Like a lot of Australian kids, a significant number of the books I read growing up were written by English writers, starring English children and English animals. When I was older, a lot of the TV I watched was set in English villages, on English farms and in English cities. For better or worse, every time I’ve entered this country I’ve come with a set of impressions.
So occasionally I have this surreal sense of recognition over the smallest of things. When I walk down a suburban street of brown brick houses I think of Keeping Up Appearances. Uniformed children outside a college brings back The Naughtiest Girl in the School. A farmer in gumboots penning muddy sheep makes me think of All Creatures Great and Small. Every pretty village reminds me of Midsomer Murders.
Sometimes it’s the nicest thing in the world to have pleasant stereotypes fulfilled. Recently I was in Shropshire staying with the lovely Waddingtons, and one morning my surrogate mother took me along on a shopping trip to Heath Farm. Green meadows dotted with new lambs bleating; a blue door in a low stone building; dun-coloured cows chewing thoughtfully in the barn; drizzling rain. It’s a family farm fronted by a little shop that sells their own meat and dairy along with various other local products. I’m pretty keen on eating fresh and local, so I was charmed by what they had on offer. Hedgerow jam and apple cordial. A chunk of lard wrapped in greaseproof paper for 75p. Boiling bacon and gammon steak. You could not get more English.
Speaking of this idealised England that I have in my head, South Shropshire is a great place for countryside. Reputedly it’s what Tolkien based The Shire on; he lived nearby in Birmingham and would often visit. There is, in fact, a place called Bagginswood near where I stayed.
Halfway between the north and the south, and with the Welsh border on the horizon, South Shropshire is less populated and has fewer tourists than most of England. This is the way the locals would like to keep it, so shhhhh. There’s a lot of sheep farming, a lot of woods, a lot of hills. From Clee Hill the view stretched as far as the Black Mountains in Wales, and to the east it’s said that you could draw a string directly to the Urals.
I had a great week, whether at home in Cleobury or tripping around the countryside. We went to Ludlow where there are piles of Tudor architecture and a famous castle. Gloucestor to see maybe the most impressive cathedral I’ve laid eyes on yet. Leominster to see the Georgian-era Berrington Hall built in local red-brown sandstone. Villages with names like Tenbury Wells and Neen Sollars that sound both charming and ancient. A cosy pub called The Live & Let Live. It doesn’t get more English.