Superlative Walks

Urban and rural trails, each with something very special

Ironbridge walk

This walk starts and ends in Coalport, a village on the River Severn in the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire.  Coalport is located 2.4km downstream of the famous Iron Bridge and the walk provides a pleasant variety of terrain, including the bridge itself and paths on both sides of the river and passing by 6 of the 10 Ironbridge Museums.  The route is predominantly on well-made paths and roads.  One stretch of 1.2km is on an un-metalled woodland path and involves some short easy ascents/descents and some steps.  This part of the route may be muddy sections during wetter periods.  Most of the remaining route is relative flat apart from in Ironbridge itself, where there is an ascent of 0.6km followed by a descent of 0.4km. The walk starts from the YHA hostel on Coalport High Street, Coalport, Shropshire, TF8 7HT (OS Grid ref: SJ696024)

1. From the YHA walk on to Coalport High Street, take the path on the opposite side of the road from the bus shelter.  At the top of the short rise, turn left to follow the signpost for the Silken Way, passing through the gate.  Follow the path up the bank and then pass through another large wooden gate. Continue along this path until join another path.  Turn left to follow the Silken Way, signposted towards Blists Hill. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Blists Hill had brick and tile works, blast furnaces and coal, iron and fire clay mines operated by the Madeley Wood Company. A short section of the Shropshire Canal ran across the site to the Hay Inclined Plane, which transported boats up and down the 207 ft (63 m) tall incline from Blists Hill to Coalport.

2.  Continue along this path, passing through a short tunnel. After passing through a long tunnel, take the stepped path heading up on the right.  At the top, turn right and then cross the car park diagonally towards the houses on the far side of the road.

At this point the walk passes close by Blists Hill Victorian Town (the main entrance can be reached 300 metres further on by continuing straight ahead after passing through the tunnel and then joining the roadside path.) This is an open-air museum, one of ten operated by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, built on a former industrial complex. The museum, opened in 1973, attempts to recreate the sights, sounds and smells of a Victorian Shropshire town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

3.  Follow the footpath sign to cross the road and follow the track between the houses.  Just beyond the houses on the right, pass through the wooden gate to follow the signed path that runs up at the rear of some more houses. The clearly defined path passes through some woodland known as Lloyds Coppice.  At the the top of the rise, turn right to follow the path signposted for Ironbridge.  

Lloyds Coppice is a sweeping, heavily wooded backdrop to the northern slopes of the Gorge.  The coppice went through a period of intense industrial activity with the focus here on ironstone mining and clay extraction. This activity was so extensive that, in the 18th century, the wood was marked on maps as being an area of waste with a few scattered clumps of trees. The woodland contains a small but important heath, home to such species as heather, adder and slow-worm and a pond, with a population of great crested newts, a species of European-wide conservation importance.

4.  Keep following the path signposted towards Ironbridge.  On reaching a fork, follow the path on the right (the signpost here is not as obviously visible as the others).  On reaching the end of the path, pass through the gate and follow the sign ‘Ironbridge via road’ to cross the junction of two roads and then turn right to continue along the pavement of the second road (Waterloo Street).  Continue straight on, crossing the road at the near end of the modern looking Jackfield Bridge and continuing past Ye Olde Robin Hood Inn to follow the road signposted for Ironbridge.

Jackfield “New” Bridge: The original bridge (1909) was known as either the Free Bridge or Haynes Memorial Bridge and was the first toll-free crossing bridge of the Gorge funded by the public and erected on land donated to the project. There is an old section of the original structure remaining on the Jackfield side (by the red phone box) with a plaque. It was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges to have been made. It came into disrepair in 1937 due to the force of the river’s erosion. Attempted reinforcement by spraying-on concrete was unsuccessful and a controversial decision was made to build a new bridge with a 30 foot steel tower and cable supports.  This was opened in 1994.

300 metres further on from the bridge, the walk passes by the site of the Bedlam Furnaces.   Originally built between 1757 and 1759 by the Madeley Wood Furnace Co. They were among the first blast furnaces to be specifically designed for coke as fuel, rather than charcoal. They ceased operation c.1843 when production moved to Blists Hill. The only remains are part of one of the furnaces and rear walls and foundations of the blowing engine house.

A water-wheel used water pumped from the river to power the bellows which gave the blast of air. There were two furnaces and an engine room originally.  Castings were made in this area between the furnace and the river, and where they are located would have been an ideal spot for transporting products to market. It is likely that these Furnaces were used to make components of the Iron Bridge.

5.  Just after passing the first set of houses on the left side of the road, take the path (Severn Side) leading down on the left.  

The walk has now reached the town of Ironbridge, where today the houses and businesses cling to the sides of the Severn Gorge. This unique industrial and natural environment was formed during the Ice Age when the original flow of the river was diverted and formed the now famous gorge. As it did so, it exposed vital ingredients of layers of limestone, coal, ironstone and clay. The river itself provided water, waterpower and a convenient means of transport.

Abraham Darby I, born in 1677 at nearby Dudley, put all of these vital ingredients together; he was the first, in 1709, to master the science of smelting iron with coke, rather than costly charcoal. He leased an old furnace in Coalbrookdale to do so. The son of a Quaker farmer, Darby was the first to use the cheaper iron, rather than brass, to cast strong thin pots for the poor. The Coalbrookdale works flourished and expanded under his son Abraham Darby II (1711-63). Throughout the decades that followed there was a whole series of world firsts to emanate from Ironbridge including cast iron rails, iron wheels, steam cylinders, steam locomotives, iron boats and, most famously, the still proud and erect first iron bridge.

In November 1777 Abraham Darby III began erecting the 378 tons of cast iron to build the bridge which spans the 30 m/100 ft of the Shropshire gorge. The bridge itself was completed in 1779 with the fitting of the balustrade and the road surface along with the obligatory toll house. The first tolls were taken on New Year’s Day 1781. By this time the beautiful Severn Gorge had been transformed with the hive of industry, iron foundries, kilns and fires making the area a buzzing, smoke-filled port which was dark and dusky, even on a clear day.

Today the area has changed – the grime and the dark smoke have long since gone. Nature has reclaimed the quarries and turned them back into green woodlands with wildlife and wildflowers in abundance and clear brooks running through them.

Ironbridge remains a fascinating place. Starting at Buildwas the roads which now run parallel with the river lead to places with the names of Coalbrookdale, Coalport, Jackfield and Broseley, all of which have made their mark on the industrial heritage of the world, so much so that that the Gorge was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

6.  Follow this path as it turns right to run parallel with the river and alongside some houses until it leads to almost directly under the Iron Bridge.  Here, take the path on the right and then turn right again to follow the path up to reach High Street.

The Iron Bridge was opened in 1781, it was the first major bridge in the world to be made of cast iron, and was greatly celebrated after construction owing to its use of the new material.  In 1934 it was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument and closed to vehicular traffic.  Tolls for pedestrians were collected until 1950, when ownership of the bridge was transferred to Shropshire County Council. It now belongs to Telford and Wrekin Borough Council. The bridge, the adjacent settlement of Ironbridge and the Ironbridge Gorge form the UNESCO Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.

The first major bridge in the world to be constructed wholly of cast iron is Britain’s best-known industrial monument and remains in use by pedestrians. At the start of the 18th century, a shortage of timber — used for making charcoal to fuel blast furnaces — affected iron production so dramatically that pig iron had to be imported from Europe. In 1709, Abraham Darby (1678-1717) developed a method for using coke instead of charcoal to fuel the smelting furnaces at his Coalbrookdale foundry. There were plentiful coal seams near the surface. Other important raw materials such as iron ore, water, sand, clay and limestone were also readily available in the Severn gorge. And with Abraham Darby’s new technique, high quality iron could be produced in much larger quantities than ever before.

Better infrastructure was needed for the iron trade to continue to grow. In September 1775, a bridge was proposed between Broseley and Madeley Wood, using a single span to avoid constructing piers in a river prone to flooding. In March 1776, the Parliamentary Act for a cast iron bridge received royal assent.

Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723-1777) was the bridge’s architect. The Iron Bridge we see today was his third design, approved in June 1776. Abraham Darby’s grandson, Abraham Darby III (1750-91), was in overall charge of the construction and casting.  Drawings for the detailed design of bridge members were made at the Coalbrookdale foundry by Thomas Gregory, a foreman pattern maker who usually worked with wood. This is probably why the bridge uses carpentry jointing details such as mortises and tenons, and dovetails and wedges, despite the change of materials from timber to iron.

Work started in November 1777, but Pritchard died the following month. During 1777-8, the masonry abutments were built and the castings prepared. The bridge has a single semicircular arch of 30.6m span, made up of 10 half ribs, each cast in one piece. It contains 385 tonnes of ironwork and almost 1,700 components, the heaviest weighing 5.5 tonnes.

The ironwork was completed in 1779 — the date is marked on the outer rib — and the whole structure was finished in December 1780, with its official opening as a toll bridge on New Year’s Day 1781. In 1788, the Society of Arts presented Abraham Darby III with their gold medal, in recognition of his achievements in building the bridge.

However, in December 1784, cracks were found in the south side of the arch, and the neighbouring abutment showed signs of movement. It was feared that the sides of the gorge were moving towards the river, forcing the feet of the arch towards each other. Repairs were carried out in 1784, 1791 and 1792.

In 1800, the stone-faced embankment behind the south abutment was replaced with two small timber land arches to relieve pressure on the river span. The timber arches were replaced with cast iron ones in 1821. In May 1862, the bridge was the subject of further repairs.

Iron Bridge continued to carry vehicular traffic until 1931, when it was closed to all but pedestrians. The bridge was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1934 and remained a toll bridge until 1950. The toll house is on the south side.

Ironbridge is made of no less than 482 main castings, but if you count the railings and deck facings, that figure rises to a staggering 1,736. The bridge weighs 378 tons.

Remarkably, nobody was injured during the construction process – a feat almost unheard of even in modern major civil engineering projects.

It took only three months to build the bridge during the summer of 1779, but work on the approach roads took another two years.

The bridge wasn’t welded or bolted together like metal bridges are these days. Instead it was fitted together using a complex system of joints. Each section was custom cast as the engineers went along.

Abraham Darby III was just 29 when the bridge was built. It went way over budget and he died leaving massive debts just ten years later.

While may of the Coalbrookdale ironmasters had their portraits painted, none exist of the Darbys because they were Quakers and considered it to be a sign of vanity.

7.  Turn right to follow High Street, crossing the road just before reaching a small roundabout.  Follow the path around to the left and into Church Hill.  

8.  Continue uphill to the end of Church Hill, then turn left and head down Lincoln Hill.  

(An alternative and shorter route (by 450 metres) that avoids the climb to the end of Church Hill: immediately after passing St Luke’s Church, turn left into New Road and follow the road down and on reaching The Wharfage, cross the road and turn left to rejoin the route.)

St Luke’s Church, erected in 1835/6, has a tower, a nave, side aisles and a small sanctuary. The tower contains a three dial clock, placed there by public subscription in 1838 and made by W. Davies of Shifnal. The position of the church is the reverse of the majority of churches, the sanctuary being at the west end and the tower at the east end. This is because the land at the west end would not bear the weight of a tower.

9.  At the bottom of Lincoln Hill, cross the road and turn left to head along The Wharfage and back alongside the river back towards the centre of Ironbridge and to The Iron Bridge itself.

The Museum of the Gorge, originally the Severn Warehouse, portrays the history of the Ironbridge Gorge and the surrounding area of Coalbrookdale. Around 1840 a warehouse was constructed here for the Coalbrookdale Company, to plans by the architect Samuel Cookson.  Its architectural style is highly distinctive and most unusual for a warehouse. It follows the Gothic Revival architecture recently made fashionable by Pugin and already made use of locally for St Luke’s Church, Ironbridge. 

Flooding has long been a problem for this stretch of the river. Flooding to the level of the warehouse is an annual occurrence. The worst of the floods is recorded by a painted line inside the building, almost at the top of the windows.

The Wharfage is the main riverside thoroughfare north of the Iron Bridge.  It includes 23 Grade ll listed buildings and was prone to frequent and serious flooding prior to the introduction, in 2004, of a portable flood barrier.

10.  Turn right to cross the Iron Bridge and on the far side, take the path on the left signposted for Jackfield, cycle route 45, the Tile Museum etc.  Head through the car park to following the signs for Jackfield etc. to reach the Severn Valley Way which at this point runs along a disused rail line.

11.  Continue along this path, passing under a road bridge and then, a short distance after, a footbridge.  Immediately after the footbridge, take the path on the left leading gently up to join the path that has crossed the bridge.  

12.  Follow this path down beside some houses and bear slightly left to reach the road (Lloyds Head).  Jackfield Bridge is visible from here.  Turn right to follow the road as it runs alongside the river, through Jackfield, past the Black Swan pub, until it rejoins the Severn Way by the old level crossing gates and short lengths of railway tracks.

Jackfield grew as a river port for nearby Broseley and Benthall, situated high above the Severn. The first railway in Shropshire and second in Great Britain was built here – by 1605, the lord of the manor of Broseley, James Clifford, had constructed a wooden railway (usually termed a wagonway) from his coal mines to the river at Jackfield. It has recently been suggested that this is older than the Wollaton Wagonway which is generally thought to be the earliest such wagonway.  There was a pottery here from at least 1634 and corn mills existed along the stream that flowed into the river. The wooden railway also followed the route of this stream, which is the valley which Calcutts Road runs down.

The potteries flourished and became known for their drinking mugs produced, and the Thursfield family from Stoke-on-Trent (“the Potteries”) arrived in 1713 to set up a pottery here. Their Jackfield Ware (a highly vitrified black earthenware decorated with gold flowers and figures) became famous around the mid-18th century.  Manufacture of pottery continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with specialism moving on to the production of tiles, including high quality encaustic tiles, and this manufacture continues today albeit on a small scale (in part to replace Jackfield-made tiles in conservation work, including on the London Underground and the Houses of Parliament). 

From 1862 to 1963, the Severn Valley railway line ran through the area, on its route between Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth. There were sidings to support the several tile works in the area, along with Jackfield Halt for passengers. Little remains of the railway except the unusually large level crossing gates, which spanned sidings as well as the main running line, now the largest surviving in the UK. Some lengths of the trackbed today serve as a vehicle-free route for pedestrians and cyclists.

A major landslip in 1952 devastated a large part of the centre of Jackfield and resulted in some parts of the village (such as between the Tile Museum and Salthouses) being abandoned. 27 cottages were lost in the 1952 landslide, in the Salthouses area, and the river was narrowed by about 15 yards. Separately, the Werps was the most eastern part of Jackfield but had been abandoned by the end of the 1950s. During the stabilisation works in 2014, the remains of several houses that were buried in 1952 were uncovered.

13.  Turn left to follow the sign towards the Tile Museum, Maws Craft Centre and Blists Hill Museum, taking the pavement on the left side of the road and continuing past the junction with Calcutts Road and along Church Road, past Jackfield Tile Museum and following it down to the left of the church.  A short distance after the church, take the stepped footpath on the left signposted as Riverside Walk.  

Jackfield Tile Museum is housed in a decorative tile factory building, the former works of Craven Dunnill and Company, that is still used to produce tiles, particularly encaustic tiles. It presents the history of the British decorative tile industry between 1840 and 1960, the period in which this factory and that of Maw & Co nearby played an important part in this industry.

Jackfield is one of the oldest known ceramic production centres in Shropshire, a tradition dating back to the 16th century. The Thursfield family settled in Jackfield during the early 18th century; Jackfield wares are attributed to the family. Craven Dunnill gave up its Jackfield works in the early 1950s, moving to Bridgnorth, and the buildings were used by a firm making iron and bronze castings. In 1983, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust purchased the works with the aid of an Architectural Heritage Fund grant. In 1989, tile manufacture restarted on the site and in 2001 Craven Dunnill took over this business again.

St Mary the Virgin Church, erected in 1863 was designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield is constructed of varied local brick and bears a passing resemblance to Keble College Chapel. The floors contain excellent examples of local tiles, and the sanctuary windows are claimed to be of the school of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of the woodwork dates to the mid 1700s and was removed from an older chapel of ease. There are some exceptional examples of furniture from the 1600s.

14.  On reaching the end of this path, cross the road, turn left and follow the path that runs behind The Half Moon Inn. After passing behind some houses, the path emerges near to the Maws Craft Centre.  Continue along the path as it passes to the left and alongside the craft centre.

Maws Craft Centre is situated in what remains of the former tile factory of Maw & Co. The factory was built in 1883 and closed its doors in 1970. In the early 1980’s the Telford Development Corporation converted some of the remaining buildings into small business units and others into flats. When the Corporation was winding up and wanted to dispose of the property, a group of tenants formed a limited company in order to buy the site in 1988. The new company was called Maws Craft Centre (Jackfield) Limited in honour of its former owners.

Since acquiring the site Maws Craft Centre (Jackfield) Ltd has used a large proportion of its rental income to renovate the areas that were derelict and improve the buildings that were originally converted. The Craft Centre now houses a whole host of arts, crafts and design businesses, as well as a café, a dance studio and a holistic therapy centre.

Maw & Co

The company was formed in 1850 by George Maw and his brother Arthur when they bought an ailing tile business in Worcester. They manufactured floor tiles and quickly gained a high reputation for their encaustic* “Mock-Mediaeval” tiles. However, they had to contend with the same problems as the company they had bought out– the local clays were unsuitable and materials had to be brought in at great expense from Shropshire.

In 1852 they relocated to Shropshire to the Benthall Works at Broseley where they could make use of the clay as well as coal. The brothers soon opened their own mines. At first the company barely covered its expenses and full commercial production did not begin until 1857. A few years later encaustic tiles became the height of fashion. Maw & Co were the first to use six and more colours. Mosaic tiles also formed a large part of Maw’s business. In 1862 a patent mosaic tile was introduced. At the same time George Maw was experimenting with majolica glazes and later on with faience. Transfer printed and hand painted picture tiles were produced as well as relief tiles and gilt ones with the entire design executed in gold.

By the 1880’s Maw & Co had become one of the most influential and important tile manufacturers. To help meet the increasing demand Maw & Co made more and more mechanical improvements using steam driven tile presses for example and in 1883 moved to new premises at a more appropriate site at Jackfield covering five acres with every convenience in services and layout. At the height of the tile boom the company produced over 20 million tiles a year and published lavishly printed catalogues. Maw’s “lists of persons and establishments supplied” ran to five pages and included the Royal Family, Alexander II of Russia, two maharajas, nine dukes, twelve earls, the railway companies, thirteen cathedrals, thirty-six hospitals, fifty-three public buildings, nineteen schools and colleges, and five warships.

At the end of the century Maw & Co was the largest tile factory in the world. Art Nouveau designs were followed by unique Art Deco geometric styles. Unfortunately the recession at the end of the First World War and building restrictions and the closure of the railway in the decades following World War II were very detrimental for tile production in Jackfield and eventually the factory closed in January 1970.

15.  On reaching the road, take the footpath to the left and then, adjacent to The Boat Inn, cross the river via the footbridge (Jackfield and Coalport Memorial Footbridge) and then turn right alongside the short stretch of canal.  

The Boat Inn was first licensed in 1840. It floods regularly and the high point reached by the flood waters is recorded by the entrance.

The Jackfield and Coalport Memorial Footbridge was opened in 1922 as a memorial to the 26 servicemen from Jackfield and Coalport who had lost their lives in the ‘Great War’.  Paid for by public subscription, it replaced the old fare-paying ferryboat that linked the 2 communities.  The new free footbridge made it much easier and safer for workers and families to commute from one side of the river to the other.  The bridge was dismantled, repaired and put back in place in 2000. 

The Coalport Canal was a short section of the Shropshire Canal from the base of the Hay Inclined Plane to its junction with the River Severn.  

The Shropshire Canal was a tub boat canal built to supply coal, ore and limestone to the industrial region of east Shropshire, England, that adjoined the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. It ran from a junction with the Donnington Wood Canal ascending the 316 yard long Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to its summit level, it made a junction with the older Ketley Canal and at Southall Bank the Coalbrookdale (Horsehay) branch went to Brierly Hill above Coalbrookdale; the main line descended via the 600 yard long Windmill Incline and the 350 yard long Hay Inclined Plane to Coalport on the River Severn.

The Hay Inclined Plane is a canal inclined plane with a height of 207 feet (63 m). The Shropshire Canal used box-shaped tub boats 20 feet long with a load capacity of 5 tons. Twin railway tracks were laid down the incline. The tub boats ascended and descended the inclined plane on wheeled cradles which ran on the rails. At the bottom of the incline the rails went underwater allowing the cradle to become submerged and the tub boat to either float free or be floated into position. At the top of the incline the rails also started under water then climbed a short slope out of the water to the top of the incline.

In operation an empty boat would be loaded into the bottom cradle and a full boat would be loaded into the top cradle. A rope would be attached to the loaded top cradle and it would be drawn out of the water to the top of the incline using a small winding drum driven by a steam engine. The main incline rope would then be attached to the cradle and the loaded boat would descend the incline, counterbalanced by an empty boat ascending on the other rail line. The speed would be controlled by a brake on the main winding drum. On reaching the summit a rope from the small winding drum would be attached to the cradle to control its descent into the upper basin.

Although the loaded boats were travelling downhill, and so the plane was mostly worked by gravity, a small steam engine was also provided and drove the winding drums. This was of Adam Heslop’s design, a twin-cylindered rotative beam engine, to a design patented in 1790. The remains of the brick boiler house and winding mechanism may be seen at the top of the incline.

The Tar tunnel starts near the foot of the Hay Inclined Plane and runs under the hill for at least 1000 yards. The Tar tunnel was dug in 1787, probably in connection with the nearby coal workings. The miners struck a gushing underground spring of thick, treacle-like natural bitumen that was one of the great curiosities of the eighteenth century and still oozes from the walls today. It was used to treat ropes and for caulking ships however small amounts of the bitumen was processed, bottled and packaged as ‘Betton’s British Oil’. It was sold as a remedy for ‘rheumatic and scorbutic affections’.

16.  Cross the small footbridge and turn right to return to the YHA and where the walk started.

The brick buildings of the Coalport China Works are laid out between High Street and the River. The Shropshire Canal ran through the centre of the works parallel with the River although it was filled in in the 1920’s. The western section linking to the Hay Inclined Plane was reinstated in the 1970’s and restored again in the 1990’s. The original factory was started in 1795 but significantly rebuilt over the years. It is now a youth hostel and café. Other workshops and kilns of various dates are set around a courtyard. To the east a substantial, new residential development is in sympathy with the character of the China Works. The canal originally continued further east still to a transhipment area near Coalport Bridge where goods were transferred from canal to river and, subsequently, from railway to river.