In spring 1859 Charles Dickens joined throngs of sightseers flocking to view the recently-excavated ruins of Wroxeter Roman City. Such was the level of the famous author’s interest in the origins of the ancient Shropshire settlement he was moved to write about his visit — revealing an even greater fascination for The Wrekin Hill, the iconic local landmark that inspired its foundation.
Rome and Turnips
Dickens tour of the site provided the basis for an entire article, entitled Rome and Turnips, published in the May edition of All The Year Round, a weekly digest he not only edited but had founded the previous month (contributors to the long-running publication, which ran until 1895, would include luminaries such as Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins and Wellington’s own best-selling novelist Hesba Stretton). While Dickens dutifully reported on the extensive excavations that had taken place during a fallow period in a local turnip farmer’s field he also turned his attention to the main portent attending the birth of the historic settlement: the iconic Wrekin Hill. The famous Midlands landmark was once the chief hillfort of the Cornovii and it is widely accepted that the Roman invasion of AD47 led the Celtic tribe to abandon the site for the invader’s new military camp-cum-town, which was named Uriconium-Cornoviorum in its honour (the first part of the place name, Dickens surmised, being a Romanisation of the word Wrekinium).
The Victorian novelist was, however, far from the first literary figure to make noteworthy observations about the local excavations. A century earlier, in 1752, the Welsh poet Goronwy Owen was headmaster at Donnington School (confusingly located in Wroxeter parish churchyard, rather than the nearby industrial settlement north of Wellington). He outlined in a letter to a friend the “very curious pieces of antiquity lately found”, comprising a trio of stone tablets bearing monumental inscriptions to various Roman dignitaries. Wroxeter, Owen opined, “was once one of the very finest cities in Britain, as appears by the ruins of it, that are now to be seen and daily more and more discovered.” His poetry was at the centre of a revival in the Welsh Bardic tradition but while he enjoyed a purple patch during his time in Shropshire the local landscape featured only fleetingly in his verse. The same could not be said for Dickens, on the other hand, whose writing betrayed both an extensive knowledge and abiding affection for The Wrekin.
The Eagle's Bowl
“If there is a lump of earth in the inanimate world that I can call my friend” declared Dickens “it is old Wrekin”. Their association appears to have spanned some considerable period of time, too, for he claimed to have stood on the hill “at midnight and mid noon” and “in rainy and fair weather.” Indeed, Dickens had passed through Shropshire only the previous summer, while giving a recital of his work at Shrewsbury’s Music Hall — part of a gruelling 125-date national tour that also took-in Chester, Liverpool and London within the space of a few days. It seems unlikely he would have had much time to renew acquaintances with The Wrekin on that occasion but he did visit the area a number of times over the years. In the east of the county, for example, he journeyed to both Tong and Newport, which are said to have inspired scenes and characters from his novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations.
Dickens uncanny ability to interweave fact and fiction was certainly on display when he wrote about The Wrekin, and suggests more than a passing interest in its storied folklore. “I have threaded the Needle’s Eye” (a true rite of passage for any Salopian) and “dipped in its mystical eagle’s bowl” he affirmed — no doubt a reference to the custom of thrusting a pin into the Raven’s Bowl; long-thought to bring good luck. In legend, both these hilltop geological features owe their existence to the actions of squabbling giants. Dickens was only too aware of that particular facet of local lore, adding “I have stood upon that large dropping from the spade of the arch enemy. He would block up the Severn with, would he?” “On many a winter’s night, when riding at its foot” he continued, he had “laughed at the dismal failure of its very best efforts to look inhospitable” suggesting he harboured a degree of scepticism towards more fearsome tales of the hill’s creation!
Dickens may also have alluded to one of the more intriguing and lesser known customs associated with The Wrekin, when he wrote of having “seen from its top spreading of the dawn on summer mornings.” Examples of ‘seeing the sun dance’, an ancient Christian practice that traditionally took place on Easter Day, exist throughout the British Isles and generally involve traipsing to the top of a local hill in order to view, through a variety of mediums, the celestial body ‘shimmering’ (jars of water, sheets of darkened glass and primitive sunglasses were all used for the purpose). The phenomenon, a consequence of light refraction in certain atmospheric conditions, was regarded as a seasonal indicator of the weather: if the sun’s reflection moved slowly a dry summer would ensue, whereas if it rippled water would remain plentiful.
In detailing his close relationship with The Wrekin, it’s entirely possible Dickens may have used artistic license. After all, 1859 was also the year he first published the work of Hesba Stretton, with whom he enjoyed a long professional relationship. The hill featured in several of her novels and there’s no doubt she was well acquainted with its life and times. However, in an age when rail travel was opening up the landscape to an unprecedented extent it’s equally tempting to imagine Dickens alighting at Wellington station for a quick stroll to the summit, and that’s one custom for which we’d love to see a twenty-first century revival!