It might not be the most widely known fact but the Wrekin range comprises five distinct hills that include The Ercall, Little Hill (alternatively known as Primrose Hill), St. Lawrence’s Hill and Maddocks Hill. However, with a drop of 150 metres on all sides, it’s their larger sibling that steals most of the limelight.
Many an age old story has been advanced to explain The Wrekin’s (and, yes, in the case of The Wrekin Hill that is a capital ‘T’) brooding and breaching, whale-like presence in the centre of the Shropshire landscape. From the actions of a vengeful giant with a grudge against the county town of Shrewsbury to the violent outpourings of a long-dormant volcano, these tall tales are many, varied and often colourful. Yet, while the former is, so far as we know, definitely not true, the latter (while still untrue!) does have some basis in reality. For The Wrekin hilltop itself is formed of igneous bedrock that rose to the Earth’s surface as sticky lava during eruptions of mountain-building magma between 542 and 635 million years ago.
These cataclysmic events, known collectively — and no sniggering at the back, please — as the ‘Caledonian Orogeny’, also gave rise to some other well known Salopian landmarks including Caradoc, The Lawley and Lilleshall Hill (try lining them up in a row on a map or, better still, by standing on the Long Mynd and looking northeast). However, the wider geological picture is really far more complex. The lower slopes of The Wrekin, for example, are comprised of windblown sandstone deposits associated with shallow seas and shorelines that formed over 500 million years ago. Indeed, evidence of the area’s coastal origins can be seen in the distinct rippled textures of the rock just past the first bend on the main track up the hill. In this instance at least, Wrekin life really is a beach!
The Wrekin Forest’s geological profile is arguably at its most intricate to the east of The Ercall Hill, beneath Limekiln Wood, where sinuous seams of mudstone, sandstone, basalt, igneous rock and limestone lie side by side in a formation that coalesced some 300 million years ago, deep beneath ancient seas. Ground from the mineral grains of these highly varied rock deposits and sediments, every major soil type in Shropshire can be found within a two kilometre square here, creating a unique set of conditions for a diverse array of plant life to thrive in unusually close proximity.
The composition of the Wrekin woodlands is also influenced by the varying slopes of the hills themselves, which help create different drainage conditions across the forest. On damper soils, ash and alder tend to predominate while free-draining soils favour open and shady beech woods. However, what the area is perhaps best known for is its ancient oak woodlands, which have large openings in the canopy that let in light and create a rich herbaceous understorey beneath, enabling countless plants, animals and insects to thrive.
The varied geology, soils and topography of the Wrekin Forest have also created ideal ground conditions for habitat features that are becoming increasingly scarce in the wider world, from the acidic heather and bilberry dominated lowland heath on the summit of The Wrekin, to the species-rich grasslands beneath The Ercall and, beyond the hills, wet pastures and wooded stream valleys that flow down to the floodplain meadows of the River Severn.
Unsurprisingly, the diverse geology and rich woodland heritage of The Wrekin has long made it the subject of human interest. Sometime before the Eleventh Century, the area was enshrined as a Royal hunting forest with a strict set of rules protecting the ‘venison and vert’ (aka: wild boar, deer and their habitat). Such enterprises typically served as a means for monarchs to wield authority and make money in an age before taxation. Indeed, many forests included whole villages, towns and swathes of land with little or no tree cover and, as such, proved extremely unpopular — to the extent that many (including The Wrekin Forest) ceased to legally exist by around 1300. In reality, the crown’s constant need for funds ensured many prohibited practices were licensed and, with its official demise, the process of plunder continued unabated.
In this respect, the industrialisation of east Shropshire brought new pressures, with vast quantities of timber needed to create pit props and provide charcoal for iron making. The area’s plentiful supplies of carboniferous limestone (a key ingredient in iron production) also drew the admiring glances of local industrialists and, by the 1700s, primitive railways criss-crossed the forest, carrying the area’s mineral wealth to nearby forges and foundries. Although these extensive commercial enterprises had all but disappeared by the Twentieth Century, the fragmentary remains of long abandoned bell pits and charcoal burning stages still litter the forest today.
The many-trunked boles of pollard trees continuously cut back and re-grown for timber over several centuries are also a common site on the northern slopes of The Wrekin. In many localities, the end of this constant cycle of woodland management has led to a decline in forest life as tree canopies have closed, robbing the understorey beneath of light. Although quarrying and mining continued until very recently in the Wrekin Forest this industrial activity has not been without its benefits either. While the visual scarring of the landscape around The Ercall and Maddocks Hill is obvious, these brownfield sites have offered unique opportunities for many new communities of plants, animals and insects to establish themselves in a way they never could in the wider countryside.
In the Wrekin Forest, little is as it initially seems!