The bridge that has been the inspiration behind some of the world’s most famous crossings can be found just up the road in Shropshire. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, and makes a great lazy day trip.
There are currently 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites in England, and I’m ashamed to say I’d never made it to the closest of these to my house – Ironbridge in Shropshire – until last week. I’m told most people visit Ironbridge on school trips, but I must have been skiving the day Stivichall school went to town. My motto is “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”. Now was that time.
The town of Ironbridge (which is now more like a big village) stands on the banks of the River Severn, and its big draw is the Iron Bridge across the river – the world’s first cast iron bridge. Built over 200 years ago with locally produced iron, it is now a symbol of the Industrial Revolution. Although there is not a lot of industry remaining, Ironbridge Power Station just down the road belches out steam, giving you the impression you’re in the Victorian era.
Pedestrians can walk across the bridge for free, although bollards block access to vehicles. The original Tollhouse still stands on the opposite side of the bridge to town, and is where people once paid to cross. The bridge is high enough over the river for tall ships to have been able to pass underneath.
In true English summer weather tradition, shortly after arriving in brilliant sunshine, the heavens opened. Most visitors gave up and went home, but abitofculture is made of sterner stuff and I had the bridge all to myself in the monsoon-like torrential downpour. I could appreciate how green it is in this part of Shropshire, and thought it would be a bit of a stunner in autumn when the leaves turn orange and brown, or even in winter with frost and snow on the ground.
You will see none of the love-locks which have blighted bridges across the world, perhaps explained by the fact there is a plaque saying “Willful damage to the bridge is an offence”.
There’s a war memorial next to the bridge with a life size statue of a soldier, a poignant foreground to your photos. And if you take the effort to climb the steep steps up to Ironbridge’s church, you’ll probably be rewarded with a pretty special view of the gorge, although all I could see were horizontal sheets of rain so don’t take my word for it.
So what is there to do once you’re all bridged-out?
Museum-lovers will be in heaven as there are ten of the things in close proximity depicting Victorian life and industry, such as the Tile Museum, Museum of Iron and the popular Blists Hill Victorian Town. An annual passport granting unlimited entry to all ten costs £27.95 per adult, good value as individual tickets for all ten come to over £70. For more information see www.ironbridge.org.uk.
As you might expect from an English tourist town, there are plenty of tearooms and antique shops to keep you busy. I enjoyed my huge Bakewell slice at Darby’s 1779, opposite the bridge at 10 Tontine Hill. This café with tables outside overlooking the bridge is so called because the bridge was completed in 1779, and built by Abraham Darby III.
Further down Tontine Hill is Queenies Cupcakery, if cupcakes are more your thing. On the river side of the road, you will find a ridiculously expensive teddy bear shop (www.merrythought.co.uk), where you will struggle to find a bear for under £50 and might spot a few costing over £200!
I hate to be negative about anything I experience on my travels, but I’d recommend avoiding the ice-cream parlour Vanilla Ice. It might have a great name, but its products are overpriced and tasteless. Instead, have a Carte D’Or ice-cream from the newsagent next door.
I walked under, over and around the bridge, snapping away for an hour or so until I conceded defeat and returned, drowned as a rat, to the car.
If you drive, head for the M54 at junction 10A of the M6 in the direction of Telford. Come off at junction 4, and follow the brown signs to Ironbridge Gorge.
There is no train station – to get to Ironbridge on public transport, get the train to Telford Central, and take a bus from there.