First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
What could be more traditionally Christmas-y than a sprig of holly with its festive green leaves and cheerful scarlet berries? The Hollies, the largest and probably the oldest hollins or holly grove in Europe, is cared for by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The grove stands on a sloping outpost of the Shropshire Hills, and I kept a promise to myself by walking out there to admire it in all its winter glory.
The cosy Mytton Arms in Habberley offers good beer, but no fancy food. Its decor keeps alive the roguish name of ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton, a 19th-century Shropshire squire whose watchword was ‘excess all areas’. He drank 8 bottles of port a day. He once tried to leap a toll-gate in a 4-horse gig (the horses made it, Mytton and the gig didn’t). Mad Jack got through half a million pounds (much of it literally blown away by the wind), and died a pauper in a debtor’s prison. If rock’n’roll had been invented back then, he’d have had to be a drummer.
Out in the fields, pigeons and partridges went clattering off. The sun lay like a pearl in a blur of cloud, softly lighting the green whaleback of Earl’s Hill. Up through coppices of oak and elder I went, and south over fields full of ewes, their rumps smeared blue with raddle. An exhausted ram tottered among them, utterly drained by his exertions. In the distance rode the broad ridge of the Long Mynd, one of England’s proper upland wildernesses. It was a view to make you sing, and so I did.
Under their soft covering of grass and trees, these hills hold a remarkable history. They were mined for coal and lead right up until the 20th century; the lead mine at Snailbeach was the largest in Europe in its heyday. At Lordshill above Snailbeach, shadowed by an industrial chimney, a beautiful old chapel bears testament to the religious faith engendered by the subterranean dangers and hardships of mining.
On the hillside above I found the ancient holly trees, gnarled, bent, many-trunked, bristling with prickles and glowing with fruit. Mistle thrushes rustled in their tops. The hollins would have been cleared long ago if the farmers had not found the holly leaves invaluable as nutrient-rich winter fodder. Pollarded and pruned, these trees were ancient when Mad Jack Mytton rode the land with his personal Furies at his heels. They’ll certainly outlive us all.
Start & finish: Mytton Arms, Habberley, Shropshire SY5 0TP (OS ref SJ 399035)
Road: Habberley signposted from Pontesbury on A488 (Shrewsbury-Bishop’s Castle)
Walk (5 miles, moderate, OS Explorer 216): From Mytton Arms, right past church. 2nd left (‘Minsterley’); in 100 yards, right through farmyard (397037); bridleway (blue arrows/BA) for ½ mile NW into woods. In 30 yards fork left; follow track; in 150 yards at T-junction, left (yellow arrows/YA) up steps, along wood edge. In 200 yards left (391044; ‘Chris Bagley Walk’/CBW) through kissing gate; south across fields. Cross road (389040); on into woods. Descend to T-junction (388037); right along track; in 50 yards, left uphill (YA) through woods for ¾ mile. Leave trees (382027); cross field into wood; left (380025; YA) down to road. Left; first left down past chapel and chimney (381021); in 100 yards fork right (YA) uphill. At top of rise, post with 4 arrows (383020). The Hollies are scattered across the Access Land to your left here. Wander at will, then return to post. Head downhill between wooden gateposts on grass track. At Upper Vessons Farm (387021) follow farm lane; at bottom cross cattle grid (391023); ahead along lane; in 50 yards, right (fingerpost) over stile (YA). Diagonally to bottom left corner of field. Follow path near stream through successive gateways (YAs) for ½ mile. In 5th field, right across stream, through gate (CBW/YA). Diagonally left to top left corner of field; over stile (CBW/YA); on to road (398033). Left into Habberley.
NB – Online maps, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Mytton Arms, Habberley (01743-792490) – sandwiches (at weekends only)
Accommodation/lunch: Stiperstones Inn, Stiperstones (01743-791327; www.stiperstonesinn.co.uk)
Holly from The Hollies on sale: Shropshire Wildlife Trust shop, 193 Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury (01743-284280;www.shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk) from 9 December
National Tree Week: 27 Nov-5 Dec. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk for 10 ancient tree walks.
More info: Shrewsbury TIC (01743-281200); www.visitsouthshropshire.co.uk