Photo Essay: A Fortnight in Shropshire

First posted in October, 2005

It's always good to be back in Bishop's Castle.

BC is a wonderful little village of around 1500, situated near the border of England and Wales, in Shropshire. It's a compact little place, filled with shops and pubs and pretty-colored houses, nestled within an almost disturbingly picturesque pastoral scene. I was born in farm country, and hated its lack of aesthetic appeal, but BC pulls it off beautifully.

The really lovely thing about being back in the Shire is that it is where Sam's family lives. We arrived just in time to see Sam's brother, Xander off to university. Here, Xander is supervising (or something) while his girlfriend Meri grates cheese and Sam's mum, Miranda, works toward concocting one of our favorite dishes, Throw It On The Floor. Trust me, it's yummier than it sounds.

And here is the most wonderful awesome fantastic beautiful friendly cat presently alive on the planet, Harris. Notice how well she color-coordinates with the kitchen floor tiles. Her talents include being a top-notch lap blanket, possessing a purr that can be heard for a three-point-five mile radius, and eating whenever the occasion calls for it. She is also an expert anatomist, having somehow expertly dissected some mouse entrails while leaving the tail (fur intact) still attached; this was a present she left in the front hall that I was less than thrilled about, particularly since I later asked her to kill a mouse that was in the kitchen bin and she flatly refused because she was no longer in the mood. Cats like things on their own terms, of course, and Harris is no exception.

And this is a photograph I took through the bedroom window of Firecat, who also lives in Fields Cottage of the Shire. Firecat is everyone else's favorite cat. I think part of me loves Harris so dearly merely because she is the undercat of the house and because Firecat knows that everyone loves him. I can see why they do, though, as he is very picturesque and is particularly adorable when you feed him odd foods cats aren't supposed to like - crisps and pita bread both spring to mind.

Since I apparently am documenting who lives in Fields Cottage, I should also state that Sam has a father, name of Mash, who will be featured in the next photoessay (a hike through Snowdonia National Park... stay tuned!).


Our first weekend in BC was great. Friday night we had a wonderful dinner with the whole family and significant others present, as well as Sam's mate Sholto. Rangers don't often have occasion to envy other people's lives, but Sholto was just wrapping up a job as a rafting guide in Snowdonia prior to disembarking on a solo adventure in India - can't wait to hear about his trip.

Saturday was a bit of a rest day for Sam and I. We'd been traveling and had never really had a chance to rest in London, and with the rest of the family off to Leicester it was the perfect quiet day.

Sunday, however, I simply had to quit slouching and head into BC for their annual Michaelmas Festival. I went alone, though; fairs and festivals filled with crowded people and no particular goal aren't Sam's thing. I hate to admit it, but I had a pretty good time even without him around...

There were all sorts of odd characters walking the streets during the festival - clowns, jesters on stilts, people with bells sewn to so much of their clothing that you could hear them coming a mile away, and these odd looking folks with black faces and shirts made from rags. I thought at first that these were just individuals using the festival as an excuse to dress up, but it turned out that all had some role to play in the day's festivities.

I should have taken my camera to the festival, but for some reason I did not. Luckily, I had the Zire on me, so I got a few lower-quality shots with it. Here are the aforementioned men in black face with shirts of rags. They are the Morris Men Dancers, a (discontinuous) tradition that dates back to the middle ages, not only in BC but across England. I've heard two reasons for the black face paint - one that it arose from references to coal mining, the other that it was done to obscure the identity of the dancers. Nevertheless, I guess the BC Morris Men dancers have caught some flack when performing in urban areas like London.

It was good to see them dance, because now I finally understand a piece of artwork that adorns the front hall of Fields Cottage - a shirt made of rags. It turns out that Xander was once part of the dance group, and that the shirt is actually a bit of a family heirloom, made from various bits of clothing that date to different times and places in the (immediate) family's history. I really enjoyed Miranda explaining where each pattern comes from.

The festival also meant good food, a special new beer (Michaelmas Mayhem) brewed just for the occasion by The Three Bells (one of the BC pubs & breweries that dates back to the mid seventeenth century), a variety of interesting concert performances (including an all percussion group that was really wonderful), a market that sold all manner of interesting things (I bought a bar of locally-made goat's milk soap laced with lavender, a book of August Strindberg plays, and four different sorts of flavored coffee to keep me in shape for the rest of the trip - cremissimo, tira misu, amaretto, and crème brulée), and because it was a special occasion, volunteers were manning (or womanning, I guess I should say), the House on Crutches Museum.

The House on Crutches is an interesting old place that remains very much unchanged in its internal layout since it was first built in the 1600's. Mostly it's filled with bits of people's lives that until recently were stashed away in various local attics - merely slice of life stuff that gives you an idea of how people live. As such, none of my photographs really did the rooms justice, because the interest is in the details, which are too many to go into here. But the one bit I found most interesting was a tiny window in the south wall that they discovered when renovating the place; it had been boarded up and no one knew it existed. It's believed that it was not in the house originally, but was added during the civil war so as to see people approaching up the high street, and that it was later boarded up when the plague made its way to BC - it was thought that the plague was carried on the warm south wind, so the window was possibly boarded up in an effort to protect its occupants. I didn't get much time in the museum, and it wasn't open during the rest of my trip; I'll have to poke around in there some more on a subsequent trip.

At any rate, here are a few more photographs from the festival:

A clown on stilts making balloon animals for the children.
I really wish I'd stepped a couple of feet to the side
so that the clown stood right in front of the color
change between the buildings. Then I'd be even more
pleased with this shot.

There was a parade, mostly comprised of a couple of
bands, some vintage automobiles, and lots (and LOTS)
of ancient, smoke-belching, impossibly loud tractors.
There were also some military vehicles. This photo
sort of makes it look as though BC is under attack.

This car caught my eye in the parade, and so I tracked
it down later for a photograph. It's a Woolsey Hornet,
a sort of antique mini. Loved the color, the cute
little curves, and the pristine interior. Unfortunately,
I don't think it has the ground clearance nor the four
wheel drive to handle Alaskan winters, so I decided
not to buy it. I doubt it was for sale, anyway.

There was a guy there (I believe his name is
Cliff Yapp, if anyone in Shropshire reads this)
who rescues and rehabilitates injured birds.
(Call him if you find one.) He had a few
owls, hawks, and other birds on display.


But a lot of the trip was just spent slouching about. I needed it, I think - it took me a full week and a half to quit thinking about work.

I spent a bit of time in the back garden, in which Miranda grows a variety of amazing flowers (such as this rubeckia, pictured above) as well as vegetables that keep the kitchen stocked for much of the year. One particularly warm afternoon was spent asleep in the grass with Harris, the two of us having together located a nice big patch of sunlight.

And, as ever, we did a bit of trekking. We had hoped this trip to do a few days' jaunt, ending each evening in a new town, drinking beers at a new pub, staying in a new bed and breakfast. But that was before my holiday was reduced from seven to three weeks due to unexpected things at work. As it was, though, we did the usual circuit walk across the fields around the cottage, and did one new hike I'd never done before past a deep ravine with the ominous name of "Hell Hole."

See what I mean about the farms of the shire
being more picturesque than those of flat,
flat, really flat central Illinois?

And on the way back from the Hell Hole (I took a photograph of the Hell Hole, but really it's just a ravine filled with trees and photographically it's not all that impressive - though I'm sure were you to try to walk through it it would indeed be hellish) we passed a local landmark of sorts. The boots.

See, I guess someone threw their boots up into the tree above the road and they were stuck there. For a long time. To the point where they became a thing of interest on what is otherwise a rather unremarkable stretch of road. Eventually, moss grew on the boots. Then, one tragic day, the boots fell out of the tree. So someone went to the trouble of putting them back, and, for good measure, added other boots to keep the first pair company. And then, because they thought it was funny, they put up the sign.

To the Americans and anyone else who doesn't get the joke, here is an explanation for the sign: "Boot" is a synonym for the part of a vehicle which Americans call the "trunk." Just as American's have "garage sales" or "yard sales," the British sometimes have "boot sales." Get it? All those boots up in the tree? Boot sale? Yes, it's all dreadfully amusing.

But hey, it's an unofficial local landmark, so there you go.

And I took this photograph through one of the many
typical hedges which mark the boundary between fields.

One evening, I managed to drag Sam (he came willingly, though afterward I think he wished he'd stayed home because he'd already learned everything there was to know while in school) on a guided history walk of the town. This is only offered during the summer, and this was the first time I'd ever been to BC during the summer, so it was a must do for me.

Margot, a bit of an opinionated little spitfire at age ninety (or ninety-plus-something) led the walk, and I was glad I went. She was quite knowledgeable and I learned a great deal and, if nothing else, the tour stopped at many of the interesting houses in town and, for the first time, I just stood there - for perhaps five minutes in some cases - staring at a particular building as Margot talked, and for the first time I really *noticed* the amazing detail some of these buildings possess.

I also found out something I didn't know - that parts of the castle from which Bishop's Castle gets its name are still standing. Not much, but I had been under the impression that it was all gone. I took the above photograph a few days after our walk, because our walk - the last scheduled one of the season - pretty much ended in darkness, and because I'd been told not to take my camera.

I'm always being told not to bring my camera. People say it makes me look like a tourist. First of all, I have an accent, which is a bit of a giveaway. But secondly, let people assume whatever the hell they want to - I live in Alaska, but I take photographs of roadside flowers right next to my house if the mood strikes.

Anyway, I later found an excuse to take lots and lots of town photographs, such as this one of the lovely cobblestone walk that leads from the High Street to Welsh Street (the street that you take to go to Wales). Sam's father is the admin on a site about BC, and it's been awhile since he's updated photographs of the town. He asked if he could use some of the few that I'd taken, and I told him sure - and offered to take more. So that sort of gave me an excuse. I really shouldn't have needed one, but whatever. Now I had one.

And so I took lots and lots of photographs of the town. Here are a few:

Here is an open gate. I just loved the white of the
gate contrasted against the distance bright red door.

Until ten or fifteen years ago, all the houses in BC
were pretty much bland variations of the color white.
But people have since begun painting their houses
everything from rose to bright yellow to vibrant blue.
This is one of my favorites, and a real stand-out.

And this is called the Porch House. And Margot probably
told me why it's called that during our tour, but I forget
why just now. What I do remember is that until
just a few years ago the exterior was covered with tin
or something similarly horrible, and it underwent a
renovation - the original timbers were revealed, the
daub in between painted a lovely shade of peach.

And here's a detail of some of the woodwork shown above.
On the left you see the remains of an old carving.
On the right, you see how they took what they could
make of the old carving and created something new
based upon that old form. The face in the carving
is that of one of the owner's children. Their other
child, a girl, can be seen in the first photograph.

And this is my favorite view to photograph in Bishop's Castle.
I noticed it while walking with Sam, on a day when the light
was nothing short of perfect. Even he, who is sort of bored
of the town, stopped dead in his tracks and commented on how
perfect it was. And I, once again, had no camera. So over
the next three days I visited the spot many, many times.
But the light was never like that again, unfortunately.
This one's not terrible, though. It'll do.

One afternoon we went to Sam's grandmother's home, which is on the High Street down in town. The plan was merely to take a quick tour of her garden and grab some lunch, but when I told her I was going to walk around afterward taking photographs, she offered to come along - she's good about staying active and is always walking here and there, which is just excellent. And she took me past some interesting things I'd never seen before that she thought would be of interest to photograph. The above photograph was taken before we'd even left her house - I really love the trellis in the back garden.

And here's a(n unfortunately blurry) photograph of Sam and his grandmother, Jean. Sam's often a very good listener, and it shows here.

It was, overall, a lovely afternoon spent with Jean. She's wonderful, and writing about her reminds me that last winter she took me to see a castle. I took photographs that never ever were shared. I should rectify that at some point...

And this is Meri again. Remember the cheese-grating girl? Well, as much as I hate that I didn't get to see Xander much this trip, I got to see far more of Meri than usual because he was gone. And I'm glad I got to know her better. I wish this one hadn't turned out so blurry - it was taken without even looking through the view finder, the camera just haphazardly pointed in her direction from table-level while we were playing cards. (And Meri would probably like me to point out that we were playing with tiny cards; she does not have great-big-giant hands.)

The beautiful beer mug beside her is actually made of wood, used and well-worn. She'd just bought it that morning from a shop in town which sells all sorts of lovely imports. I bought a couple of shirts, a new kimono, and a wicked pair of floppy yoga pants there, but nothing as lovely as this mug, I don't think.

And Meri, for whatever wonderful reason, decided she wanted to braid my hair. All of it. In little tiny bits. It took hours. I think I counted sixty-three braids in all. It was a neat, rather hippy look, and she assured me it would last - I was thinking of shocking them with it when I returned to work. But unfortunately it went a little frizzy the very first time I slept on it. Still, I thought the style should be captured with a photograph. Can't say as I'm keen on how it makes my hair look totally flat, but I think I may try partially braiding it again like this at some point, even if it's just a few braids either side of my face. At one point I had to leave a few of the braids in and pull all of the hair back (both braided and unbraided) into a ponytail, because it took quite awhile to unbraid it all and I ran out of time before we had to go to a film society event; that looked pretty cool, so I think I'll be doing that again.

And because this is getting long (I was in Bishop's Castle a fortnight, so it's not shocking that I would have a lot of photographs to show and things to say), I'll just leave you with a few random images I took during my stay that I liked for whatever reason:

A shot of the distant fields across the valley,
taken beneath the limbs of the pine tree that
grows in front of Fields Cottage.

A St. John's Wart that was growing in the neighbor's hedge.

A rainbow that I would never have been able to capture
had Meri not taken the time to walk back to the house
just to tell me about it. She was on her way to work,
and I thought it was sweet that she took the time to
come back and tell me about its existence.

The rocks inside the wood frame atop one of the
steps leading to the front door of the cottage.

And, despite him being the second most wonderful cat
in the house, this is perhaps my favorite photograph
of the trip. Firecat loves to sleep on the radiator
during cooler evenings when the heat is on, and he's
always sweet to photograph when he's half draped over
it - but this time I caught him in mid-yawn. I think
he looks like a lion about to pounce a gazelle.


At the time that I write this, I am back in Alaska and Sam remains in Bishop's Castle. I miss him, though I'll see him again soon. It's beyond gorgeous here - full blown autumn color, snow slowly creeping down from the mountain peaks, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, near-spherical grizzlies with polished fur coats wandering about near the house after having spent the past month or two gorging on salmon, harbor seals eternally curious when they see you, bald eagles everywhere - but I am jealous of Sam remaining behind, and already missing my walks down Fields Lane to town, days spent writing in my journal or drafting letters from the Yarbourough House coffee & book shop, wandering the town with my camera, lunches at the Three Tuns with their marvelous chips and local brews, sifting through all the unique imports at Textile Traders, standing around enjoying the feel of being in Niad's Well and feeling as if perhaps I should just tip her for how good it is to stand in the warmth and the heady incense because I'm not Wiccan and there's not much on offer (ultimately, I did buy a set of hand-made runes in a rather lovely green velvet bag that feels really good in my hand). I'm missing the ready availability of Old Peculiar and Irn Bru and fresh made Eccles Cakes and other various goodies in the grocery stores. Missing the daily routine of Fields Cottage, the morning lie-ins, the days for reading and writing and sketching, Harris on my lap competing for attention with the laptop, the sit down suppers, the evening Scrabble games, nights of staying up late lying in bed listening as Sam reads to me.

But then, that's the most wonderful bit. Like the Appalachians of eastern Tennesee, Bishop's Castle is quickly becoming a second home, a place we can escape to when we need a break. I can feel good in the knowledge that it's not my final visit.