Wrekin

The Wrekin is visible for miles around and can be seen easily from Stoke on Trent and the Staffordshire Moorlands on a clear day, some 34 miles away. 

The Wrekin is Shropshire’s best-known landmark, and the saying, “All around the Wrekin” is in common use far beyond the county boundaries to mean meandering or “Going the long way round”

View from the summit

Given the Wrekin’s fame it is no surprise there is a great deal of fascinating history attached to the hill and the surrounding area as well as several inspiring folk lore tales and legends. The Wrekin is one of the most important pre-Christian religious sites in Britain, ranking with Stonehenge.

Walking up at 8am on what was perhaps the hottest day of the year, lots of people were already descending as well as making the trip upward. It seemed like the hill had an almost mythical pull to it with people travelling here from many miles around, enticed by the energy of the place. 

There is a distinct sense you are walking in the footsteps of people who lived here thousands of years ago. 

Remains of the Wrekin’s ancient forest

The lower parts are covered in dense woodland which in the most part also stretches up as you get toward the upper parts.  

There is a mysticism around the hill. As I was ascending the haze of an early hot summer day was thick but the visibility from the top was still nothing less than astonishing. I spotted two wild deer run across the path close to the apex where two markers establish the official summit of the hill. 

Illustration of how the hill fort may have looked with Hell’s Gate at the bottom and Heaven’s Gate half way up into the main fortified area.

This is a view that has not changed since people stood on this very spot and gazed out over the surrounding countryside thousands of years ago. 

The hill itself is formed from some of the oldest rock in the area (Cambrian period, 545-510 million years ago), including lava and volcanic ash. However, it isn’t an extinct volcano, as popular belief would have it. Everest, the Alps and the Andes are hundreds of millions of years younger than this hill. 

An ancient fable tells of two exiled giants trying to build a new home. They pilled up soil to make a massive hill leaving a great, long trench, which filled with water and formed the River Severn.

When the hill was finished they argued over who should live there. One giant raised his spade to hit his brother, but up flew a raven and pecked his eyes so he missed. The spade came down hard and left a cleft in the rock (this feature is now called the Needle’s Eye). The raven’s attack had caused the giant to shed a massive tear which burned into the hill forming a pool (nowadays this pool is known as the Raven’s Bowl or the Cuckoo’s Cup – no matter how hot the summer, it never dries up).

There is another story concerning its origin and this one states that it split asunder on the first Good Friday when Jesus died upon the cross. 

The summit

A local custom states that if lovers could ‘thread the needle’ together without stumbling, then their marriage would prove smooth and untroubled. 

As far as inhabitation goes, people have been living here for over 4,000 years.  

The hillfort at this place was first settled in the Neolithic or Bronze age but the visible defences are between 2,000 and 2,500 years old. 

Ancient footpath stones, thousands of feet have trodden these stones for thousands of years

Hillforts were the centres of Iron Age society, seats of power, home to great chieftains, druids, warriors, their families and servants. There would have been an increasingly secure complex of fortifications built and maintained down the centuries, all starting with simple earth ramparts. 

The Wrekin hillfort was probably the capital of the Cornovii tribe, who lived here before the Roman invasion. From their farmsteads in the surrounding countryside, people would have gathered here to trade and mingle for festivities and fairs.

Illustration showing how the entrance may have looked

Two points along the main path to the summit known as Heaven Gate and Hell Gate once really were gateways into the Iron Age hillfort which crowned the summit two thousand years ago, and it is still possible to make out the outlines of the guard houses which stood within the banks of these earthworks. 

The fort was abandoned in the mid-1st century AD (some 1,970 years ago). It is entirely plausible that it was taken by force; the discovery of two Roman javelin heads, one by the north-east gate and the other nearby on the Ercall, suggest this possibility. Certainly, the Romans would not have allowed a tribal remnant to continue occupying this defended hilltop enclosure, overlooking as it did their new city, Viroconium (better known as Wroxeter – https://famouspastwords.co.uk/2020/01/24/wroxeter/)

Remains of the old hill fort

No evidence has been found that the Wrekin was ever re-occupied after the departure of the Romans. The name of the Roman city can be translated as ‘Virico’s Town’, so it is possible that Virico was the name of the last local chieftain who lived and ruled in the Wrekin hillfort.

After the demise of Wroxeter as the Romans’ capital of the area in the fourth century, Saxons established a new administrative capital at Wrockwardine and a spiritual capital at Wellington. 

The summit

Historians suggest that Wellington was originally called Weoleahington, meaning ‘the settlement by the temple’. Although nobody knows the exact location of the temple, it is often suggested that the Wrekin itself bore a spiritual significance to Saxons.

Later on, the hill was part of a huge Norman hunting forest, which originally stretched as far Newport and Shrewsbury. Today, ancient woodland on the Wrekin and the Ercall are all that remains of a forest once inhabited by wild pigs. The Normans referred to the hill as Mount Gilbert, after a local Hermit.

It is also known that legendary author JRR Tolkien, creator of The Lord of the Rings, used to enjoy walking on the hill when he lived in nearby Penkridge. It is claimed that the Wrekin provided the inspiration for Middle Earth – the view certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Shire. 

Woodland

It would have been fascinating to witness the daily lives of the inhabitants of this place at points throughout history, particularly the moment the Roman’s came and inflicted what would have been a decisive and forceful eviction. Whether or not the natives left peacefully is something we will likely never know but the whole place as well as many areas in the vicinity abound with interesting lore and fascinating tales from bygone times.

View from the summit

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