Thursday, 17th April 2014

Once upon a hill… the story is rebuilt

Once Upon a Hill is a partnership project in which the mining communities who once lived on The Stiperstones are being rediscovered.

Two old cottages near Blakemoregate will be rebuilt and the natural and social history of the area will be explored and preserved through a series of workshops, community events and educational visits.

The project has been funded by a £330,000 grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund, the LEADER in the Shropshire Hills project, English Heritage and Natural England, as well through support from the Upper Onny Guidebook Fund.

sd3578719miningaw27.jpgRestoration work begins

Simon Cooter, from Natural England, said there had been settlement in the Stiperstones area of Shropshire since prehistoric times and lead mining in the hills above Snailbeach, near Shrewsbury, since the Romans – pigs of lead have also been discovered with ‘Hadrian’ inscribed on them.

The most recent active mining in the area was in the late 1800s and it was around this time that small settlements began to spread up the hills and across the common land of the Stiperstones National Nature Reserve.

Small cottages were built by ‘squatters,’ who were allowed to stay if, it’s said, they could build a house and have smoke out of the chimney by nightfall.

They paid a small rent to the estate and would walk for two hours or more, across the steep bleak hills to reach the mines, the church or the school.

Small whitewashed stone cottages and clearly marked cart tracks to the rows of dwellings were quickly in place as small communities developed.

Each cottage was built to a similar design – a garden, rootstore and a byre for a cow or pig.

These remote and inhospitable settlements were inhabited as late as the 1950s and today there are still local residents whose families came from ‘up on the hill’.

Clifford Hampson remembers the houses as they were when his grandfather, Edwin Davies, lived in one. It was known as Ned’s Cottage.

His grandfather stayed on in his house after the mines closed: “He used to buy ponies at Shrewsbury market… when I was 10, 11 and 12 he used to stick me on their backs and see how we got on.”

He also had a pony and cart which he used to bring people to Snailbeach from Minsterley station. Water ran down the hill and was collected in a bucket to supply the cottage.

“It was a hard life and yet they survived. If you came up here and you’d got nothing, you always got bread and cheese,” he added.

Simon Cooter from Natural England, which manages the Stiperstones National Nature Reserve, said: “Restoring the cottages themselves will be fascinating, but the project is about much more than that.

“We shall be finding out about the lives of the people who lived here, through collecting oral recollections, and we shall be conserving this precious natural environment, training volunteers to help with the restoration of stone banks around the settlements and holding community events and educational visits.”

Traditional building methods are being used to restore the cottages and work has just begun with a team from Conservation Building Services now on site.

Ian Storey of the Oswestry-based building specialists said the more they discovered about the houses, the more there was to restore: “It’s interesting and it’s exciting.

“We normally deal with structures and buildings which are much older than this.

“It’s not often that you get to have a look at something that’s quite recent in terms of historical architecture and yet it’s still quite fascinating.”

He said the stone they had to use was not good quality for building: “It’s a tremendous job really if you think they’d literally gleaned all this material from the fields around them.

“I hope we can better what they did, but we’ve had to develop some new techniques as well. We’ve got to use two different types of mortar to bond everything together.”

It is hoped that the settlement at Blakemoorgate will be open to the general public by late autumn.

By Anna Williams