Night walking a country lane, exploring local Shropshire ghosts and watching a winter sunrise on the eerie Titterstone Clee Hill.
Night-walking a country lane
Out on the country lane it is the darkest hour and the cold grips like a witch’s curse. All is still and the village breathes in gentle slumber. The houses are snug, dark, with blinds shut like eyelids, but fluttering from dreams within.
As I walk through the village I wonder if the discordant sound of my footsteps echoing off old stone walls will infiltrate dreams anchored in bedrooms but soaring and riding the high seas and skies, time mazes and cities materialising and collapsing with every gentle breath.
Myths, ghosts and flayed spectral cattle
Those who hear my passing steps will stir uneasily, burrowing deeper into warm beds and reaching out for reassurance from those lying beside them. Who could be out at such a cold, lonely hour? Ancient fears stir in the depths of bottomless pools and bubble-up to the surface. They are right to feel such unease for these Shropshire lands are soaked in folklore whose footprints still lurk in old memories and dark woods. All kinds of creatures roam these ways: vengeful ghosts, heartbroken beautiful brides in white gowns, lions, freshwater mermaids and the local speciality, spectral cattle with flayed raw flesh. At Ratlinghope, a ghostly funeral procession passes by at dusk led by a extravagant carriage with two horses decorated with black plumes and accompanied by top-hatted bearers. Yet there is no local record of such a funeral and no-one knows who lies in the coffin.
In their smoking cottages deep in the woods witches caress the magic bridle that will turn a poor farmhand into a horse and ride him to a witches’ feast. The wild play of giants with boulders creates hills and lakes. Cunning men with evil eyes work lonely inns to turn tricks. Walk across the fields and underneath your feet blind fiddlers can be heard playing in lost underground tunnels. The Devil roams the lanes and villages looking for games and deadly wits, especially with godless clergy. He rests on the Devil’s Chair on Stiperstones Ridge, shrouded by mists as he brews harm.
There is the story of the wicked farmer of Bagbury whose spirit reappeared in the form of a huge bull, terrifying people with flaming eyes and huge roars. Some said the phantom creature was flayed skinless. A parson and a band of locals trapped the bull in a church and prayed, causing the beast grow small enough to bind him up in a boot. They buried him deep under the door-stone where he lies to this day, but if the stone is loosened he will escape even worse, and could never again be captured.
Another Shropshire myth describes how the lake at Bomere was created by the flooding of an ancient city when the inhabitants refused to accept Christianity, and that out on the lake you can sometimes look down and see the tops of the houses. On the eve of Easter it is said that the ghost of a young Christian Roman can be seen rowing about, desperately searching for his pagan girl.
I follow the lane out of the village and an old stone bridge carries me across a chattering brook. Out into open countryside it is dark, cold but not silent. An animal screams as it becomes the prey of a larger beast, these cider-making fields are bucolic charm by day and agonised killing fields by night. It starts to rain: a soft gamelan pitter patter. A musty smell of dampening soil and roaming creatures permeates the road. Something is rustling out of sight or is it malignant whispering behind the hedgerow? Does a figure stand waiting at the fold of the road ahead or is it a tree?
A small lonely church lies at the edge of a field, a place for rituals observed and hymns sung for the defence of the thin veil. We are a long way from Ludlow’s cathedral radiating its solid strength over the inns and timber-framed houses clustered around it. A long way from the Church Inn where the cloth-capped man in tweed staggers in muttering “my boys, my boys” and flings out raw Ludlow sausages to the dogs snoozing by the fire.
Yet from these vulnerable outposts the shire’s parsons would tally forth to battle the demons with prayer, cross and exorcism. The vengeful Madam Pigott, abandoned by her husband to die in childbirth, sat waiting to terrify anyone passing by, especially those riding for a midwife. Others say she was simply a sad figure in a white gown wandering about. The children put their aprons over their head when she passed by and she did them no harm. Whatever the case the good parsons drove her into a bottle which they threw into Chetwynd Lake.
Night will pass, day is coming. The occasional house is now showing a light. Early risers, cursing and scrabbling for the alarm clock, lovers reluctantly disentangling, sleepy hands reaching for the clothes draped over a chair or for the tea leaves to soothe the transition of fading dreams and warm beds to cold kitchens, long dark mornings and a sighing glance at the day’s agenda scribbled on a fridge calendar.
Walking into Bedlam, sunrise in a fog
I walk into the village of Bedlam and its row of cottages for the workers of long dis-used quarries and railways. I had been told about a Wits End Cottage but sadly there is no sign of it. On the soggy moorland of Titterstone Clee Hill overlooking Bedlam I stand watching what is clearly going to be a desultory sunrise. One that will enter coughing its guts up, stagger to some sort of peak, croak “that’s your lot folks” and, shuffle off for night to re-assert its current powerful dominance. It’s only a week till the solstice, this could go on for weeks.
And yet…elusive and ambiguous can be our English countryside, even at its most downbeat sodden moods. Darkness ebbs into grey-blue light. A sky of mottled greys and dark rain clouds, pale ethereal light. It is the mists that are bewitching and beguiling. They drift through the landscape spread before me, mingling and dissolving through copses, fields and valleys where sheep and horses are already grazing in supreme indifference. The cocks of Bedlam start their crowing and a dog barks.
The rain stops but the line of fog flirts with Bedlam as it drifts up and down the hill. Giants and fairies live here, so too does a big black dog with red eyes and diamond collar that shyly disappears if you approach it. I walk into the fog and into an opaque dream of disappearing telegraph poles and paths, stark webs of tree veins, glistening steps lead to the looming remains of derelict quarry buildings and hollowed pits. I stand on a ridge with a structure at my feet like a diving-board into the void. I could barely see more than a few metres yet look east and I am on the highest point until the Ural Mountains deep in Russia. They say signals from Radio Moscow travel unimpeded across Europe and can be picked-up here by radios via local air traffic control masts. A jukebox in the local pub was said to randomly burst into Russian music, so they renamed the pub the Kremlin Inn.
After the vagary of the fog the views of the rolling shire are vibrant and clear. Walking back through Bedlam good mornings are said in soft, local burghs.
But there is still no sign of Wits End Cottage, a myth and place to add to the collection.
The excellent The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. Westwood and Simpson