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Submitted by Malcolm Pratt
Shropshire's Webb Site
"In Britain" magazine
As a new millennium attraction opens in the Shropshire hills to show the history, geology and literary inspirations of the area, Lee Karen Stow pays tribute to local author Mary Webb.
Some 50 years ago, Hollywood - its film crews, make-up artists, wind machines and electric cables - descended upon the Shropshire hills. [Well it wasn't really Hollywood, it was a British crew led by P&P] Amidst all the paraphernalia, Oscar winner and classic brunette beauty Jennifer Jones clambered upon the grey, jagged outcrops known as the Stiperstones to drape her shawl on the Devil's Chair. "If I be to go to Hunter's Spinney," she asked the night air on mid-summer's eve, "if I be to go, let me hear the fairy music." On cue, plucked notes of a harp drifted over the Welsh borderlands and the fate of the doomed Hazel Woodus was sealed.
Jennifer, as Hazel, was enacting a gypsy charm - taken from a book of spells handed down to Hazel by her late mother - in the 1950 movie "Gone to Earth" (released in the USA as "Wild Heart"). Based on the novel of the same name by Shropshire-born Mary Webb, the story is reportedly being refilmed this summer by Daniel Day Lewis and his wife Rebecca Miller. The production will feature Samantha Morton in the role of Hazel and Jeremy Irons as the Squire of the Undern, Jack Reddin.
Webb is just one writer captivated by the landscape and remembered in this summer's opening of the Secret Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms. A millennium-funded landmark building engulfed by meadows and topped off with a green grass roof, the centre will show the history, geology, geography and mystery of the hills, and pay tribute to the pastures loved and walked by its resident writers.
Published in 1917 "Gone to Earth" is, some say, as powerful as a Bronte script. For Webb has engraved her landscape, its people, flora, fauna and scars from the days of leadmining into her prose as deeply as those Stiperstones are rooted in the moortop. She knew each and every laurel and lilac tree, the blackthorns, blackberry and honeysuckle intimately.
Set in the late 1800s, GTE portrays 19-year-old Hazel Woodus as a wild girl with unkempt auburn hair dressed with a crown of foxgloves, picking dawn mushrooms, or running barefoot through the meadows with her pet fox cub, Foxy. "She had so deep a kinship with the trees, so intuitive a sympathy with leaf and flower, that it seemed as if the blood in her veins was not slow-moving human blood, but volatile sap." Her dialect has a richness still audible in the hills: "Where you bin? You'm stray and lose yourself, certain sure!" she chides Foxy.
Hazel marries the minister, Edward Marston (played by Cyril Cusack), a platonic marriage, before being brutally seduced by the fox-hunting Squire of Undern, Jack Reddin (David Farrar). She wants neither, only the outdoors, for she is "enchained by earth, prisoner to it only a little less than the beech and the hyacinth..." Ultimately, it's both men's desire that destroys her. Running from the death-pack of hunting blood-hounds [fox hounds] led by Reddin, her fox cub clasped in her arms, Hazel plunges to her death down a disused mine shaft.
For visitors to south Shropshire, it's two for the price of one. Literary fans can trace the writer's footsteps on marked byways over the hills, while those who remember the movie can seek out the backdrops used, or bump into some of the 300 locals enlisted as extras to join Jennifer Jones on screen.
One extra, Mary Palmer, danced round a maypole: "I was about five, and as little ones we were so excited," Mary told me. "I remember being fitted for a long, brightly coloured Victorian-style dress with a hemline just above the calves. I wore pigtails, but they took them out and brushed my hair loose.
"We were employed for three days and paid £3, which was a lot. My father was also an extra, you can see him in the horse racing scene - a lovely side view of his grey whiskers," adds Mary. When the movie was screened in the cinema at Much Wenlock in 1950, Mary and her family paid sixpence to sit on wooden benches and watch the credits roll. "When the racing scene came on I stood up and shouted 'that's my daddy!'"
Glyn Williams, also an extra, guided me round the landmarks of Much Wenlock used in the filming. He was aged 16 and played a bookie in the race scene. What you cannot detect in the clip is Glyn using a screwdriver to jot down the odds because no one could find him a pen. Hollywood paid him £1.50 a day for seven days' work, a colossal wage. "I bought my first wrist watch," he said proudly.
Filming brought the town to a standstill. "There were big lights, reflectors and electric cables all over the place," Glyn recalled. "This didn't suit tradesmen and people who weren't interested in the film. One chap refused to be silent and told them where to stick it." In those early days of Technicolor, cameramen needed the sun to appear before they could shoot, which meant hours of waiting around for the cast. Glyn whiled away the hours playing football, with David Farrar in goal.
Much Wenlock hasn't completely altered. There remains the black-and-white buttermarket, where Hazel's cousin Albert (played by George Cole), astonished by the beauty of Hazel in her new dress, cried, "you're jam 'azel", opposite the clock tower. I'm told the George and Dragon pub still treasures the mug used by Jennifer Jones when, as Hazel, she shrank back in the corner away from the relentless Squire Reddin. [Shame that scene wasn't actually filmed in there (there wasn't room for the huge Technicolor cameras). They rebuilt it in the "studio" in an aircraft hanger.] The town is, of course, known for the Grange, a Victorian privately-owned house where Mary Webb lived with her parents from 1882 to 1896.
Mary was actually born in Leighton, five days before spring in 1881. From an early age she suffered Graves Disease, a thyroid disorder that forced her to spend time in seclusion, wandering the hills, embroidering nature, gossip and folklore into her work. She married Henry Webb and moved with his teaching posts, switching from countryside to town, but always pined for Shropshire where most of her novels are set.
She died at a nursing home on the Sussex coast in 1927, aged 46, and is buried beneath a lime tree on a rise in Shrewsbury Cemetery, within view of the Stiperstones. The literary acclaim she so desperately sought came when her novel "Precious Bane" was praised by the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin at a Royal Literary Fund Dinner. It came too late, a year after her death. However, today her power of pen is drawing more people to her novels and to the magic of her hills.
By daylight I climbed the grass meadow to Bromlow Callow (Hunters Spinney) where in the movie, Jennifer Jones searches the spindly trunks for Foxy. The tall Scots pines ruffled their tops in the wind as though sweeping the sky and I could see for miles. Later, I travelled the old coaching road from Bishop's Castle to Shrewsbury which runs between the Stiperstones and the ridge of the Long Mynd. Both rise to more than 1,500 ft, cloaked in heather and whinberrys (billberries).
Mary Webb would walk or ride her pony round here. She would have seen the weather-aged ash trees, the rooftops of the villages of Pontesbury and Habberley. She might have modelled Undern - home to Squire Reddin - on Hogstow Hall, haunted by huntsman Jack Scarlet who raped a nun and was hung, drawn and quartered for his crime.
At the Nills, where Mary wrote GTE with such speed her pages lay scattered on the floor, I strolled the public bridlepath that cuts in from of the privately-owned stone cottage where she lived, surrounded by her locations.
Shrouded by conifers is Lordshill Chapel, built in 1833 on Lordshill (God's Little Mountain in GTE), sloping "softly up and away apparently to its possessor". It was here Edward lived and married Hazel.
A bowl of hyacinth bulbs (true to the book) stands on the window sill inside. I wandered the moss-encrusted headstones, careful not to tread on clusters of snowdrops and yellow primroses, to the overgrown baptismal pond fed by a babbling stream from the Stiperstones. It was here Jennifer Jones performed the baptism to the tune of the local choir. The chapel itself, refurbished with a wash of pale blue and white and furnished with wooden pews, holds services twice on summer Sundays.
Walkers are encouraged to keep to the footpaths, especially around the six-mile quartzite ridge of the Stiperstones. Deposited 480 million years ago and revealed during the break up of ice in the last Ice Age, it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve, due to its outstanding geological and wildlife interest. Locals, however say the Stiperstones appeared when the devil attempted to fill the valley with rocks and accidentally dropped them. They add that if bad weather obscures the Devil's Chair, it means he is sitting in it.
By dusk I had crossed the heathland to reach the Stiperstones from where, on a clear day, you can see Snowdon, the Welsh mountain. A mist had obliterated the Devil's Chair. Evidently, he was at home. As I turned to leave, the mist ran off the tors like a river of white silk, revealing turrets as craggy as a castle. Hollywood's wind machines, the shawl and the fairy music, have long gone, what's left is a perfect still.
- The craggy magnificence of the Stiperstones (main picture);
- (inset, from top) author Mary Webb, aged 15, used the Shropshire hills as the setting for many of her future novels;
- a poster promoting the film "Gone to Earth", adapted from one of Mary's books;
- doomed heroine Hazel Woodus, played by Jennifer Jones, in the film adaptation
- The filming of GTE in 1950 (above) brought the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock with its historic buttermarket (opposite, top right) to a standstill;
- Oscar-winner Jennifer Jones holding the foxcub Foxy on set (opposite, bottom);
- Lordshill Chapel (right), where Hazel married and lived with Minister Edward Marston
[additional text omitted]
The Mary Webb Society,
Secretary: Mrs. Sue Higginbotham,
8 The Knowe,
What to Visit
[descriptive text omitted]
Mary Webb Weekends
The Stiperstones Inn
Where to Stay
[descriptive text omitted]
The Wenlock Edge Inn
BTA's "Best of New Britain"
BTA's "Green Britain for the new millennium"
"GTE" (1917) and "Precious Bane" (1927) by Mary Webb
"Hollywood Comes to Shropshire" is a 75-min video with movie footage and interviews with the locals. On sale at some tourist centres in the area, £14.99
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