Hovering above the Severn Gorge, I stared down in fascination at sailing barges on the river, covered carts and trains of packhorses in the narrow hillside lanes, horse-drawn wagons in a huge quarry, and scenes of primitive iron-making and smelting going on in every nook and cranny.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
This was Ironbridge around 1800 – a beautiful scale model of it, anyway, in the Museum of the Gorge, and there in the centre was the world’s first cast-iron bridge itself, spanning the 2-inch wide River Severn.
It’s 25 years since Ironbridge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re going to explore the famous bridge, the Severn Gorge and the streams and mineral-rich hills that gave Ironbridge its global fame – not to mention the ten museums, housed in superbly restored warehouses and manufactories, that collectively tell the tremendous tale – there’s no better way than on foot. Make sure to leave plenty of time to move round the museums, and to stop in the woods and flowery meadows along the way to ponder the extraordinary, world-shaking Industrial Revolution of which this lovely Shropshire dale was the birthplace.
I crossed the gracefully braced bow of the Iron Bridge and followed the tree-lined railway path along the south side of the thickly wooded gorge. Jackfield Tile Museum was full of bright colours: tiled bathrooms, pub bars, floors, nurseries. At Coalport China Works I watched a woman hand-painting china with infinite skill and delicacy – not all the industries in the gorge have been consigned to history. There was a dash down the Tar Tunnel, a subterranean brick-lined passage whose walls weep natural bitumen. Then I climbed high through the woods, along the rim of the gorge and down to Coalbrookdale.
It was Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale, pioneer and man of vision, who made the fame and fortune of Ironbridge. Down in Coalbrookdale’s Museum of Iron I stood and gazed at the very furnace in which, in the New Year of 1709, he succeeded in smelting iron with the use of coke. The cast-iron he created was cheap, strong and made of local materials, and it kick-started the Industrial Revolution.
Within a century Darby’s invention would shape and drive the world. Railway engines, boilers, saucepans, Agas, fireplaces and pokers – they all sprang from this humble brick cradle. I walked back to Ironbridge through the woods with the incredible story still thundering round my head.
Start & finish: Ironbridge Gorge long-stay car park, TF8 7DQ (OS ref SJ665037).
WALK (7 ½ miles, moderate/hard, OS Explorer 242):
Right along road to Museum of the Gorge (668036). On to cross Iron Bridge (672034). Left (‘Jackfield’, red arrow/RA) through car park. Severn Valley Way/SVW to Coalford. At level crossing gates (685031) follow Tile Museum. At Museum (686029) fork left down Church Road (SVW). At Salthouses (690028) follow yellow arrows/YAs past houses and Maws Craft Centre (691027). Left at Boat Inn across river (693025). Cross railway bridge; right down steps to Tar Tunnel. Return across railway bridge; left along canal to Coalport China Works (695024). Left along road; just before Shakespeare Inn, right (‘Silkin Way’) onto Silkin Way. Left; in 200 m, right (695027) up steps; steeply up beside Hay Incline. At top, left on path into meadows. In 100 m, fork left to pass left of house with tall chimney. Forward to pass along hotel terrace (YA). At end of terrace, left downhill (YA) through woods for ⅓ mile to roadway (697036). Left past Blists Hill Victorian Town entrance to road. Left (‘Silkin Way’) for ¼ mile. Just before tunnel, bear left, then right over tunnel to cross road (693032). Path up into woods (‘Ironbridge via Wood’). In 150 m, right up steps (‘Ridge Path’, green South Telford Way/STW arrows). Follow STW/Ironbridge for ¾ mile. Beyond 2 meadows bear left downhill (682037, ‘Wesley Road’) for 250 m. Then bear right uphill (681036; ‘Benthall View’). In 100 m, left (‘Madeley Bank’) to cross road (679038). Up Harris’s Lane; keep ahead to Beech Road (677041). Left; in 100 m, right (‘Woodside’) and follow Ironbridge Way/IW. In 200 m, right (676042) then left (footpath fingerpost) to join road. In another 30 m, beyond bus shelter, left (677044) on tarmac path beside green. At roadway at edge of housing estate (675044) dogleg left and right; continue on gravel path across meadows (‘Woodlands for Health’/WFH; YA). In 100 m WFH forks right, but keep ahead with Dale Coppice on left. In 200 m path bends right; left here (671046, RA) through kissing gate, down through Dale Coppice. Ahead at path junction (‘Woodside CBD’). Pass picnic place on left; descend steps; at foot of steps bear left (670047); in 50 m, bear left (‘Wellington Road’) down steps to pass chapel (668046). Right to road; cross into Museum of Iron (678047).
From Museum, back to road; right along it; in ¼ mile, cross (670043) and go up Paradise (lane). In 50 m left up steep lane (fingerpost). In 100 m at crossing of lanes, diagonally right (fingerpost on left) on upward path, up steps; on up Lincoln Hill. At top of steps, right (671041; ‘Ironbridge’). In 200 m, fork right (669039, ‘Ironbridge’) on path, then lane downhill (RAs) to road. Right to car park.
Conditions: Many steep steps in woods
Refreshments: Pubs/Cafés in Ironbridge, Coalport
Accommodation: Telford Hotel, Sutton Hill (01952-429977; www.qhotels.co.uk) – comfortable, friendly, amazing views.
INFO: Ironbridge Gorge Museums (01952-433424; www.ironbridge.org.uk). Passport tickets (1 year unlimited access to 10 museums): £14.75 child/student; £18.25 60+; £22.50 adult; £61.50 family.
Coast Along for WaterAid, 10 September: 250 sponsored UK coast path walks to join! www.coastalongforwateraid.org