Yesterday, I went to Salop. England’s forgotten county.
I’m showing off. The name Salop no longer exists. It’s the former name of the English county now known as Shropshire.
Shropshire, whatever name you want to call it by, may be the least known, or at least the least noticed of English counties. The word ‘least’ seems to crop up a lot in any discussion of Shropshire.
Even the county town, Shrewsbury, defies universal pronunciation. There are two camps. One insists that the first syllable is ‘Shrews’, as in – well, shrews. The other demands ‘Shrows’. The only light I can shed is that the dozen locals I spoke to yesterday – as part of my intensive investigation into the matter – all fell into the ‘Shrews’ camp. Incidentally, I won’t bore you with the origin of the name, or we’ll be here for several hours. It’s something to do with the Normans having difficulty pronouncing the Saxon name – but Google it yourself if you’re that interested. (And while we’re in trivia mode, the same French problem is why the Thames is not pronounced as it’s written.)
Nothing much seems to happen in Shropshire these days, or if it does, it’s not considered important enough to get into the newspapers or on to the television.
Nothing much, that is, unless you count the annual sweet pea festival. That is held every year in the village of Wem (the shortest town name in England, by the way, though the title is shared with a few others). The sweet pea, I’ve learned through extensive research, was developed by one Henry Eckford, a Shropshire gardener, who spent years developing hybrids from pea plants until he came up with the one that carries the sweet fragrance which we now love or hate, according to taste. (I’m in the hate camp.)
Even many Britons are only vaguely aware of where Shropshire is. I was among them until yesterday. I can now offer enlightenment. It is England’s most westerly county, the one that motorists from the east pass through, usually without stopping – or, even worse, without noticing – on their way to holiday locations in North Wales. Such anonymity – “that place you go through on the way to Wales” – may qualify as the very pinnacle of ignominy.
But wait! There is more to Shropshire, much more, than meets the eye through the window of a speeding car. Shropshire can claim to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
Abraham Darby’s famous iron bridge, the first of its kind, still spans the gorge in the town of (you guessed it) Ironbridge. It is, I have read, an English tourist attraction ranked not far behind Stonehenge. Darby, along with Thomas Telford, was a pioneer of bridges made of iron fired by coke, which created a metal freer of impurities than those made with charcoal. The prolific Telford, a Scot, would build forty such bridges in Shropshire alone.
Shropshire can also boast the world’s first multi-storied, iron-frame building – in other words, the world’s first skyscraper. This is the flax mill at Ditherington (still standing, and no, I did not make the name up). So, next time you find yourself gazing up at the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, think of the debt it owes to a place called Ditherington.
I found something else unique about Shropshire. It is home to the headquarters of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. Sadly, that honour may not be claimed for much longer because Britain’s hedgehog population is falling rapidly and the hedgehog may be on the brink of extinction. It seems that these curious and absent-minded creatures have, among their various failings, yet to acquire the habit of looking both ways before crossing a road. Perhaps the BHPS should hold remedial classes.
American readers might also like to know that Joe Louis was a resident of Shropshire for a time during the Second World War. The so-called Brown Bomber was a popular figure in the village pub near his base in north Shropshire, largely as a result of allowing fellow-patrons to punch him in the solar plexus, with a drink as the wager. Joe did most of the drinking, by all accounts.
So there you have it, England’s least celebrated, least visible, and least known county.
Seriously, though, I’ll say this for Shropshire. It is pastoral and calming. I’ll rest my case by quoting from A. E. Housman’s famously haunting (and pessimistic) collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad:
Into my heart an air that kills
From you far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hill,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I want,
And cannot come again.
So, next time you ‘pass through’ Shropshire, take a detour to see the place. I plan to.