Whittington, Oswestry, Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 20:09 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Once upon a time, writes Dorothy Haughton, there was a village straight out of a book of fairy tales

Once upon a time, writes Dorothy Haughton, there was a village straight out of a book of fairy tales
Pictures by Dave Hancock

Whittington has every right to claim to be a fairy tale village. It is, say the villagers, the Whittington of Dick Whittington fame. Fulke Fitzwarin was a medieval landed gentleman turned outlaw from Whittington Castle and quite possibly the model for Robin Hood. Next door Babbinswood is named for the story Babes in the Wood, Graham Phillips in his book The Search for the Grail links the grail legends to Whittington Castle and there is an enormous chest, sadly no longer in the castle, which is said to be cursed. For a touch of reality 'Mad Jack' Mytton lived in neighbouring Halston.
Whittington was famous first for its castle, built in the Marches to defend England against the Welsh. Little of the original castle and moat remains; the impressive gatehouse is only 200 years old. The crumbling remains of the Norman castle were saved by The Whittington Castle Preservation Trust, which was established in 1998 with the aim of halting the decline. It gained a 99-year lease on the castle in 2002 and a 950,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which, with other funds raised, enabled it to undertake a 1.5 million repair and restoration project. Whittington may well be the only castle in the UK owned and run by the local community.
Visit at any time to wander around the castle and throw bread for the ducks, coots and swans - the swan couple had six eggs in the nest in May so look out for the cygnets. Visit between Wednesday and Sunday in summer, Friday to Sunday in the winter to find the teashop, secondhand bookshop and the gift shop open. Visit at the weekend and you may be lucky enough to come across The House of the Black Star re-enactment company battling it out over the ruined walls. Little boys and little girls go to the castle for Knights' and Princesses' birthday parties and those of more mature years can take part in the tour and treasure hunt. Email: info@whittingtoncastle.co.uk or telephone 01691 662397.
If you read the fictional but fascinating account of the Fitzwarin family in Elizabeth Chadwick's Shadows and Strongholds and Lords of the White Castle before visiting, you may find it easier to recreate the old castle in your imagination as you stroll around.
Next to the car park is the Garden of Remembrance, which has for a centrepiece the Walsham How Memorial and round the sides old gravestones. The Walsham Hows were local landowners and William Walsham How was the famous Victorian hymnwriter. On the north wall is the newly cleaned and restored stone celebrating George Smith, one of the survivors of the Six Hundred at Crimea.
Ian and Helen Smith, members of the Crimean War Research Society (CWRS), were contacted by a fellow member in Colorado who had received a letter from someone in Nicaragua asking about George Smith. Ian and Helen began the research, found his gravestone, in two pieces and rather dilapidated and, while continuing their studies, put a bunch of flowers on the stone every Balaklava Day, 25 October. This caught the attention of Phil Morris who sent a letter about it to a local newspaper in 2004. The interest created encouraged Ian and Helen to attempt to get the stone restored. With help from the CWRS, the Light Dragoons and Whittington Parish Council, this was eventually achieved in 2007. On Balaklava Day, the stone was commemorated with a member of the Light Dragoons and members of the Mercian and Lancaster Yeomanry in attendance. Trumpeter Neal, dressed in the uniform of the 13th Light Dragoons 1854, normally a traffic controller at Manchester airport, sounded the Charge and the Recall. Ian and Helen were awarded a plaque by the Light Dragoons in honour of their work. You can pick up a leaflet with the fruits of their research about Trumpet Sergeant Major George Smith in the church or at the castle. For even more information, visit www.crimeanwar.org.
Across the road is a rather ordinary looking church which is usually locked but if you phone Phil Morris, the verger, on 01691 659562, he will arrange to give you a conducted tour. Your mouth will drop open as you walk through the door - the church is constructed without pillars. The nave and the two side aisles are a single integrated space full of light. Pause to admire the woodwork of New Zealand pine and oak, the work of a local family, the Sandersons. Look more closely at the window embrasures and you will notice that they are made from terracotta tiling. Look behind you at the lovely old ceramic reredos and a rather interesting carving of The Lord's Prayer which was found in an attic; it may have been carved by one of the prisoners of war held nearby and possibly out of a tea chest. And the wooden mice? Well, two of them are probably hamsters and they are all hidden round the church before a service so that afterwards, when the adults are having their coffee, the children can hunt them down.
You will have noticed the 'ox' and the 'ass' but have been too polite to mention them. Closer inspection reveals them to be a cow and a donkey. The church used to have a live donkey for the Easter procession but the Sunday school made one when getting the real one became too fraught with difficulties.
As you move into the chancel, ahead of you is a Jesse window, one of only three in Shropshire, which shows Jesus' family tree. To your right is the organ. The carvings are by FG Cleugh, organist and headmaster of the village school. His choirboys and organ blowers helped him and he wrote their names on the inside of the music cupboard door. The lid shows Dick Whittington and the babes in the wood and above the organ are nine composers of church music.
Behind the organ is the vestry containing the very table on which William Walsham How probably wrote For all the Saints, a hymn he dedicated to his parishioners.
You will undoubtedly see examples of children's artwork in the church as it has very strong links with the local primary school.
Phil Morris is hoping that, in the summer, it may be possible to open the church at weekends so you can do your own guided tour with a leaflet, price 10p.
Just round the corner from the church in Daisy Lane on the weekend of 14 and 15 June gardens will be open as part of the National Garden Scheme.
Whittington stands on the old A5, now where the B5009 crosses the A495. It used to be a transport hotspot with two railway stations - High Level on the Cambrian Oswestry to Whitchurch line and Low Level on the Shrewsbury-Chester line. Now it only has a level crossing but at least the fairy tales live on.

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