Discovering some of the delights of the southern Shropshire hills

You know what it’s like when you look at a map of an area you’re new to and certain names jump out at you as places you want to visit. The southern Shropshire hills has loads of them, too many to fit in on one road trip. I had to miss places like The Bog & Bridges. But I did visit some gems startng with Much Wenlock. Yep a real place.

It’s delightful village with a couple of narrow streets, spoking from an even smaller market square, that crowd in a variety of small shops selling food, clothes, tools, even an ececclesiastical outfitters.

Many of the gravestones of the parish church have been removed to create a large grassed area with mature redwoods, where village events take place. This backs on to the ruins of the priory which is open to the public -at a small price.

Church Stretton is on the Shrewsbury road. As its name suggests it has a peaceful graveyard around the church and a Commonwealth cemetery at the edge of town.

It has a small, attractive centre with buildings that date from Stuart times.

The Shropshire countryside can best be seen from one of the many ridges/hills that separate the numerous valleys that crisscross the landscape. The Long Mynd runs north to south. From the ridge the whole county is displayed in front of you for miles and miles.

Entertainment is provided by six ladies who are training their pooches in scenting & obedience – hilarious times. Not sure who was training who..

The narrow trackhish road along the ridge runs past purple sprouting heathers and fronzy brackens that line a patchwork of wheat harvested fields, nibbling sheeps and fresh meadows. Open sky and vibrant greens hit the senses. Great for walking and, Traffords, cycling.

I’ll lleave you with the charmingly, quaint Bishops Castle. No sign of either except a shop or pub or two.

Coalbrookdale – the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

The Coalbrookdale Museums tell the fascinating story of how the local methods of iron production developed over the centuries to enable the large scale manufacture of metal tools, machinery & vehicles used in every aspect of domestic and business life all over the world. It was here that attempts to produce iron in large quatities were tried & tested and the first Darby blast furnace was constructed in 1709.

The railway was built through the factory buildings at a later date. Iron production involves the firing of prepared amounts of linestone, iron ore & coke (semi-burnt coal) in a furnace at exceptionally high temperatures of 1,000+ degrees centigrade, high enough to melt the ore. The resulting melted pig iron flows from the bottom of the furnace and is cooled in sand moulds.

This is the original furnace. Imagine it twice the height. Two men, working in 12 hour shifts, would have continuously filled the furnace from the top with the three elements, thus keeping the furnace going 24 hours a day and 7 days a week because if it went out & cooled down the furnace would crack. Another man was responsible for letting the pig iron flow from the hole in the bottom into an arrangement of channels that reminded folk of a litter of piglets feeding from the udders of their mother.

To keep the temperature up a huge water wheel powered two enormous bellows which blasted a continuous stream of hot air across the bottom of the furnace.

The original buildings that made up the iron works have been converted into a cafe and museum displays but the feel of the origial blast furnaces remains.

Blists Hill Victorian Town near Ironbridge is gorgeous

Well, maybe not gorgeous but still, pretty impressive, standing on the hillside above the gorge where the Severn cuts through the Shropshire hills. The village of Ironbridge is just that. A cluster of houses around the first cast iron bridge in the world, built in the late 18th century. In the early evening sun it looks particularly impressive.

Blists Hill Victorian Town has been created around two originall industries that existed here in Victorian times: the brick and tile works

and the iron works

It is here that men worked 12 hour shifts in the blast furnaces, pouring slag down to create blasts of hot air 24 hours a day firing molten iron at over 1,000 degrees centigrade.

The rest of the town was built up around these two industries to provide to visitors an idea of how hard life was for the workers at that time. It may look idyllic today but in those days it was hard.

I’m the only one talking; I’ve been sent to Coventry

Today was all about finishing my journey along one canal and beginning my next trip along another. The Oxford Canal joins the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction. These two are the oldest canals on the entire UK waterways system.

For a while they used to run parallel to each other but relations were not good between the two canal companies. The Coventry was built first and three years later the Oxford powered up to join it. But they couldn’t physically join as the Oxford was 9 inches higher and they were worried that their competitors would steal their water.

The Oxfird on the right had to build a last lock on their section to enable the two waterways to flow in unison. Here you can see the toll house in the middle, the lock-keeper’s house on the right and the pump house for the Coventry on the left.

Swopping canals, it is a short leg of seven bridges into Coventry Basin from here, passing through the town’s established Asian communities on one side

modern canal side housing, some of which incorporates past industrial structures

and monuments to past industrial giants. The only evidence of the first car production line in the UK that remains, the Daimler factory, is the pump room here.

Coventry Basin has been tarted up a bit but you can still feel, despite bringing surrounded by modern apartment blocks, the bargees at work, moving goods around warves and warehouses, especially coal destined for Oxford & London.

Another working day at Hillmorton Locks on the Oxford Canal

Just taking a couple of days out to complete my road trip on my last section of the Oxford Canal. I came across one gem of place on the northern fringe of Rugby which has several unique features. The flight of locks at Hillmorton consists of three pairs of locks separated by long pounds. Double the traffic can pass through, if neccesary passing in opposite directions, depending on the volume of boats.

This is the busiest flight of locks on the entire UK canal network. At 1230 the volunteer managing the top locks had passed 36 boats through, down its two lower cousins and I counted 12 more waiting to enter the small flight.

Part of the problem was the passage of a working boat through the flight. This in itself is not an issue. What held things up was the fact that the main boat was towing a support barge that had no engine. This meant that as the pair approached each of the three sets of locks, which could only hold one vessel, they had to use both locks. This meant turning up at the entrance, untieing the towrope, manually moving the towed barge into one lock and once in place, manouvering the tug barge into the other lock, passing through, reversing to connect to the towed one and moving on. Phew, I’m exhausted just describing it. Once takes a while, three takes a while longer. And when the water level in the middle pound is so low that the boats get stuck, it takes even longer still.

At the bottom lock there is a Book Exchange, a busy working boatyard, a good cafe and numerous canal-based industries, including a compost toilet manufacturer.

I leave you with this lovely lady. A volunteer at the bottom set of the flight, helping the casual user to open gates, release water and having to remind some of them to shut the door when they have finished.