2023: Step inside the Museum of The Wrekin

In his recent vision of Wellington yet to come, local writer George Evans decided to turn the simmering idea of a Museum of The Wrekin into a future reality. It’s an idea that’s been around the houses a bit, but might it have legs? Today I’m joining George in the year 2023 to have a look inside…

I’m standing in a dimly-lit corridor. I can hear the sound of waves. This is the entrance to the main exhibition space at Wellington’s popular museum, which opened seven years ago and tells the story of The Wrekin Forest.

The first display board announces that I’m stood at the point when the rocks of The Wrekin are first formed, somewhere in the South Atlantic 600 million years ago. There are no rocks in England that are older, it tells me. And if every meter to my right represents a millennium, how far would I have to walk to reach the present day? To the end of the road? Up the A5 to Shrewsbury? All the way to the Welsh coast? Apparently I’d have to go across the Irish Sea, right across Ireland and out the other side before I reached the 21st century. Mind-blowing.

Large screen digital animation showing the changing Wrekin Forest landscape

Large screen digital animation showing the changing Wrekin Forest landscape

The exhibition tells me more about the flora and fauna that would have colonised The Wrekin in pre-history, and the early humans who would have lived here. We then emerge into a new room where we learn about the Bronze Age people who we know lived on the Wealdmoors, and the Iron Age Cornovii tribe whose hill fort occupied The Wrekin at the time of the Roman invasion. We skip through another five hundred years of history, when The Wrekin was the backdrop to multicultural Viriconium – the fourth biggest city in Roman Britain – and on to the time of the Wreocensetan, the Saxon ‘people of The Wrekin’.

Moving through to the next room, we’re plunged into the sounds and smells of the greenwood as we arrive in the Royal Forest, when the lands of The Wrekin are hunted by nobles and worked by foresters. The Domesday Book introduces us to the settlements emerging in and around the forest – Dawley and Lawley, Aston and Wrockwardine, Wellington and several others. We find out who lived there and what they did for a living as different crafts and trades emerge and settlements grow. We also lift the lid on religion around The Wrekin, with abbeys springing up at Wombridge, Haughmond, Buildwas and Wenlock, along with new parish churches, and the mysterious holy hermit who lived on the hill itself.

In the next part of the exhibition, the Tudors are on the throne and those early Wrekin foresters have become the prominent Forester family, building their grand home – known today as the Old Hall – close to The Wrekin at Watling Street. A beacon flares up on the hill to spread news of the Spanish Armada in 1585, and 60 years later conflict reaches The Wrekin’s doorstep as King Charles rides into Wellington on the eve of the Civil War. Over the next four years, Roundheads and Cavaliers battle it out around The Wrekin at Apley Hall, High Ercall and Shrewsbury.

Moving on, we find out more about the ordinary men and women who worked The Wrekin during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including the charcoal burners and lime workers who fuelled early industry in the Gorge. But it wasn’t all toil – noisy exhibits reveal accounts of leisure and pleasure on the hill, including the boisterous Wrekin Wakes. Even medicine and magic feature, with accounts of the folk tales and remedies that were still spoken of in the 1800s.

Into the Victorian Age, and people continue to flock to The Wrekin for big occasions – from evangelising Methodists to radical Chartists. Boisterous old customs like the Wrekin Wakes are on the wane, but the hill is still a focus for high days and holidays, with the Halfway House and the Forest Glen Pavilion making the most of its roaring popularity. The beacons return, but this time in celebration of royal jubilees, not in warning of conflict. And as industry and commerce flourish in the towns and villages around the hill, The Wrekin gives its names to songs and dances, to factories and breweries.

In the 20th century, The Wrekin is put to work in new ways and old, with timber felling, quarrying and even a BBC mast – but not before its been pressed once more into war. The hill inspires writers and geologists, and even becomes home to some latter-day forest-dwellers in the guise of Lil Corbett and Alan Matthews. Above all, The Wrekin in the modern age confirms its place the people’s hill – vast and apparently wild, but also welcoming and accessible. A large room dedicated to the present day ecology of the forest describes how the hill is managed today. As I approach the end of the exhibition, a digital gallery peppers the walls with images of 100 Wrekin walkers of all ages and walks of life, from near and far.

And finally… where it all began

You might be wondering how we came to have this museum in the first place. It’s a long and convoluted story but basically, after several years of half-hearted conversations and plans, the pieces fell into place. It was a triumph of community energy and commitment alongside supportive councils which came to realise that it was a project worth backing.

It’s true to say the whole idea had sounded a bit whimsical at a time when council budgets were so tight. But it was also a time when Telford & Wrekin Council was putting renewed effort into beefing up the borough’s cultural offer – they knew that had to be part of making Telford a more ’rounded’ place to live and visit. Our little museum (set up in a previously vacant building) is only a tiny piece of that jigsaw, but thanks to the energy and imagination of volunteers, it’s been a cost effective piece – and a real example of a council cooperating with its communities to make good things happen. Long may that continue.

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