The Lingering Monolith
Such is The Wrekin’s brooding presence in the Shropshire landscape, locals have long felt the need to explain its special place in the hearts and minds of so many people. While our website contains plenty of information about the 600-million year odyysey that is the area’s geological heritage, what we don’t have is a proper introduction to our role in shaping The Wrekin’s story… until now that is! This month we’re joined by Amy Boucher, writer and devotee of Shropshire folklore, history and mythology, for a storied tale at least 3000 years in the making…
The Wrekin stands as a lingering monolith in all my childhood recollections. I imagine many people from my neck of the woods can say the same. It plays a fundamental part in the minds of those who grew up ‘all around the Wrekin’. It has been said that ‘A Shropshire mon is Nivver lost if he can see the Wrekin’ and its hard to describe the sense of joy I feel when I see it again after a long time away. The key to its charm, I believe lies in its liminality. From Baldur’s stone to Heaven and Hell Gate — To walk the Wrekin feels as if you are entering a wilder, more magical realm, a place where history and folklore collide. This hill, standing 1,335 feet above sea level has been fundamental in the history of Shropshire, and I want to explore this, via its folktales and traditions.
The Hum of Activity
Historically, the earliest mention of ‘The Wrekin’ is in a charter of 855. However, its history can be followed even further back. To me, one of the most exciting things about the Wrekin is that near its summit, an iron age hillfort once thrived. Caer Uriconio, as it was known then, was said to be at least 20 acres in size, and an important site for the Cornovii tribe. Caer Uriconio is a good contender for the Cornovii capital, at least until they were moved by the Romans to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum). The size of such a settlement suggests that it was occupied by a large community where centralised economic and social activities were practiced, including the storage and redistribution of food and the performing of ceremonies. The defensive strength of the hillfort came from its topographic location, with the surrounding ground sloping steeply in all directions. Its hard not to think about the hum of activity, and noise of daily life, when you walk through Heaven and Hell gate. This signifies that from its earliest state, the Wrekin was important. It provided safety, trade and for many, it was home.
In the Land of the Wrekin People
During the Anglo-Saxon period, there was minor kingdom called Wreocensæte’, after the hill, which again demonstrates the importance of the landmark. This kingdom was not to be however, being absorbed into the onslaught of Mercian reign. The Wrekin also serves as a traditional boundary between kingdoms and people alongside the River Severn. By the 11 th Century, Caer Uriconio was now ‘Wreocensetun’. Interestingly, for several centuries after the Norman invasion, it was known as Mount Gilbert, after a hermit who lived out his days on the hillside. However, if we turn to the folklore of the area, we are given an insight into the Wrekin’s ‘true’ origins.
The origins of the Wrekin, at least according to the folk tales, lie in a Welsh Giant’s angry outburst. There are several versions of this story, (and indeed a further story involving two giants) but I want to tell you about the brilliantly named Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynyddmawr — a cruel cannibal giant, who hated the surrounding area with a passion. He had previously made a pact with the town of Shrewsbury not to attack them so long as he was supplied with a regular supply of young women. Shrewsbury seems to indulge him without much question; however, one clever girl slips Gwendol a herbal drink, sending him into a deep sleep. She escapes his clutches, and goes back to Shrewsbury, informing the mayor that Gwendol eats the girls, and the cave is piled high with the bones of young women. The mayor is apparently shocked by this admission, and finally decides he probably should not be giving young women to a giant.
When Gwendol wakes up, and notices the girl is gone he is angry. When he realises that the sacrifices have stopped, he gets incredibly angry. So angry that he decides to finally ruin the town he hates so much. He decides the only thing he can do is fill his giant-sized shovel with earth and bury the town. So, he gathers himself and fills his shovel with as much earth as he can — and begins his journey to Shrewsbury. This would be all very well and good however, Gwendol, unfamiliar with the local landscape, loses his way very quickly. The sun was high in the sky and as the day went on, Gwendol got more and more lost, and more and more angry.
Suddenly, Infront of him appeared an old man, carrying a large bag of shoes. The man was a cobbler, walking his usual route from Wellington to Shrewsbury. Very quickly the cobbler realised he was in trouble. It is not every day you see a giant carrying a big spade of earth after all. Gwendol walked up to the man, looking down and spoke.
‘You there, Old man… Tell me how to get to Shrewsbury. Now!’ with a great huff.
The old man smiled faintly, ‘Ahhh Shrewsbury you say? I hope you have packed your walking boots’.
The old man continued. ‘See, when I set out for Shrewsbury, I was a much younger man, and see this great bag of shoes? Well, they were all new. And now they are worn down and I am still no nearer to that town. You have some journey ahead of you!’ Gwendol let out a huge sigh. The day was hot, and the shovel was heavy, and his tiredness was affecting his senses. He felt that familiar feeling boiling over inside of him — anger and he began stomping his feet and let out a shout. Realising he did not have the patience for such a journey — Gwendol flung the great mound of earth into the air and stomped off back to the hills of Wales, never to be seen again. And that mound of Earth, is said to have become the Wrekin — and serves as a reminder to that old Cobbler’s quick wits.
All the Etceteras of an Old English Fair
As some of you may very well know, it almost feels like a ritual to walk up the Wrekin, something you must do. Indeed, on certain days of the year, you can bump into your neighbour or old schoolteacher at the summit, or whilst snacking on a Mars bar at the Halfway House. This is not a new phenomenon, indeed during the 19 th century walking the Wrekin was the ‘thing to do’. The Halfway House was there then too, where people would stop to get ice cream or have a cup of tea before reaching the top. How many people have trod the same path over the years? Its amazing to think we are all connected by our steps.
Similarly, during the 18th century (and perhaps earlier, its origins are lost in time) a festival known as ‘The Wrekin Wakes’ took place on the first Sunday in May. This saw local people ascend the hill on mass, where the ‘pleasure seekers’ would be met…
“With ale-booths, ginger-bread-standings, gaming-tables, swing-boats, merry-go-rounds, three-sticks-a-penny, and all the etcetera’s of an old English fair.”
One cannot help but smile whilst imagining such a sight. The event’s climax was the yearly battle between the Colliers and the Countrymen for the possession of the hill. Such a ceremonial spectacle would have been great to witness and reminds me of the battle between The Green Man and Ice Queen at the Clun Green man Festival, just with far more violence. Charlotte Burne recounts that if one side was being seen to be losing early, they sent messengers around the local village for reinforcements. Sometimes the two sides were evenly balanced, and apparently the men of Wellington often took the side of the countrymen over the miners. Nevertheless, this was seen as such fun, despite the fighting being severe, and often causing fatal injuries.
Apparently, this practice caused such disorderly scenes, that when the Cludde family of Orleton bought the manorial rights, over the first portion of the hill, they determined to put down the Wake by force, and employed a party of Gamekeepers and Constables to clear the hill. The Wake continued in some form or another though as it was described in 1826 as a time to drink to the health of ‘all the friends around the Wrekin’ and was seen as more of a moral failing to participate. I love knowing such a ruckus took place and cannot help but admire the fitness of the poor messengers having to trapse up and down the Wrekin’s slopes.
History and Folklore Made Real
Throughout this article I tried to demonstrate that The Wrekin has always been important, by exploring its History and Folklore. It has been by no means exhaustive; I could have perhaps discussed W. Haye’s admission in 1954 that the area was ‘half religious and half immersed in witchcraft’ recounting a woman called Molly De Leyte who kept a toad in an earthenware jar and was purported to be able to change herself into a cat. I could have discussed its importance during WW2, or about Baldur’s stone, however the outcome would have been the same. The Wrekin is more than just a hill. Throughout its long history people have flocked to it, to live and work and play and tell stories, and I know there are many still to be told.
Our thanks to Amy for this brilliant article! To read more fascinating insights into the myth and folklore of Shropshire (and beyond!), please visit her blog by clicking hereBack to news