A short but spectacular walk that includes a wonderful nature reserve at Earl's Hill.
Distance 4 miles (6.4km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 984ft (300m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Easily followed, may be boggy by Habberley Brook, 7 stiles
Landscape Hills, oakwoods and plantation above deeply cut valley
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 241 Shrewsbury
Start/finish SJ 408056
Dog friendliness Can run free in forests, but keep under close control around livestock and in nature reserve
Parking Forestry Commission car park at Pontesford Hill - turn off A488 at Pontesford, by Rea Valley Tractors
Public toilets None on route
1 Take a bridleway, which runs beyond the timber vehicle barrier. Go left at a fork and shortly cross a stile half-hidden below the bank on your left. Turn right across a field to join a bridle track. Turn right, following the bridleway through farmland and then into a wood.
2 Keep left, descending through oakwoods above the steep valley of Habberley Brook and soon branching right to cross the brook at a footbridge. Bear right uphill, eventually leaving woodland for plantation. Ignore any minor paths and climb to a junction with a wide path. Keep left, staying on the bridleway, which leaves the trees and continues as a hedged track towards the hamlet of Oaks.
3 Don't join the lane at Oaks, but turn right, still on the bridleway which skirts round tree-crowned Church Hill before descending into plantation once more. Soon after the bridleway passes some buildings and makes a sharp left turn, start looking for a footpath on the right. Follow it diagonally left down two fields to the far corner of the second and then into forest again.
4 Turn right to find a footbridge and cross Habberley Brook. Go up a slope to a bridleway junction at a gate/stile; keep straight on towards the south end of Earl's Hill. Go through a gate by a dead oak tree and follow the right-hand hedge, then continue along the edge of a wood until a gate gives access to it.
6 Go straight on to pass through another gate, then turn right and start climbing across the southern end of the hill. Take the second path on the left, which climbs very steeply to the top of the hill, passing through the Iron-Age fort to reach the summit.
7 Descend from the top in a northerly direction, across the top of Pontesford Hill (with more prehistoric earthworks on your left - outworks of the main fort) and down through the conifers to meet a path by another prehistoric fort at the northern end of the hill. Turn right, then left to rejoin the bridleway by which you originally left the hill. The car park can be found to the left.
Earl's Hill was created in the Precambrian period, about 650 million years ago, and is volcanic in origin. Iron-Age people built a fort on top in about 600 bc, and there are intriguing local legends and customs attached to the hill, one of them involving a search each Palm Sunday for a golden arrow, a story that was the inspiration behind Mary Webb's novel The Golden Arrow. Mary lived in nearby Pontesbury for a time and made long walks into the hills.
The hill is often said to resemble a sleeping dragon or lion and, from certain angles, you can just about see the lion. More prosaically, it is both a Scheduled Ancient Monument (because of the Iron-Age fort) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its wildlife value. It became Shropshire Wildlife Trust's first nature reserve back in 1964; an auspicious start, given the quality of the site. The adjoining Pontesford Hill, where the walk begins, is leased and managed by Forest Enterprise.
Ecologically, Earl's Hill is most valuable for its great variety of habitats, and you can see most of them from here, ranging from fast-flowing Habberley Brook through mixed woodland, anthill meadows, scrub, scree and cliffs to the acid grassland that surrounds you on the summit. The anthills, made by yellow hill ants, are composed of well-drained, sandy soil which heats up quickly in the first sunny days of spring, supporting flowers which appreciate a little extra warmth, such as wild thyme, heath bedstraw and heath speedwell. In this way, each anthill forms a distinct micro-habitat with a different range of flowers than the surrounding meadowland.
Wroxeter is a hamlet by the Severn, south east of Shrewsbury, which would be unremarkable but for its superb Roman remains. It was the site of Viroconium, the fourth largest city in Roman Britain. English Heritage looks after the site, which includes a high basilica wall and the excavated remains of municipal baths, an exercise hall, market hall and forum. There's a small on-site museum too.
You will find plenty of choice in Pontesbury, such as the Horseshoes Inn, the Nags Head, the Railway Inn and the Red Lion, which is very attractive, with masses of flowers brightening the front. The Plough on Habberley Road has a quiet, pleasant location and almost all the pubs have gardens. Pontesbury also has shops, a chippy and a Chinese restaurant.
Earl's Hill and Habberley Brook are rich in all kinds of wildlife. Rarer species include the grayling butterfly, which inhabits the bare top, and the common lizard, which is no longer at all common. A good place to see a lizard is the exposed scree below the summit to the east, but you would have to approach very slowly and quietly to have any chance of sighting one. Dormice live in the woods on the west side of the hill, but they're even more elusive than lizards.