UK: SHROPSHIRE & OFFA’S DYKE

The obvious portal to south Shropshire is Ludlow, a delightful township couched beside the river Teme and below the dramatic folds of Clee Hill. It’s a small medieval and Georgian market-town with an astronomic gastronomic reputation. And although I’m not cursed with a shopping gene; when it comes to buying good food my DNA helix goes positively cock-a-hoop.This place boasts Michelin stars aplenty, cheese shops, market stalls laden with locally grown produce and a clutch of superb butchers. One in particular might slip you a brace of squirrel from under the counter; and since you ask, yes it is tasty, if a little bony. Food really doesn’t get any better and the good citizens of Ludlow are justly proud of their culinary fame.

The parish church of St Laurence – a sumptuous 15th century affair – and Ludlow’s dramatic 900 year-old castle dominate some five-hundred other listed buildings in the neighbourhood. The place is set to burst with architectural gems – it’s an extraordinary and historic corner of England. Just past the ancient castle walls is the Dinham Hall Hotel, a charming Regency house full of creaky floorboards and snug rooms, period furniture and of course a lot of that exceptional food. The place is welcoming and stylish, but won’t be put out should you clomp in wearing stout walking boots or teeter in on stilettos – although you’d be wise to pack the former.

A couple of miles away is Mortimer Forest, a deep, impenetrable acreage of firs where gingerbread houses or girls in red capes wouldn’t be out of place. Winding trails – for those who want a gentle amble – and more arduous treks – for those anticipating a pig-out later – zigzag past sinister dark pools and up hillsides. The zingy springtime air is Alpine fresh and the views hard to beat.

Back by the comforting warmth of an open log fire in Dinham Hall, glass of whiskey in hand, it’s time to plan a foray around the town before dinner. Look out for the antique shops and local galleries – the surrounding landscape has been inspiration to Turner, John Nappa and contemporary local artists like Julian Paltenghi and glass sculptress Amanda Brisbane. Don’t miss the castle on any account; it’s a wonderful place for kids and adults alike, full of battlements, spiral staircases and hidden corners. It breathes history and is home to an annual Shakespeare festival. St Laurence’s is filled with outstanding stained glass and tombs creating its own chronological map of the great and the good, and neighbours the best pub in town (the Church Inn).

The window from my suite looked out across bent rooftops to the castle’s beautiful battlemented ruins. But the diversion was short-lived, I headed downstairs to the dining room for a delicious Cotes-du-Rhone, roast quail and foie gras ravioli, grilled breast of duck with confit potato (that had me coursing somewhere near to ecstasy) and fabulous local cheeses. I was only too pleased I’d gone for that hike earlier.

I’d recommend buying the Ordnance Survey Explorer map (number 201) and getting lost with it. Drive past Mortimer Forest into a maze of tiny lanes – dropping pebbles or breadcrumbs to ensure your safe return – until you come across Burrington. This tiny village boasts a small church with unique early cast-iron graves. Walk alongside the river here and you’ll find some of the last great romantic and pastoral landscapes in the country. This land hasn’t changed in centuries; it’s rare and overwhelmingly lovely. Downton (the next village along) was the original cradle of the industrial revolution before its move northwards to the more famous Iron Bridge.

Further on, past bundles of mistletoe in naked trees and fields chocker with lambs and hares is Leintwardine. Stop here for an unusual drink. The Sun is not a pub as you or I know it, but a sleepy parlour that belongs to an elderly woman called Flossy. If it’s open – timing is erratic – walk through her kitchen and pour yourself a beer from a cask by the sink and settle down next door in eccentric domestic bliss. Should hunger strike, you can do no better than eat at The Jolly Frog – an outstanding fish restaurant with a reputation that stretches somewhat further afield than the Welsh borders which are just a hop skip and croak away.

A spit further is Lower Buckton and one of the finest B&Bs in the country. Carolyn and Henry Chesshire have an idyllic house with just four bedrooms stuffed with antiques, oddments and taxidermy. One corner on the landing is upholstered with a collection of ancient crocodile handbags. You’ll be warned on arrival that this is a supermarket free zone; their pigs, chickens and vegetable garden are the organic proof. I defrosted beside their huge Aga, a behemoth sure to send any ardent aga-nista into rapture. Interestingly, Dinham Hall Hotel welcomes dogs, but here they go one better – you’re encouraged to bring your horse too.

I skipped the offer of equestrian pursuits and made for the Offa’s Dyke information centre at Knighton. King Arthur spent time defeating giants at a spot not far away, Caractacus tried to defeat the Romans at a bronze-age hill fort across the valley and King Offa of Mercia built his dyke to keep the Welsh out long before Anne Robinson went on the attack.

Twenty minutes from Knighton by car, and I’m taken fourteen hundred years back in time on some of the best stretches of Offa’s Dyke. Up by Spring Farm and Llanfair hill on a blustery day licked with snow, rise the wonderful remains of this 8th century feat of engineering. It is inhospitable and awesome, a thrilling mound that curls along the hillside. Although it’s not possible to walk along the actual dyke, a footpath hugs the route and takes one through spectacular scenery. I stopped at one point; excited because there was no sign of modern habitation in whichever direction I looked. Who couldn’t be moved by such an experience?

Another special pub is the Sun at Clun, a place sure to match any urban fantasy about rural locals. Quite simply, it’s perfect. This is A E Housman territory and an area with little imagination when it comes to place names. His lines still stand:

“Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun, Are the quietest places, Under the sun.”

Personally I think Clunbury is the prettiest of the Cluns. In Clungunford you’ll find The Bird on the Rock, possibly the greatest tearoom on the planet but a place I missed out on in favour of a Guinness in the pub.

For those interested in the Civil War, check out Brampton Bryan. Now a picturesque ruin skirted by a huge, bulging yew hedge, it was a Parliamentarian stronghold until the Royalists starved the place into submission with a lengthy siege. At Stokesay castle (fifteen miles distant) you can still see the grooves Royalists cut into the church walls when they sharpened their swords.

The trekking and history worked up a big appetite and the banquet Carolyn prepared for me in Lower Buckton was only too welcome. Herby chicken liver flan, wonderful roast pork with all the trimmings and apple cake – every ingredient home-grown – was unbeatable. Apart from bringing your dogs and horses don’t forget to bring your own wine too as the place is unlicensed. Before bed, spend a comfortable moment embraced in a knackered armchair beside the fire with a nightcap and a perfect night’s sleep is guaranteed.

The only problem I encountered was right at the end of my trip – I didn’t want to leave. After eating a stonking breakfast, Carolyn took pity and pointed me in the direction of one last walk. Ten minutes from the house is a small marl pit surrounded by ancient oak trees. High in the branches is a heronry. The prehistoric looking birds majestically wheeled above without a care in the world and right at that moment I knew just how they felt.

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