Rain chases us away from Shrewsbury, but not before we receive a lecture from one construction worker on the hazards of lighting fires on paved surfaces (we were boiling water for coffee using our fancy camping stove) and one dousing of water from a city worker watering plants. After spending most of the morning climbing hills in a buggy countryside just ahead of a small rainstorm, Kyle and I give up, put on our rain gear and eat snacks as we get showered on. Having done their thing, the clouds pass us by on to better places (not occupied by us) and we catch some speed downhill into Coalbrookdale, the heart of the industrial revolution.
Luckily for us, the sun comes out to greet us, giving us the experience of a cool but sunny autumn day in early July. I will be honest here, we had no idea what we would find in Coalbrookdale or the adjacent Ironbridge, I had just skimmed over one glowing review of route 45 from Shrewsbury to Bristol where the area had been mentioned as a highlight. Therefore, it is a pleasant surprise when we encounter both a stunning display of man meets nature and an important moment in world history. We step inside the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron to learn about how one enterprising man, Abraham Darby, transformed the world with his process for mass production of iron, using coke to fuel a blast furnace instead of charcoal.
Enamored with the history of the place and the scenery, I pedal with Kyle just a mile or so down to Ironbridge, home of the first bridge made out of iron in the world. There is a magnetism about the area –being an avid lover of wilderness and open space, I never would have guessed that it would be in a place like this that most captured my imagination. The Ironbridge Gorge looms into our vision along with the River Severn running through it. Then we see the bridge, and I am just entranced – our world is just incredible, isn’t it? In recent years I have often thought poorly of the progress of man, especially as I study the consequences of sprawl or pass by vast areas of chain restaurants. But when I see this bridge, I am transported back to a period in history where this sort of progress was achieved by the true craftsman and what an amazing time it must have been! What an achievement! I am also enthralled by the sheer beauty of the place – the iron bridge framed by the majestic gorge.
Bed and breakfasts line the river so I start pestering Kyle; perhaps this is a place that warrants just a little more than a pass-through. Kyle discovers that there is a bike shop just down the road that will open in the morning; it carries the tubes that he desperately needs in order to avoid continued flat tires. Chatting briefly with a gal in a museum gift shop, we come away with a few suggestions for accommodations and a warning that these places fill up fast. Across the street is The Swan, an inn owned by the Malthouse. We try that place first as it is closest. Friendly and hospitable, the man at the reception desk in the bar quotes us a reasonable price for a room, though a non-gf breakfast would be an extra cost. Leading us to our accommodation, the man shows us where we can lock up our bikes and walks us up the stairs to one of the first rooms. Opening the door, it is hard for us to contain our shock when we see a bright fuchsia bedspread bordered with white zebra print, a lamp in the shape of a woman’s high heel, and endless other touches that make us think of an adult kink shop. The man leaves and we look around, wondering where the furry handcuffs are kept. Tempted to stay just for the story and perhaps to get our kink on, we instead decide that wasting our money on what was certainly not our cup of tea was just silly. Apparently used to people abruptly changing their minds, the new guy at the counter gives us no problem at all when we ask for a refund. Just next door at The White Hart, we find a cheaper room with a gluten free conscious kitchen and breakfast included. Just outside in the front courtyard there is a sign: Need to use the toilet? Use it! Yes, you can bring in your dog. Please use the free WiFi. Folk music is playing in the downstairs café/bar and the décor is much more my style. The room includes a bathroom with a wonderfully deep bath, a much bigger bed and a gorgeous view right onto the river. The smiling young staff are delighted to cater to cyclists, showing us where to stow our bikes and pointing us in the direction of the local co-op. Yes, this was the right choice.
Later that evening, we hold hands and walk the gorge, looking out from the bridge and finding hidden pathways, and in the morning, we stroll into the café to find a hot breakfast waiting with an assortment of local jams in little jars, cute as can be. Completely charmed, I reluctantly cycle out of the town with Kyle later that morning. On to new surprises and experiences, but with a spot reserved in my heart and memory for this special place.