One of England’s largest and least populated counties, Shropshire stretches from its long and winding border with Wales to the very edge of the urban Black Country. The Industrial Revolution made a huge stride forward here, with the spanning of the River Severn by the very first iron bridge and, although the assorted industries that subsequently squeezed into the Ironbridge Gorge are long gone, a series of museums celebrates their craftsmanship – from tiles through to iron. The River Severn also flows through the county town of Shrewsbury, whose antique centre holds dozens of old half-timbered buildings, though Ludlow, further south, has the edge when it comes to handsome Tudor and Jacobean architecture. In between the two lie some of the most beautiful parts of Shropshire, primarily the Long Mynd, a prime hiking area that is readily explored from the attractive little town of Church Stretton.
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Ironbridge Gorge was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, a process encapsulated by its famous span across the Severn – the world’s first iron bridge, engineered by Abraham Darby and opened on New Year’s Day, 1781. Darby was the third innovative industrialist of that name – the first Abraham Darby started iron-smelting here back in 1709 and the second invented the forging process that made it possible to produce massive single beams in iron. Under the guidance of such creative figures as the Darbys and Thomas Telford, the area’s factories once churned out engines, rails, wheels and other heavy-duty iron pieces in quantities unmatched anywhere else in the world. Manufacturing has now all but vanished, but the surviving monuments make the Gorge the most extensive industrial heritage site in England – and one that has been granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO.
The Gorge contains several museums and an assortment of other industrial attractions spread along a five-mile stretch of the Severn Valley just to the south of new-town Telford. A thorough exploration takes a couple of days, but the highlights – the Iron Bridge itself, the Museum of Iron and the Jackfield Tile Museum – are easily manageable on a day-trip.
SHREWSBURY, the county town of Shropshire, sits in a tight and narrow loop of the River Severn. It would be difficult to design a better defensive site and predictably the Normans built a stone castle here, one which Edward I decided to strengthen and expand in the thirteenth century, though by then the local economy owed as much to the Welsh wool trade as it did to the town’s military importance. In Georgian times, Shrewsbury became a fashionable staging post on the busy London to Holyhead route and has since evolved into a laidback, middling market town. It’s the overall feel of the place that is its main appeal, rather than any specific sight, though to celebrate its associations with Charles Darwin, the town is now the possessor of a 40ft-high sculpture entitled Quantum Leap: it cost nigh-on half a million pounds, so most locals are ruing the cost rather than celebrating the artistic vision.
The logical place to start an exploration of Shrewsbury is the train station, built in a fetching combination of styles, neo-Baronial meets country house, in the 1840s. Poking up above the train station are the battered ramparts of the castle, a pale reminder of the mighty medieval fortress that once dominated the town – the illustrious Thomas Telford turned the castle into the private home of a local bigwig in the 1780s. Castle Gates and its continuation Castle Street/Pride Hill cuts up from the station into the heart of the river loop where the medieval town took root. Turn left off Castle Street onto St Mary’s Street and you soon reach Shrewsbury’s most interesting church, St Mary’s, whose architecturally jumbled interior is redeemed by a magnificent east window. From St Mary’s, it’s a couple of minutes walk to St Alkmund’s Church, from where there’s a charming view of the fine old buildings of Fish Street, which weaves its way down to the High Street. Turn right here to get to The Square which is at the very heart of the city; its narrow confines are inhabited by the Old Market Hall, a heavy-duty stone structure dating from 1596.
The Long Mynd
The Long Mynd
Beginning about nine miles south of Shrewsbury, the upland heaths of the Long Mynd, some ten miles long and between two and four miles wide, run parallel to and just to the west of the A49. This is prime walking territory and the heathlands are latticed with footpaths, the pick of which offer sweeping views over the border to the Black Mountains of Wales. Also popular with hikers, if even more remote, are the Stiperstones, a clot of boggy heather dotted with ancient cairns and earthworks that lies to the west of the Long Mynd.
LUDLOW, perched on a hill in a loop of the River Teme nearly thirty miles south of Shrewsbury, is one of the most picturesque towns in the West Midlands, if not in England – a gaggle of beautifully preserved black-and-white half-timbered buildings packed around a craggy stone castle, with rural Shropshire forming a drowsy backdrop.
These are strong recommendations in themselves, but Ludlow scores even more by being something of a gastronomic hidey-hole with a clutch of outstanding restaurants, whose chefs and sous-chefs gather at the much-vaunted Ludlow Food Festival, held over three days every September. The other leading event is the Ludlow Festival, two weeks of musical and theatrical fun running from the end of June to early July.
Ludlow’s large and imposing castle dates mostly from Norman times, its rambling remains incorporating towers and turrets, gatehouses and concentric walls as well as the remains of the 110ft Norman keep and an unusual Round Chapel built in 1120. With its spectacular setting high above the river, the castle also makes a fine open-air auditorium during the Ludlow Festival.