I’d been thinking about setting a story in Shropshire for some time. For a writer of historical fiction, its rich past, carved into the largely unchanged rural landscape is a gift and with such long history comes all those unwritten rules associated with the oral traditions of local folklore and superstition.
Growing up in the area, I’d always been aware of a landscape so overwhelming we’ve had to invent stories to make ourselves feel better about it; stories that tame it and explain its power, and help us understand it.
Take Gwendol, the giant, for instance who created the whale-backed hill known as the Wrekin. One day, he set out with a shovel full of mud to dam the river Severn at Shrewsbury, knowing it would flood the land and kill the local inhabitants. On the way, he was met by a poor cobbler carrying a sack of shoes for repair. Knowing what the giant was planning to do, the cobbler convinced him it was a very long walk to Shrewsbury. To prove it, he opened his sack and showed the giant all the shoes he’d worn out, travelling there and back. Abandoning his plan, the giant dropped the soil from his spade where he stood, creating the largest part of the Wrekin, then scraped the mud off his boot to make the smaller mound.
It’s worth knowing when you consider this that the river Severn floods nearly every year in Shrewsbury. It always has, even before the threat of global warming and it probably always will.
At six years old, I saw no reason not to believe this story. Years later, it came as a surprise to learn the Wrekin isn’t simply a pile of mud dropped from a shovel, but composed of volcanic rocks and is a product of volcanism, although contrary to yet another popular belief, it was never a volcano. Naturally, this is a far less interesting story because there’s no mention of giants.
It doesn’t stop there. Even the prominent rocks and stones that stand on the Wrekin itself have taken on names and superstitions, creating customs of their own. If a pair of lovers can climb together through the cleft in the rocky outcrop known as the needle’s eye, they’ll enjoy a trouble-free marriage.
In such an ancient landscape there’s always a story; a stone is never just a stone, it is the route to a happy marriage, the spine of a sleeping monster or a chair to seat the devil. A veil of mist is not simply a result of the excessive damp that plagues the county, but a subterfuge created by a mystical force to cover something more sinister.
As a child living not far from Wenlock Edge, I was drawn to the writing of Mary Webb (1881 -1927) who was born nearby and set all her novels in the area. Although unfashionable today and often parodied, most famously by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm, she was a nature writer and poet of such power she was at one time likened to Emily Bronte. If you can forgive her outdated style, you’ll find the dominance of the landscape on the lives of her characters is in a similar spirit to Thomas Hardy.
All writers are magpies, picking up shiny pieces here and there as we go, feathering our creative nests with everything that touches our imaginations or our hearts, which is probably why so much of Mary Webb’s mysticism appears in the emotional world of my own story, The Barley Child.
I’m reminded of her writing every time I look at those blue Shropshire hills, or walk along the ancient escarpment of Wenlock Edge, or stand at midday each Boxing day on the iron bridge that spans the Severn at Ironbridge, watching the Morris men, listening to the local bawdy songs I remember from the school playground. Songs I imagine Mary Webb would also have known.
If you’ve read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, you’ll be familiar with the notion of a barley child, and the seven whistlers circling the sky, reminding you there’ll be a tragedy, just in case you hoped the story would have a happy end. And if I tell you I’d forgotten these details when I wrote The Barley Child and only rediscovered them recently, re-reading Precious Bane for the first time in thirty years, I wouldn’t expect you to believe me.
But you only have to look at the Shropshire landscape and imagine the people from the past, their bodies and spirits broken by their efforts to work the land, to guess the grim inevitability of their stories. Whatever was going to happen to Mary Webb’s characters or to mine, it was always in the hands of fate.