rossing Shropshire’s whale-backed Long Mynd in winter can be dangerous. In the late 19th century, it was common for people to die on the hill in bad, wintry weather, particularly drovers taking livestock to markets. Some valleys, known as batches or hollows in this seven-mile long mound, refer to such catastrophes, being named locally as “Dead Man’s Hollow” or “Dead Man’s Beach.”
Even today, deaths still occur on this hill, but one particular Shropshire resident had a very lucky escape. In September 1856, the villagers of Ratlinghope, on the west side of the Long Mynd, were left without a vicar. The Revd Donald E. Carr took services at the Church of St Michael’s and All Angels in Woolstaston and agreed to help out if he could.
But being on the east side of the Long Mynd, he was separated by four miles of steep, valleyed batches, hollows, and wild moorland. To reach Ratlinghope from Woolstaston, Revd Carr either had to travel by horse and cart on a 12-mile road route around the Long Mynd, or use the Burway: a precipitous road across the top of the Long Mynd, which is often completely closed in winter.
However, Carr realised that in good weather, he could walk over the Long Mynd. It was a trek of about four miles, and if he did so, he would be capable of delivering a morning service in Woolstaston, an afternoon service in Ratlinghope, and then be back in Woolstaston for the evening service. This he achieved regularly for eight years, getting to know his route intimately.
During the week before the 29th January 1865, snow had fallen and accumulated to unprecedented levels. Strong winds meant that many of the roads in South Shropshire were blocked and impassable.
On this day, Revd Carr’s morning service at Woolstaston was poorly attended, such was the severity of the snow. But when he finished, he prepared for his usual journey over the Mynd. So determined was he to get going, he did not stop for lunch, taking only a few mouthfuls of soup. Before setting off, he poured three ounces of brandy into a small flask to take with him, something he’d never done before.
Carr started out on horseback with a servant, but after a mile and a half, it became impossible for the horse to continue. Even on the lanes, it was getting stuck in snow that came up to the horse’s neck. Carr instructed the servant to return home with the horse, leaving him to continue on foot.
Underfoot, the going was treacherous. Even on the exposed sides of the Long Mynd, where the wind would blow snow off the hill and into the valleys, it was still drifting to heights above his knees. On many occasions, the only way to cross deep drifts was by crawling on his hands and knees.
Once on the summit of the Long Mynd, Carr found the going much easier. The weather that afternoon was dry and bright, making the snow dazzling, but navigating his way across the wild moorland was easy.
The drop into Ratlinghope, though, was just as treacherous as the climb up, however at 3.15pm, having taken 2 ¼ hours to do the four miles from Woolstaston, Carr arrived safely to deliver the afternoon service. Unsurprisingly, few Ratlinghope parishioners had expected him to arrive.
The Revd Carr gave a short, 45-minute service, and then began his return journey at 4pm back across the Long Mynd for his 6pm service at Woolstaston. During the Ratlinghope service, though, a gale had developed and when Carr reached the summit of the Long Mynd, he was battling driving clouds of snow and icy sleet.
Often the wind blew him off his feet, flat into the snow. The sleet stung his eyes so much it was difficult to see. Despite this, Carr continued, happy in the knowledge when he passed the skeleton of a mountain pony, famished to death, that he’d passed the very same skeleton on his journey to Ratlinghope. Here, he rested briefly and took a sip of brandy.
Continuing in the atrocious weather, Carr reached a small pool, frozen, but another landmark on his journey home.
Here he rested again. Having tackled the route for eight years, Carr was confident of his location. Heading uphill, crawling on his hands and knees, the wind gained further strength. Unable to see any further than a yard in front of him, Carr continued battling forward, aiming for his next landmark — some fir trees. But he never found them.
Suddenly, Carr slipped and plummeted down the side of one of the steep ravines. He hit something, which spun him over, head first, deep into the valley.
“The pace I was going in this headlong descent must have been great, yet it seemed to me to occupy a marvellous space of time, long enough for the events of my whole previous life to pass before me, as I had often before heard that they did in moments of extreme peril.”
Destined to be dashed on the rocks at the bottom of the ravine, Carr knew he had to stop himself. Kicking his foot deep into the snow and bending his knee, he used the hook of his leg like the arc of an ice axe. He eventually slowed, coming to a stop on a steep section, upside down. Slowly, Carr manoeuvred himself the right way up and shuffled gingerly down towards the bottom of the ravine.
Once at the bottom, Carr hoped he could follow it into the nearest village, but the snow was over twenty feet deep in places. The only direction he could go was up the other side of the ravine. At times, the snow was waist deep. Carr prayed for God to give him the strength to continue.
Reaching the crest of the ridge, Carr continued battling on, then moments later, slipped down into the next valley, spinning and sliding, head first, then feet first, then head first again. Only by using his feet as an ice axe again was he able to bring himself to a halt. This time, he lost his hat and gloves in the process.
Tired, hungry and thirsty, Carr began eating snow. His brandy was gone, but his hands were too cold to hold the flask, anyway. Icicles formed in his short beard that stretched down to his waist. His hair had frozen to a solid block of ice. Frequently, he was breaking blocks of ice crystals from his eyebrows. Balls of ice formed under his knees, which he had to frequently break off.
Exhausted, Carr fell down after every two or three steps forward. He was so tempted just to lie down and rest in the snow, but he knew that if he did this, he would perish.
He continued plodding on, two steps forward, then falling, for several hours, and when dawn finally arrived, it brought with it a dense fog. Such were the conditions, Carr realised he was suffering from snow blindness. His vision was blurred and indistinct, and he often found colours were misrepresented. With failing eyesight, Carr continued to fall, often slipping hundreds of feet down steep ravines. At one time, he jumped over what he thought was an icy pool — only to discover it was an empty space of fresh air.
Forcing his ungloved hands through the snow to grasp at the tufts of grass underneath to stop him from slipping further down the ravine, Carr continued like this for two more hours. He could hear running water and suddenly fell over the upper cascade of Lightspout waterfall. Knowing the lower cascade to be even bigger, and that tumbling over it would kill him, Carr realised that his only option was to climb out of the valley, again.
As he did so, he lost his boots. With frozen hands, unable to tie his laces, the deep snowdrifts pulled off his boots. His feet became as cold and numb as his hands, which meant he could tread on top of gorse bushes and not feel any pain.
Struggling in drifts that were, at times, up to his neck, Carr suddenly heard voices. He cried out for help, but no-one came. Instead, the voices trailed off. He later learned that they were children’s voices, who’d run away to tell their parents of the bogeyman they’d seen coming out of the snow.
He decided to head in the direction of those voices and continued to stumble as he battled his way blindly forward. Suddenly, he heard a voice ask, “You look like Mr Carr of Woolstaston,” to which he replied, “I am.”
Quickly, Carr was surrounded by the very children who’d run away earlier. This time, they helped him into the cottages of Carding Mill Valley in Church Stretton. They gave him bread and butter and tea and saw how he was unable to hold the bread and butter or the teacup. Once refreshed, they helped Carr to the Crown Hotel in Church Stretton, where he arrived at 2pm on 30th January 1865, some 22 hours after setting off from Ratlinghope.
Such was the weather, even when a horse and cart arrived to take Revd Carr back to Woolstaston, it could only reach as far as Leebotwood a few miles away. Despite his ordeal, Carr was forced to walk the remaining two miles to return home. On this final section of his journey, he met a man coming from Woolstaston, with letters to post at the Leebotwood Post Office. The letters were for all the local dignitaries, announcing the Rev Carr’s death!
Unknown to Carr, twenty villagers had gone searching for him the previous evening, but had been forced back by the severity of the weather. One potential rescuer came close to death, such were the conditions they faced. They set off again the following morning and managed to reach Ratlinghope, where they then discovered that Carr had left for Woolstaston the night before. When another man’s body was found in the snow at the nearby settlement of Bridges, villagers naturally assumed the same fate had befallen Carr.
Together, the two men made their way back to Woolstaston, where Carr arrived back about 4pm, some 27 hours later after having set off from Woolstaston originally. Unsurprisingly, his Woolstaston parishioners referred to him as the man who came back from the dead. The winter of 1865 was one of Shropshire’s worst winters ever in record. And even today, here in the county, the Revd Carr’s experience on that horrendous January night is still referred to as the Miracle on the Mynd.
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.