Surprisingly, even in crowded Britain, there is still one relatively quiet road that can be explored at leisure. It’s called the Hidden Highway, and it follows roughly the line of the Anglo-Welsh border, all the way from Chepstow to Chester. The road — or more properly a series of A-roads zig-zagging their way through some of the nation’s most glorious countryside — has retained a semblance of isolation and secrecy because, today, there are newer and faster routes between North and South Wales.
If you like motorway driving, you can get from Chepstow to Chester in a couple of hours, give or take the occasional traffic jam. But if you like exploring, it is worth taking two or three days hunting for visual and historic treasures along the Hidden Highway.
Perhaps the most magnificent of these treasures is the priceless Mappa Mundi — one of the world’s earliest known maps — which was created 700 years ago and is now housed in its own climate-controlled room within the rather unassuming confines of
Hereford Cathedral. Richard of Haldingham, who drew his map on a five-foot piece of vellum, laboured under considerable difficulties.
For a start, the Americas and Australasia had not been discovered. Worse, in the 14th century it was widely accepted that the world was flat, plate-shaped, and had Jerusalem at its exact centre — and as people who argued otherwise tended to be branded heretics and burned at the stake, it was best to go along with those beliefs.
So it is surprising to find that Richard, nevertheless, managed to produce a remarkably rational map; one with which 14th-century travellers might easily have found their way around Europe.
Today, the Mappa Mundi lives next to the famous — and equally well rehoused — Chained Library.
It looks as if the ancient vellum would crumble to dust if touched, but cathedral official Dominic Harbour was reassuring. “It is still very supple; you could roll it up and put it in your raincoat pocket,” he says.
Perhaps fittingly, the library’s 1,500 volumes include books which show how, by the 15th century, world maps had become far more accurate.
A rather more modern creation is Stella Mitchell’s Land of Lost Content, a little further along the Hidden Highway in the Shropshire village of Craven Arms. It is a strong contender for the title of Britain’s oddest museum.
Crammed into every corner of a big, three-storeyed former market hall, are thousands and thousands of everyday items from the 20th century. Bus tickets to Beatles memorabilia, Teddy bears to teapots, are to be found there, and as Mitchell — a former art student who started her collection 37 years ago — notes: “These are consumer items covering the whole of living memory.”
Nowadays, her museum contains well over 250,000 items, most of them gleaned from car-boot sales or antique shops and fairs.
The iconic and picturesque Stokesay Castle, near Ludlow, is worth a detour. And if Stella Mitchell’s example has inspired you, there is good antique hunting to be found in the delightful village of Church Stretton.
It is worth stopping there anyway, if only to build courage for the next bit of the journey. The road out of town, and up into the Long Mynd hills, is known as the Burway and is one of the most hair-raising drives in Britain — a single track affair featuring a sheer drop on one side.
The spectacular view compensates for the terror: a panorama of rolling hills and wooded valleys.
The towering Wrekin, Wenlock Edge, the Clee Hills, the Stretton Hills… they are all there, and have inspired writers and artists for centuries. The view is also of interest to scientists, for it encompasses 4,500 million years of geological history and 11 of the 13 recognised geological periods.
From the top of Long Mynd, minor roads lead to the striking Stiperstones range of hills, topped with rocky outcrops which include the Devil’s Chair.
Wider, flatter, roads lead to Shropshire’s beautiful county town of Shrewsbury, nestling in a broad, protective loop of the River Severn.
Martin Wood, Shrewsbury’s Town Crier, kindly offered to show me around, but our stroll was constantly interrupted as almost everyone stopped to say hello.
“People tend to notice me,” said Martin. That is probably because he wears a red frock coat and a tricorn hat. Being 7ft 2 ins tall doesn’t hurt in the noticeability stakes, either. Mr Wood is, unsurprisingly, the tallest town crier in the world. He takes his duties very seriously, and knows an awful lot about Shrewsbury.
The finest abbey in the land was built here in 1068, but it got knocked about a bit over the centuries and, finally, a road was built right through the middle of it — leaving the remaining abbey buildings on one side of the highway and the pulpit on the other.
But the townsfolk’s favourite story concerns the 18th-century coachman, Samuel Hayward, who held the record for the 156-mile journey from London — 15 hours 43 minutes.
He used to thunder his coach-and-four up the hill to The Lion, in the centre of Shrewsbury, then sweep through the narrow arch into the yard with a mere quarter of an inch to spare on either side of his wheels.
In 18 years, he never touched the walls. Close inspection reveals that modern motorists have been rather less skilful.
Shrewsbury is full of unexpected treasures, including a medieval painting of the Last Supper on the walls of a pub; a stretch of the original 11th-century town walls in the basement of McDonalds and a stunning garden created in a riverside quarry.
In contrast to Shrewsbury, Chester’s ancient city walls are still virtually complete — and the two-mile walk around them is the ideal way to get your bearings. The red-brick cathedral, winding canal, railway, castle and the River Dee, are all ready to be explored. As is the racecourse — the only one in Britain where the horses run clockwise.
Pride of place in the city wall goes to Eastgate, crowned by a magnificently ornate Victorian clock which has the distinction of being the second most photographed timepiece in Britain (Big Ben is top of the clocks).
Chester’s other distinction is that it is a shopping paradise, with the principal shops packed into the unique, double-storey, timber-clad buildings, with covered walkways outside, known as The Rows. These date back to to 1284, even if the retailing names which now adorn them are somewhat more modern.
At the end of the Hidden Highway, it’s time for some real treasure-hunting. In fact, retail therapy is so popular here that the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, beside Eastgate, has introduced special coffee mornings — for ladies who shop instead of ladies who lunch.
The Chester Grosvenor and Spa (01244 324024 (www.chestergrosvenor.com) can be booked with Pride of Britain Hotels (www.prideofbritainhotels.com; 0800 089 3929). Good B&Bs in the area include the Old Rectory, Byford (www.theoldrectory.uk.com; 01981 590218); Rosecroft, Orleton (01568 780565); Old Park House, Abbey Foregate (www.oldparkhouse.co.uk; 01743 289750). For a guide to the Hidden Highway (£1.50) and further information, contact Herefordshire Tourism (01432 260621; www.visitherefordshire.co.uk)