A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 10, Munslow Hundred (Part), the Liberty and Borough of Wenlock. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1998.
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That central part of south Shropshire which includes the parishes treated in this volume (fn. 1) is a region traversed by ridges and dales and bounded by the vast upland commons of the Clee Hills on the south-east and the Long Mynd on the west. (fn. 2) On the south-eastern edge of the area Abdon, Ditton Priors, and the Heath lie on the north-western edge of the Old Red Sandstone plateau around the Clees, Abdon and Ditton sloping up towards the Brown Clee itself, Shropshire's highest summit at 540 m. (fn. 3) Monkhopton, below the plateau's northern scarp, drains towards the Mor brook. West of the plateau's escarpment the land falls sharply (fn. 4) into upper Corve Dale, with Weston, Oxenbold, Stanton Long, Holdgate, the shrunken settlement of Thonglands, Tugford, and Bouldon on its broader side, south-east of the Corve; opposite, on the right bank of the Corve and higher up from the river on a ridge of sand and gravel marked by the principal highway along the Dale, stand the settlements of Aston Munslow, Munslow, Hungerford, Broadstone, Shipton, Brockton, Patton, and (at the head of the dale) Bourton. Through most of those villages flow small tributary streams of the Corve draining steeply down from the ridge of Aymestry Limestone that bounds Corve Dale on its north-western side. Folded between the Aymestry Limestone and the harder unbroken limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge beyond is a line of small remote upland valleys or 'hopes', smaller-scale repetitions of Hope Dale (in Diddlebury); (fn. 5) they drain into Corve Dale by streams cutting through the softer Aymestry stone at Millichope, Lower Stanway (down from Wilderhope), Easthope, and Bourton (down from Presthope). The Edge continues west of Much Wenlock to end at Gleedon Hill north of the town; the hollow in which Much Wenlock lies would thus be another, though much larger and lower, 'hope', had not the Aymestry Limestone ridge disappeared south of the town. Instead east of Much Wenlock the land rises gradually to Barrow parish and Shirlett, beyond which are the Severnside parishes and townships in and below the Gorge, drained by short streams running swiftly to the river. Shirlett and the north end of the Aymestry Limestone ridge form the high ground, east and south of Much Wenlock, where the Mor brook's headwaters rise.
Wenlock Edge, wooded along its whole length, (fn. 6) is the most dramatically
beautiful (fn. 7) feature of the region, made memorable by Housman even for those who
have never seen it. To him also the area was unfamiliar, a country of the heart: (fn. 8)
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
Below the Edge's scarp lie Ape Dale (containing Acton Scott, Eaton-under-Heywood, and Rushbury) and, head to head with it, the Plaish brook valley (containing Hughley, Harley, and Wigwig).
Cardington village is enfolded on the west and south by the hills separating it from Hope Bowdler and Rushbury, and there at least relief may suggest the course of an early boundary between peoples, crossing the northern edge of the region. Most of Cardington parish drains east and then (like the places in the Plaish brook valley) north to the Severn at Sheinton. Plaish, and so perhaps other northern parts of Cardington parish, belonged to the territory of the Wreocensaete in the mid 10th century, (fn. 9) while further down the Plaish brook valley, beneath Wenlock Edge, Hughley and Wigwig (to judge from their membership of Condover hundred in 1086) (fn. 10) must also have been in the territory of the Wreocensaete and so have belonged to the diocese of Lichfield. Eventually all those places (like all the others treated in this volume) (fn. 11) were incorporated in Hereford diocese, which had generally been formed from the territory of the Magonsaete.
The great whale-backed hills around Hope Bowdler, made of older rocks than the dales and ridges to the south-east, (fn. 12) form one side of the narrow dale in which Church Stretton lies, on the eastern flank of the Long Mynd. There is evidence of prehistoric cultivation and settlement, notably on the high land around Church Stretton on the Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc, and Cardington Hill. Woodland clearance of lower ground was undertaken in the Iron Age, and there are forts and other enclosures of the period on the Clees, around Mogg Forest on the Aymestry Limestone ridge, and on the Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc, and the Lawley. The Roman road known as Watling Street West ran through the dale in which Church Stretton stands; another probably ran along Corve Dale, part of a road from Ashwood (in Kingswinford, Staffs.) to mid Wales and coinciding with the medieval Bridgnorth-Munslow road. (fn. 13) There are indications of Roman presence in the neighbourhood of those roads, in Ape Dale (with villas at Acton Scott and Hatton), and at Much Wenlock. (fn. 14)
The archaeological invisibility of the sub-Roman Celtic farmer and the absence of pagan Saxon remains combine to dissolve the picture until the arrival of the Mercian Angles in the area. They came perhaps relatively late as a ruling élite rather than early as farmer settlers: (fn. 15) certainly the first substantial evidence for English settlement in what was to become Shropshire is that of a dynasty reinforcing its local power and influence by the foundation of a monastery at Much Wenlock at the end of the 7th century. Wenlock abbey's earliest estates were concentrated in what became Much Wenlock parish, extending down into upper Corve Dale. (fn. 16) Some higher land occupied in early times, such as Mogg Forest, reverted to woodland in the Dark Ages. Elsewhere, however, as in Corve Dale, the most extensive areas of arable cultivation and the relatively large medieval open fields may indicate long established settlement, as seems also to be the case in Ape Dale (settled in Roman times and 'long open land' in the 13th century), (fn. 17) at Cardington, (fn. 18) and possibly at Ditton Priors. In those long-cultivated open dales Henley (in Acton Scott) and Topley (in Munslow) were probably woods named from their prominent isolation (fn. 19) on rising ground; by the mid 13th century Henley had become a small hamlet and probably an open common, but Topley remained a wood. In such long-settled valleys some of the two dozen or so places whose names include the element tun may be older than their English names. (fn. 20)
The western end and north-eastern corner of the area were well wooded at the end of the 11th century. Domesday Book records woodland belonging to Cardington, Hope Bowdler, Rushbury, Church Stretton, Ticklerton, and Much Wenlock; elsewhere, however, none was recorded. (fn. 21) Also confined to the west and north-east, with the significant exceptions of Henley and Topley, are places with names that include the element leah, indicating settlements in woodland clearings named probably not earlier than the mid 8th century. (fn. 22) The north-eastern settlements (fn. 23) are on the high land east and south-east of Much Wenlock, centred on Shirlett and continuous with similar settlements in the forest of the Wrekin beyond the Severn; (fn. 24) the north-western settlements (fn. 25) adjoin similar ones in the Long forest. (fn. 26) In the Norman period almost the whole area was afforested in Clee forest (from 1175 a private chase), Shirlett, and the Long forest; most of Shirlett and almost the whole of the Long forest were disafforested in 1301. (fn. 27)
In a few places (fn. 28) earthworks testify to Norman castle building, but only at Holdgate, caput of a feudal barony, is there any standing masonry. (fn. 29) Church Stretton had a royal castle in the 12th and early 13th century. More obvious are some of the Saxon and Norman churches so distinctively concentrated in south-east Shropshire, outstanding examples being those at Barrow, the Heath, Linley, and Much Wenlock.
Much of the area has always been remote from major roads, though that from Bridgnorth by Much Wenlock and over Wenlock Edge was once an important route from Worcester, and so ultimately from London and Bristol, to Shrewsbury and beyond. (fn. 30) The two roads most important to the region connect Ludlow with Shrewsbury and Much Wenlock, the former running through the Stretton gap on the western edge of the area, the latter along Corve Dale. The Ludlow-Shrewsbury road through the Strettons formed part of a more direct Bristol-Chester route certainly by the mid 17th century (fn. 31) and probably a century or more earlier, for Leland apparently travelled that way from the forest of Dean to Shrewsbury. (fn. 32)
In the region, as elsewhere in Shropshire, (fn. 33) the open fields and the woodlands shrank as pastoral farming and separate fields expanded from the late Middle Ages: save on a few estates belonging to absentee landlords or a multiplicity of owners (fn. 34) open fields had gone by the end of the 17th century. Extensive commons remained until the early 19th century, (fn. 35) and some were never inclosed. (fn. 36)
The area contains some notable medieval houses (fn. 37) but is more obviously characterized by a rich array of 16th- and early 17th-century manor houses. In the late 18th and earlier 19th century there were some notable estate improvements- by the Stackhouses at Acton Scott, the Myttons at Shipton, and (on a larger scale) the Lawleys in Much Wenlock parish. Lord Forester, however, owner of the largest landed estate in the area in the 19th century, spent on the extension of his property rather than its improvement: (fn. 38) hence the survival of many substantial 17th-century farmhouses in the north-eastern part of the area. Corve Dale farming was prosperous by the early 19th century (fn. 39) and the adoption of high feeding and manuring techniques (fn. 40) on different estates is attested by a striking chain of upland barns (fn. 41) -with cattle sheds, yards, and sometimes a cottage (fn. 42) -built along the north-western side of the Dale. (fn. 43)
From the 17th century limestone, coal, ironstone, clays, and good wood supplies gave rise to scattered quarrying, mining, iron, and ceramic industries. Only near the Severn Gorge, however, where some of England's first mineral railways were laid in the early 17th century, were such resources sufficiently large and close to long-distance transport to give rise to concentrations of industrial settlement. (fn. 44) The area and its river-borne coal trade were of some strategic importance during the early years of the Civil War. Broseley became the urban focus of the straggling Severnside industrial settlements, growing rapidly during the 17th and 18th centuries to become one of the county's most populous towns, famed for its clay tobacco pipes. By c. 1800, however, as local mines were worked out, it had begun to stagnate. Even so, the opening of the Severn Valley Railway in 1862 gave new life to the area, enabling the products of the big new brick and tile works at Benthall and Jackfield to become internationally renowned.
The area's only towns besides Broseley are Much Wenlock and Church Stretton.
They have little in common with Broseley or each other. Much Wenlock, where
there seems to have been some kind of settlement in Roman times, developed
during the Middle Ages as a market town in the shadow of Wenlock priory; other
local markets, however, were more successful, and it was as the centre of a large
and eccentrically organized borough (containing also Broseley) (fn. 45) that the town was
chiefly remarkable from the late Middle Ages. Church Stretton was long one of
the county's smallest towns, without even a market until the earlier 17th century.
Set, however, amid the scenery of the Long Mynd and the opposing line of hills
between Ragleth and Caer Caradoc, Stretton became Shropshire's most notable
resort. That role was developed from the 1860s, perhaps always with rather more
optimism about the future than was justified in the immediate event. In the 20th
century growth was swifter as the town became a popular retirement place. It did
not cease to be a resort; the hills and dales were too attractive to remain unvisited
in the age of the motor car: (fn. 46)
And on the bare and high
Places of England, the Wiltshire Downs and the
Let the balls of my feet bounce on the turf, my face
burn in the wind
My eyelashes stinging in the wind, and the sheep
like grey stones
Humble my human pretensions-
The inset to the left shows in black only that part of the hundred treated in the present volume, which does not include the parishes of Wistanstow, Bromfield, Stokesay, Culmington, Diddlebury, Cold Weston, or Clee St. Margaret. The other inset map shows the shape of Lesser Poston, a detachment of Munslow parish whose distance from the main part of the parish is indicated by its northern tip shown on the main map. The Heath and Norncott (N), the former in Munslow hundred the latter in the borough of Wenlock, lay detached from the main part of Stoke St. Milborough parish (in Wenlock borough).