Book sparks memories of lightning tree

For Ron Britton, his picnic outing from Wolverhampton to a Shropshire beauty spot with his girlfriend and mother 65 years ago would turn out to have a fiery and frightening conclusion.

The stricken tree whose destruction Ron witnessed at uncomfortably close quarters back in 1956.
The stricken tree whose destruction Ron witnessed at uncomfortably close quarters back in 1956.

And memories of that eventful day were brought back when he browsed through a recently-purchased book and came across a photograph of a tree in the shadow of Haughmond Hill – bare, dead, and blasted by lightning.

Ron and his picnic party had been sitting not far away from the tree when it happened, and beat a hasty exit.

The stricken tree whose destruction Ron witnessed at uncomfortably close quarters back in 1956.

"We were terrified," said Ron, who is now 86.

The stricken tree is featured in 'Nearest Earthly Place to Paradise', published by Ludlow publishing outfit Merlin Unwin Books, which marries stunning Shropshire photographs to extracts from writers inspired by the county's landscape – in the case of the tree, a passage from Edith Pargeter married to a photo by Geoff Taylor.

"It brought everything back to me," said Ron. "Going back to 1956, when I was 22, I had just bought my first car, a Beetle, and decided to take my girlfriend from Wolverhampton and my mother – I know it sounds odd – to Haughmond Hill for a picnic.

"It was a nice day and we had a lovely picnic in the mid afternoon. The sky didn't go black or anything like that, or we would have got up and moved. There was a strange cloud formation above Haughmond Hill. Out of the blue, and without warning, there was a most cracking lightning strike on that tree.

"I have seen sheet lightning, and fork lightning, but this was ball lightning – a ball of fire hit that tree and the tree exploded. It would be 100 yards away from us. I saw a branch fall off and the whole tree set alight. Very, very quickly we got up, packed all the stuff in the car and got away as quickly as we could. It was out of the blue. It was not a storm and it didn't start to rain."

Ron lived at the time in Madeley, his father being the subpostmaster at the post office in Park Avenue. His mother was Mrs Dorothy Britton and girlfriend the then Janet Compston, living in Park Street South near Goldthorn Hill – later the married Mrs Janet Breeze.

"I have lived in many places and done many things, and have been in a lot of storms. That was a one-off event which was certainly unusual and you don't forget an unusual event like that."

He has never returned to the spot but the experience didn't particularly change his attitude to lightning.

"I was a member of Wrekin Golf Club and also Church Stretton Golf Club and played all the courses in Shropshire, and I was used to being on a hill when lightning was about. If you have a set of golf clubs you don't hang around in a high spot."

Ron was destined to take over as subpostmaster from his father in Madeley, and he now lives in Oakengates.

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