Stripping down to my teeny-weeny pink polka-dot bikini to have a swim in the great outdoors, you would be forgiven to think I was in some hot country about to take a dip in a pool to cool down. Instead, I was in Clee Hills in the Shropshire Hills, on a bitterly cold October morning, having my first experience of wild swimming in the lake as part of learning all that the county has to offer. Invigorating as it was, I wasn't going to turn it into a regular past-time unlike our leader and wild swimming devotee, Jules McRobbie.
Shropshire may be one of England's quiet counties but don't be deceived. There's plenty to see and do here and the people are as wild and adventurous as Jules. I was here for a few days to explore as much as I could to see what this part of the world had to offer. With a wild swim in the bag, I was pretty much ready for anything.
The county has countless historic places to visit - stately homes with beautiful gardens, castles enriched with history such as Ludlow Castle or Stokesay Castle with its remarkable 700-year-old great hall. But nature plays a big part here, too. The Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covers nearly a quarter of the county. The Long Mynd (the long mountain), forms part of these hills. Stretching some seven miles, with the highest point measuring 516m, the Mynd has been owned by the National Trust for more than 50 years. It's been working with commoners to reduce grazing levels to allow natural vegetation to flourish and has had success by bringing down sheep numbers from 17,000 to 2,000 since 1990. We toured the area in a 4WD with parkland manager Pete Carty but it’s a great place for a hike to get in the views as well as some exercise.
Shropshire is renowned for its real ale and leads the way in the "home brew" revival. Real ale inns and micro-breweries including Ludlow Brewing Company and the Three Tuns at Bishops Castle (which has been happily brewing since 1642 and now has a history of beer and brewing museum) are part of the genetic make-up of Shropshire. But little did I know, it's also a foodie haven. Markets a bound and butchers, bakers and delicatessens are found on almost every corner - it’s a gourmand’s idea of heaven.
The Cliff at Dinham restaurant
All this bounty has an interesting effect on local restaurants. I can vouch for The Cliff at Dinham where we dined one night during our stay. The flavoursome meal (I had the Red Mullet, Caramelised Fennel Orzotto, Ratatouille, Tomato & Red Pepper Vinaigrette) was made using local, seasonal produce, making it easy to see why the restaurant has been awarded two AA Rosettes for Culinary Excellence. The wine is not to be sniffed at either. With several options to choose from, I was drawn to the Shropshire Lady, a brilliant, award-winning white wine made at Kerry Vale Vineyard just down the road.
Ludlow Food Centre
If like me, you want to see 'behind the scenes' of the food industry, a visit to the Ludlow Food Centre is a must. Launched in 2007, Ludlow Food Centre offers fresh, local, seasonal, hand-made food. All their beef, lamb, and rare breed Gloucester Old Spot pork comes from the estate, along with a selection of fruit and vegetables from Lady Windsor’s very own walled garden. Committed to sourcing at least 80% of the produce from Shropshire and its surrounding counties, the food centre produces half the food it sells on the premises. We were fortunate to sample many foods including the “new” Shropshire cheese, revived from a 100-year-old recipe by head cheesemaker, Dudley Martin. Delicious doesn't come even close to describing it and the blood orange and gin marmalade I took home barely lasted a week!
Just as well there are plenty of physical activities to take part here, from walking and hiking to swimming and cycling. In fact, walking enthusiasts can walk on the new Heart of Wales Line Trail to Broome. It covers some 150 miles by foot but being time constrained, we managed a fraction of it at just over five miles. We covered double the distance on bike courtesy of Wheely Wonderful Cycles. They offer all types of cycling holidays from easy to difficult to and speciality tours taking in castles or foodie delights. We leisurely cycled from their base in Elton to Baron at Bucknell with the obligatory pub stopover. Had I known the lap of luxury that awaited us at our luxury rooms, complete with outdoor tubs and a natural swimming pond, I would've peddled faster.
Surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt countryside, the area is a real treasure especially for wildlife. We were fortunate to witness life in the wilderness at Clunton Coppice as we searched for Pine Martens. Accompanied by Stuart Edmunds, of Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Pine Marten Project, we were fascinated to learn there has been sightings of Pine Martens here for the first time in recent years in 2015. These elusive animals were thought to be extinct in England until the sightings. We gathered around various spots, as quite as mouse, in search of the animals via binoculars. But try as we did, the Pine Martens were not going to make an appearance that night.
Flying is part and parcel of my job as a travel writer but being able to fly a glider was a first for me. The Midland Gliding Club, officially founded in 1934, specialises in training pilots at all levels, from beginners to advanced cross country soaring. Strapped to the front of the cockpit with my trainer behind me, we took to the skies over the Long Mynd. Quite different from just being a passenger in a metal tube, I felt I was part of the surroundings. And when I was handed the controls for a while, I totally appreciated the fascination with gliding. Sadly, there's been a decline in membership in recent years and the proportion of women participants is just five per cent.
Get a prescription for some ‘emergency poetry’
Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more surprises arising from Shropshire, we met Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet. Dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope dangling from her neck, Deborah took each one of us one-by-one inside her 1970s 'ambulance' and prescribed poems as cures following a questionnaire. A mix of a therapeutic and theatrical experience, Deborah travels to literary and music festivals, libraries, schools, pubs, weddings and conferences to deliver poems wherever help is required. It's been a while since I dabbled with poetry but something about the poem Deborah gave me, rekindled my love for it. Was it the Emergency poet or was it being in Shropshire that did it? Who knows.
For more information on any of the above activities as well as explore what else Shropshire Hills has to offer, visit https://www.visitshropshirehills.co.uk.