Classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was a dry, austere man who astounded his students and colleagues in 1896 with the romanticism of his first, self-published collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad.
Housman himself was from neighbouring Worcestershire and, as he later admitted, the Shropshire of his poems was “not exactly a real place.”
“It was,” he said, “more like the Cambridge of Lycidas” (an elegiac poem by John Milton). He actually spent little time in Shropshire, often writing about the county from a country guide, and admitted that the details in his poems were “sometimes quite wrong.”
In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire because its hills were our western horizon.”
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
However, evocative scenes of Shropshire were not always pastoral and idyllic.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
Here the gale becomes a metaphor for Housman’s disturbed life. Much of the poet’s troubled muse came from his unrequited homosexual passion for a fellow Cambridge student, Moses Jackson. Jackson was an athletic, firmly heterosexual “lad” who chose to ignore the poet’s unwanted advances. Upon graduation, Jackson moved first to a teaching post in India, then to Canada, eventually dying in Vancouver.
For a man who once wrote that “The faintest of all human passions is love of truth,” Housman exercised amazing poetic license in the Shropshire Lad poems.
The vane on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
But there is no steeple on the church at Hughley, and Housman knew it. The village he had in mind had an ugly name, which did not fit the poem’s cadence.
Nevertheless, Housman country in southern Shropshire is still one of the most beautiful, untouched areas in England. Its commercial hub, Ludlow, where Housman’s ashes are buried in the parish church, is often called the most attractive market town in the country.
The Ludlow branch of the Housman Society has developed the “Housman Trail,” a 65-kilometer (40 miles) excursion connecting places that are mentioned in A Shropshire Lad.
The trail starts in Ludlow:
The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Housman would certainly approve of Ludlow’s intact medieval ambience. The May fair is still held every year, on Monday the market still bustles, and the chimes still play The conquering hero comes:
Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
“The conquering hero comes.”
Equip yourself with a map and a copy of A Shropshire Lad and follow the A4117 road out of Ludlow towards Kidderminster. After crossing the A49 by-pass, take the left fork, the B4364, signposted Bridgnorth. This road climbs over the shoulder of Brown Clee (“Clee” is an old Saxon word for “hill”) offering superb views of the Titterstone Clee Hills.
From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.
After going through the villages of Burwarton and Cleobury North, bear left under Abdon Burf (“Burf” – another Saxon word meaning “fort” or “hill-fort”, now simply meaning “hill”), to the tiny ancient hamlet of Abdon. Just before the hamlet is the beautiful Norman Abdon church. If you go through the little wicket gate in the churchyard you will see the remains of Abdon’s medieval village as earthworks in the field.
Wenlock Edge was umbered,
And bright was Abdon Burf,
And warm between them slumbered
The smooth green miles of turf;
Turn right in Abdon village and then bear left in the village of Tugford, following the signs back to Ludlow. The vista before you is Corve Dale, bordered to the right by Wenlock Edge with the Welsh hills beyond the village of Clun in the distance.
Housman’s often-mentioned Wenlock Edge is a beautiful wooded escarpment running southwest from the village of Much Wenlock.
After crossing the River Corve and going through the village of Diddlebury, fork right on to the B4368. Drive through the villages of Aston Munslow and Munslow and take the left-hand turn signposted Rushbury. You will now be climbing on to Wenlock Edge.
The road drops down the steep side of Wenlock Edge winding down Roman Bank. Turn right at the B4371, which then climbs back to the ridge of the escarpment. At the village of Priesthope there is a sharp left turn, which leads down to Hughley with its non-existent steeple. However, in compensation, the church of St. John the Baptist here does have a beautifully carved screen and some ancient stained glass.
Retrace the road from Hughley, turning right back on to Wenlock Edge through Hope Bowdler. This road has magnificent views of Longmynd, an upland plateau cut by a series of deep, pretty valleys. Shropshire novelist, Mary Webb (1881-1927), gave it the name of the Wilderhope range in her book The Golden Arrow (1916).
The next town of Church Stretton was once a small village, but it blossomed into a popular health resort during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Housman’s lines:
In midnights of November,
When dead man’s fair is nigh,
And danger in the valley,
And anger in the sky,
refer to the late-year fair held in Church Stretton. The hills and sudden hollows of the Longmynd could be dangerous to revellers returning home. Mary Webb refers to Church Stretton as “Shepwardine” in her novels.
Turn left now at the traffic lights on to the A49 and travel south on the main road for 12 kilometres (seven miles) to Craven Arms. Mary Webb calls this village “The Junction.”
At Craven Arms take a quick detour off the Housman Trail to visit Stokesay Castle, probably the best-preserved 13th-century fortified manor house in England. Then turn left on the B4368 to Clun, going through Aston on Clun and Clunton.
The village of Clun was called “Oniton” in E.M. Forster‘s novel Howard’s End (1910), which was set partially in Shropshire. The romantic ruins of the Norman castle and Norman church with its massive fortress-like tower dominate Clun.
Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
From Clun, turn left on the A488 down to the River Teme at Knighton.
‘Tis a long way further than Knighton,
A quieter place than Clun,
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten
And little ’twill matter to one.
In Knighton turn left on the A4113 along the Teme valley back through Leintwardine to Ludlow.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
Download PDF of original article in The Globe and Mail: Housmans_Shropshire