Giant Places:
The Wrekin

The familiar humpbacked profile of The Wrekin is not only synonymous with the county of Shropshire but the entire Midlands region. Indeed, writers, poets and storytellers from far and wide have long sought to explain the famous hill’s brooding presence in the landscape in a story of creative inspiration spanning at least three thousand years.

All Around The Wrekin

The famous toast to “all friends around the Wrekin” is probably the most well-known of the literary associations attached to the iconic hill. It originates from The Recruiting Officer, a restoration comedy of 1706 by George Farquhar set in the county town of Shrewsbury (where the Irish playwright had himself been stationed).  Farquhar’s play was by no means The Wrekin’s first entry into the written word, which may have come as early as a charter of 855. However, its etymology stretches back much further to a time when it was the principal hillfort of a Celtic kingdom belonging to the Cornovii. The eminent Welsh historian Sir John Rhys (who counted no less than JRR Tolkien among his acolytes) suggested in his 1908 pamphlet All Around The Wrekin that the name may have been a derivation of the Welsh word Gwrygon or Gwrgon — in tribute, perhaps, to a local tribal leader. While the hill’s era of high status ended with the Roman Invasion of 47AD (when the Cornovii relocated to nearby Uriconium), fascination with its distant past did not, and found new expression through a distinctly nineteenth century innovation.

The Wrekin from Buildwas Lane,
The Wrekin from Buildwas Lane, Little Wenlock
Fly carriages, like this one at the Wrekin Hotel in Market Square, typically transported Victorian rail users alighting at Wellington for The Wrekin

Iron Horses

Among the many advances of the Victorian era, the advent of mass printing did much to renew interest in the Wrekin’s past. This era of fascination was facilitated in no small part by the coming of the railways to Wellington in 1849. Accordingly, the town (which lies just a mile from the hill) became a starting point for thousands of day-trippers wishing to ascend it — the vast majority availing themselves of horse-driven carriages for hire from the station forecourt. The proliferation of tourist guides available to the average Victorian traveller did much to increase awareness of local legend, folklore and mythology, and represented the first time many tales had been written down. Ironically, that placed them within an older tradition of word-of-mouth storytelling that owed much to the area’s strong Celtic and Norse influence.

Giant Aspirations

While The Wrekin evolved during an intense period of volcanic mountain building some 566 million years ago, many alternative theories have been advanced for both its existence and that of its siblings (for there are five hills in the range). One of the most common relate to the activities of bellicose giants, a tradition that has strong associations to several cultures. Aside from explaining the existence of the hills themselves, the rocky outcrops and geological features atop The Wrekin also have many stories attached them, including the Bladder Stones, which lies between the Raven’s Bowl and the  Needle’s Eye. This perennially bare area of ground is said to make the spot where two giants once fought, and it has been suggested the word is a derivation of Balder. Indeed, nearby Watling Street marks the traditional boundary of Mercian and Danelaw, indicating Norse as well as Celtic influences may have shaped our perception of The Wrekin’s place in the landscape.

The Needles Eye
The view looking southwards from the top of the Needles Eye