Along The Moors
Standing a mere 60 metres high, Lilleshall Hill is considerably shorter than its near neighbour The Wrekin, although it shares common origins — having been created in the same period of volcanic activity that resulted in the formation of the famous Shropshire landmark. Yet, like its more illustrious counterpart, Lilleshall Hill dominates much of the surrounding countryside, forming an abiding presence around the Weald Moors. The local landmark’s dominion over the moorlands is also represented in a more literal sense by the distinctive obelisk that adorns the hilltop, standing in testament to a landowner whose influence was felt across the whole of the Weald Moors during his own lifetime and who was directly responsible for shaping the modern day landscape of the area.
The obelisk on Lilleshall Hill was erected during 1833 in commemoration of the second Marquis of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland George Granville Leveson-Gower (pronounced Loosen-Gore) by the tenants of his Lilleshall estate which, by that time, included most of the Weald Moors. From the mid-18th Century, the moorlands entered into a period of long-term decline and it was Lord Stafford’s interest in farm and estate management that revived the agricultural fortunes of the area, providing the impetus for the most radical programme of change ever seen on the Weald Moors.
When Lord Stafford inherited the estate from the second Earl Gower, many of the drainage improvements to the moorlands that had been made in the course of preceding centuries had reverted to nature. While some of these problems appear to have been due to poor quality workmanship by previous landowners (who had dug ditches simply to claim ownership of the commons around their manors as a prelude to the profitable act of enclosing them) the underlying cause of stagnation was attributed to the actions of the Earl himself who, after inheriting Lilleshall in 1755, re-leased the entire estate in order to fund his political ambitions. This seems to have precipitated a collapse in the rigorous programme of maintenance needed to preserve the artificial drainage channels and streams around the moorlands, with surface water inundating large swathes of pasture whenever heavy rain occurred.
While the existence of the obelisk on Lilleshall Hill provides an imposing reminder of the success of Lord Stafford’s scheme in reviving the moorland economy, his accomplishments would not have been possible were it not for his all-encompassing ownership of the Weald Moors, the origins of which owe much to another striking edifice a mile south of Lilleshall village itself.
Lilleshall Abbey was founded between 1145 and 1148, when a colony of Arrouaisian canons, brought to England by the Bishop of Lincoln, arrived in the area from Dorchester. They originated from the Abbey of St Nicholas in Arrouaise, France, and were part of an expanding order characterised by strict discipline and self-sufficiency. The endowment of the Lilleshall estate, which comprised lands formerly belonging to St Alkmund’s church in Shrewsbury, would certainly have suited their purposes admirably and contained many acres of farmland and woodland, including large tracts of the Weald Moors. While successive abbots of Lilleshall spent much of the next century consolidating the foundation’s holdings, which also included a grange in the south of the moors at Cheswell and countless other properties across the country, the abbey spent much of its history stumbling from one financial crisis to another.
The Levesons Take Over
Although the unwieldy nature of Lilleshall’s extensive estates may have contributed to the foundation’s sense of perpetual indebtedness, many of its problems seem to have arisen from a chronic lack of central administration. Frequent grants of corrodies to monastic staff and servants alike also proved to be a major drain on resources. John of Garmston, for instance, who was appointed as Thresher on the Home Grange in 1347, received, in addition to his wages, a chamber in the abbey precinct where he was also permitted daily supplies of ale and food. Such arrangements seem to have been quite commonplace at the abbey and, in many instances, appear to have continued even after the beneficiaries were too old or infirm to work. Grants to former abbots could also prove costly and, in the case of John of Chetwynd, who resigned the post in 1330, spectacularly so! One year after receiving a generous corrody (which included the income of two of the abbey’s manors and two churches — as a clothing allowance!) he quarrelled with his successor and attacked Lilleshall by force, making off with its goods and forcing the King to place keepers in the abbey precinct!
Despite some success in reigning in the excesses of its monastic officials, Lilleshall continued in insolvency until suppression in October 1538, when the Abbot and his ten canons were relieved of their duties by the Crown and each given a pension and gifts of varying values. A year later, the estate was sold to Sir James Leveson, a Merchant of the Staple from South Staffordshire, who purchased nearby Wombridge Priory at the same time, adding further properties in the area to his portfolio in the ensuing years. Although successive generations of his family, who acquired the Gower name through marriage, attempted agricultural improvements on the moors, nothing could have prepared the area for the scale of the upheaval which occurred at the beginning of the 19th Century.
The Improvement Scheme
With Lord Stafford’s interest in agricultural matters leading the way, a scheme to improve the drainage of the Weald Moors was drawn-up by his land agent John Bishton and successfully sent before Parliament for approval in 1801. The work of putting The Wildmoors Improvement and Drainage Act into practice was carried out by Bishton’s successor John Loch, who later published an account of the programme in 1820 after most of the work had been completed. At the turn of the 19th Century, Loch contended that a vast swathe of moorland, comprising some 1200 acres, became flooded every time severe rain fell, while a further 600 acres, in the west of the moors, was left in a ‘state of nature’ owing to drainage problems caused by the pounding of the River Tern at Longdon.
The main objective of the scheme was to create a drainage ‘run’ throughout the whole moorland landscape and involved straightening, widening and embanking the existing east-west waterways running along the north and south sides of the Weald Moors. Behind these newly straightened strines, new ditches were also dug, in order to make an additional drainage level that would syphon excess water off the moors more efficiently by channelling it into a new main drain feeding into the River Tern downstream of Longdon Mill. Meanwhile, the flows of several smaller watercourses were reversed and a complex series of smaller, north-south running drains were constructed to compliment the process. The programme of rural renewal did not end there and, in order for the work to be carried out, new roads were constructed linking the whole of the moorlands for the first time, including ‘Sidney Drove’ (now The Duke’s Drive) and Kynnersley Drive. Large, linear strips of woodland were planted in the west of the moors to shield newly created pasture from the elements and several farmhouses were rebuilt, including Tibberton Grange and The Buttery, providing several new landmarks in the rapidly changing landscape of the area.
The effects of the agricultural improvements on the Weald Moors appear to have been instantaneous and rental values of land in the area doubled during the 1820s. Although the scheme was largely financed by Lord Stafford, his tenants played a vital role in ensuring the continued success of the programme, which relied heavily on an intensive maintenance regime to preserve the changes that had been made; flood gates that pounded up water in the drains during the summer months needed lifting every 14 days, while heavy rolling and dressing of the new pasture was also required. It seems Lilleshall tenants were contracted to undertake some of the drainage work itself and, in certain years (particularly when the local economy was depressed and labour could be hired cheaply) they were relieved of rent arrears in exchange for digging ditches.
While flooding was never completely eradicated on the moors, the changes that were made undoubtedly brought many economic benefits to the area. However, the same could not be said for its fragile ecosystem, which had already suffered greatly during the preceding centuries when peat deposits rapidly dwindled as the hydrology of the wetland habitat was completely altered by drainage work. That peat levels had suffered further was graphically demonstrated in the second half of the 1800s when, after many centuries of use as domestic fuel by moorland inhabitants, local peat was considered useless for the purpose.