Until recently, Shropshire has been somewhere I drive through to get to Wales. Until recently, I have been missing out. In my defence however, even the county’s tourism people describe it as ‘Surprising Shropshire’.
Oh how right they are. I spent a weekend in Ratlinghope with swallows flitting between honeysuckle hedgerows in a wildflower strewn campsite alongside a pretty stone church with a wooden bell turret. A carving on the south door dates to 1625 and inside there is a memorial to the villagers who served in the Second World War, including the two WAAFs and a Bevin Boy whose contributions are often overlooked on such monuments.
One of the things that fascinates me about the countryside is the idea of the English eerie, as I’ve seen it described, and part of this is the sense that something dark might be lurking in those pretty honeysuckle hedgerows and long forgotten beliefs might not be quite as long forgotten as you’d imagine. The church yard at Ratlinghope does not disappoint, being the final resting place of the last sin-eater in England. I’d first heard of this custom as a teenager but I can’t remember the context. What I do recall is being on a school trip at Worcester Cathedral and telling one of the girls who bullied me that by eating her sandwiches off a tomb, she was eating the inhabitant’s sins. Oh the sweet, sweet taste of revenge.
I confess to using a little poetic licence in the cathedral, as the custom technically involves eating a meal from the coffin of a recently deceased person rather than the alabaster tomb of a nobleman who has been dead since the middle ages. What makes Richard Munslow, the sin eater of Ratlinghope, especially interesting is that he was not the usual pauper or social outcast who took on the role to earn their only bread and butter, but a well off farmer. What possessed him to take possession of his neighbours’ sins? Some suggest that the death of three of his young children, all within a week of each other influenced his decision. On a much happier note, Richard and his wife Ann went on to have two daughters, Mary Ann and Annie, who both outlived their parents.
One of Ratlinghope’s other dark tales also involves the church – from time to time, a phantom funeral is said to set off from the churchyard, travelling up across the Long Mynd to Church Stretton. Thankfully, the only procession we encountered as we drove across the moorland was four classic cars. As we pulled over to let them pass, a cyclist appeared at my window. ‘Any chance of a lift?’ Poor chap looked so exhausted I think he’d have asked the same of the spectral cortege had it materialised.
From a place name perspective, Ratlinghope has a fairly mundane origin, meaning a valley (OE hop) connected with a person called Rotel. Here, it’s the pronunciation that’s of more interest – until recently, locals called it Ratchup, or even Ratchop which is what it appears as in a court case about a land dispute from 20th April 1698 and conjures up images of something almost as unappetising as sin-eating. The Shropshire Gazetteer of 1824, also points out the discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation. These place names with counter-intuitive pronunciation are definitely something I’m going to have to get my teeth in to as this project continues…
93/25, 26 Shropshire Archives Case presented to the Court of Rattlinghope