28/03/2015 - It must be 20 years since I was on The Wrekin. I remember it being a tough climb up and 20 years on it still felt pretty hard work. I was glad to get to the top for a sit even if the wind was pretty chilly. Maybe not the best hillfort in the world but the walk through Hell Gate and Heaven Gate is good. The view from the top is fantastic. Last site we visited on our trip and as I walked back down my feet were telling me it was time to go home.
On the one hand i'm disgusted at myself for taking so long to get up to this hill fort on the Wrekin, but on the other I couldn't have picked a much better day for it.
I parked at the northern end of the hill near the actual car park, and made my way up where I'd seen a dog walker come from. a bit muddy but frozen ..... but slippy.
On the way up, the dog walkers path turns into a bigger track, big enough to drive on. Five big signs warning me of a military firing range punctuate the steep track. Cripes, i'll not wander far off course today. Big bangs sound reassuringly far off though.
All too soon some height is gained, the air is cooler, ice and old crunchy snow makes walking slower and more precarious. There are quite a few people up here, Shrewsbury and Telford are close by big towns with lots of people some of whom like to hill walk now and then.
Just before the track gets very steep an information board shows up, does the information board think "ay up another walker, please read me.... please"
I duly oblige and instantly feel more informed, firstly I pass through the Hell gate, then through the Heaven gate, with plenty of ramparts all over the place. Brilliant !!!
Passing through the Hell gate, the mounds either side of it are maybe six feet high. A car then starts up behind me and i'm perplexed as to how he got up here, he shows me by leaving, slowly that's the key. Gawd you can drive up here ? not in my car I'll bet. Between the Hell gate and the heaven gate I slink off into the trees to locate some of the ramparts, they are very worn down, little more than terraces now, I follow along one up to the heaven gate, my second favorite fort entrance on the Wrekin.
It has to be said, the ramparts aren't that well preserved , but the entrances to it all are. Heaven gate is high up, 1300 feet high, rising to a height of five feet either side of you as you pass by. Apparently the gate names derive from perhaps two civil war battles, the Hell gate battle went badly but the Heaven gate one more favorably, for who I don't know. Cromwell presumably.
Ahead, at the top of the hill is a trig point and Toposcope, these both sit on top of a now cared for, but worn and torn barrow. It isn't recognisable as such but map says it's so.
Passing the walker swamped trig point you exit the inner fort by another gate, a gate with no name and not marked on the artists impression on the information board. The hill top isn't so wide here, vertical rocks guard the south side and a worn rampart on the north side, they both meet up at the south west gate, the last gate and my favorite on the hill. From here Caer Caradoc and the Lawley are very visible to the south west. The fort on the Wrekin is surely meant to be seen mostly from there.
I was always told that the Wrekin is an extinct volcano, but it isn't so, it was made by volcanic happenings, but it isn't a volcano, volcanic plugs rather. The rocks above the south west gate are very volcanic in appearance, slippy too, don't look over the side it's a long way down. One large rock has broken off the main outcrop leaving a slim gap between them, is this the needle. Don't know, nor could I find anything that is supposed to be a solar alignment wotsit on such and such a day. Oh well, summer wont be long.
Ive been up here for hours now it is time to go and pick up the kids from school, this morning was so much better than sitting at home watching day time TV wishing I was else where.
From 'Hell's Gate' we ascend to 'Heaven's Gate' and so win our way to the brow of the Wrekin, 1,335 feet above the sea. 'There is on the Toppe of this Hill a delicate plaine Ground, and in this plaine a fayre Fountaine,' wrote Leland, the antiquary, long ago. No water is to be found there now except such as collects, from time to time, in the 'Raven's Bowl,' a cup-like depression on the top of a conical outcrop of rock, know as the 'Bladder, (or Balder's) Stone.' At the foot of this rock there is a deep, narrow, crooked cleft, yclept the 'Needle's Eye.' Now the fable goes that, if any young maid dips her foot into the Raven's Bowl, and then 'threads the Needle's Eye,' by scrambling through the cloven rock, she will be married within a twelvemonth, 'so sure as there's acherns in Shropshire.
Acherns = acorns? From 'Nooks and Corners of Shropshire' by H T Timmins (1899).
Three oblong mounds, one on each side of the broad road, that form a narrow gorge through which we must pass, are the portals of one of the ancient British fortifications raised when the Wrekin was the first mountain on the border-land between Britain and Wales, to which the native tribes could retreat before the Roman armies. The portals still bear the name of Hell Gates; and on either side of them are the remains of a rampart and moat, formed of a double agger or rampart of stones, after the manner of all British encampments.
Nearer to the summit of the hill, where the ascent is almost finished, we can trace an inner line of inclosure, discernable for thirty yards, with a second gorge of entrance similar to Hell Gates, which is still called Heaven Gates.
[...] Upon the south-east of the hill, just within the lower rampart, stands a ragged and storm-beaten rock, rising sheer from the smoothly sloping sides to a giddy and precipitous height. It is now called by a name that has no meaning - the Bladder Stone; but this is probably corrupted from the name Balder's Stone [...] to the Scandinavian god of light, Balder [...]
[in medieval times] the hill was called St. Gilbert's Mountain, and a recluse, renowned for sanctity which even won royal favour, dwelt upon this summit [...]
I think the thin air up there was getting to the author a bit. He also mentions the tale that the "cleft in Balder's Stone, now called the Needle's Eye, [they believed it] to have been rent at the crucifixion of their Lord". There could be other reasons for calling a rock the Bladder stone, but he's not entertaining them.
From 'A Summer Day on the Wrekin' in the magazine 'The Leisure Hour', September 17th 1864.
Though no tradition exists of the erection of a pole or tree on the Wrekin on 'Wrekin May Sunday,' yet in Shropshire [it] is chosen as the scene of a May festival. 'Wrekin Wakes,' as the assemblage is commonly called, take place on the first Sunday in May, and in the beginning of the century were the most numerously attended of any of our hill-wakes, held as they were in the midst of the most populous part of Shropshire.
'The top of the old hill,' writes a correspondent of Byegones, 'was covered with a multitude of pleasure-seekers, with ale-booth, ginger-bread-standings, gaming-tables, swing-boats, merry-go-rounds, three-stickes-a-penny, and all the etceteras of an old English fair.' But the characteristic feature of the Wrekin Wakes, was the yearly battle between the colliers and the countrymen for the possession of the hill. An old villager, who had taken part in these frays, assured our authority that his side had always been victorious, because, if worsted early in the day, they sent messengers to the surrounding villages for reinforcements, and renewed the battle with increased numbers. Sometimes, when parties were evenly balanced, the Wellington men would turn the scale by allying themselves with one side or the other, after the manner of the Irish Members of the House of Commons' but even they, so said the old countryman, generally preferred to help the country party. The fighting was really fierce: serious and even fatal injuries were sometimes received, and the disorderly scenes at last reached such a pitch, that when the Cludde family of Orleton bought up the manorial rights, etc. over the first portion of the hill, they determined to put down the wake by force. Accordingly they employed a party of constables, gamekeepers and so forth, to clear the hill of visitors on one particular Wake Sunday, and since then the wake has been done away with; but great numbers of holiday-makers ascend the Wrekin on 'Wrekin May Sunday' even now, and a good many on the following Sunday also.
At what date the Wake was summarily put down, I cannot say. A correspondent of Hone (Every-Day Book, ii. 599), writing at Wellington, in February, 1826, speaks of it as then held 'on the Sunday after May-day, and three successive Sundays, to drink a health to "all friends round the Wrekin"; and adds, that 'its celebration has of late been very properly discouraged by the magistracy, and is going deservedly to decay'; but says nothing of the forcible clearances made by the proprietors of the hill.
Hesba Stretton (writing Oct. 18th, 1879) tells us of the 'old custom, now quite gone, of ascending the Wrekin on Easter Sunday, to see the sun rise. He was expected to rise dancing,' but one is not prepared to find the wonder innocently credited even now, as seems really to be the case no far from the foot of the venerable hill. The Rev. R.H.Cobbold [..], writes as follows, 13th October, 1879: 'In the district called Hockley, in the parish of Broseley*, a woman whose maiden name was Evans, wife of Rowland Lloyd, a labourer, said she had heard of the thing but did not believe it true, "till," she said, "on Easter morning last, I got up early, and then I saw the sun dance, and dance, and dance, three times, and I called to my husband and said, 'Rowland, Rowland, get up and see the sun dance! I used,' she said, 'not to believe it, but now I can never doubt more.' The neighbours agreed with her that the sun did dance on Easter morning, and some of them had seen it.'
Wrekin Wakes, held on the first Sunday in May, were distinguished by an ever-recurring contest between the colliers and the agricultural population for the possession of the hill. This is said to have gone on all day, reinforcements being called up when either side was worsted.
The rites still practised by visitors to the Wrekin doubtless formed part of the ceremonial of the ancient wakes. On the bare rock at the summit is a natural hollow, known as the Raven's Bowl or the Cuckoo's Cup, which is always full of water, supposed to be placed there as it were miraculously, for the use of the birds. Every visitor should taste this water, and, if a young girl ascending the hill for the first time, should then scramble down the steep face of the cliff and squeeze through a natural cleft in the rock called the Needle's Eye, and believed to have been formed when the rocks were rent at the Crucifixion. Should she look back during the task, whe will never be married. Her lover should await her at the further side of the gap, where he may claim a kiss, or, in default of one, the forfeit of some article of clothing - a coloured article, such as a glove, a kerchief, or a ribbon, carefully explained the lady on whose authority the last detail is given.
I like that, the 'carefully explained' bit, it sounds like it's so people didn't get The Wrong Idea. That might be just me though.
As I recall the Needle's Eye is a bit of a squeeze.
From Charlotte S Burne's article in 'Memorials of Old Shropshire' by Thomas Auden (1906).
Just to add a bit to Paulus' post, the reason that the Giant had such a thing against Shrewsbury was as follows:
"In the old days, when the ancient town of Shrewsbury was but newly built, its citizens, especially those who worked about the River Servern, were venturesome persons. One day three of them in quite a small boat, light and fast, with a single sail and oars went down the river. Fishing had been bad, and these men were prospecting for fresh ground, particularly for eels, of which Shrewsburians were notably fond.
Tempted by the wide smoothness of the river and the beautiful new scenery along its banks, the three pioneers went on for days, camping at nights on the bank, till they emerged on to what is now the Bristol Channel.
Turning westward into the calmer waters sheltered by South Wales, the three fishermen came to a very pleasant coast, seemingly abandoned by human beings. It was deserted because its sole inhabitant was an enormous giant, who tyrranised so cruelly over people of normal stature that the latter preferred to keep away altogether from his oppressive dominance.
Like all giants of antiquity, the South Walian individual was of incalculable strength but excessively lazy, stupid and revengeful of small injuries.
The Shrewsbury men knew naught of this. They came to a pretty little river tumbling into the Channel from beautiful mountain scenery.At the mouth of the river were some gigantic eel traps full of huge eels. Amazed at first by the stupendous size of the traps, the voyagers were so tempted by the excellence of the eels that they decided to help themselves, arguing that a few out of such quantities would never be missed.
As the three Shrewsbury fishermen finished loading their boat the giant woke from slumber on the other side of the hill. His yawns sounded like thunder, and his taking deep breaths was the wind in the tree tops. Greatly alarmed, the eel stealers got out their oars and pulled away. Fortunate for them that they did so. A few minutes later the immense hair-fringed face of the giant appeared over the hilltop. Seeing what had happened the giant strode slowly down the to the shore, and in a voice like the roaring of many bulls commanded the fugitives to stop. The tide was running up, the wind filled the sail, the two at the oars pulled strenuously, and the boat sped northward. Feeling themselves safe, the Shrewsbury men gathered courage. The steersman, a fellow with a stentorian voice, was foolish enough to shout back 'we be Shrewsbury men, and we always get what we want.'
Hearing it, the giant fell into a paroxysm of rage. He shook his fist, cursed, and swore he would exterminate the whole tribe of Shrewsbury folk, the three representatives of which only derided the more. Whereat the giant picked up rocks large as houses and threw them after the retreating boat, which narrowly escaped being swamped by the big waves set up.
Safely back in Shrewsbury, the three men excited astonishment and some incredulity by the story of their adventures, but the eels were incontrovertibly the finest ever brought into the town."
This is what got the giant mad, leading to his cross-country trek with the shovel-full of sand and mud that would become the Wrekin.
From "Legends of the Severn Valley" - Alfred Rowberry Williams (Folk Press Limited).
A mode of drinking to all friends, wheresoever they may be, taking the Wrekin as a center. The Wrekin is a mountain in the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury, seen at a great distance.
A phrase I believe is still in use today! From the Shropshire section of A provincial glossary: with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions. Francis Grose (1790). Online at Google Books.
Nope I've no proof this holy well has genuine prehistoric connections. But it is on the Wrekin (a hill you can hardly fail to notice) and would surely have been a useful water source for people living in / using the hillfort in prehistoric times.. (I can take the post away if necessary).
We complete the holy wells of the Wrekin District with St Hawthorn's Well on the Wrekin itself. (There is also the Raven's Bowl, alias Cuckoo's Cup, near the top of the Wrekin, which suggests a more frankly pagan origin; a natural waterbowl that is still very much to be seen).
None of the authorities locate St Hawthorn's Well's exact site on the Wrekin, either because none knew, or when they wrote its position was so well-known that it seemed unnecessary. Like all other hard rock hills the Wrekin has a large number of streams originating from small springs, carrying water down the hill on all sides, so there are many candidates. However, where one stream emerges onto the road (NGR 624 069) the place is known as The Spout, and this may possibly commemorate St Hawthorn's Well.
The well was known for scorbutic therapeutical properties, and the fact that one unfortunate's unrewarded visit is commonly recorded suggests it was generally held to be efficacious. Burne holds St Hawthorn(e) to be a corruption of St Alkmund, to whom a nearby monastery was dedicated; but other authorities (and for once Mrs Burne's view seems unlikely) suggest that there was a tree there that was venerated and the spring was close by.
"Mrs Burne" refers to Charlotte Burne's 'Shropshire Folk Lore'. Volume 3 says:
On the summit of the Wrekin there is the Raven's Bowl, or Cuckoo's Cup, as it is variously called; a small hollow in the rock, which is always full of water though no spring is there, and is popularly believed to be a drinking-place purposely, and as it were miraculously, formed for the use of the birds after which it is named. It is proper to taste the water in this hollow when visiting the Wrekin. I do not know, but feel no doubt nevertheless, that this was a ceremony pertaining to the ancient Wrekin Wake.
One story about the Wrekin and its smaller neighbour the Ercall is pretty much identical to that told about Cley Hill and little Cley Hill.
And the story involving giants also has its details: the Needle's Eye is said to be where one of them split the rock with his spade during an argument with his friend. The eye has a story connected with it - if you pass through it you'll see your true love.
The other giant's pet raven leapt up and pecked at the first giant's eyes - the tears formed Raven's Bowl, a pool that is always full of water. The giant was imprisoned inside the Ercall - if you go up there at night you can hear him groaning.
(I have heard the Needle's Eye story firsthand locally, and the latter tales are mentioned in the Bords's Atlas of Magical Britain).