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Feather's Miscellany: Lyth Hill And Mary Webb

...Another writer, much older and more famous than myself, made her home on Lyth Hill not far away from mine in Spring Coppice. She was Mary Webb and her work is still read, though perhaps better known in the 1920s and ‘30s. In her novels and poetry she captures the countryside, the dialect and the people of Shropshire exactly...

John Waddington-Feather writes with deep affection about the corner of England in which he has chosen to live.

There are still many parts of Britain which are unspoilt and one of them is Shropshire, a small rural county hugging the Welsh border. It has a good climate, warm in summer and not too wet; mild in winter compared with other parts of England. It certainly has more sunshine than my native West Yorkshire along the Pennine Hills, and it’s nowhere near as bleak. At home, the land is hammered by gales in autumn and winter, and spring comes weeks later than in Shropshire. Much of the countryside up there is moorland, the finest in Europe; and the farming is upland dairy or sheep farming; stone walls partition the fields and intakes rather than hedgerows. In summer the moors are magnificent, but in winter…

By contrast Shropshire is agricultural; acre on acre of farmland stretches from one end of the county to the other, broken only by blotches of wood. A main road, the A5, bisects the county, funnelling thousands of holiday-makers from the urban Midlands and the South into Wales. Thankfully they don’t stop till they reach the coast or the mountains of North Wales. Each Bank Holiday Shropshire holds its breath and hurries them through and as a result she isn’t yet over-urbanised. Oh, yes, there’s Telford in the east, now almost a part of the industrial conurbation of Wolverhampton and Birmingham; but Telford is growing only slowly and its spread isn’t drastic.

From the escarpment of Lyth Hill behind my house, I can see its power station at Ironbridge and clouds of steam. It’s very like the cover of my children’s environmental novel: “Quill’s Adventures in the Great beyond.” which was illustrated by that gifted artist, the late Doreen Edmond. The detail she puts into her work scenically and on the animal characters is superb. She paints a scene of unspoilt countryside with the very first signs of urbanisation creeping over the horizon like a cancer into the idyllic landscape before it. We don’t actually see Telford from where I live, but it’s there all right, just over the hill. I ought to add in all fairness it’s a planned New Town with none of the ugly sprawl of Victorian towns and cities in my native North.

Another writer, much older and more famous than myself, made her home on Lyth Hill not far away from mine in Spring Coppice. She was Mary Webb and her work is still read, though perhaps better known in the 1920s and ‘30s. In her novels and poetry she captures the countryside, the dialect and the people of Shropshire exactly. And just as in Yorkshire the Bronte sisters used the stark moorland and harsh climate to conjure up characters like Heathcliff and Old Joseph, so Mary Webb uses the more gentle countryside of her native county to create characters and atmosphere for her novels, two of which: “Precious Bane” and “Gone to Earth” became popular films after her death.

Two more of her novels: “House in Dormer Forest” and “Seven for a Secret” were written at Spring Cottage, which she and her husband built on a field behind the Lyth in 1917. Though they lived in London and elsewhere, it was at Spring Cottage she felt utterly at home and returned whenever she could.

I’d like to digress for a moment to look at the place-name “Lyth.” In both Old English and Old Norse (cousin languages) hlith or hlith means “a slope”. In Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) it is pronounced with a short “i” as in “sit”. In Old Norse (the language of the Yorkshire Vikings) the vowel is pronounced long as in “seat”. To this day Lyth is pronounced as in “high” in the North but as in “sit” in the Midlands and South.

Much of the woodland has gone from the area, but two mature coppices remain: Spring Coppice and Old Coppice, where I live. They’re bursting with wildlife: flora and fauna, and there’s a conservation order on them now as well as the Lyth, thank goodness. Buzzards, sparrow hawks, kestrels and wide variety of birdlife all make the coppices their homes, as do polecats, badgers, stoats, weasels and foxes.

The view from Lyth hill is magnificent and it sold us our house when we were house-hunting in 1969, about to move down to Shropshire from Eldwick on the edge of Ilkley Moor. You’re on the view before you know it when you drive up from Hookagate. Suddenly in front of you the whole of the Stretton Valley opens up. Below you are farms, villages, churches, woodland all nestling into the land.

You can see for miles: across to Wenlock Edge, Caradoc, Clee Hill, then round to Long Mynd. You can still make out the line of the Roman road from Wroxeter (Viroconium) to Gloucester; and just round the corner is the county town of Shrewsbury, standing on a hillock in a loop of the River Severn. Like myself, Mary Webb must have gazed on this panorama scores of times and never ceased to marvel.

In summer, there’s a kestrel hovering silently on the up-draft off the Lyth, and higher still a brace of buzzards calling with piercing cries as they quarter their territory for food. Near the handful of houses on the crest of the hill, there’s a constant coming and going of house-martins, which nest under the eaves.

In winter the land changes into a bedspread of dark duns, where the earth is resting, and light greens where the Spring corn is pushing its way through. When it’s covered with snow it turns again into a white wonderland; and in Spring there’s every shade of green you can think of racing along the hedgerows and startling the woods.

No wonder Mary Webb felt so utterly at home and didn’t want to leave. They say her ghost still wanders the Lyth and its adjacent coppices. I’ve often wondered if I’ve a kindred spirit accompanying me on my walks there. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day I saw her shyly making her way back home as I walk across the field from Spring Coppice to mine. Perhaps one day there’ll be two ghosts strolling around Lyth Hill – only one of them will disappear for long periods to check what’s happening in Yorkshire!

John Waddington-Feather ©

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