WHIX­ALL WALK

Moor your boat up and ex­plore a re­mark­able an­cient land­scape just be­yond the Llan­gollen Canal’s tow­path hedge

Canal Boat - - CONTENTS -

Whix­all Moss can be an un­set­tling place. An ex­panse of blonde and dun, fringed with crooked and ghostly birch woods, empty to the un­fo­cused eye. It is pe­cu­liarly flat and des­o­late-feel­ing in the oth­er­wise rich and un­du­lant farm­land of the Shropshire Plain. It’s a mar­ginal place, sit­ting on the Shropshire-Wales bor­der. A place of nei­ther land or wa­ter. The an­cient Bri­tons felt such places to be be­tween worlds. The dis­cov­ery of a num­ber of bog-bod­ies down the years tes­tify to its spe­cial and an­cient sig­nif­i­cance.

Fenn’s, Whix­all & Bet­t­is­field Mosses (to give its full name) has seen much hu­man ac­tiv­ity down the ages. It’s the third-largest raised peat­bog in the UK, cov­er­ing an area of 1,000 hectares, cul­ti­vated for cen­turies to the point of de­struc­tion. 96 per­cent of such places are lost for­ever, due to drainage and cul­ti­va­tion. But since com­mer­cial peat­cut­ting ended in 1991, Nat­u­ral Eng­land, the Coun­try­side Coun­cil for Wales, and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, have been busy restor­ing it to its nat­u­ral state, and pre­serv­ing the rare species that live here.

My wife and I were pass­ing through early in March so we went for a walk, fol­low­ing a marked trail over 2.5 miles through the south­ern side of the moss. The fresh smells had just been un­locked af­ter the thaw and life bur­geoned all around. We heard a wood­pecker drilling, and our first black­bird song of the year. It was cold and bright. Light and shadow shifted rapidly across the land.

We ap­proached from the main en­trance at the east­ern side, walk­ing west up the path. Straight away it felt spongy and springy un­der­foot. Be­fore long we left the trees that sur­rounded the ap­proach, into the ex­posed land­scape. The blue hills of Wales in the dis­tance were snow-capped. It’s rec­om­mended you stick to the paths.

All around were no-en­try signs. It would be fool­ish not to heed them.

The moss that cov­ers the bog looks un­nerv­ingly solid. All around were flooded ditches and it’d be too easy to dis­ap­pear. Be­fore us was a pond full of squab­bling black-headed gulls, as we walked south, but when we came to our turn­ing west, soon enough the wind was all there was. The path was lined with heathers and dead ferns, and was churned in places by tyre tracks. We had to ne­go­ti­ate pud­dles of brown-tinged acidic wa­ter that the dog found dis­taste­ful to drink.

Along the way were lich­ened wooden plaques with some of the crea­tures that are found here. Ad­der, curlew, short-eared owl, hobby, night­jar. The area is rich in all kinds of flora and fauna. There are 29 species of drag­on­fly and dam­sel­fly, 32 of butterflies, 670 of moth, and over 160 recorded birds, in­clud­ing waders like the bit­tern and whim­brel. Not to men­tion the plants, which in­clude over 18 species of sphag­num bog mosses.

Look­ing around, it was hard to con­ceive of such a place ever hav­ing been busy, this wilder­ness. It looked so un­tamed. But the op­po­site is true. Fur­ther on there were chopped down sil­ver birches laid along the side of the path. They’re ev­ery­where and shouldn’t be. One of the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of peat-cut­ting is the drain­ing of the wa­ter, which en­cour­ages such vig­or­ous species to take root. This means the push­ing out of the na­tive species like the bog mosses that ab­sorb and acid­ify rain, wa­ter­log the peat, and en­sure that only cer­tain types of life thrive. These are in turn pick­led and pre­served. It also means that the car­bon trapped in the bogs is re­leased, speed­ing up cli­mate change.

Where the path turned south again we car­ried on west through the trees to see Old Fenn’s Works, an old peat mill from 1938-63. It’s thought to be the only one left of its kind any­where in the world, now just a ruste­d­iron skele­ton stand­ing in the clear. We stopped to sit and drink a flask of cof­fee, en­joy­ing the sun, on the bleached grass be­fore re­trac­ing our steps.

Our route took us along an old tramway, with deep drainage ditches on ei­ther side, to the south-western corner which brought us to the canal, which was com­pleted in 1804, and al­lowed com­mer­cial exploitation to be­gin. A team of men were con­tin­u­ally em­ployed un­til the 1960s to main­tain the clay banks which kept sink­ing into the peat. Here the bird­song re­turned, and we walked back up the tow­path, past alder carrs and more birch woods, back to the boat. In all it took two hours.

It’s rec­om­mended you stick to the paths. All around us were no-en­try signs. It would be fool­ish not to heed them

The view­ing plat­form look­ing north

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