It's Monday morning rush hour in the Shropshire Hills. I'm taking bus 553 from Shrewsbury to Bishop's Castle. There are two other people on board, one of whom is a second driver. It's a beautiful journey that crosses the River Severn while later the horizon is trimmed by the ridge of the Stiperstones to the south.
I'm headed for Bishop's Castle because the town has become something of a hub of quirky, independent shops that also seem to buy into an ethos of reducing their impact on the world. The town - and Shropshire as a whole – is also something of a hub for the Slow Food movement. The county has Fair Trade status, as do six of its towns, and I'm curious to see what all this means for the traveller. Is it just a middle-class indulgence by moneyed incomers with time on their hands? Or can a visitor really have a sustainable holiday in the county that is fun, rather than worthy?
Arriving in town, I spot the one-handed clock on the church tower - perhaps the pace of life is so slow you only need to know the hour here, not the minutes. I walk up the high street, where just about every shop promotes the Slow Food movement or "buy local"; where they source from overseas, they often bear the Fair Trade logo. There's the New Deli at 35 High Street, which sells chorizo, "moo-free" gluten-free chocolate bars and maps of great British cheeses. Next door is the Chai Shop, with its welcoming smells of lamb samosas and aubergine bharta. Across the street is a florist who also sells local vegetables. Further down the one-in-six hill, at 46 Church Street, is Bishop's Castle's butcher, Anthony Pugh, who sells a Shropshire fidget pie with pork, apple, bacon and thyme, and has boards displaying where all his meat is sourced.
The origins of this ethos lurk in the 1950s and 1960s when Bishop's Castle attracted hippies in a Glastonbury sort of way, partly because the town is said to be on a ley line and partly for the magic mushrooms growing on the ridgeline behind the town. Rock bands followed. "With the hippies and the music, you tend to get arts and crafts," says Jane Caroll, the town's tourism officer. "There's a Slow Food movement and a slow everything else, too."
The sustainability bit comes in with some astonishing locally produced furniture, a real feature of the town. Jane's husband, Stuart, makes old-fashioned chairs from ash that ooze character at their furniture shop-tourist office (oldtime.co.uk; 29 High Street) . Up the road at 18 Market Square, Steve Willmer makes gorgeous furniture, including cabinets hewn from a walnut tree blown down in the town.
From Bishop's Castle I make my way to Church Stretton, a town blessed with wonderful scenery. Over a cup of fairly-traded Darjeeling tea in Ginger and Green (gingerandgreen.org.uk), Jamie Wrench of Stretton Climate Care – a movement seeking to reduce the town's footprint – explains why visitors will encounter so many fairly-traded and locally-sourced goods. "Something that is locally-made is a selling point, people just think suspiciously about something that has come a long way. Why wouldn't you want your farmers to get a reasonable return for what they are planting – if they do, they will keep doing it."
I leave Jamie and pick up an orange-flavoured locally-made ice cream from the Acorn cafe (wholefoodcafe.co.uk) before pausing at Van Doesburg's deli (vandoesburgs.co.uk), to buy a mouth-watering meringue, a potato rosti and a slice of strawberry-and-frangipani cake. I make my way to the superbly named Entertaining Elephants good food shop at 43 High Street. Splattered with logos and stickers emphasising free trade and "buy local", the shop stocks the expected packets of roasted buckwheat and quinoa but it also sells meat from the local Much Wenlock Farm and bread baked at nearby Clee Hill bakery.
"The shop used to promote itself as 'wholefood' but I think the term has had its day," says owner Joanna Bickerton . "It's not just about being organic, it's about knowing where it's come from."
The next day I wake up, extraordinarily, still hungry. I make my way to Ludlow, mission control for Slow Food in the county and indeed for the UK, as it was here in 2006 that the Slow Food movement set up its headquarters. Today, the town has a 41-stall farmers' market every second Thursday and an annual food festival in the grounds of Ludlow Castle. Initially, things do not look promising. Across the road from the train station, two supermarkets eyeball one another. But things pick up in town.
Inevitably, there's an ale trail, but more quirkily there is also a pâté trail. The grocers on Church Street, the Fruit Basket, has mud-spattered parsnips and carrots stacked up on its pavement – when was the last time you ever washed a carrot? – while the Mousetrap cheese shop (mouse trapcheese.co.uk) opposite has 20 local cheeses on its counter. Across the market square, pheasants hang from the door of Francis the butcher (andrewfrancisbutchers.co.uk).
A few doors up I buy some treacle tarts in Price the Bakers (pricesthebakers.co.uk) - which has baked its own bread since 1943. "We're one of around just 40 bakers in the country that still bake real bread, the slow way," explains manager Wendy Barnett. "We make the dough at 7pm and come back in at 3am after it's risen. It's a 12-hour process for us to bake a loaf – 90 per cent of bakers do it in two hours."
Over coffee at the Fair Trade Emporos café in Attorneys Walk off Corve Street, I learn from Peter Norman, treasurer of Ludlow 21, an environmental and food and farmers movement, that the opening of a Tesco supermarket provided the impetus for the town's buy local campaign. "The small businesses decided to fight back," he said.
Beyond the magnetic appeal of Shropshire for foodies, visitors to the county may be fortifying themselves for the future, according to Norman, by realising just what is involved in producing food. "I take a pessimistic view of the long-term prospects of humanity to feed itself. If you have never had to wash a carrot, then your lack of awareness could become crippling." Now there's food for thought.
Getting there and getting around
Mark Rowe travelled with First Great Western (0345 7000 125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk), Arriva Trains (0845 606 1660; arrivatrainswales.co.uk) and Cross Country (0844 811 0124;crosscountrytrains.co.uk).
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