North Shropshire is simply legendary
It's fair to say that North Shropshire in particular has more than its fair share of myths and legends.
Academics make the case that King Arthur was actually a king of the Votadini tribe, who lived around Viroconium, close to modern Wroxeter. He married a local girl, the good lady Guinevere - or Ganhumara - who came from Oswestry.
The Old Oswestry Hill Fort, known as Caer Ogyrfan after King Arthur's father in law, is said to be the birthplace of Queen Guinevere. It is also believed to have been the site for the final battle of the Powys King Cynddylan, the last descendant of King Arthur to rule in Shropshire.
Manuscripts in the British Library suggest that King Arthur historically existed (although he was known as 'Owain Ddantgwyn - The Bear', a great king of the Dark Ages). The earliest reference to Arthur suggests that he was in fact a king of Powys, a kingdom that once covered what is now Shropshire and Mid Wales.
The King Arthur Trail can be downloaded here and can help you discover the Shropshire of the real King Arthur, explaining some of those stories associated with Arthur and show you the real sites which connect back to them; including the sword in the stone, the Holy Grail, Camelot and Lady Guinevere.
The Holy Grail is said to have been kept in the chapel of Whittington Castle and historic Hawkstone Park and Follies in Weston-Under-Redcastle also has legendary associations with King Arthur. In 1920 a small stone cup was found hidden in the base of an eagle statue that then stood in the Grotto. It was identified as an early Roman scent jar, and recent research has suggested that it may have been the vessel that inspired the medieval Grail legend.
There are also many similarities between Robin Hood and the life of Fulk Fitz-warine, from Whittington Castle near Oswestry, a medieval landed gentleman who turned outlaw.
According to the tale, as a young boy, Fulk was sent to the court of King Henry II, where he grew up with the future King John. John became his enemy after a childhood quarrel and, as an adult, Fulk was stripped of his family's holdings and took to the woods as an outlaw. Unsurprisingly the tale of Fulk Fitz-warine has been noted for its parallels to the Robin Hood legend.
Whittington Castle was also home of Richard Whittington; the English merchant who went on to find fame as lord mayor of London (on no less than three occasions) and countless pantomimes ever since where he is more famously known as hero, Dick Whittington.
Whittington spent his childhood growing up at the castle and once visited the holy Well of St. Oswald. Following this visit he had a vivid dream that the spirits of the well had heard his wish to be a rich and wealthy man and they told him of a town far away where the streets were paved with gold.
Whittington went to London and suffered ill treatment from the shop keeper he worked for, but legend says as he was leaving he heard the prophetic Bells, 'Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.' Today there is free public access to Whittington Castle grounds all year round and improved access has been provided as part of a £1.5million restoration project, so exploring the trail of these two heroes is easier than ever.
Incidentally, St. Oswald's Well which may have inspired Whittington's dream has a colourful story behind it. Oswestry itself is named after King Oswald of Northumbria, who was nailed to a tree - hence the name 'Oswald's Tree'. A passing eagle took a limb but dropped it and where it landed a spring burst forth - St Oswald's Well.
Shropshire has many historic characters too, who have arguably not joined the ranks of legendary status, but there remains an air of mystery and intrigue around them. Was 'Mad Jack' Mytton really mad or just very eccentric? If folklore is correct North Shropshire's 'Mad Jack' inherited a fortune and devoted his life to daredevilry, risking it at least once a day and his liver more frequently, drinking up to six bottles of port. He is reputed to have kept 2,000 dogs and more than 60 finely-costumed cats. He once rode a bear across a dining room table and tried to cure his hiccups by setting fire to his shirt. His life of excess led to his eventual death in a debtor's prison. His funeral procession stopped at the Mytton & Mermaid Hotel in Atcham, then a coaching inn, on the way to Halston Chapel.
The small village of Nesscliffe between Shrewsbury and Oswestry was also home to Humphrey Kynaston - another possible candidate for a Shropshire Robin Hood! He hid in a cave on Nesscliffe Hill having been outlawed in 1491. He evaded the law with help from his horse, Beelzebub, which performed great feats such as jumping the river Severn at Montford Bridge. As you stroll around Nescliffe today, amongst the trees and rhododendron covered hillside, you will come to the red sandstone cliff where Kynaston's cave was cut into the cliff face.
You may also find the remains of the defenses from the Iron Age hill-fort that crowned the hill 2000 years before Kynaston. The ditches and ramparts can still be found beneath the undergrowth.
A visit to Mythstories, a museum of myth and fables in Wem, provides a fascinating exhibition of these stories and even more Shropshire folklore, but perhaps the best place to discover the real folk behind these legends is to get out and see their legacies for yourself. We recommend you take a picnic (filled with Shropshire goodies naturally) and make a day of exploring our mysterious county.