The forgotten industrial history of Shropshire's Clee Hills is the subject of a new book and exhibition. Terry Grimley reports...
Driving from Birmingham to Ludlow, you spend about five minutes passing through the incongruously wild terrain of the Clee Hills.
With its panoramic view across the Shropshire landscape and the meandering sheep which make it inadvisable to take your eyes off the road, it may seem the epitome of primeval rural Britain. Yet a century ago this was a scene of intensive industrial activity.
Coal, limestone and basalt were mined and quarried in the area, with an extensive infrastructure of crushing plants, mineral railways and aerial ropeways.
On the twin peaks of Titterstone Clee and Brown Clee extensive reminders of this activity can still be found, and now they are the subject of an exhibition and book by locally-based photographer Simon Denison.
A one-time London newspaper journalist, Denison moved to the lower slopes of Brown Clee in 1996, around the time he founded the magazine British Archaeology.
He already had a parallel career as a photographer with an interest in man-made landscapes (his first book, The Human Landscape, was published in 2002) when, on the first day of the new millennium, he climbed the summit of Brown Clee for the first time and discovered its industrial secret.
?It?s very little known, especially Brown Clee, even by people who live locally,? he says. ?From about 1880 to 1940-50 the top of Brown Clee was an industrial space. There was the sound of the stone-crusher, a railway line ? it was a noisy, dangerous place where people were killed now and then.
?It?s really an unbelievable contrast to what the area is now. When we came here what was so attractive was that it was so quiet. But not so long ago, only 20 or 30 years before I was born, it was a completely different sort of place.?
Denison?s black-and-white photographs, now showing at MAC, reveal a bleak, at times almost lunar landscape haunted by the skeletons of sheep and burned-out cars.
Former railway alignments sweep purposefully to no purpose through it, and a prehistoric cluster of gaunt posts is all that remains of the locomotive shed that once housed the First World War-surplus ?whizz-bang? engines which worked the quarries.
?It?s a metaphor for the passage of time and the ideas that societies were built on,? says Denison.
?When there were hundreds of people working in this place they must have thought it would go on for ever. Now it?s just a silent, windy place.?
The idea that there were ever railways here ? actually there were two separate systems, serving the two Clee Hills ? may seem strange, as this does not look like railway country. But the quarries were reached by inclined planes, the course of which can still be traced today.
?A railway from Ludlow to Clee Hill went straight uphill on an incline,? Denison explains. ?It was a pretty major thing ? I?ve seen photographs. You had the same sort of thing over on Brown Clee with an incline railway going down to Ditton Priors.
The line of the industrial railway is there today, tarmaced over. The other industrial thing at Titterstone was this aerial ropeway which took the stone down to the railway. It marched straight down the hill and then five miles across the landscape. It?s an amazing thing to visualise, incredibly noisy, and now disappeared except for the occasional pylon. On Clee Hill I?ve found a lot of tunnels.
?It was an amazing waste of labour, because some of these things existed for as little as 30 or 40 years.?
Now devoting himself entirely to photography, Simon Denison (pictured) has recently been experimenting with marrying ancient and modern technology, taking pictures with a pinhole camera and then manipulating them digitally.
He has also made a semi- abstract video piece, Temporal/Intemporal, which he says is ?about yearning for a kind of stillness in our lives, which are subject to impermanence?.
Quarry Land: Impermanent Landscapes of the Clee Hills is showing at MAC, Cannon Hill Park, until May 2 (daily 9am-11pm; admission free), and will also be shown at the Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, from June to August as part of the Ludlow Festival. A book with the same title is published by Greyscale Books at #14.95.
For further information about Simon Denison?s work, visit his website at www.simondenison.co.uk