There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Cowpat Walks: 1 Ironbridge Gorge

After spending some 25 days between February 2008 and May 2011 walking in large circles first round Stafford and then round Swynnerton, followed by a smaller circle round Stone (which appears on this blog in three parts here, here and here) we were running out of places to go.

Francis suggested a series of circular walks around points of interest on or near our previous routes. I, somewhat whimsically, wanted to call them petal walks. Mike observed that they were roughly circular and scattered randomly about the map so should be dubbed ‘cowpat walks’. I hate it when somebody has a better idea than me, but here I nobly admit defeat: Cowpat Walks they are.

We gathered at Mike’s for bacon and oatcakes. Thus fortified, Mike drove us to and then round (or was it through?) Telford. Apparently 162 000 people live there but, like Milton Keynes, the other 1960s invention I drive through regularly, it is hard to tell if you are in the town or not. Where is Telford? What is it hiding?

Telford may be difficult to spot, but the same cannot be said of the Wrekin. This 400 m high pile of ancient and heavily weathered lava dominates northern Shropshire and can be seen from Swynnerton some 40 km north – and indeed from much further away. Little Wenlock sits at the foot of the Wrekin and we parked on the southern edge of the village. The last houses enjoy a spectacular view across the Severn valley to the Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc and Clee Hill. They should also be able to see the Wrekin, just a mile to the northeast, but today it was sulking beneath a bank of cloud.

The Wrekin - somewhere inside that cloud.
 We walked south over the small protuberance of Braggers Hill and down towards the Severn.  We soon had an excellent view of Ironbridge power station. There were few spots on the walk where we could not see either the power station or the Wrekin (mist permitting) - or both. The current version of the power station has been generating electricity since 1967. It may be hard to believe, but it was designed to merge as seamlessly as possible into its natural surroundings. The concrete of the cooling towers has a red pigment, granite chippings decorate the turbine hall, and it hides round the corner of a cliff so as to be invisible from Ironbridge itself. Friends of the Earth claim it is the second most polluting power station in Britain per megawatt output. There are no plans to reduce its emissions to meet modern standards and it will close in 2015 [Update Dec 2015: It was converted to burning wood chips in 2013 and closed in November 2015].

Ironbridge B - a coal fired power station opened in 1967

A long, straight, stony descent brought us to the river just east of Buildwas. 

Mike wears shorts in November
We, and the A4169, crossed the river on a bridge built in 1905 to replace Thomas Telford’s original. The constructors seemed pleased with their efforts and erected a commemorative plaque. I paused to wonder what the great engineer would have made of the city named after him, then I plodded across the somewhat nondescript bridge that replaced his 18th century structure.
The constructors seemed pleased with their efforts
As we crossed the bridge, a coxed four appeared round the bend in the river. Rowing downstream they moved with impressive rapidity and soon passed beneath us.

Moving swiftly with the current, River Severn
For a kilometre we had no option but to follow the main road away from the river, passing Buildwas Cistercian Abbey. Maintained by English Heritage, the ruins are open to the public but are too well screened by trees to be worth a photograph - and hardly worth a mention.

Crossing the Severn valley from the Malverns to Breedon Hill had taken us a whole day (or more accurately two half days a year apart). Here, 60 km upstream, it took less than an hour. Crossing back at the Ironbridge gorge would take minutes.

Leaving the main road we struck off south west into low wooded hills. After some climbing, some contouring and some more climbing we emerged into an open meadow near the top of the hill.

A nice picture of the stile which allowed us to 'emerge into an open meadow'
In front of us the land dipped and rose to more woodland, the trees clothed in their autumn colours.
'In front of us the land dipped and rose....'
We stopped briefly for coffee before descending the hill, crossing the A4169 and turning north across open farmland. This side of the hill we could not see the Wrekin but the power station chimney (at 205 m the tallest structure in Shropshire) was there to guide our steps.

The power station chimney was there to guide our steps...
A minor road took us to the hamlet of Wyke from where we crossed more farmland to Benthall Edge. A kilometre west of Ironbridge the river bends north and the cliff that forms the southern edge of the gorge turns south, leaving enough space between them to accommodate a modest power station.

As the cliff leaves the river it becomes wooded and less precipitous. We followed the Shropshire Way on its long descent across the face of this scarp. On the bank we could see clear signs of old workings, the first indication that there had once been industry here.

Alison leads the descent
We passed the fourth cooling tower of the power station and reached the river, though we were still 40m above it. Turning east we followed the stream and descended steadily. We noticed the first buildings of Ironbridge village on the far bank, then caught sight of the bridge itself through the trees. Soon we emerged on the road beside it.

Brian and Alison would help with the route finding - but only Francis has a map
Major advances in iron smelting were made near here by Abraham Darby in the early eighteenth century. Cast iron became much cheaper (and locally abundant) so in 1775 Thomas Farnolls Pritchard designed an iron bridge to be built across the Severn. He died in 1777 but the work was taken on by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of the man who had made it possible. The world’s first iron bridge was opened on the 1st of January 1781.

The settlement of Ironbridge grew up around the bridge. Tourism started early and in 1784 the bridge’s owners built a hotel to accommodate visitors. We marched across the bridge and straight into that hotel in search of lunch. The less said about the sandwiches the better, but the Station Bitter, from the Stonehouse Brewery in Oswestry, was exceptionally good. 

The Iron Bridge
After lunch we paused briefly to photograph the bridge before heading straight up the side of the gorge through village streets too steep and narrow to have ever carried wheeled vehicles. As usual on walks, I phoned Lynne to assure her that I was still alive and fully intended returning home. The steepness of the path meant that most of the call consisted of heavy breathing. I do not make a habit of this.  

I'm doing heavy breathing on the phone AND trying to take a photograph -
no wonder I'm lagging behind 
No sooner had we climbed up, than we started down, through more woods, towards Coalbrookdale. The path was signed to ‘Paradise’. I have always thought of Paradise as being vaguely ‘up’ but the descent was steep; indeed purgatory for those with arthritic knees. We emerged beside the Coalbrookdale Youth Hostel in a street called ‘Paradise’. The youth hostel, housed in a 19th century former literary and scientific institute, is an imposing building, but none of it quite lived up to my concept of paradise. Come to think of it, I have only a hazy idea of what paradise might be like – it might even involve a bar of chocolate-coated coconut.

Abraham Darby’s blast furnace was located in Coalbrookdale and fired by coal from drift mines in the surrounding valleys. Pedants might point out that the Industrial revolution did not start on one place, it involved a range of new ideas developed over a wide geographical area, but given the importance of cheap iron and the early date involved, Coalbrookdale has some justification for claiming to be the cradle of the industrial revolution.

In its pomp, Coalbrookdale looked more like hell than paradise, at least according to the 1801 painting ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’ by Philippe Jacques de Loutherburg, which now belongs to the Science Museum in London. I have shamelessly half-inched this image from Wikipedia.

Coalbrookdale at Night
Industry can look bad, but post-industrial dereliction looks worse. Coalbrookdale has gone beyond that and arrived at post-industrial cute folksiness. We passed the iron museum, a row of cottages that must soon form part of a museum and an old furnace pond. All this, along with the iron bridge and Blists Hill Victorian Town, forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Furnace pond, Coalbrookdale
We also passed the Aga cookers factory  - some industry does remain in Coalbrookdale. Ironbridge, however, was never particularly industrialised and the largest factory there belongs to Merrythought Teddy Bears. This may not be heavy industry, but they are responsible for producing the mascots for the 2012 Olympics.

We left Coalbrookdale along the Rope Walk, a long straight path above Leamhole Brook once used by ropemakers for stretching out and twisting together the strands of hemp. As the path left the village the surroundings became more wooded and the path became rougher. It rose gently and although we were quite deep in the valley, the brook was a long way below us.

The Rope Walk, Coalbrookdale
The path, such as it was, eventually climbed out of Leamhole Dingle. Crossing the bridge over the main road, we found ourselves back in open farmland. A field of unharvested maize and another where a bull eyed us warily before running away brought us back to the top of Braggers Hill.

Back to the top of Braggers Hill
Sunset made the Shropshire hills look much more impressive and mysterious than they really are....

Sunset over the mysterious hills of Shropshire
but we turned our backs to them and retraced our steps down and then up to Little Wenlock and the end of the walk. 
Down and then up to Little Wenlock
Thanks are due to Mike for providing breakfast and doing the driving, Francis for planning the walk and doing all the map reading (well that is what happens when you are the only one with a map), and to Alison T who just happened to be taking a cake from the oven as we returned: fine timing, fine cake.

The Cowpats


  1. I like "petal" walks

  2. There is indeed more poetry to 'petal' than 'cowpat'...

  3. Being a rugged man (well, I like to think so) with a developing November moustache, I prefer 'cowpats'. I like the notion of our wheels walks splashing through cowpats! I thought it was a lovely walk on a superb November day with some spectacular views which I did not really expect when I planned it. I'm sorry I did not disperse more maps but, at least, I made no mistakes.

  4. I am sorry to have missed a 'cowpat' walk but the U12 rugby team did beat Ellesmere as a consolation. As a fan of Desperate Dan and his cow pie my vote is cast!

  5. Cowpats for definite. Petals all need to be linked to a stem - a common point - if they're part of a flower. Also as walks generally muddy they're more like cowpats than petals.
    Thanks David - a great record of the walk in text and photo.

  6. A good walk and a fine pint, I will not mention the sandwich! I will go with the majority and splatter in the cowpats.

  7. So Cowpats it is. Sorry about that, Alison, but that's the way democracy democs.
    The truth is that men are just oversized children, and even in what might be taken for their maturity they still regard toilet humour as being the pinnacle of wit and sophistication. That's why I voted for Cowpats, anyway.