Kevin Turner takes a ride through this beautiful, though sometimes-overlooked county
It’s an interesting fact (albeit one gleaned entirely from Wikipedia so I have no idea whether it’s true), but a good chunk of south Shropshire – the section now known as the Long Mynd – made its way up from the southern Hemisphere, somewhere near where the Falkland Islands now lie, during a period in history that is so far in the past I can’t figure out how many zeros it has after the decimal point. But over countless millennia, the relentless machinations of tectonic activity gradually inched the land mass further north, until it settled into its current position, a mournful goliath looming over the charming little town of Church Stretton.
If you like fossils, Shropshire is a real gem – you’re welcome! – but equally so if you happen to be a travelling motorcyclist looking for a gentle excursion into pastoral England. You can enjoy Shropshire by motorcycle over a weekend, but it would be a rush job. There is plenty to do and see in this green, agrarian county, much of the best of it occupying its southern half. That’s not to say north Shropshire is to be avoided, but the best of the scenery can be found further south; a quirk of geological whims and glacial flows.
An obvious starting point (or base, if you prefer daily ride outs) would be the pretty and sometimes bustling medieval market town of Shrewsbury. Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, and I went to college there, so it has a fine pedigree! In fact, I think Carol Decker from T’Pau also schooled in Shrewsbury, something which should probably feature more heavily in the tourist literature.
But while the town is rich in celebrity – Wilfred Owen is another – there’s not a lot of motorcycling to be done in Shrewsbury. Instead, head out along one of the A or B roads that lead towards Newport, Bridgenorth, Ironbridge, Pontesbury, or south down to Ludlow, and the rural splendour of the place comes alive. It’s almost impossible to travel more than a handful of miles without having to stop and investigate some centuries-old monument, building or landscape that would be a main destination in a lot of places, but in Shropshire is just another spellbinding piece of nearly-lost history.
Take Ironbridge; the very first bridge made of iron anywhere in the world. It’s easy these days to underestimate what an extraordinary sight that must have been when unveiled back in the late 18th century. Yet the ride there, from Shrewsbury via Leighton – with its wonderful views over the River Severn ox-bowing back on itself – is so enjoyable that the bridge itself could almost be an afterthought.
Most of the smaller villages and towns of rural Shropshire, almost by definition given their age, have some connection to key historical events: Acton Burnell was home to the very first Parliament to include the Commons; Much Wenlock welcomed the first modern Olympics (strange but true!); the Industrial Revolution all but began in Coalbrookdale. Those are some pretty big concepts to originate from one place!
Most of these little towns also include a handful of half-decent cafes, pubs, vintage shops and markets occupying Tudor frames that make for a fine interlude to a pleasant day’s ride.
Then there are the abbeys, ruins now thanks to Henry VIII, but still splendid in their grandeur. Two of the best are located outside of Lilleshall and Shrewsbury and are exquisite reminders of medieval times, as is the castle at Ludlow, which is a castle like castles should be; all stone spiral staircases, ramparts and murder holes. And if that wasn’t enough, the market outside moonlights as an informal bike meet on sunny Sunday afternoons.
(As an aside, my uncle-in-law (if that’s a thing) is a canon in Ludlow and upon his appointment took up residence in the house next to the church, only to find an old dress slowly decaying on a bed in one of the rooms. Turns out it once belonged to Catherine of Aragon!) That’s the thing with Shropshire; its history is so rich and so deep that it becomes almost prosaic after a while.
But history should never be prosaic, so perhaps it’s time to detour away from castles and churches, priceless antiquities and cornerstones of the industrial revolution and head out on one of the myriad B-roads that weave their way through hamlets and farmyards, through meandering fords and past grassy meadows, twisting and turning high up into the hills that overlook much of this fine county.
You can get into some pretty decent green lanes in this part of the world, but if you just fancy a ride through beautiful countryside you don’t need a TRF subscription, although some knobblies wouldn’t go amiss. I used to ride my Ninja fast around many of Shropshire’s flowing A-roads, but they have been so neglected over the last decade that it can be hard to tell where the A41 ends and the fields begin. These days, I fill the gaping tank on my old Africa Twin, grimace as the numbers on the pump flick by, and then launch that stubborn old mule down the backroads, through places with more letters in their names than houses in their vicinity: Woolaston, Frodesley, Picklescott and Ratlinghope (the latter pronounced Ratchup, believe it or not).
And what better way to experience these places, goggles flecked with flies and mud, up on the pegs, slipping and sliding across rutted old right-of ways… real agricultural riding in a county practically made for it.
I will admit to a certain bias in this article; I am, as the poem goes, a Shropshire Lad. I grew up with one eye on the Wrekin and another firmly set on the shining lights of London. But after too many long days and short nights in the metropolis, I had a longing for the rose-tinted purity of Houseman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ – so I loaded up my belongings and aimed my Kawasaki northwards. Somewhere around Oxford the air rushing through my visor noticeably cleared; the pollutants eased, the oxygen content rose and with memories of barmy Camberwell evenings drunk on youth and wine packed up safe in my panniers, I eased the old green Ninja down through the cavernous walls that line the roadside about where the M54 becomes the A5 and felt myself sinking back into that familiar pastoral mindset.
Ah, distractions distractions… But now it’s time to kick down the sidestand of the Africa Twin and take a gentle stroll up towards the Stiperstones; another huge undulating hillside, this one topped with a jagged quartzite ridge, part of which has come to be known as the Devil’s Chair. Climb the summit, take a seat and enjoy a tremendous view across Shropshire and into Wales.
And somehow we have come full circle: fossils, rocks, Stiperstones. A strange ride for sure, across the southern half of a county that has played a pivotal role in both the history of the British Isles and that of the modern world. How strange then that such a critical junction in the pathways of history should be so easily overlooked. Do yourself a favour; if you happen to be crossing England, north to south, east to west, or any other direction that takes your fancy, make sure you spend a few days exploring the old Shire I call home.
Kevin Turner will be presenting at this year’s Overland Event. He is the author of the Hapless biker books, more information on which can be found at: https://hbiker.weebly.com/