I head south to the West Country every so often to visit family in Bath and Bristol, and I’ve discovered a great stopping-off spot on the way. I always had a giggle to myself at the name the ‘Secret Hills Discovery Centre’, as I drove past it in Craven Arms, but since stopping off for a visit the first time, I believe the ‘secret’ has nothing to do with the Shropshire Hills.
You wouldn’t honestly know it as you drive by – the visitor centre is there for all to see, with its turf roof and plenty of publicity for its mammoth replica – but behind the building you can see from the road is a big, open nature reserve, dog friendly – no, better than that, dog welcoming, so long as you pick up behind your pooch, to the extent that they provide poo bags – and with a variety of habitats packed into a relatively small space.
It takes no more than an hour to walk around the whole site – well, depending on how much you stop to admire the flowers and scenery, or birdwatch, or butterfly watch, or peer into ponds – but it has woods, fields with bunnies (Bert’s favourite bit of the site), a river, ponds with reedbeds, wildflower meadows, and even a community garden.
There are a number of paths to follow, bridges to cross and corners to discover, and you can meander and explore to your heart’s delight. The first time I stopped off in spring, there were shallow ponds full of frogs, and a mother and daughter had just spotted a kingfisher whizzing around the bend in the river. When I visited last weekend, the meadow was chock a block with buttercups, the riverbank a riot of pink campion, forget-me-nots and other flowers I couldn’t name. The rustic fences around the fields were supporting – or being supported by – lush looking pink and white blooms, a sedge warbler was singing his heart out in the reedbeds, and the most raggedy-looking peacock butterfly I’ve ever seen (I’ve no idea how he was still able to fly!) was patrolling part of the path.
On the reserve itself, it’s hard to believe how close the main A49 road is. I don’t know how many times I must have driven past, wishing there was somewhere convenient to walk Bert on the way to visiting my mum, not realising it was there. I stopped one day, thinking I’d have a look to see if there was anywhere to let him run loose for a bit, even if only around the carpark, and discovered this lovely space – definitely far too well-kept a secret! Oh, and as well as being the place to go if you do want to find out about the Shropshire Hills, the visitor centre has a shop, loos and a cafe and gallery, too. But you can’t take the dog in there…