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