The Olympic Games were reborn in Much Wenlock. It was over dinner at the Raven coaching inn in 1890 that pioneering doctor William Penny Brookes and French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin had a discussion about reviving the ancient Greek competitions.
You can still see a copy of their menu here, which featured pigeon pie, grapes and pineapples. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens six years later. Brookes had founded the Wenlock Olympian Society decades earlier, to promote the moral, physical and intellectual benefits of exercise, and first staged games here in 1850. The original events included quoits, cricket, and cycling on penny farthings. Every July the little medieval town still holds the Wenlock Olympian Games, now in their 136th year (one of the official mascots at London 2012 was called Wenlock as a tribute).
Start The Raven, Much Wenlock, Shropshire
Distance 6.2 miles
Time 2½ hours
Total ascent 266 metres
There’s a 1.3 mile-long Olympian Trail marked by bronze circles in the pavement and related displays in the museum, which I take in on my way to hike along Wenlock Edge. It passes Brookes’ house on Wilmore Street and a memorial, with a metal torch above it, on the playing fields. The inscription reads: “His imagination a worldwide inspiration.”
The trail runs along the High Street past the George & Dragon, ideal for a post-hike pint, and wanders round the corner to the Raven in Barrow Street. The old inn is now a 2 AA Rosette restaurant with rooms, a good place in which to eat and sleep. It sells walking maps, does takeaway sandwiches and has a shop attached, Raven Marketplace, which opened during lockdown 2020.
Wenlock Edge, a limestone escarpment above Much Wenlock, with views of Long Mynd and the Stretton hills, offers an array of woodland walks. But I start with a loop round the town’s Olympic sights and ruined medieval priory, originally founded as an abbey by King Merewalh, ruler of part of Mercia, in the seventh century. Merewalh’s daughter Milburge was Wenlock’s second abbess and her relics began to attract pilgrims. Today the walls of an intricately carved Norman chapter house and towering 13th-century church stand picturesquely craggy under peaceful Scots pines.
I follow a winding lane out of town past the priory and head back along a sunken tree-lined track that is part of the Shropshire Way, a 200-mile walk around the county. It passes Linden Field, ringed by avenues of lime trees, close to the site of the first Wenlock Games. On a hill above is the brick tower of an old windmill, struck by lightning in 1850; there were ticketed seats around the hillside below the windmill, a natural amphitheatre for watching the games.
Walking back across Wilmore Street and along a couple of suburban roads, I am soon heading westwards out of town towards Wenlock Edge. The novelist Henry James walked here in the 1870s. The ruined priory influenced his gothic landscapes in The Turn of the Screw and the glacially slow novel The Princess Casamassima, in which the young revolutionary Hyacinth walks among thatched cottages and blue distances, “the green dimness of leafy lanes” and “meadow paths that led from stile to stile … the hedges thick with flowers.”
The Shropshire Way leads through Wenlock Quarry and up on to a grassy embankment. There are ivy-draped limestone cliffs, the stone from which much of the town is built. Fossilised seashells and hints of coral and trilobites are embedded in the rock. There’s a geological epoch in the Silurian period named Wenlock after this limestone. Reaching the leafy slopes of Wenlock Edge, a wide track winds through coppiced hazels with a multitude of waymarks.
“Blakeway Hollow” says one wooden post, pointing down a narrow path. The name evokes dark sunken roads. The National Trust outlines a simpler, less adventurous route and describes Blakeway Hollow as an “old packhorse route” from Much Wenlock to Shrewsbury. At this point the old lane becomes a deep, stony gully that feels like a dried-up riverbed, slanting down the wooded hillside. The banks are a jungle of hart’s-tongue ferns and bracken with hedge maples, hawthorn, oak, beech and silver birch tangling their branches overhead.
At the foot of the hill, there are glimpses through the trees of sunlit peaks beyond, but I need to follow the path through the shadow of the woods if I want to get back before nightfall. I head back to Much Wenlock along the Jack Mytton Way, named after a Regency MP who left Westminster, bored, after only half an hour. Nicknamed “Mad Jack”, Mytton often hunted naked despite owning thousands of hunting outfits, dressed up as a highwayman to fool his own guests, cured his hiccups by setting fire to his shirt, jumped his horse over a dinner table, turned to drink, and died of gangrene and alcohol withdrawal in a debtors’ prison.
Climbing through the woods on Mad Jack’s trail is more than worth the effort for the view from the top, 1,000ft above sea level, over the limestone lip of the escarpment across a pastoral tapestry of patchwork fields and ancient hedges.
The next viewpoint is known as Major’s Leap. A royalist major called Thomas Smallman, cornered by roundheads, galloped off the top of Wenlock Edge to his seemingly certain doom. The horse died, but the major lived (saved by an apple tree) to deliver vital messages to the King’s army. The view is extraordinary: Caer Caradoc and other volcanic Shropshire hills form a misty backdrop to miles of fields. As I head downhill towards the George & Dragon, a horse, framed by yellow hedge maple leaves, watches me over a gate and the clifftop beeches glow fiery gold in the setting sun.
From its dog-friendly tiled floor to its old beamed ceiling, the George & Dragon, on the high street in the middle of Much Wenlock, is every inch a traditional pub. A few years back it was shut until an enthusiastic team rescued it; Ben and Kate Stanford have been landlords since April 2021. There are wooden settles, open fires and real ales like citrussy Hereford Pale Ale from the Wye Valley Brewery and floral-hoppy Shropshire Gold from Salopian. There’s homemade food, too; epic Sunday lunches and, during lockdowns, the pub supplied thousands of takeaways.
Where to stay
The Raven, just round the corner, has a jumble of old buildings around a courtyard. Besides a gourmet restaurant, there’s a crowd-pleasing lounge menu featuring fish finger sandwiches and barbecue chicken wings. The spectacular Coach House has a woodburner in the sitting room downstairs with the bed on a mezzanine floor above, under a high beamed ceiling. There are also “comfy doubles” in the medieval hall off the courtyard and a family room.
Doubles from £85 B&B, ravenhotel.com