A new guidebook is showing visitors the highlights and hidden attractions of Shropshire – and opening even locals’ eyes to lesser-known facts. But what’s the story behind Slow Travel: Shropshire (published in February 2016 by Bradt Travel Guides)? Author Marie Kreft explains…
Not so long ago I was a new mum, blissfully in love with my little boy. I was also a travel writer who no longer travelled, unless you counted endless pram-pushing laps of our local park. There was no way I would fly away on press trips and leave Vincent behind: I wanted to be home not just for every milestone but for every bedtime too. But the part of me with insatiable wanderlust and a need to write felt neglected. I think many parents – especially mums – put their dreams on hold while their children are small.
I was lucky, though. Living in Birmingham, my husband Steve and I had always made Shropshire our happy place to which we escaped in wellies at weekends. I knew about Bradt Travel Guides’ Slow series – which encourages readers to take time exploring Britain’s special regions – and believed Shropshire was a perfect candidate for a new title.
To my excitement, the publisher agreed. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a project that would be compatible with family life, with Steve and Vincent accompanying me on many of my research trips.
I already had links with Bradt, having previously won its magical door-opening Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition. Nevertheless I’m grateful to Rachel, Bradt’s commissioning editor, for giving me my break. How did she know I could write a guidebook? Secretly, I didn’t know whether I could. Bradt, which has been established for over 40 years, is admired for its commitment to responsible travel, focus on unusual destinations, and the level of detail in its guides. Instead of writing to a fixed house style, each Bradt author has autonomy over their book’s content and is encouraged to let their unique voice shine through. I found this both liberating and daunting. Not least because I wanted to do justice to Shropshire, perhaps the most quietly beautiful, unjustly overlooked county in England.
I started my research as Vincent turned two. Because I was a new mum with another job besides the guidebook (I run a small copywriting company), Rachel gave me 18 months to submit my manuscript. That may sound like a long spell but the time flew. Steve, Vincent and I spent weekends and holidays traversing the length and breadth of Shropshire, visiting every place I’d marked in an unwieldly spreadsheet, and – in the early days before I realised I needed to be focused and strategic if I wanted to meet my deadline – stumbling across ruined abbeys, intriguing churchyards and welcoming farm shops. Vincent, who spent his second and third birthdays in central Shropshire, thought for a time that the months of the year ran January, February, Shrewsbury, March…
It was an expensive undertaking. No guidebook author goes into the job for the money: the Bradt team was both honest and apologetic about this. I was paid a small advance, but it would barely touch my travel expenses, and I had to turn down other work to ensure I had enough time. While it was easy to ask for complimentary tickets for attractions, I didn’t feel confident or ‘authorial’ enough to blag free dinners and overnight stays as wiser travel writers might. Besides, I enjoyed visiting places anonymously and didn’t want to feel beholden to anyone who gave me hospitality.
We made happy memories, my family and I: attending festivals, exploring castles, rowing coracles, picking blackberries and whimberries while toddling up hills. I read dozens of Shropshire-related books, fell in love with Mary Webb and Barbara Pym, and discovered a passion for churches and the memorials, stories and treasures they hold. My friend Lindsay and I took part in a world-record attempt atop The Wrekin for the greatest number of people doing the Hokey Cokey in one place. I accompanied walking groups on their expeditions (with several offering their favourite routes for publication) and, wanting the book to include voices other than mine, persuaded well-known people to contribute short entries, including Dr Katherine Swift, Shropshire’s bestselling author; Dr Peter Toghill, president of the Shropshire Geological Society, and Dr Gladys Mary Coles, world expert on Mary Webb. I believe their input makes the book stronger than anything I could have produced on my own.
Although the research stage was fun, at times my work felt almost irreconcilable with parenthood. Vincent went through a phase where only I would do (as well as mispronouncing the name of his stroller to embarrassing effect: “No, Daddy! Mummy push the bugger!”) and experiences reduced to one or two sentences in the book often belie meltdowns and mud. “Collect the key from the shop at Battlefield 1403 and make the quarter-mile walk across the alleged battlefield (no bones have ever been unearthed) to the church of St Mary Magdalene” sounds easy but in our case involved partially submerged wellies, exhausted tears, and an eventual piggyback from Grandad. Steve, who is a teacher, spent half-term holidays trailing joyful toddler legs through fields, parks, Monkey Mania and Fantastic Funhouse. I would never have completed the book without his support.
We even delayed having a second baby so I could finish the book. I was 18 weeks pregnant when I submitted my manuscript, but the project was far from over. I spent the following months working on edits, maps, proofs, indexing, captions and online appendices. I had to cut my word count to 90,000 from almost 100,000 and, as the manuscript grew sleeker and more polished, I got fatter and more bedraggled. Finally it became apparent that my due date and expected publication date were to fall in the same week, and my colleagues at Bradt began joking about a race between the book baby and the human baby.
The book baby won, but only just. I received my advance copy just as I was leaving the house for a 40-week antenatal appointment. Baby Alexei was born two days later, and everyone in my family promptly forgot about the book. But I forgive them because he’s a joy.
Busy with nappies and night feeds, I haven’t been able to market Slow Travel: Shropshire as extensively as I’d hoped. Jim Hawkins of BBC Radio Shropshire kindly invited me on his morning show when Alexei was three weeks old and, in an experience that still makes me cringe aloud, I couldn’t get my thoughts and words together. Jim asked what I’d discovered by embracing Slow travel in Shropshire and, instead of giving examples of intriguing graves, or curious historical characters, the arbor tree in Aston on Clun popped into my head but without any clear explanation of what it is. “No, you didn’t sound like a moron,” my dad reassured me afterwards. “You just … paused a bit here and there.” Jim is a sensitive host, and guided me gently out of my tongue tie, but I felt I’d missed a chance not only to promote my book but to convey my love for Shropshire, which is profound.
Despite all this, I’m told Slow Travel: Shropshire is selling well, and the warm feedback I’ve received has made my late-night anguish and head bashing seem worthwhile. Writing is a solitary and often lonely activity, so I’m delighted to hear that the book is being welcomed onto the shelves of B&Bs and cottages around the county, and even inspiring new visitors to Shropshire. At Kerry Vale Vineyard in Pentreheyling, one of June Ferguson’s delicious lunches has been renamed June’s Famous Cheese and Onion Tart thanks to its mention in my south Shropshire chapter. Other businesses are now displaying ‘As featured in Slow Travel: Shropshire’ stickers printed by Bradt.
Guidebooks by their very nature don’t stay current for long so I’m already scribbling notes for future editions while I work on shorter features and a new travel project. As Vincent and Alexei grow bigger and independent, I plan to spend more time championing Shropshire tourism; promoting the county’s amazing array of places to visit and its homegrown food and drink. In the meantime Shropshire will remain my family’s happy weekend escape, and its vast skies, dramatic hills and infinite possibilities for roaming will loom large in the story of my boys’ childhoods.