Less than two hundred years ago, the charmingly bucolic village of Little Wenlock lay at the centre of a very different landscape where muck and brass jostled uncomfortably side by side…
The Little Wenlock district’s rich reserves of limestone and coal placed the settlement —an outlying estate of Wenlock Priory sold off after the dissolution of the monasteries — very firmly at the centre of a significant network of heavy industrial sites that rapidly developed in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. While those enterprises have long since vanished, coal was mined at the surface here until very recently. However, to the south of the village, what was once a barren wasteland has since inherited a very different legacy.
The Benchwalks were inspired by and dedicated to local man Tom Pickering and form a spectacular circular tour of Little Wenlock village. Aside from offering some of the best views of the Shropshire Hills to be seen anywhere in the Wrekin Forest, the handsome oak and chestnut benches liberally scattered around this compact circuit of local footpaths are a great place to watch wildlife. When they were formed, some 300 million years ago, the coal measures underlying this area were associated with swamp, estuary and delta. What this has now left the Benchwalks with is a tussocky expanse of restored, seasonally wet grassland, the type of which has declined by up to 40% in the wider countryside since 1930.
This habitat is critically important for groundnesting wading birds, such as Curlew, Snipe and Lapwing, which require soft soils in which to hunt invertebrate food for their chicks. This is by no means the only show in town here, however. In the far south of the site, at Swan Farm Pool, standing open water and reed bed (an increasingly rare aquatic feature in Shropshire) offer a great chance to see and hear summer-visiting Reed and Sedge Warblers, as well as a host of damselflies and dragonflies. In the fields around the pool, springtime also brings rich floral displays of Cuckooflower, which attract their own legions of emergent insect life.
Common Reed, Cuckooflower, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Water Rail, Lapwing, Snipe, Curlew, Yellowhammer, Skylark, Song Thrush, Common Blue Damselfly, Meadow Grasshopper, Pipistrelle Bat.
The views, of course! As well as the Shropshire Hills many other far-flung climes can be viewed from the Benchwalks, including the Black Country, Kinver Edge (in South Staffordshire) and the Malvern Hills. For an illustrated panorama, consult the beautifully illustrated interpretation board at the Junction of Clee Rise and Buildwas Lane on the southern edge of Little Wenlock itself.
New Works was one of several local settlements that sprung up around the industrial sites associated with the Little Wenlock area during the industrialisation of the east Shropshire district. Nearby, at Smalley Hill, Shropshire Wildlife Trust maintains a wildlife reserve that is also well worth a visit. The site of a Nineteenth Century brick works, it now comprises an attractive landscape of rough grassland and pools that draw a range of farmland birds, small mammals and invertebrate life.
The northwestern section of the Benchwalks leads onto Spout Lane, a former medieval byway that is now an officially designated ‘Quiet Lane’. Like any large wooded area, some of the best places to watch wildlife in the Wrekin Forest are at its edge and this is certainly the case on the southern flanks of the hill. Many bird and butterfly species have been recorded here, while it is a regular haunt for the area’s extensive Fallow Deer population. While Quiet Lanes are chosen for their relatively low traffic volume and ability to inhibit speed, it may be an idea to keep an eye out for cyclists on Spout Lane, which also forms part of the long distance Mercian Way.