Thursday, 25 June 2015

SHROPSHIRE IMAGINED: A E HOUSMAN



I have always assumed that the poet A. E. Housman was born in Shropshire, since his best known work is a collection of poems called A Shropshire Lad.  So, on researching him, I was surprised to discover that he was actally born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the county to the east of Shropshire, and that he wrote the work while living in London.  Housman once explained that Shropshire was on his western horizon, which made him romantic about it, and that he did not know the county well, so that some of the details about the county were wrong or imaginary.  However, this did not stop him from describing what he saw in the distance in famously poetic terms: "What are those blue remembered hills//What spires, what farms are those?"

One feature of the horizon that Housman may have discerned in the distance is Wenlock Edge, a limestone escarpment covered in woodland looked after by the National Trust which, along with another geographical feature known as The Wrekin, featured in the poem On Wenlock Edge from A Shropshire Lad, in which Housman describes a storm: "On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble//His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves".  Wenlock Edge, over 19 miles long, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its geology.  At its north-eastern end is the picturesque small town of Much Wenlock with its Priory and Guildhall.  The Wrekin rises 407 metres above the Shropshire Plain and is visible from as far away as Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.  Another prominent elevation in the area is the Long Mynd a bit further to the west.  On several occasions I have passed these landmarks on my way to Wales, and they always strike me as a tantalising foretaste of the splendours of the Welsh mountains.

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The Wrekin. Photo by Paul Beaman, via Wikimedia Commons

In his piece about the stormy weather on Wenlock Edge, Housman speculates that there would have been similar weather "when Uricon the city stood".  This is a reference to the Roman town of Uriconium, or Viroconium Cornoviorum, once the fourth largest Roman settlement in Britain.  The remains of the settlement lie near the present-day Wroxeter, a village near Shrewsbury, and include an archway which formed part of the baths' frigidarium.  The ruins are open to visitors and are run by English Heritage.

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Viroconium Cornoviorum. Photo by Alastair Rae, via Wikimedia Commons

The River Clun, which wends its way through the Shropshire countryside, lends its name to a number of villages as well as the small town of Clun, with its ruined medieval castle (English Heritage), nestling in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  In A Shropshire Lad Housman describes the sleepy nature of these settlements in the following whimsical verse: "Clunton and Clunbury//Clungunford and Clun//Are the quietest places//Under the sun."  Another larger town which features in the work is Ludlow, nowadays known as much as a foodie mecca as for its impressive castle overlooking the River Teme.  Housman writes about the town's fair: "The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair//There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold."  There is a memorial to Housman outside St Laurence's church in Ludlow and the ashes of the poet, who died in 1936, are buried under the stump of a cherry tree in the church grounds. 

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Ludlow Castle. Photo by Ian Capper, via Wikimedia Commons

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