The Onny Trail winds through a shallow valley following the course of the River Onny; the road between Craven Arms and Bishops Castle and the remains of a railway line. The three, intertwined sinuously, cross and recross each other through the south Shropshire hills towards Bishops Castle.
Rising in the Shropshire Hills near the Welsh border, The River Onny flows some 25 miles through Craven Arms and Onibury to its confluence with The River Time near Ludlow. I join near Wistanstow, a charming Shropshire community of which more later.
I have no idea who presented the business case to build a railway between Craven Arms and Bishops Castle but he must have been an excellent salesman. The pitch was to build a line between the two towns preparatory to extending the line to Montgomery. In the event money was raised and construction began, following the course of the River Onny To Lydham and then round to Bishops Castle. Opened in 1866 during a period of national railway fever, the line was a financial failure from the outset. Indeed its first, court enforced closure came in 1877 only saved when £700 was raised from the sale and leaseback of one of the locomotives. The line struggled on, finally closing in 1935 when the mighty GWR refused the opportunity to buy the line.
As I join the Onny Trail close to Wistanstow, the remains of an embankment can be seen. Later on, at the remains of a farm bridge the walk actually follows the old track bed for half a mile through a wood until the line crosses the river and the trail continues straight ahead, rising up across a large field.
The path plunges into the gloom of woodland, crossing a stream and steeply up the other side bursting into the sunshine. I turn right, downhill, towards the road, river and trackbed. A small herd of cattle watch me go by until I exit the field into a lane and then across the river and trackbed at Horderley where the old station building remains.
Crossing the road, the path now climbs steeply. A metalled lane winds steeply up through the the forested hillside, for no apparent reason except to demonstrate the stunning views at the top. Walkers will recognise the instruction that says, “Head for a point mid way along the hedge opposite.” Such was the instruction here. No defined path, the hedge opposite invisible behind the incredible summer meadow grasses and flowers before me. Although a beautiful sunny day today it had rained relentlessly in the night so by the time I had finally found the field exit I was soaked from the hips down.
Next, another plunge down through woodland, a stream crossing and up this time into a series of wheat fields as the path continues to rise with more views towards Craven Arms until, after a final plunge into woodland and up across a wheat field the path becomes a lane and the trajectory, blissfully down. Now about 1.5 miles from my destination, Wistanstow I begin to enjoy the warmth of the day; clothing begins to dry; I can see Wistanstow church tower. Little do I know that the worst is yet to come!
I am standing at the edge of a huge field of waist deep, impenetrable, wheat. No sign of a path and an instruction that warns me that the exit stile is low down in the far hedge and “might be hard to find”. I left the lane in plunged down through a huge patch of head-high and soaking nettles. Having run that gauntlet I have crossed two small tributaries of the River Onny and climbed a slippery slope to get to this point. The church is still before me, tantalisingly just beyond the impenetrable barrier before me. I track left. No good. I track right. Even worse. Eventually I shove my way through the soaking crop to a track formed by tractor tyres. They head roughly in the right direction. I am now soaked to the waist and covered in seeds, spiders, webs and muck.
When I reached the other side my troubles continued. I couldn’t find the exit. I hunted low and lower, scrabbling through brambles and nettles until, finally, almost invisible under a bush I found a plank. A plank that, after investigation, crossed a ditch and out into another field and thence, blissfully, into a lane.
Finally I was face to face with the church. A pretty village church in which a beautiful pre-Covid celebration was under way. A wedding: how great it was to see it. A stunning bride in white and her well scrubbed up new husband were just emerging into a blizzard of confetti. What a lovely day for it too. And there stood I, Worzel Gummidge after a long night shift in a wet field.
The Plough hove into view and I hurried inside struggling to pull my sodden mask from my sodden trousers. The barmaid eyed me suspiciously. “What the hell have you been up to?” she asked. “Never mind all that. Give a pint of Shropshire Lad”.