Shropshire. The way England still lives in the mind's eye
At the top of the hill we turned, and below us the green and gold fields of England suddenly shook themselves out in the afternoon sunshine like a panoramic tapestry hung in an emperor's palace.
We had left the car at the five-barred gate on what locals call the Upper Road and climbed the steep, bracken-covered side of Brown Clee Hill. Shaggy sheep looked up absently, then lowered their heads again. A group of wild ponies ignored us altogether. The air flowed like crystal water, sharp and clear.
I was to leave for London again that afternoon, so we stopped only three-quarters of the way to the top.
As far as we could see in all directions lay one of the ways England still lives in the mind's eye: the serenity of hedged fields, soft glowing sunshine, ewes officious with exuberant newborn lambs, tiny winding roads and wayside churches, rooks and stiles, timeless peace.
Formed by the River Corve, the Corve Dale stretches north from the ancient seat of Ludlow in Southern Shropshire (also known as Salop), preserved in its history and peace because ''it's on the way to nowhere,'' as the locals say.
It is about four hours from London by car, off the well-beaten tourist tracks of the crown jewels and Stratford and the Cotswolds. Yet it offers a great deal. Here is the balm of a piece of the world preserved from the time before advertising hoardings and superhighways, ideal perhaps for a break in the midst of a crowded two weeks of sightseeing in the more popular parts of Britain.
This is where time slows down. The art of walking returns, of simply puttering about in the midst of gentle rural beauty.
We watched wood pigeons and sparrowhawks fly and listened to virtually nonstop bleating of ewes and lambs calling to each other. We stopped the car on a narrow, empty, country road to see the weathered stone of a chapel erected by the Normans after their victory of 1066 and still used.
We went for walks and found the small stone parish church at Abdon, laid out by Saxons ''in grounds made circular so that evil spirits could find not a corner in which to hide,'' as Mrs. Jane Cooke of the Old Rectory Inn at Abdon told me.
The tides of English history have swept over the valley, and the modern world intrudes in the blunt shapes of United Kingdom and United States Air Force jet-fighters flying low on practice missions from time to time. Yet the valley is unmoved by such minor temporal events. It retains its serenity intact.
From the higher slopes of the Clee the contours of the land are almost as the Plantagenets Edward IV and his brother Richard III might have seen them when they lived at Ludlow Castle as boys. Cromwell's soldiers came here when the nearby fortress at Ludlow was the last royalist stronghold to fall in 1646.
And not far away, the pioneers of the world's Industrial Revolution began to change the face of Britain by smelting iron with coal at the Ironbridge Gorge, a few miles to the north, in the 1770s.
As we looked, contours and colors were dappled, as English fields should always be, with the moving, knife-edged shadows of clouds blowing along in a breezy, good-natured sky. A tractor crawled silently across a green expanse below. Rooks flapped from large, ungainly nests high in leafless trees.
From our feet the ground fell away to the Lower Road below, then rose steeply again into the distance, lifting in giant folds picture-book stone farm buildings, and miniature clusters of stone where villages shelter at the intersections of almost imperceptible roads.
Beyond the far line of hills lay Wenlock Edge and Ape Dale, then Wales, the Cambrian Mountains, and eventually the Irish Sea.
As we stood, the weather began to change, as it does every few hours in spring and autumn.
All is still in this corner of England, yet nothing is still, so quickly do clouds hide and reveal the sun during the day that fields in the distance glow and fall dark, then light up again like stage sets even as you watch.
That morning it had poured with rain. Barely half an hour later the sun shone warmly. Now a low line of dark clouds on the southern horizon was trailing misty tendrils of rain toward us.
The day before, with the children, we had literally walked around the edge of the rain on our way back down the valley. Today we descended into the grayness to regain the car. Tiny pieces of hail touched our shoulders, but before we had reached the cottage, the sun was out again, bouncing from pools on the road and gilding the boughs of the trees.
We discovered this out-of-the-way part of the world when my wife spotted for rent (in this newspaper) a pair of stone, slate-roofed farm cottages lovingly converted into a three-bedroom country home deep in the Corve Dale about 12 miles north of Ludlow.
Once the cottages housed two farm families, each containing several children, without running water or indoor plumbing. Now they are one house, about an hour from Birmingham.
Sitting in a glassed-in sun room on the upper floor, our eyes were on the same level as a wire fence bordering a large grassy field sloping steeply up and away to the upper road. A bull grazed with a herd of cows. Ewes and their lambs came to the fence to peer at us morning and afternoon.
The field belongs to affable John Bradley, his face ruddied by the weather, owner of more than 300 acres, some 250 black-faced Clun sheep, and more than 200 Hereford and other beef cattle.
In April he and his helper, Norman, work seven days a week around the clock. They get up at 2 a.m. and again at 5 to check on the lambing: They have had as many as 39 lambs born on a single night, each needing to be checked over.
How many days off has he had in the last three years? ''One or two,'' he laughs. ''There's always something to do with livestock.''
John Bradley is the aristocracy of the valley. Norman is content with eight ewes and three cows, which he sells off at local markets for others to fatten up and use. There's little money in wool for these farmers, so sheep and cattle alike are sold either for others' stocks or for meat.
A few hundred yards away Mrs. Cooke sat in a spaciously converted kitchen, what was for many years a rectory for the local minister.
She and her husband take in six guests at a time, in three period-style bedrooms. Mrs. Cooke provides breakfasts and dinners herself in a dining-drawing room restored to a Georgian comfort and authenticity.''
The people we get are country lovers, bird watchers, walkers,'' she said the other morning. ''The area offers peace and quiet, countryside, and the historic towns nearby - such as Ludlow, Much Wenlock, Bridgnorth.''
Southern Shropshire, you see, isn't on the way to anywhere, really. When the people of Birmingham and Wolverhampton go to Wales, for instance, they cross the border well north of here.
''But the Industrial Revolution began at Ironbridge Gorge (in Telford), and there are working museums amd exhibitions there. Ludlow is one of the most celebrated towns in England, and there's the Severn Valley railway at Bridgnorth , and fishing in the Teme River. . . . Lots to do, really. . . .''
Mrs. Cooke charges (STR)19 (currently $28.50) per night for bed and breakfast , with dinner $12.75 extra per person.
Each of the three bedrooms has a hand basin. All share one large bathroom upstairs.
In Ludlow, the Feathers is one of the best-known timber-framed buildings in the country, drawing tourists from miles around. Its half-timbered front, once aptly described as ''exuberantly 17th century,'' dates from 1603. Inside, the rooms are thick with carved mantelpieces and ornamented ceilings.
A double room, breakfast, and a tour of the town is (STR)23 ($35.50) per person per night. A ''royal'' Ludlow two-night budget break, including two three-course dinners, is (STR)59 per person ($88.50). Practical informationWe reached Ludlow and the Corve Dale by car via the Severn bridge north of Cardiff (two hours west from London on the M4 motorway), then north through Wales through the magnificent Wye Valley and its famous Tintern Abbey, past Monmouth, through Hereford and Leominster to Ludlow, then for 12 miles up the dale to Abdon. Total travel time: four hours.
A more direct and well-known, though slower, route is northwest from London via Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Worcester to Ludlow. This route would be ideal for tourists hiring a car and planning to see the major sights along the way, with a relaxing time around Ludlow perhaps at the midpoint of their stay.