The Stretton Hills - By Amy Porter
To the east of Church Stretton, running along the Church Stretton Fault, are two lines of dramatic and beautiful hills composed of Precambrian Uriconian Volcanic lavas and ashes, about 570-600 million years old: the Ercall and Wrekin, the Lawley, Caer Caradoc, Hope Bowdler, Willstone and Cardington hills.
The following route is a circular across Caer Caradoc and the Lawley. The Lawley is a 3km long narrow ridge, standing imposingly on the horizon, running northeast to southwest. It is primarily formed of andesites and basic tuffs, with ryolitic outcrops and a band of dolerite close to the summit. Caer Caradoc, classed as a Marilyn, lies entirely within the fault zone and appears as a steep sided, hog-back ridge with a conical main summit reaching 459 metres. It is crowned with an Iron Age hill fort, providing a view point across the surrounding hills and valleys. The south westerly face sweeps across the landscape in a large band of undulating folding anticlines and synclines. The impressive rocky outcrops that give Caradoc its unique and distinctive form are comprised of igneous rhyolite, andesite, basalt and dolerite and sequences known as Ragleth Tuffs. Under close inspection, one can observe gas bubble holes, providing an insight into a volcanic age. Nestled between the two hills, Comley Quarry offers a tiny limestone and sandstone amphitheatre with a fascinating geological history, being described by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust as a ‘holy place for geologists, the location of the discovery of Britain’s earliest trilobites in the 1880’s’.
The difference in rock is reflected in the grasslands that thrive on both the Lawley and Caradoc, and are somewhat different from the Long Mynd side of Church Stretton. Much is acidic soil, with heather sprouting from ryolitic rocks and grassland laid mainly to sheep’s fescue, common bent and heath bedstraw. Waxcap fungi are a frequent feature of these uplands, providing an abundance of colour during the autumn months. Overhead, buzzards and the occasional red kite can be spotted hunting amongst the carrion crows, and kestrels are a common sight on the west side of the Lawley. A joyous time of year in late autumn, the Lawley appears to be a favourite site for house martins to gather before their winter migration to Africa.
Effort wise, this walk provides something different from the Long Mynd. The ascents/descents can be considered steep, and require some effort. Steep sections can be avoided, but at the cost of missing wonderful views, historical hill forts and the best examples of Shropshire’s geodiversity. If you are training for an event, challenge or want to test your hill walking fitness, then this is a great little walk, with plenty of easy terrain to recover following a climb. If you are spending a few days in Church Stretton, it is highly recommended that you bag these hills early in your stay, as the summits offer a wonderful overview of what Shropshire has to offer. With panoramic views towards the Ercall, Wrekin, neighbouring Stretton Hills and beyond across to the west over the Long Mynd, you will bring your walking maps to life as you survey the horizon and can tailor you walks to cover the very best of this varied and fascinating terrain.
For convenience, this walks begins on Sanderson Avenue, close to Church Stretton train station. There is an abundance of shops and tearooms in the town to stock up on snacks, drinks or essential kit before you embark on the walk as there are no facilities along the way. Short and long stay carparks are located in the town centre, and toilets on Easthope Road.
Proceed east down Sanderson Avenue to the crossroads. There are pedestrian crossings to take you safely across the busy A49, where you head straight onto the B4371 towards Much Wenlock. Just past St Milburga Catholic Church, turn left onto Watling Street North and continue to the right handed bend. Here, you will see Cwms Lane straight ahead, sign posted Caer Caradoc. Continue along the lane until you reach a public footpath way marker and wooden stile next to a farm gate to the right. The track continues around the edge of farm fields, and reaches another gate which leads you through a wooded coppice. To your right is Helmeth Hill, a beautiful ancient bluebell wood.
Continuing ahead, take the first narrow track left, leading you up your first steep ascent. The track is clearly defined, and includes some rocky steps. Care is needed as the terrain is scree covered in some places. Continue to climb and pass through a kissing gate with the first false summit, known as Three Fingers Rock now in view. This is a ryolitic outcrop looming high above you, where carline thistle can be found. Once reached you are provided with a wonderful resting place to admire the view back across to the town of Church Stretton and up onto the Long Mynd.
From here, follow the path previously trod across the summit ridge of the hill, heading toward the clearly visible highest point. There are several pathways to choose from, with the Caractacus cave hidden to the north side of the summit, named after the legendary first century AD Welsh chieftain Caractacus. The most spectacular path is that to the right, which follows the basaltic tors that form the causeway around the southern edge of the large multivallate Iron Age hill fort, resting on the precipitous steep east face and forming a strong defensive wall.
The fort is considered to be an excellent example of its class, with unusual earthworks incorporating the natural rocky outcrops and the nature of the ditch construction indicating a ‘gangwork’ organisation of labour. The views from this point are of the finest in Shropshire, stretching across towards Willstone and Hope Bowdler Hills, and beyond towards Cardington. To the northwest, further magnificent views map out the wooded Helmeth Hill, Hazler Hill with its transmitter trig point and Ragleth Hill.
Above left: Between the balsaltic tors, wide stretching views pan out across towards Cardington. Right: Willstone Hill and the battlestones to the southeast provide insight into Caer Caradoc Hill Fort’s strong defensive position.
Proceed toward the east entrance to the hillfort, where the inner ramparts can be further explored. Natural pools that have formed between the rocks offer the perfect habitat for dragonfly and damselfly, and heather can be found within the rhyolite tuff and the occasional skylark can be seen hovering on the east face. Exit the fort through an obvious pathway in the rock and towards Little Caradoc, and enjoy your first view of the next summit to climb; the Lawley.
Above left: Wildlife habitats and pools on the Iron Age Hill Fort inner rampart. Right: Descending Little Caradoc, the next climb visible ahead, with the whaleback Lawley ridge rising above the patchwork fields.
After following the obvious path down to a stile and on to Little Caradoc, continue down the relatively steep descent. At the bottom, follow the path to the left and through a kissing gate onto a farm track. Proceed right until you reach a small road where you turn left and continue past a five bar gate on your right hand side. Here, the gpx may prove useful, as the next gate can often be hidden in the hedgerow. It is just a short distance further than the five bar gate, and takes you across a farm field (which can be very boggy in the middle) with an impressive pedunculate oak tree.
Head towards the northeast corner of the field and pass through a kissing gate. Follow the hedgerow along the left hand side of the next field, being mindful of the grazing cattle and electric fence. Pass through the gate immediately ahead (there is one directly to your left to avoid) and follow the track, keeping the hedgerow to your right and electric fence to your left, until you reach a stile. The path then crosses a small road and up what appears to be the driveway of Comley Farm. There is a signpost hidden in the trees to your right for reassurance. Follow the track and cross the cattle grid. You are now presented with two options; continue your climb up and over the Lawley ridge to take in more magnificent views, or, if you would prefer a less strenuous route, take the track to the left of the Lawley and follow it along until you reach a small road. Here, you can follow the road to the right and through a small parking area to begin your climb back over the Lawley. Described here is the former, to climb over Lawley summit.
Just past the cattle grid to the right is a small path leading through the bracken. Follow this to a five bar gate, and pass through the gate. Within this area, there are often mixed flocks of Texel and Zwarble sheep, and Jacob’s crossed with Bluefaced Leicester sheep graze across the Lawley ridge.
Once through the gate, begin the long, arduous climb up the whaleback. To your right, you will find the band of dolerite as you near the top of the first climb, and below to the right the beautiful tree lined Hoar Edge, which also offers an alternative route to return to Caer Caradoc for those who wish to avoid the climb back. Further on the horizon to the south-southwest are Wenlock Edge and Brown Clee.
Continue to the climb to the trig point. The original trig pillar is no longer standing, but the remains are still visible. For many years, walkers have headed towards the tall pillar topped with a lovely weather vane and iron bird, which stood beside the trig pillar. Unfortunately, this pillar was brought down in January 2020 by Storm Ciara, and it remains to be seen whether it will be re-erected. Mere metres away from the trig pillar, there is an excellent example of a Bronze and Iron Age cross-dyke.
Continue the descent down the rolling hills and take the time to observe the Wrekin and Ercall hills on the horizon. This particular part of the hill is often full of birds, in particular house martin and swallow, who presumably take advantage of the outbuildings of the nearby
Blackhurt Farm. It is also a hotspot for red kite and kestrel, who favour the steep north and west facing slopes. Incidentally, these slopes are also a great launch pad for paragliders, who can often be seen soaring above.
Once you have passed the transmitter, the descent takes you through a wooded coppice, where you can either turn on your heels and retrace your steps over the ridge (follow the gpx provided at the end of this summary), or follow the track down to your left and follow the farm track to the north of the hill. You can also follow the ridge back until you meet a vague track bearing left (approx. grid ref. SO498980) which takes you to a gate and track through farm fields where Highland Cattle graze. The track takes you back to the five bar gate at the foot of the Lawley.
It is recommended to retrace your steps and take advantage of the fabulous views over Caer Caradoc, the Long Mynd and to the south as far as Snowdonia on a clear day. Once over the summit, you are presented with a fabulous view of Little and Caer Caradoc.
Return to Comley Farm, but turn left here along the country lane until you reach a T-junction. Turn right and follow the road a short distance to a right hand bend. On the bend, to the left, you will find the tiny amphitheatre that is Comley Quarry. A limestone and sandstone escarpment, the area is famed for having some of the richest Cambrian faunas of its age in Britain, some 500 million years ago. Fossils discovered in the Comley Sandstone and Limestone group include trilobites, arthropods, brachiopods and hyolithids. It is also a haven for some of the rarer plant species and dormice.
Continue along the road until you meet the left hand track that takes you back over Little Caradoc. Once over the stile, proceed along the track to left, avoiding the Caer Caradoc hillfort, or continue back over the summit to admire views from above. On the south facing slopes of Caradoc, waxcaps, gorse and rosebay willowherb add burst of colour to grassland, and Three Fingers Rock looms on the horizon.
As you descend the hill, whether by the left hand track or down from Three Fingers Rock, you reach the established track and head back towards Church Stretton, following the path that you took outward bound. It is worth veering left into the ancient woodland adorning Helmeth Hill, to explore the ancient woodland species of small-leaved lime and toothwort, yellow archangel and wood sorrel.
Continue back along Cwms Lane and back to Church Stretton. If you time your walk to return before 4pm, there is a huge selection of tearooms available, or public houses for much needed refreshments.
In summary, this walk has some steep ascents and descents, but there is always an alternative route around. A packed lunch and drinks are required, as there are no amenities along the way. It offers wonderful views across the main group of Shropshire Hills.
Time: 5 hrs 10 mins
Distance: 4.83 miles
OS Explorer 217