The other lake district, Shropshire

Explore the secret glacial meres and mosses of Shropshire, where you’ll find tranquillity and wildlife in abundance 

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On the bare bosoms of these reflecting and reflective waters is always seen a host of visiting and resident waterfowl with its nobility of swans.”

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The words that Edmund Vale wrote in 1949 for the Shropshire edition of the County Books series are still true today. The meres still teem with water birds, and the mosses are still beautiful, solemn and “dotted with dwarf birch spangled in gold”.

My first visit to Cole Mere was on a primary school trip. I remember toadstools, twisted trees, secret boathouses, gleaming water, and my new yellow wellies in the mud. It immediately became a favourite family picnic destination – it’s the only mere you can walk all the way round. We loved the gnarly old birch and tangly vines, the beech burning copper in autumn and the mystery of jumping fish. I learned to sail there, too. It was years before I realised Cole Mere was one of several.

Mere beauty
The Mere (at Ellesmere), Crose Mere, Hanmer Mere, Blake Mere, Kettle Mere, White Mere, Newton Mere, Sweat Mere and Cole Mere, Fenns Moss, Whixhall Moss, Bettisfield Moss, Wem Moss and Cadney Moss – the rhythmic names are appropriate for an area so rich in lyrical charm. They were formed by the melting of the last glaciers, the deeper kettle basins becoming meres and the shallower ones filling with plant matter to form the mosses. They are not fed by rushing water as the Cumbrian lakes are, but sustained instead by evaporation, rainfall and groundwater – the mosses and meres in balance.

Ellesmere is a good base to explore them from. It’s a small medieval market town with castle gardens, rowing boat hire, steam boat trips and a promenade from where The Boathouse restaurant and visitor centre has been providing lakeside refreshment and information for nearly 100 years. In spring it is also home to the Heron Watch scheme. Cameras on Moscow Island allow visitors to watch these dignified haughty birds (see page 34) build nests and raise chicks before leaving by June for a more solitary existence.

The Shropshire Union Canal weaves through this water-land linking Ellesmere, Blake Mere, Cole Mere and further on the mosses, with towpath access by boat, foot, or bike. Just yards from the merry Ellesmere bustle and greedy geese, Blake Mere offers a quieter experience, appreciated by the anglers secreted under green umbrellas.

It’s a good way along this to the mosses, an expansive peat bog wilderness through which the Welsh and English border runs and from which bog bodies have been exhumed. It is crisscrossed by paths and fringed in alder carr.

Peat discoveries
Edmund Vale described the “fairy pipes” found by peat cutters – old clay pipes rather than musical ones, but magical nevertheless. You can still catch a hint of peat smoke and see the scars and ditches left by peat cutting, though this has now ceased so that biodiversity can flourish. The wetlands are flooding again, and the sundews, raft spiders, otters and white darter dragonflies are returning.

The meres buzz hot and blue with damselflies in summer sun, while marsh marigolds dazzle and butterflies dance. But I love to see these secret waters when the cloud is low. Mist softens and enhances the haunting honks of geese and the wing beats of swans. Lone grebes and cormorants dive and rise as black silhouettes, distant yet centre stage. Raindrops on twigs shine out against the water mist horizon and tremble the gently gleaming surface where, in the words of Edmund Vale we see “the water’s lap, reluctantly giving place to bulrush and sedge”.

Useful Information

HOW TO GET THERE
Ellesmere is 12 miles north of Shrewsbury on the A495. The mosses lie between Ellesmere and Whitchurch. Buses run frequently from Shrewsbury, and Wem, Prees, and Whitchurch are the nearest train stations. Many walking and cycling routes weave through the area including the Shropshire Way and Sustrans Route 45. Or you could arrive by boat on the Shropshire Union Canal.

FIND OUT MORE
Meres: Ellesmere Boathouse Visitor Centre
0345 6789000
www.shropshire.gov.uk

Mosses: Natural England
01948 270312 
www.naturalengland.org.uk

Water herons at Ellesmere
01691 622981  
www.heronwatch.org.uk

STAY
The Red Lion
Church Street, Ellesmere SY12 0HD
01691 622632  
redlion-ellesmere.co.uk

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EAT
The Boathouse Restaurant
Mereside, Ellesmere
SY12 0PA
01691 623852