‘How about climbing a volcano? Exploring some caves?’
The response is rolled eyes, attention drifting back to phones. I tell them to bring a torch and some decent boots. We’re short of funds and it’s the fag-end of the summer holidays. Jake’s restless about starting high school, Joe bemoans the speed of our wi-fi. Distraction therapy is needed.
The Wrekin is a steep hill formed of volcanic rocks – not really a volcano – so thankfully there’s no threat of lava for the tearooms and galleries of Much Wenlock and Coalbrookdale. We climb through a steep track that turns back on itself, giving framed glimpses of the misty Shropshire plain. As we step above the canopy of trees we see Shrewsbury, the silver glint of the Severn, endless acres of reddish-brown farmland.
This was the hillfort of the Cornovii tribe, rulers of these parts. It’s shrouded in cloud and stories. We sit by a trig point as I tell the boys the tale of the giant who wanted to flood Shrewsbury by tipping the mud from his shovel into the Severn. On the way he met a cobbler who showed him a bag of shoes full of holes. He said Shrewsbury was so far, he’d worn out all those boot and shoes walking from there. The giant gave up, dumping the earth on the spot where he stood and forming the Wrekin. Jake wrinkles his nose in disbelief and spends the twenty minutes it takes us to get to Hawkstone Park calculating the tonnage of earth needed.
The park and follies were once a medieval castle and grounds, later belonging to Lord Hill of Shrewsbury, Wellington’s second in command at Waterloo. Jake and Joe tear up the ridge and sprint beneath rhododendrons and towering coast redwoods, before climbing the White Tower and gazing out over the Midlands and Wales.
Then it’s a stride down to Swiss bridge where the boys inch above a steep cleft in the rock. Passing the wonderfully-named Gingerbread Hall, we climb to Raven’s Shelf and dizzying views of the golf course, where a young Sandy Lyle mastered the game. The drop into the valley was named the Awful Precipice by Dr Johnson, but it’s a majestic view of woods, parkland and distant Welsh mountains. Jake shines the torch into caves and tunnels, believed to date from the fifth century, perhaps Roman, which were carved out of the rock by men in search of precious copper. When we emerge, blinking into the daylight, we trek back along the limestone ridge, smiling that so many of the points we pass could’ve been taken from a ‘Carry On’ film. After the Cleft, we must get through The Squeeze and then use a tunnel to avoid Fox’s Knob.
We haven’t travelled far, and we’ve travelled cheaply. We’ve walked in the footsteps of Celts, Romans and Marcher Lords. It’s a curious landscape: just down the M54 from Wolverhampton, yet part Swiss Alps, part Italy, a hint of New Mexico.