The Welsh Marches

by frankbeswick

The Marches of England and Wales are lands steeped in history and beauty.

The term "marches" needs explaining. Though linguistically related to the verb "to march" it is an ancient word denoting a border land. Hence the Marches are the border lands between England and Wales. They have the lush greenery of western England and views of the hill country of Wales on which they fringe. Yet there is much history about them, and plenty of it has been bloodstained. It is a history forged by ruthless marcher lords and their equally ruthless foes, the Welsh princes, in the baronial struggles that have stained British history. At peace now, they make for great walks and holidays in lovely scenery.

Photo of a ruined castle courtesy of Sabrina Barella, of Pixabay

The Counties of the Marches

My canoe glided serenely along the river Wye,once the border of England and Wales.The summer sun sparkled on the gently rippling waters. A fish,probably a salmon or maybe a trout, leapt from the water then plunged back to its natural element. The river banks were lined with trees,willows stòod out,but there was a variety of others.   Herefordshire is a lovely county.I was twenty one, still slim, fit and full of energy, a beautiful memory to be ever treasured. Yet I knew that beauty can coexist with violence, and the marches were the scene of clashes between English and Welsh, and also between compatriots of both races. The clashes between Edric the Wild and the Normans were not primarily an Anglo-Welsh affair, and plenty of times English fought English. Happy days?  Seldom.

The marches were a vaguely defined area centred on the counties of  Shropshire and Herefordshire, but also the counties of Cheshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. That is the English side,but the Welsh equivalent was Monmouthshire, Radnorshire and Brecon,and occasionally others. The ill-defined lands of the marches reflects the political situation at the time, which was warlike. When William the Conqueror aĺlocated these lands after the conquest he gave them to some of his toughest lords. Unlike the rest of the Norman barons, who had to pay taxes, the marcher lords each ruled his domain as a king,making his own laws and making war as he saw fit. His only responsibilities were to keep the peace in an unstable border land.

It is for this reason that the Welsh Marches are a land with the greatest number of castles in England. Some castles, such as Chirk,  just inside Wales near Wrexham. are still in good condition, and in the case of Chirk are in the hands of the National Trust and open to the public for historical experiences and walks in the lovely castle grounds; but others are  simply ruins. There were many Norman motte and bailey castles, a simple kind of fortification based on a wooden outer wall. Most of  these were abandoned in favour of stone structures and little remains.I grew up in an area which was historic Cheshire [transferred to Manchester] and have only just found out that there was once a small castle in the area. Apparently a few traces remain, but like many others it is unrecognizable.

The marcher lords fade from history as the crown slowly asserted political control. Several of these lords made bad choices in the dynastic struggles that tore England apart in the baronial wars and the Wars of the Roses and consequently lost lands and influence.Political authority was transferred to a council that met at the historic market town of Ludlow in Shropshire. The council and therefore the history of the Marches as a political entity was finally terminated  in the revolution  of the late seventeenth century [I refuse to call it the Glorious Revolution] when the roots of England's constitutional settlement were established.  The Marches have long been at peace and are a great place to go for walks.

Enjoying the Marches.

One major feature of the Marches is Offa's Dyke, which runs along the one-time border between the Welsh kingdom of Powys and the English kingdom of Mercia. As the borders have changed over centuries some of it  is in Wales, ending near the holiday resort of Prestatyn [of my childhood memories]. Offa wanted to keep out  Welsh raiders and the dyke was a warning to Welsh that death awaited those who transgressed its forbidding earthen banks. It was close to an earlier structure, Wat's Dyke.Nowadays the Offa's Dyke long distance footpath is popular with walkers who enjoy its scenery and the gentle walking in parts of the nearby Clwydian range of hills. 

There is much walking to be done, so I wiĺl dabble my toes in the experience. One site is Pistyll Rhaedr, which is a waterfall in the scenic Berwyn Mountains. It is a great day out for a family, and my children reaĺy enjoyed it. There were people splashing in the cascade which tumbles its long route, probably a few hundred feet, down from the heather covered moorlands above.  The view from the summit is impressive, as you spy the blue-hazed mountains of Snowdonia. It is a great summer walk,but muddy in Winter. But there is a nice little cafe at the bottom. My daughter, who firmly believes that walks should conclude with cakes or ice cream, was fully satisfied. 

The Shropshire region contains some attractions. There is a small area of hill country, including the sixteen hundred foot ridge that comprises the Long Mynd, about which I have previously written two Wizzley articles [Walking the Long Mynd and a Night in the  Snow.] There are several routes on the high moorland of the heather-covered Mynd, but my favourite is a walk up the narrow valley of Ashes Hollow. When you reach the top and walk westwards over the hill you come upon a lovely view, a vision of a peaceful rural England that seems to have been bypassed by the years. Green fields stretch westwards  towards the rugged hills of central Wales. You can walk along narrow,hedge-lined country lanes. A lovely walk.

There are other hills more to the east, for example the small, but impressive Caer Caradoc, site of an ancient hill fort, a celtic earthwork. Legend associates it with the anti-Roman resistance fighter, Caractacus, but this is uncertain. Nearby is the Wenlock Edge, a ridge of ancient limestone now heavily planted with trees. So there is good walking country all round.

If you want an urban experience the small Shropshire town of Ludlow has a variety of buildings dating from different periods of English history all in good states of preservation, and they provide the  town with a distinct character. To add to Ludlow's atttractions it has a range of good restaurants and has a reputation as a foody  town. There is an annual food festival in September where specialist, artisan foods are sold.Food enthusiasts come to purchase speciality cheeses, pies and a whole range of delicacies. It is a pleasant occason.

Symond's Yat

Symonds Yat
Symonds Yat
HarryJ Burgess

Further South.

So  far I have concentrated on the northern half of the Marches, but south of Shropshire you enter the lovely county of Herefordshire.  This county is separated from its eastern neighbour Worcestershire by the Malvern Hills, a narrow, but steep range of hills composed of old, hard precambrian rock. This rock is so old that it has been leached of all its nutrients by eons of pluviation, and the result is a mineral water that is very near to purity and so is excellent for cocktails.Herefordshire is  quintessentially the land of cyder apples. I use the old spelling intentionally because I am referring to the traditonal cider apple that was pressed and brewed into a famous alcoholic drink. There has been some loss of orchards in the last  half century, but recently  replanting has begun and tradition has been restored. 

There is a place called the Golden Valley, where the micro-climate is said to be exactly right for cyder apple production. The term gold is a misnomer. Through the valley runs the river Dore, Dore being an old Celtic name derived from the word for water, but the incoming Normans in 1066 thought that it derived from the French D'or, meaning gold.The Dore is a tributary of the mighty Severn, England's longest river, which flows through Shropshire and Herefordshire as it powers its  course from its Welsh birthplace on Plynlimon.The Severn is a powerful river prone at times to Winter flooding, especially down stream as the Severn's tributaries swell its waters.

But a really delightful part of this lovely part of the world is the Wye Valley. The river Wye makes its steady course from its fountain the Welsh mountains until it merges with the Severn. On its path it passes through some lovely scenery. I canoed the route as it passes through farm and woodland, with the summer sun glinting on its generally peaceful waters.The Wye takes you through the city of Hereford, whose mediaeval cathedral houses an orginal copy of the Magna Carta and the Mapppa Mundi, a mediaeval map of the world as people of that age imagined it to be. The picture above shows you Symond's Yat, meaning Symond's Gate, a narrow gorge through which the Wye gently flows.One bank is in Herefordshire. while the other is in Gloucestershire.The photograph is taken from Symond's Rock, a vantage point and beauty spot. It is a memorable place.

The picturesque movement in art began as a form of landscape painting that attempted to capture the beauty and grandeur of this area. Nature and dramatic,often ruined buildings,notably castles and monasteries, were captured in artistic productions round here. The stark and haunting remains of Tintern Abbey stand as a silent reminder of injustice. Words worth wrote one of his most inspiring poems there, and in it he attempted to capture the sense of divine presence that permeates nature.

 I have attempted to give readers a sip of the cup of beauty that permeates the west of England and the Welsh borders, a starter at the feast of lovely landscape that awaits the traveĺer who comes to visit. But please be aware,that I am describing it as it is in Summer. My Wizzley article " A Night in the Snow" describes a bad experience fortunately survived. Only yesterday [November 2022]some officer cadets training in the hills above the Golden Valley were helicoptered to hospital  after succumbing to cold and exhaustion.Even lovely places have their dangers. 


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Updated: 11/05/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/17/2024

Yes. Imhave seennthevsalvaged pillarsvin the porch

DerdriuMarriner on 03/16/2024

Thank you for your comment June 17, 2023, in answer to my previous question June 16, 2023.

Online sources to Ribchester inn searches draw up Ribchester Arms and White Bull Hotel.

There's no information about salvaged Roman pillars.

Might either one be the Ribchester inn with the Roman-pillared porch?

frankbeswick on 06/17/2023

Taking of ancient building materials from Roman remains was common until the Middle Ages and even a a relatively modern building such as the inn at the Roman site of Ribchester has two salvaged Roman pillars in its porch. The inn is probably eighteenth century.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/16/2023

Thank you!

Your answer about surreptitious digs was as expected for eastern pond-siders, what with what tennis champion Arthur Ashe voiced, in his autobiography, about your appreciation of flowers, manners, rituals and traditions.

It probably would be quite true here, even as there would be some rare exceptions, such as a few people perhaps having taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries a few here, a few there, of some of the building materials from some early houses -- still extant 300 to 350 years later, in the 21st century! -- from colonial American times.

frankbeswick on 06/16/2023

When a contract for public works is awarded there is a statutory obligation upon the companies performing the digging to perform an archaeological investigation. I do not know of any surreptitious digs happening.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/16/2023

The United States controls digging around utilities, be they telephone poles, traffic lights, transformers, etc. That ends up perhaps more enforceable than digging around, into, under historical sites just because of the formers' visibility along roadways.

Does the United Kingdom enforce no digging around artifacts and utilities? Or would it be possible to quietly dig bit by bit until someone reaches an underlying Roman road and takes some parts of it for illegal gain?

frankbeswick on 06/15/2023

The ancient fords have been replaced by modern bridges.

frankbeswick on 06/15/2023

Street, as you know, is a loan word from Latin, strada being modified into the word street. Most of the significant Roman roads are called street, though some such as the Foss Way,are not. Some are still in the original form, with the ancient surface exposed. But roads like the one near my house are major routes between modern cities that need to have their surfaces repaired and at times they need to widen the road. The only way in which we can recognize the Roman origin of my local road is that it runs straight for many miles and because it runs between two Roman forts: Manchester and Chester.

frankbeswick on 06/15/2023

There was a ford on the river called Trafford. We called the borough Trafford to distinguish it from the ancient town of Stretford, which is included in Trafford as a used to have its own municipal adsministration, but was reorganised.

It would be wrong to say that the name Stretford is a version of Stratford, both are the same word pronounced and spelt differently. The link with the Roman road is correct. This Roman road runs under the surface of the modern road near my house and it follows the route of the Roman road along the route to Chester, a great Roman base. The Ford at Stretford is less than a mile from my house.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/14/2023

The computer crashed before I could enter the second question to my Trafford-related comment below.

Would street always in its beginning usage indicate a pre-existing or underlying Roman road?

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