A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Welsh-English Borders.
The county of Shropshire on the mid-border area of England and Wales is mainly rural, green and picturesque to the extent that a large part of it has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Salop, as it is sometimes known, contains a number of historically significant towns, such as the county town of Shrewsbury, a fine place to visit, not least for its beautiful mock Tudor Victorian station. Apparently, the town is pronounced Shrewa-bury north of the River Severn and Shroos-bury south of it.
Despite its undoubted beauty, for many the real interest in the county of Shropshire is in its industrial heritage. The town of Coalbrookdale is to the Industrial Revolution what Florence is to the Renaissance. The very name hints at the type of industry it became renowned for.
There have been a blast iron furnaces in the dammed Severn Valley since the 1660s as watermills pumped air into bellows to stoke wood charcoal fires. But the cost of the wood prevented iron being produced in large amounts. It was just used for small items like fixings, nails and tools.
In 1706, the industrialist Abraham Darby leased a furnace in Coalbrookdale to make cooking pots. Within three years he had developed the first successful method for smelting iron with coke. The use of coke meant the resultant iron had less impurities and was stronger. The coke came from local coalfields and was cheaper than using expensive wood charcoal. The molten iron was poured into a shaped bed of sand, to make practically any shape or design. It could be cast off-site then assembled as a kit. The technology allowed for the cheap mass production of cast iron, and larger structures. Darby’s brick furnace is still visible outside the Museum of Iron.
Coalbrookdale’s claim to be the cradle of the Industrial Revolution is thus forged from a series of firsts:
- In 1724, the world’s first pistons were developed here. They were cast-iron rod cylinders used to power Newcomen’s steam engine. These engines were used in early water mills to pump more water into reservoirs.
- In 1768, the world’s first iron rails were made here, initially for horse-drawn railways.
- In 1779, the frame for the world’s first iron bridge was built in Coalbrookdale.
- In 1800, the world’s first iron-framed building was forged by Charles Bage and erected as a Flax Mill at Ditherington near Shrewsbury. It was practically fire-proof. Without this prototype there would be no modern skyscrapers.
- In 1803, the world’s first locomotive was built here by Richard Trevithick. Another prototype which heralded the modern railway age.
Because of the industrial trade, the Severn river which flowed through the area was in dire need of a reliable crossing. The frame for the bridge mentioned above was cast by Abraham Darby III (1715-89) using 378 tons of cast iron from same foundry his grandfather used in 1709. The iron bridge was erected by the engineer Thomas Telford with a single 30-metre span across the river at a place that now proudly takes the name Ironbridge. It is said that Darby’s face is silhouetted in the centre locking pin under the bridge. Telford, meanwhile, gave his name to a whole new town in Shropshire.
The noise and flames from Coalbrookdale furnaces could be heard and seen from up to five miles away. Like something out of Dante’s Inferno, the hellish scene was captured on canvas by the Franco-British painter Philip Loutherbourg in his 1801 work Coalbrookdale by Night, a definitive image of the Industrial Revolution.
By the mid-19th century, Coalbrookdale’s importance had begun to decline. Cast iron had been replaced by wrought iron, and by the 1860s rails made from steel, produced in Sheffield in particular. However, another local industry began to thrive. In 1872, businessman Henry Dunhill set up a new factory at Craven: the Dunhill Tile Works. It produced tiles by first pressing ground clay into a cake, then using plaster moulds to bake them in ovens, after which the tiles are hand-glazed. A master craftsman makes 40 tiles a day. Spurred on by the Arts and Crafts movement, they were used in many Victorian buildings such as churches, pubs, London Underground stations, and the Houses of Parliament. Jackfield Tiles are still going nearby and offer factory tours.They employ the same methods using original Victorian machinery.
Because of its important industrial heritage, Thomas Telford’s Iron Bridge was made pedestrian-only in 1934. Today, however, the whole Coalbrookdale-Ironbridge Gorge area is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire is famous for the Wenlock Olympian Games originally set up by Dr. William Penny Brookes in 1850. In 1861, he was also instrumental in setting up the Shropshire Games and later in 1866, the National Olympian Games. Dr. Brookes is also credited as a guiding spirit in the establishment of the Modern Olympic Games, and meetings between him and international founding father Baron Pierre de Coubertin took place in the town’s Raven Hotel. At the hotel today are displayed many artefacts from those early years, including original letters from de Coubertin to Dr Brookes. The town’s secondary school is also named after Brookes. The Wenlock Olympian Games, a four-day event, is still contested annually in the town during the second weekend in July, and the feast which concludes each year’s events traditionally takes place at The Raven Hotel.
Although we have concentrated on relatively modern periods in Shropshire’s history, there are some older historical gems too.
Ludlow is a fine Shropshire town with plenty of history, nor least stemming from its famous castle. Students of the Plantagenet period covering King Edwards II to V, and the following Tudor dynasty, will find it of particular interest.
In about 1100, the land here was given to the De Lacy family. They built a Norman fortress to hold back the unconquered Welsh. Two centuries later it came into the ownership of the Mortimer family. In the 1320s, Baron Roger Mortimer had an affair with Edward II’s queen Isabella. Together they plotted against the king and seized power taking him captive. In 1327, Edward was horribly murdered at Berkeley Castle. The despots Isabella & Mortimer then ruled the country as ‘regents’. In 1330, Mortimer overstretched himself and was executed at Tyburn Hill on the orders of Edward II’s son Edward III.
In 1461, Edward IV made Ludlow Castle crown property. His two sons were brought up at Ludlow. The eldest one became King Edward V here. The brothers later became better known as ‘Princes in the Tower’, apparently murdered in the Tower of London by a rival claimant. In 1502: Henry VII’s eldest son Prince Arthur died at Ludlow Castle while on honeymoon with Katherine of Aragon. Arthur’s heart was buried here. Katherine, of course, later became the wife of Arthur’s younger brother Henry VIII. Their first and only surviving child, the young Princess Mary (Bloody Mary) lived at Ludlow Castle in 1515.
The castle was finally abandoned in 1689: It was later described by the writer Daniel Defoe as the ‘very perfection of decay’. From 1811 it was owned by the Earls of Powis.
Near to the castle entrance is Castle Lodge, worth a visit for its original Tudor interior. Also nearby is the 15th century St Laurence Church, famous for its misericord carvings which depict sinful behaviour. The three-star restaurant La Bécasse on Corve Street is a fine place to eat in Ludlow.
A special mention should go out to Stokesay Castle, which is situated north of Ludlow. Constructed at the end of the 13th century, it is one of the world’s finest and best-preserved medieval manor houses. Administered by English Heritage, the whole history of the place is very well explained in the excellent audio-guide.
Finally, if you go for something to eat in Shropshire, do try the local delicacies which include Fidget Pie, made from pork, apple and vegetables, Shrewsbury Biscuits and Market Drayton Gingerbread, made with spice ginger and best served with port.
Shropshire: something old, something new, something special.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)