The first Sunday of the month, and Natural England open the doors of Blakemoorgate squatter’s cottages at the top of the Stiperstones. So we went. And they are pretty astonishing. As is their story. Families, seeking work in the Snailbeach lead mine, could assume squatter’s rights if they could build a house and have smoke coming from a chimney by nightfall. Then, and this is my favourite bit, they lobbed an axe from the ‘doorway’. Wherever it fell marked your boundary. In light of today’s housing crisis, well. If only it were that simple.
Inside the cottage by a roaring fire sat a copy of ‘Once upon a Hill’ telling the real stories of these hill-dwelling ‘squatting’ communities. Simple seems far from it. It really was, for some at least, scratching a living out of bracken and rock, especially after the closure of the mines.
But it got me thinking a lot about this part of Shropshire. Because it is stunning. Rugged. Remote. Raw. Reeking in other-worldliness. Like it really doesn’t want to be found.
Writers are constantly seeking stories. We’ll go anywhere we can for a good write, to get lost in the landscape, to feel something between our fingers that no-one else has yet touched with their pen. And yes, it was remote up there, a little bleak, but the stories were everywhere. They even glistened on the drizzle. So on the advice of the award-winning nature writer and poet Chris Kinsey to “be still”, I squatted for awhile and just listened.
She was right. Everything natural does have an intense sense of occasion. And though my notepad was so damp I could barely make out the words, I had squatted, been still and listened. Really listened. And you don’t forget voices like that.