Wednesday 27 July 2016

Ironbridge and Coalport

This post is not a trip report on hiking as such but a tribute to my late Grandma, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago and whose funeral was earlier this week. She was aged 92 when we lost her and she will leave a huge gap in the hearts of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention in the hearts of her own friends and in those of the family friends, whose lives she touched.

Grandma in her youth.
I picked Ironbridge because it's somewhere that I'll always associate with my Grandma and because she was very fond of the place. It is in itself a lovely village, with lots of history, and well worth visiting. We'd been there before but in light of Grandma's passing and for the purpose of writing this tribute we re-visited again this weekend and took a ramble around part of the gorge - which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - to explore some of the places she would have known as a youngster keen on walking.

My Grandma was born in 1924 and was to remain an only child. Much to her mother's dismay, her father went off to the Registry Office without consultation and registered her forenames as Lilian Barbara. The result for him, according to my Grandma, was not pretty - my great-grandmother strictly forbade use of the name Lilian by anyone, including Grandma herself, and for the next 92 years, she was known as Barbara or Babs.

Although she lived in Manchester, her own grandmother lived in Ironbridge, Shropshire, and Babs retained family connections there throughout her long life. Granny Rickards and her family, Grandma told me, lived at the top of the steep hill above the town and she vividly remembered the effort - even as a youngster - it took to climb up there.

One of several banks of flowers around the village.
They owned, it seems, some kind of smallholding: certainly they weren't wealthy enough to own a farm as such, but they had chickens and at least one pig and they were considered "well to do" by their Manchester relations. Each Christmas, this Shropshire connection provided my Grandma's family in Manchester with a hamper full of bounty from the countryside - various meats, cheese, and other treats of a kind that weren't readily available to them generally.

Ironbridge now is one of Shropshire's key tourist destinations and bills itself as "The Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution". The combination of the river and the iron ore in the surrounding ground rock launched Ironbridge's iron smelting industry, which thrived in the eighteenth century and which was responsible for much of the historical architecture still to be found in this picturesque village. The only industry left in Ironbridge now is the tourist industry and the scent of flowers fills the air that would once have been choked by pollution from the various factories and mills.

The cooling towers of the Ironbridge B Power Station.
We parked on the outskirts of the village, on the road to Coalbrookdale, before walking down to the bank of the River Severn, where the waters were dark and calm, providing a muted reflection of the lush trees that lined the opposite side of the gorge. 

Looking upstream we could see the vast cooling towers of the now-decommissioned Ironbridge B Power Station: some - many perhaps - might see these as an eyesore but great care was taken in the design of this station, so that the bulk of it would be concealed from Ironbridge by the wooded hillsides of this narrow valley and the concrete of the cooling towers themselves was mixed with red pigment, to reflect the iron-rich colours of the soil around the locality. Similar care was taken with the styling of other parts of the building. It remains to be seen what will happen to the site but industry was the making of Ironbridge and the history of industry in Ironbridge is the mainstay of its current popularity so I personally think it would be a shame if all traces of the power station disappeared.

We followed the riverside path south east towards the village centre, passing the Museum of the Gorge before heading back up to the road. As we passed the museum, which was built as a riverside warehouse by the Coalbrookdale Company in the 1830s, we got our first glimpse of the day of the celebrated bridge that gives the village and the gorge their name. In one of the photos below you can see the old tram tracks embedded in the riverside walkway, that once would have been used to wheel cast iron goods in and out of the warehouse.

Modern iron work on a fence lining the riverside path.
The famous Iron Bridge comes into view downstream.

Last time we'd been here was on a cold February day some years back and the path (and, indeed, a large section of the road through Ironbridge) was closed off because the Severn had burst its banks - not an unusual occurrence in the narrow, deep-sided gorge. The whole area we walked along the river bank today was under water then, of course, and I've posted a few pictures from 2014 to show the water level (and because the picture of the Museum of the Gorge is better than the badly-angled one I took especially for this post!).

This is the riverside path as it was on our last visit (February 2014).
On the other side of the museum - the tramways and riverside path are under water on the left; the trees mark where the river bank usually lies (February 2014).
A roadside bench outside the museum, with... er... commanding views of the river (February 2014).

Thankfully, conditions were rather drier today and the river was staying where it belonged, which meant we could walk along the main street. Ironbridge is built on a hill and the main street runs alongside the Severn; above it, a warren of tiny lanes and even narrower ginnels and stone staircases criss-cross the steep hillside, with cottages and occasionally grander houses crammed together at sometimes ungainly angles.

Down by the riverside, stylish residential buildings betray their utilitarian origins, with upstairs windows that were clearly once warehouse doors, and there are remains too of the lime kilns and furnaces that blazed away at temperatures of over 900 degrees centigrade.

An old warehouse (l), now transformed into a stylish "des-res"; the remains of Lincoln Hill Limekilns (r).

Some of the cottages, cluttered together by the roadside.

We had superb views of The Iron Bridge now, the first of its kind in the world to be constructed from cast iron. It was opened in 1781, as a toll bridge, and carried pedestrian and vehicular traffic until the 1930s, when it was designated a scheduled ancient monument. Since then it has been for pedestrian use only and people crossing it still had to pay a toll until 1950, believe it or not.

The Iron Bridge, viewed from the west.
The Iron Bridge, viewed from the east.

It really is a beautiful structure that combines strength (and longevity) with aesthetic beauty. The sweeping lines beneath its concourse are delicate and graceful, and barely look able to support the weight of the bridge, let alone the traffic that crosses or has crossed it.

We carried on past the bridge and through the village relatively quickly. It had been busy here when we visited in February 2014 but today, a warm Sunday in July at the start of the school summer holidays, the streets and bridge itself were packed with people.

We'd planned a short, circular walk to Coalport and back again, on the opposite side of the river for the return journey. Most of the route to Coalport was roadside walking and I'd decided it would be better to get that out of the way earlier on as it was likely to be the least interesting part of the day. And so it proved to be once we had left the outskirts of Ironbridge, though we still encountered some history of the industrial, social and automotive kind as we left the village environs.

Bedlam Furnaces (from my 2014 album as they are presently sporting a large scaffold).
One of the many old inns around the gorge.
A bit of automotive history.

The Jackfield New Bridge.
Sights such as these became less common as we followed the road to Coalport as most of the local industrial heritage was now on the southern side of the river, concentrated around the small village of Jackfield

As we approached Jackfield, we passed the Jackfield "New" Bridge, a modern, cable-stayed structure that nonetheless pays respect to the iron bridges at Ironbridge and Coalport in its clean lines and circular decoration. It was built in 1993 and replaces an older bridge - the Jackfield Free Bridge - that had been plagued by the need for repairs since its construction in the 1930s. It seems that there has been some debate about whether its design is in keeping with the locality but I think the upper sections at least manage to achieve a balance of modernity and respect for local heritage. The factories and warehouses were probably viewed as a blight on the gorge by some locals a couple of centuries ago - perhaps the power station, the cooling towers and the modern bridge will be treasured by future visitors in two hundred years time as much as the rest of Ironbridge is now?

The canal basin by the Tar Tunnel.
Aside from passing some delightful and occasionally grandiose houses, there hadn't been much to see on the way to Coalport, the views being either trees on the sides of the gorge and the slow moving river. 

When we drew closer to the next village, however, the lane broadened out and we found ourselves walking on a broad grass verge rather than a tarmac pavement. We were near the Tar Tunnel now, dug out in 1787 originally as a canal tunnel. When the workmen struck a natural source of bitumen, however, the waterway plan was abandoned in favour of extracting the bitumen for sale. Apparently bitumen still seeps through the tunnel walls today and as a museum it is a popular tourist attraction.

Unfortunately the site was closed to the public on our visit but the tunnel and the buildings around it are on a small and picturesque canal basin, parallel to the river. Though the cafe/ice cream shop was shut too, we hung around here for a brief while to admire the bridge and the tramways that descend steeply to the quay from the hills above. A flash of yellow caught my eye and I saw a male grey wagtail for the first time, tripping its way up and down the side of the canal, which made it difficult to get a clear shot. He was as handsome a fellow as he was full of energy, though, in his bright livery and seeing him made my day.

Coalport was conceived as a "new town", to take advantage of the burgeoning industry in the gorge and the construction of canal and railway. The tramways that come down to the wharf by the Tar Tunnel are what's left of an ingenious system, the Hay Inclined Plane, which raised and lowered entire boats as well as their contents from the canal to the industrial works 63 metres above at Blists Hill (the latter now also one of the gorge's museums). The canal boats were twenty feet long and could carry up to five tons in weight.

Rich on top of the bridge.
The tramways that come down the side of the gorge to the canal basin.
The Hay Inclined Plane, heading up the hillside from the bridge - the gradient is much steeper than it seems here!

It wasn't far from here to the site of the old China Works, now one of Ironbridge's many museums, and also home to the Ironbridge-Coalport Youth Hostel. This porcelain manufactory was founded in 1795 and despite some economic blips was a successful producer financially and artistically for well over a hundred years before the business was relocated to the Potteries area of Staffordshire. In the late 1960s Coalport became part of the Wedgwood Company, although it still retained its own brand name. 

The Coalport China Works, now a youth hostel.
The Coalport China Works and the Coalport Canal.

From the old porcelain factory it was a brief walk to what seemed to be the other end of Coalport. Even on a sunny, summer afternoon the idyllic village was deserted and we didn't see another soul save for a few passing cars. It was hard to imagine that this was once a thriving industrial centre and the quaint cottages presented a picture postcard view of rural England. 


The village is home to an iron bridge not much younger than the more celebrated one at Ironbridge. Approaching from the village centre, as we did, you are at bridge level and the elegant railings provide only a taster of its design. Once you cross the bridge, however, you can see the structure in its entirety. There is a large public house here, The Woodbridge Inn, the name of which refers to the earliest of Coalport Bridge's incarnations, a timber structure that opened in 1780. An intermediate, part-iron bridge that was used from 1799  proved unsound and was subject to continuing repair before its replacement with the current bridge in 1818. Aside from repairs in 2004-05, that structure has remained in place since and is still open to traffic and pedestrians.

Crossing Coalport Bridge.
Coalport Bridge from the southern side of the River Severn.

The sun was beginning to break through the cloud now, turning what had already been a hot and humid afternoon into an even warmer one. We were tempted to stop at The Woodbridge Inn for pint but decided to press on. We were about to join the Severn Way now for our return leg, which follows the course of the Severn Valley Railway: part of this line is preserved as a heritage line but the section in Ironbridge Gorge has now been converted into an accessible walking and cycling trail (for cycling purposes it is also known as the Mercian Way, it seems).

The trail was shrouded by trees on either side and though we were shaded from the sun we ended up hotter than we'd been before as there was little or no air movement underneath the leafy canopy they formed. We came to a gate and footpath that led downwards to the riverside and although we couldn't see where it led we decided to explore just to feel a bit of a breeze. We suspected we were opposite the Coalport China Works and hoped to get some views of it from the southern bank of the river.

At the end of the overgrown path - having made a couple of friends on the way - we came out by another alehouse, The Boat Inn:  "Unspoilt by Progress", it proudly declared, which apparently meant they didn't take card payments. After the traipse downhill, Coalport's industrial history was nowhere to be seen on the other side of the water so this time we decided we deserved refreshments and we sat here with a shandy and some crisps for a while, having luckily had enough cash to hand. 

There is a painted sign next to the entrance to this old hostelry that displays the water levels that the flooding Severn has reached over the years, the highest of which recorded here is over 19 feet, right to the top of the lower floor windows. In February 2014, when we previously visited the gorge, the water level stood at just over 17 feet above the riverbank.

One of the new friends we made on our way down to The Boat Inn.

Approaching Jackfield.
The Severn Way follows the river directly back to Ironbridge and passes through Jackfield as it does so, which requires some road walking. As we walked to Coalport we'd caught a glimpse of an unusually designed church spire across the river, though most of the building was concealed by trees from our viewpoint. This was St Mary the Virgin, Jackfield, and as we approached the village we began to see how lovely the entire building is.

The church was built in 1863 and designed by the celebrated Victorian architect, Arthur Blomfield, whose most well-known and grandiose work is perhaps the Royal College of Music. At first, we had wondered if the design reflected the Arts and Crafts Movement but its earlier construction date suggests that it displays a shared influence from the Pre-Raphaelites. The Jackfield Tile Factory is just next to the church and Blomfield makes use of tiles from there as well as different coloured brickwork.

Inside, there is a rose window, which is all the more striking for eschewing the use of colour, and at the opposite end of the church, the bay around the altar also contains some beautiful, if more traditional, stained glass.

Jackfield Tile Museum (detail).
Having diverted from the main road to visit the church, we returned to it now and here the vast tile factory stretched out alongside it. Although no longer produces on anywhere near the same scale as it did in its heyday, it is a working museum and still manufactures tiles, particularly of the encaustic variety. 

This term was a new one on me and it was interesting to find out that, despite the etymology of the adjective, the term is a misnomer when applied to the tiles produced here in Jackfield: it originally referred to both the fixing of pigments by application of heat and to a process of enamelling, both of which were used in the Middle Ages. The tiles produced here, however, were inlaid ones - the designs created by the juxtaposition of up to six different colours of clay. To the Victorians, besotted as they were with a romanticised medieval past, these contemporary creations looked like enamelled tiles and the term has fallen into regular if inaccurate use since they adopted it.

Jackfield Encaustic and Decorative Tile Works

On the western side of Jackfield, the Severn Way resumes its course again. Occasional bridges and cuttings in the side of the gorge had betrayed the trail's origin as a railway line as we followed it but occasionally there were more obvious relics of the past, such as the tracks and crossing that had been preserved just outside the village as memorial to the area's history:

We were approaching Ironbridge itself now and if you visit the village, it's well worth crossing the bridge and walking a few yards east into the large car park situated in its southern side to get a view of the settlement on the far side of the gorge.


It was early evening now and thankfully the crowds that had been milling around the village had disappeared. The bridge itself was empty as we crossed it, passing the toll house and the old board that displayed the tariff in pre-decimal currency.

The toll house.
Even the royal family weren't exempt from paying the toll, it seems.
A view from the bridge.

We paused by the war memorial on the northern side of the river, a statue of a soldier reminiscent of the war memorial we had seen in Slaidburn, in the Forest of Bowland. I was interested to see if there were any family members listed on it and there was indeed a "C. Rickards" on the plaque. Although my aunt has thoroughly researched the family tree on my father's side, as far as I'm aware there hasn't been any investigation done on the maternal side of my family but in a settlement the size of Ironbridge it's hard to imagine the bearer of this name wasn't related to my great-great-grandmother.

We were hungry, thirsty and warm now but we pushed on to climb the hillside and explore some of the tiny alleys that were woven between the buildings, knowing that if we stopped for our tea somewhere we'd probably never motivate ourselves to leave river-level with full bellies. The main church, St Luke's, dominates the hillside from the southern side of the river but it didn't seem that remarkable or attractive when we eventually arrived at its door. Despite it being a Sunday, it seemed closed so we explored the narrow strip of land that runs alongside it before heading out of the churchyard onto a lane. 

One of only a couple of tombstones in the tiny churchyard of St Luke's.

The houses we passed on the way back down were more interesting, one of them bearing the name The Old Armoury but I've not been able to find out if moniker has any basis in historical use or if it's just a fanciful name.

The Old Armoury.
Following one of the narrow passages back down to the river.

It was time for food now and we stopped somewhere we'd eaten previously and where we knew the food would be good - as indeed it was. Rich tucked into a plate of the spare ribs, one of Grandma's favourites, and we raised a glass to her. It was a fitting end to a fine afternoon exploring the area Grandma's family came from and one which she knew  well, so that even at a time of sadness, the day was one where happy memories were both made and recalled.

In Memory of

Lilian Barbara Ainsworth

9th May 1924 - 8th July 2016

A much loved and much missed Grandma.


Date: July 2016

Distance: 7.5 km

Total ascent: 131 metres



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