Thursday October 4th 2018
We thought it would nice to treat ourselves to an autumnal mini-break in Shropshire this weekend and elected to stay at Ratlinghope and Ludlow in order to enjoy a few beers and do a little rural and urban walking. So, on the way we stopped off at Bridgnorth for a couple of hours as we have not wandered around the place for quite a few years.
The last time we visited Bridgnorth it was looking a bit grim for the retailers and publicans as the town was still suffering from the poor economic climate. It was a relief to see that some things had improved. Not all things mind you - there are still empty shop units and the footfall around the main shopping area was not that busy. However, here and there, little acorns had popped up with brave retailers boldly going where few shopkeepers have gone before. Dare I say that the place seemed to have a number of trendy boutiques, perhaps suggesting some gentrification of Bridgnorth? Whilst this is good for the visiting tourists, Bridgnorth does have to remember its place and role within the local community. Still, like I say, things seem much better than a decade ago. Of course, I could be talking a load of old twaddle but this was the perception on visiting today.
Bridgnorth's Town Council was criticised by retailers and townsfolk when it decided to stop funding the much-admired flower displays around the town, a scheme that saw them triumph in the Heart of England in Bloom awards. The colourful flowers brought in tourists but, like most cash-strapped local councils in the UK, funding for such schemes has become limited. In 2018 Bridgnorth Town Council decided to follow the route of many other towns and, by getting businesses to stump up the funding, have created an art trail. This is one way of creating a new visitor attraction without raiding the public coffers.
The public art exhibition features twelve miniature trains that have been installed at key spots around Bridgnorth to form a 2-mile walking trail. The shape of the trains pay tribute to Richard Trevithick's famous "Catch-Me-Who-Can" locomotive, first built in Bridgnorth in 1808. Each of the locomotive casts have been decorated by local artists to showcase their talents and local points of interest. Located at the junction of High Street and Cartway, the above train, entitled "Excellence Through Innovation," was designed by Bridgnorth-Endowed School, led by Louise Rhodes. Incidentally, the building in the background, dating from around 1580, features a rare two-tier shop frontage. But check out the building to the left!
Talking of new boutiques in Bridgnorth, how about a fairly recent drinking establishment added to the High Street. Is this another indicator that Bridgnorth is going upmarket? Following on from the success of the original Merckx Belgian Bar at Eccleshall, this micropub-style bar promises around six keg beers and over 50 bottled beers. I had to laugh when I saw Merckx's listing on CAMRA's What Pub website which states that "no real ale is available." It would seem that live beer undergoing second fermentation in the bottle does not count! Occupying a retail unit formerly run as a deli, it took a while for Merckx to be completed but the interior is a fairly convivial drinking environment. Whilst it is good to see something different on offer in the old market town, I was slightly disappointed with the choice of Belgian ales. Mind you, for those new to the wonderful world of Flemish ales, Merckx may be a good introduction. With brands like Leffe, Chimay and Vedett on the menu, Belgophiles will struggle to find any of the exciting new generation beers spilling out of microbreweries that have emerged in recent years. Merckx even stocks Jupiler, the piss-poor Belgian lager brewed by global giant Anheuser-Busch InBev. Still, there are plenty of old chestnuts that remain staples of a good night's drinking - who could turn their noses up at a Rochefort or Sint Bernardus? Merckx is an apposite name for a bar flogging safe bets - a venue retailing the likes of Bryggja, Amburon, Brouwerij Het Nest, Clocher, Saint-Lazare or even more established brands such as De Ranke, De Dolle or Brouwerij 't Gaverhopke would probably be named after Remco Evenepoel.
We headed down Cartway and, feeling a bit peckish, we nipped into Violet's Tea Room. This was easily, and by some margin, the worst lunch we have experienced in some time. Brusque service, tea as weak as piss and coffee like it was back in the horror days of the 1970s. Talking of which, the quiche and salad looked like we were still on war rations. The quiche itself was horrific - worse than I imagine it would be in Iceland or Farm Foods. The coleslaw was either served from a tube or came from the 'value' section at a German supermarket. Following a quick scan of the cake display, it was evident that they just order from Brakes, Bidfood or another company that deliver it all on a frozen food truck. However, even these firms offer a more palatable quiche than the piece of cardboard placed in front of us. We have now dubbed this establishment Vile-etts!
Trying to put our lunch experience behind us, we continued down Cartway to the junction of Friar Street. Here there is a vantage point across the Severn Valley looking towards Hermitage Hill. Another locomotive of the art trail has been placed here. Entitled "The Great Bear," the artwork of this train was designed by Deborah Meredith, a woman who also founded and manages Tea & Roses, a country floral shop and tea room on the High Street. This artwork celebrates the life of Rupert Beckett, a young boy who died from a rare childhood cancer. He loved minecraft, lego and tractors and, together with input from Rupert's family, this is reflected in Deborah Meredith's colourful design.
We carried on down Cartway to the Black Boy. It feels weird walking down this moderately steep lane as I am normally cycling up the other way. Actually, it is a one-way street so you are not supposed to ride up the hill but it so hard to resist. Besides, even though it is a relatively easy climb, the tourists dragging themselves up the slope think you are super fit. I have tried to patronise the Black Boy on a previous occasion but failed to make it inside. So, today was the big day for nipping inside this historic tavern, the last of Cartway's many pubs to have survived. According to online guides for the town's pubs, we were well inside the window for opening hours. Indeed, there was a young woman behind the servery seemingly staring into space. Great, we'll have the pub to ourselves and I can take a few photographs. Bugger, the front door doesn't open. I'll give it a shove in case it is simply stuck. No, it is definitely locked. Surely, I have interupted the young woman's daydreaming and she'll come and take the catch off the door. Sadly, this was not the case and it would appear that the Black Boy doesn't want us to help fill the till. Thwarted once again! I may make it inside this place one day. Beer choice is apparently pretty good and the Black Boy has recently won CAMRA's Bridgnorth Pub of the Year. Actually, I think a part of me wants this saga to continue as it might be more fun trying to gain entry than actually getting served!
We enjoyed a wander around Low Town and alongside the Severn before buying tickets for the Cliff Railway, reportedly the country's oldest and steepest electric funicular railway. The journey only takes around 75 seconds so the fun is over in a jiffy. The very next day the Cliff Railway was the topic of a question on BBC's television quiz Mastermind. We strolled along Castle Walk to take a look at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, the splendid building designed by Thomas Telford in the late 18th century. Of course, we have seen it all before but we never seem to tire of looking around Bridgnorth. East Castle Street could be the most perfect thoroughfare in the county - or at least it could be if I had a JCB to remove all the cars that ruin the streetscape. Oh, and let's have it cobbled again.
Around the corner, well on the corner of West Castle Street, is the Shakespeare Inn. Thought to be of a similar age to that of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, the tavern was originally known as the Punch Bowl. The house is thought to have been re-named during the 1820s. In 2017 the pub was taken over by Joule's Brewery who undertook one of their unique and expensive refurbishments. This includes stained-glass windows by Paul Georgiou, who has worked closely with the brewery on many of their public houses. The refurbishment saw the restoration of a building known as The Boathouse which is decorated with rowing memorabilia. The Shakespeare Inn supports Bridgnorth Rowing Club but this 'new' extension is open to all. It is great to see the old place looking so invigorated. On re-opening the pub earlier in the year, the brewery brought in Tony and Gill Williams to manage the place. They had previously kept the Bricklayers' Arms in Shrewsbury for six years. The Shakespeare Inn sells three Joule's beers as regular ales, along with two guest beers.
Across the road from the Shakespeare Inn is a pub of greater antiquity. The White Lion Inn, recorded as being licensed in 1750, is still going strong. Run by Sam and Bob Hayes, the White Lion Inn is a real community pub, hosting both the Bridgnorth Folk Club and the Bridgnorth Story Telling Club. Passionate about beer, the couple elevated the status of the tavern in January 2012 when they started brewing their own ales to the rear of the White Lion. The success of the Hop and Stagger Brewery resulted in a move to larger premises on the Apley Farm Estate to the north of Bridgnorth. In the following year the brewery was awarded a SIBA Independent Beer Awards Silver Medal for their Bridgnorth Porter.
When visiting pubs we generally have a rule of "when in Rome and all that" in that if it is a tap house of a brewery or a homebrew pub then we drink their ale. When we walked into the White Lion Inn, Samantha was getting things ready for a mini-beer festival, the stillage for which featured a full firkin of Titanic Plum Porter. Oh, the discipline not to order one of the Champion Beers of Britain of 2015! No, we held firm and requested some of the pub's very own porter - and very nice it was too. Bridgnorth Porter is described by the brewery as "a beautifully balanced dark beer with complex layers of taste that gives your taste buds hints of chocolate with some dark fruit notes coming through alongside the suggestion of caramel. All of that sweetness is then perfectly balanced by the hops that deliver citrus and spice."
Usually being on bicycles, it was frustrating that we could not try all of the house beers and, as we had to drive to the Long Mynd, we could only try a half of Beckbury Bitter, a beer that has a connection with the aforementioned Titanic Brewery. The recipe for this relatively recent addition to the Hop and Stagger portfolio was produced in collaboration with Dave Rawstorne, a brewer who did a stint at Titanic. I first met Dave Rawstorne when he was brewing up at Ma Pardoe's in Netherton, recreating some of the Holt, Plant and Deakin ales he produced for the Firkin pub chain. He later worked at the Enville Brewery, producing a new version of the legendary Simpkiss Bitter. Retired and living in the village of Beckbury, he was sort of persuaded to don his brewing apron once again to help produce what is to be the flagship bitter for the Hop and Stagger Brewery. It is an easy-drinking traditional style bitter, combining the sweetness of crystal malts with the smooth bitterness of Cascade and Celia Hops.
There is a hill in Shropshire that I was supposed to climb in 2018. For one reason or another I did not cycle across to Ditton Priors this season but I am not going to beat myself up about it - after all I did ride up plenty of hills and mountains in 2018, including a double ascent of the mighty Col du Galibier. On the domestic front, I rode up the knee-trembling Bushcombe Lane. Today's trip out to the Long Mynd presented an opportunity to recce the hill near Ditton Priors. Like they say, better the devil you know.
I did not realise there was a tarmac road up to the summit of Abdon Burf until I bought Simon Warren's "Cycling Climbs of the Midlands," a tome guaranteed to set the heart racing simply by reading about the steep hills dotted around the region. Never mind cycling through any of the pages, the book itself should carry some sort of health warning. Abdon Burf is the highest peak of Brown Clee Hill. The Ordnance Survey map suggests that it is simply a track or fire break leading up to the summit. However, it really is a tarmac road and, consequently, presents a difficult challenge for any road cyclist.
Just to make it to the starting line means a good climb out of Ditton Priors and up Bent Lane. It is a quick left and then a right turn. There is a red telephone kiosk between the two turns - there always seems to be a phone box near the base of these things. I remember riding past a red kiosk when I went up Asterton Bank. There is a gate at the bottom of the climb so cyclists have to cope with a standing start. The above image shows the road from the gate. The surface here is rather sketchy and covered in tree debris, leaves and moss. Consequently, a road bike could only negotiate this road surface in warm dry conditions. We started to walk up the hill. As you come around the bend you are faced with this truly horrific sight .....
I may have to submit this photograph to online encyclopedias in order for them to show a photograph when explaining or defining the word 'pain.' When cycling climb legend Simon Warren came here to ride up this road he said: "I was gob struck when I saw what faced me once I'd straddled the gate at the base, it is simply ridiculous ... in front of me lay an arrow straight line of 20-25% slope, no respite, no deviation just a direct line of pain." In fact, Clee Hill Cycles claim that the gradient reaches 30%. In cycling terms, that is truly awful.
We started to walk up the arrow straight road. It was very hard just to walk up the incline and I was starting to think that this hill may be just too difficult to surmount on a road bike. As Simon Warren states, there is simply no respite. Noticeably, the road is quite narrow so it would be extremely difficult to try the paperboy weave by zig-zagging up the road. In his résumé of the climb, Simon Warren admitted that he had to unclip and put his foot down on three occasions during the hardest section of the climb. The above photograph was taken from the cattle grid looking back down this section. If anybody makes it to this point then the hardest part is over but it is a long, long way from the bottom to the cattle grid. Moreover, it is still a long way up to the summit!
The tarmac is a relatively recent addition because the incline was originally the line of the Brown Clee Tramway, used to transport Dhu Stone [Welsh for Black Stone], from Abdon Burf Quarry down to a processing works and the railway line at Ditton Priors. Lowering railway trucks down the steep incline required a wire rope, measuring some 2,000 yards, and a large winding drum near the summit of Abdon Burf. It was a counter-balanced incline in that the weight of the loaded wagons pulled up empty trucks on double track infrastructure.
As you can see in the above photograph, the gradient gets easier after the cattle grid but, with legs of jelly from the steep section, this will still be a difficult trudge up to the summit. To take the mind off the pain, at least there is some industrial archaeology to look at on the way up! There are former pits, grassed-over spoilheaps, a building where stone was crushed, a tar pit, and other structures, many of which were made with concrete. The managing director of Abdon Burf Quarry, Hamish Cross, was an early exponent of concrete as a building material. Indeed, his advocacy of concrete was such that he built himself a house in Ditton Priors with concrete produced here.
The final push up to the summit of Abdon Burf brings you to the masts complex. However, if you are completing the Clee Cycles Hill Climb Challenge then you have to touch the trig point with your wheel. We walked up to the trig point at 536.1 metres above sea level where the force of the south-westerly wind was quite something - and this was a pleasant autumn day. Goodness knows what it is like on a blustery day in January? The bad news for cyclists is that the wind is rarely favourable for this climb from Ditton Priors. If you wait for a strong north-easterly wind then the chances are it is a fairly horrible day for weather in general. But even if you have no intention of cycling up to the trig point, it is well worth the walk. The views from this Dewey are awesome and, on a clear day, you can see for many miles. Indeed, the hill provides a grandstand view of the surrounding countryside.
Incidentally, there are two masts near the summit. The larger frame used to contain many more microwave dishes than it does today. It used to serve as a long distance link tower for British Telecom but its role has been superceded by fibre optic cables so many of the dishes have been removed. The narrow mast is operated by the West Mercia Police Authority. So, not quite as glamorous as the radar domes to the south on Titterstone Clee Hill. The tiny golf ball is operated by the Met Office whilst the larger of the two golf balls is part of the National Air Traffic Services radar network, monitoring aircraft within a 100-mile radius of the hills. Aircraft have crashed on the hills and there is a memorial to the Allied and German airmen killed here during World War II. During the First World War there was a camp at Ditton Priors from where conscientious objectors were made to undertake stone-breaking at the Abdon Burf Quarry.
Coal was extracted before the large scale works for stone. However, as you may suspect, there was an ancient settlement on the hill. Abdon Burf was enclosed years ago by a stone wall which was built in prehistoric times by people of the Stone Age, as protection from attacks by their enemies. The quarrying destroyed the site where traces of prehistoric remains could once be seen. A great stone monolith, known as the Giant's Shaft, was at the south-west end of the enclosure. Burf, by the way, is a Celtic word meaning enclosure. The quarrying is said to have robbed Abdon Burf of 20ft in elevation. If they had kept going it would have lost its distinction of being the highest hill in Shropshire! Standing at the trig point, walkers and cyclists will notice a small tarn just below, evidently fed by springs that bubbled thousands of years since for the benefit of tribesmen taking shelter from their enemies in the encampment. Abdon Burf is a special place and it should be hard to reach what seems like the roof of the Midlands. Simon Warren has gone as far to say that it should be included in the Tour of Britain, mainly because the steep section of the climb "makes the Angliru look like Box Hill."
Even the walk back down the steep hill was making my calf muscles a bit twoingy. The journey through Abdon village meant that we could follow the narrow lanes to Bouldon where we might, just might, be lucky to find the Tally Ho Inn open for trade. The last time we passed through this hamlet the pub was closed at a time when it was supposed to be open. We rolled up just before 5pm but, alas, it was another hour before the door [a rather wonderful interior door by the way] was due to open. So, once again, we will have to wait before patronising this remote house. Although in Corvedale, it must be one of the most out-of-the-way taverns in the county.