I’m going for a walk in the Marchlands. This is where England and Wales are supposed to meet, but it’s always been a bit less precise than that. The line on the map goes back and forth like a fiddler’s elbow, and there are other borders flying across it with their own tunes: from different times, senile half-invisible lines lost among the trees and names. No road signs for those, but you can stumble over them sometimes on an evening walk.
The route starts out from Whitchurch, a town at the north end of the Shropshire March. It was out-of-the-way two thousand years ago, when the Romans went across the muddy plain towards Chester. Cheshire is close, over the Grindley brook, but Wales is closer, just down the hill in the west. Down that way a panhandle called Maelor Saesneg runs ten miles east of the Dee, bringing Wales with it. The name means ‘Saxon Maelor’, because it’s all ‘this side’ of the Dee, and well east of Offa’s madcap dyke. The rest of Maelor is out in the west, deeper Wales. Lots of Maelor Saesneg’s farms and villages have English names, but the princes of Powys took them in a final fling and they’ve been Welsh for eight centuries. Or Welsh by administration, at any rate: in the 1887 census, most of the inhabitants asked if they could join Shropshire. It’s still Wales though. All over the place there are hills called bryn and fields called maes among the English drift. Neither language has ever paid much attention to the formalities.
Whitchurch is English, though, no doubt about it. I’m on a suburban road called Chemistry, walking out to the canal. It’s late December. Usually the colour of pot clay, the water is black with ice and towpath mud rebounds underfoot like rubber. Three boats are moored up, windows dark, woodsmoke creeping from their flues. The sound of intermittent traffic carries like wave-break from the ring road ahead. The canal leads me west until houses fall away and the black-and-white struts of a lift bridge appear. It hasn’t been windlassed up for days, and rime has formed on the underside of the counterweight. I cross, boots giving a muffled ring on the girders.
In the south the canal bends away across winter fields towards Whixall Moss and Welshampton, lonely miles of stubble and low skylines. I go north, keeping the valley of Staggs brook on my left. The stream goes under the canal and then races off down into Wales. It’s quiet today from days of frost, and there are crescents of snow around the gorse that breaks the upper field. No rabbits, although there are unsettled rooks, as usual, in the oaks by the canal. On the far bank, land climbs through scrub to a low ridge: the way home.
To me at least, getting to Wales always feels like it should be upwards: getting out of the plains and the Mercian clay, looking for higher ground. Here, though, Wales is down: the land sinks away into the damp, and you have to go with it. The stream below me, Staggs brook, falls into Maelor Saesneg’s watershed. Down there it merges with a bigger stream that has struggled out of peatlands to the south-west. That is the Red brook, carrying the Welsh border for a few miles at the end of the panhandle. When it swings into the west, Red brook is renamed Wych brook, and the border swings too, following the Wych down to the Dee. Staggs brook, Red brook and Wych, they take the land and draw it down into Wales; Wales comes up the other way, like a rising mist.
A few yards later canal and towpath pass under the ring road, and I sense another frontier is being crossed. The tarmac overhead is the A41, carrying traffic from the M6 over to Chester and the Holyhead ferry. The motorways weren’t built this far west, not even as far as Shrewsbury; from here all the way to Aberystwyth, even the A roads are small and mostly quiet. So slipping under this ring road means escape, from expressways, from the last tendril of the midlands. The Saxons used old Roman roads as their frontiers, like chalk-lines across the country, and this ring road is strangely like a town wall. I pass under. Sunset burns on water at the far end of the tunnel, shadows unspool from the trees behind.
Now the canal is taking me west-by-north-west, contouring around the headwaters of the Wych. Beyond the trees lining the towpath the land is opening out. I was here very late a few nights ago, half-drunk. I watched the electric lamps of a muck-spreader weave through the darkness, the beams catching black shreds pitched through falling snow. The farmer is gone this afternoon, the trees between me and his field are like woodcuts on the sky, but the stink is still on the wind. Around another bend another bridge appears, an old humpback. Its sudden brickwork sits uneasily amid the confusion it has gathered: gorse and brambles, fencing, a tangle of pathways, dead nettles, chestnut and ash. The canal is crimped under its narrow archway. The bridge leads from one piece of out-of-the way pasture to another, turf-topped. Nowadays it would never have been built. Surrounded by mundane wilderness it is oddly dignified, like a Roman pillar buried in the woods.
On the far side there is a stile tucked hard against the side of the bridge. I climb it to see the lighthouse flash of the sunset, then move onto the back of the bridge. From here I can watch the land tumble into Maelor Saesneg, fields slipping into black folds. Shropshire is coming to an end, England too. The land ahead is massed with trees. A few hundred yards down there the Red brook carries the border in its frozen furrow. The first settlement on the far side is Iscoyd, ‘below the wood’. Another ten miles beyond that, by the Dee, is Bangor-is-Coed; both names entirely Welsh. In between there are Anglo-Saxon ones: Penley and Musley, both clearings in the wood, and Wolvesacre, Wulf’s acre, just beyond Iscoyd. Those names are tide-wrack from the old woods.
The name of the Wych is just as old. It means the brine springs and the salt that rises down in those woods. Wych valley salt is in Domesday, and it is still seeping from the ground, even if no-one bothers to use it. Some of the old collecting pits are still there too, fifty feet deep and filling slowly with brine and debris.
I move over the canal to the north side, where morose woodland is struggling in the damp. This is Danson’s wood, ash, alder, maple and cherry, planted on twelve acres a decade ago and still messily adolescent. It is dead silent. Frozen-cast footprints lead up a corridor between trees, most of them my own. Darkness thickens: the woods are locking up for the night. When I turn back west there is movement: a whiplash of starlings across the sky.
I emerge on a deep-cut farm track, and meet the ring road again. Over it, between passing bands of headlights, and then up a hollow track among firs, and I am back inside the town wall. Up and out of Wales, although in truth I was never there. Ahead the ridgeline aims straight at the centre of town, far above canal and woods. For a moment the horizon drops back to far-off hills: Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd, Shropshire’s Welsh mountains, rise in the darkness thirty miles to the south; west of them is the Long Mountain, an English hill in Wales. And Berwyns, Clwyd hills, Moel Fama in the north, white against the cold dusk. In a few minutes, the old lines will have all vanished under street lamps. I plunge off for home, downhill into darkness, and shadows of horses move from the trees towards me.
Philip Dunshea is a writer specialising in the landscape and history of Northern Britain and Wales. He currently teaches medieval Celtic history at the University of Cambridge. For more details, see philipdunshea.webs.com