Shropshire: England's little gem

by Martin.Pilkington

The county of Shropshire has arguably the loveliest countryside in England and, in Ludlow, possibly the prettiest town

The secret of an enjoyable break in Britain is ensuring your pleasure doesn’t depend on the weather. If the sun shines, all the better; if it doesn’t, never mind. Shropshire, with its balance of beautiful countryside and bountiful history, is a county with a real edge in that regard, offering plentiful options indoors and out.

The property we rented was comfortable enough – unusual, too – to make staying in attractive. It was a converted cider house on a working farm, the accommodation upside down so we got great views from the (very well-appointed) lounge and kitchen. Walks in wellies over well-marked paths, trailing farm and forest and village, filled the misty first of our five-day stay, the evening spent in happy exhaustion with books and a bottle. Next day, though, parental guilt kicked in and the car came out.

Ludlow, with its fabulous castle, was the destination. The medieval concentration of Ludlow’s centre makes for easy exploration. The Buttery opposite the castle entrance still sold great cakes, as it did when I went there as a child, though the building somehow wasn’t as big. For deeper pockets than ours, the town has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other in England. We were dining at the cottage, though, and the compact market provided the cheese course and pudding for the evening meal. But the main event was the magnificent fortress. We climbed the tallest tower and looked out through the irrelevant drizzle over the river valley and town rooftops, history made real for an 11-year-old lad, reinforced later with a purchase of plastic knight and archer from the castle shop.

The next day, roughly 600 years later, took us to Ironbridge, where you can still feel the reverberations of the industrial revolution. The bridge itself is no Golden Gate, but just walking across gives anyone with a sense of history the shivers. Kids, however, will be more interested by the museums in the area, though 'museums' seems a poor description. In particular, Blists Hill, a recreation of a Victorian town, will entertain them, the actors bringing stores, bank and workshops to life. Dad highlight: sweet shop. Mother: chemist’s. Son: foundry (the fairground not working that day, sadly).

Ten museums are scattered in and around Ironbridge, far more than a day’s worth of activities. Children won’t want to miss Enginuity, with plenty of hands-on stuff educating them on the sly; grandparents may prefer the Coalport China or Jackfield Tile museums. Tickets to all 10 can be pre-booked, with a family pass valid for 12 months currently £48.

Day four was given over to motoring the back-roads, taking in Clee Hill and Wenlock Edge, beloved of AE Housman (though, whisper it softly, he began 'A Shropshire Lad' before setting foot in the county, but could see the hills from his childhood Bromsgrove home), and a little bit of transport history as we spent an hour or two in Bridgnorth.

Bridgnorth is on two levels: Low Town in the river valley and High Town with protective castle well above it. The two are joined by 200 steep steps, and by Bridgnorth Cliff Railway. At £1 for a return trip, this is the bargain journey of the century, however brief: a charming, living piece of Victorian ingenuity, it is a working funicular going up and down the 111-foot cliff. Do not miss it! At the top, the ruined castle is worth a walk, and the views from the clifftop path are terrific. For more earthly concerns, Bridgnorth is well supplied with traditional pubs in each half.

Our last day was given over to more walking, tramping through Neen Sollars where we were staying. It is easy to imagine Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth at home here among the Tudor cottages, ancient church, and roads with barely a car from one hour to the next. Plenty of horses though, ridden by ladies in pleated green jackets whose families have probably farmed here since before the Civil War. Cleobury Mortimer called us, too, with its twisted spire and top-notch pies filling the inner man and his stomach.

I once met an American who said she had ‘done’ England, as she had visited London, Edinburgh and Oxford. Setting aside her particular geographical illiteracy, without visiting every region nobody has ‘done’ England. And Shropshire should be one of the first counties on anyone’s list if they haven’t yet been.

 

Martin.Pilkington

Martin Pilkington is a freelance writer and journalist, writing for a wide variety of magazines and websites including Sailing Today, Harper's Wine and Spirit, Lovefood.com, Hortus, various county magazines, and the wonderful information-britain.com. His particular interests are food and drink writing and travel, with another strand in business journalism. All three of those areas were linked in his previous career as a polyglot sales director in manufacturing industry, being paid to travel the world and eat well. Married to a very supportive wife who didn't faint when he decided to change career in his late forties, a company merger having given him the option, Martin has a teenage son who is still not convinced that what he does now is a proper job. And as it is so much fun, he may be right. Favourite places: France: Normandy, the Dordogne, the Cevennes, Burgundy for the food and wine. He loves the USA having travelled extensively there on business, Indonesia likewise, and the Basque region of Spain where they really know how to eat.