you look back gives the feeling of being in a very slow aeroplane just after take-off. Around you the views are of grassy slopes with bushes and tree clinging on. Spectacular, and somewhat unexpected acutely-angled hills, with (Admrial) Rodney’s Pillar sticking upward, rather pathetically, in comparison to the work of nature, from the top of Breiddin Hill.
Since Melverley NCR 81 has been followed. Returning to England, the route descends only to climb over the Long Mountain. There are some steep sections, with a summit plateau being reached as one returns to Wales. The views are huge and spectacular, as is the sense of relief.
NCR81 is left at a crossroads shortly after Welsh Harp Farm. The Shropshire Cycleway goes straight on, descending steeply to Marton via the next left turn. Be ready with your brakes. The views ahead are superb until you enter a narrow twisting ravine, before sweeping down to the village. There is a shop here, which the owner kindly re-opened for me just a she was about to head off home.
Rorrington has an attractive manor - now a guest house - with pretty cottages on the hillside above. NCR44 is joined here and followed to Churchstoke. Roads are narrow, with a few hills. Middleton Church - easy to miss on your left - has a convenient bench and could scarcely be more peaceful.
This is a sort of balcony road with views to the west over the Vale of Montgomery. There’s another bench at Priest Weston, but you’ll never get to Churchstoke if you insist in taking in the view from every seat along the way.
Priest Weston is on the western slope of Corndon Hill. The hill itself is entirely in Wales and it is not long before the Shropshire Way trespasses into the Principality once more. Soon the route descends to the little River Camlad in the Vale of Montgomery, where Churchstoke has campsite, pub, shop, and is on the flat.
Lovers of rural cycling will find little better than the next few miles, especially if they have lungs like bellows. Acquaintance with NCR44 is maintained until Bishop’s Moat, where the Shropshire Cycleway returns to England. This is not far from Bishop’s Castle, which is, simply, a great place to stay.
Further vigorous aerobic exercise follows a descent to the River Unk, as the route scrambles over to the river Clun at Whitcott Keysett. There a short …. hip-hip … flatter section brings the rider to Newcastle-on-Clun. Don’t worry, the hills have not gone away, yet. The next one swings up to a ridge, but then a descent to the River Redlake makes for a jolly ride in a rarely visited valley. Cross the main road at the wonderfully named New Invention, and continue the transport of delight all the way to Bucknell.
Avail yourself of the village facilities.There’s a railway station, too, on the Mid-Wales line. There’s gentler riding now. Hopton Castle makes for a pretty and interesting spot for a breather. There are no refreshments, but display boards tell the tale of a Civil War siege and its sinister conclusion.
You are not far from the Bird on the Rock Cafe, which lies just outside Clungunford. A definite halt on most of my south Shropshire trips, the owner always seems happy to talk about bicycles.
From here you have a short climb over Swan Hill. Stokesay Court is not to be confused with Stokesay Castle - which is further north. A bit of care is needed when crossing the A49 near Onibury. NCR44 is rejoined and followed into Ludlow. To get there it uses a length of bridleway between Bromfield and Priors Halton. The advantage of this is that it avoids the A49, which can be busy and fast, and it brings you into Ludlow by the River Teme, right under the castle walls. The surface is not bad at all, and frankly, the only alternatives are a section of the A49 or a long diversion through Stanton Lacy. Confident riders should not fear the A49, but the bridleway is much pleasanter. Over to you.
Historic Ludlow was once the seat of the Council of the Marches. Its castle, church, architecture, location and atmosphere invite ambling about. if you are planning to stay overnight, it can be very busy, so booking ahead is sensible. Train services from Manchester to South Wales, via Crewe, serve the town. And it was to the station I headed, comfortably well-exercised, and, once again, full of admiration for what Shropshire offers the cyclist.
The Shropshire Cycleway is an unsigned cycle route, mainly on road, but with traffic-free sections. Details can be downloaded at:
There are railway stations en route at Whitchurch, Telford, Ludlow, Hoptonheath and Bucknell http://www.nationalrail.co.uk
Services on the Severn Valley Railway may also be of use.
PUBLISHED JUNE 2018