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Shropshire: Big Ride

Susannah Osborne
29 Jun 2016

With testing climbs and rolling countryside, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution is a surprisingly serene place to ride.

Telford is an interesting place. No, really. Not because it is one of 32 new towns built in the UK between 1948 and 1970, and not because it has an endless network of roundabouts that appear to serve no other function than to make you dizzy. Not even because its siblings include the universally derided Basildon, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes. Telford is an interesting place because just a few miles beyond the modernist housing estates, bleak architecture and roundabouts, are hills, valleys and rolling roads perfect for cycling.

A pleasant surprise

A Tesco car park is not an inspiring place to start a ride – and I have no intention of doing so today. But having lost all ability to read a map (despite having gained several qualifications in geography) and with my Garmin wrestling to ‘locate satellites’, it’s as safe a place to regroup as I can think of. Plus, there is a special offer on Jelly Babies that I’m keen to take advantage of.

We drive through the outskirts of a town my grandfather once (almost certainly unfairly) described as ‘the kind of place where they nick your wheels’. In the June sunshine and surrounded by manicured flowerbeds it seems a cutting description, but then I’m not a local like him. Heading south west, we’re aiming for Cressage, a 30-minute drive from Telford, where we are to meet our guide Andy, a local who is more enamoured with where he lives than my 90-year-old grandfather is.

Shropshire lies just east of the England-Wales border and is an area with a significant past. En route to our meeting point we pass through Ironbridge, an idyllic village on the River Severn, which takes its name from the 30-metre high cast iron bridge – the first iron bridge in the world – that was built across the river in 1779. In a clever and strategic marketing campaign someone, somewhere, branded Ironbridge ‘the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’. The town is a tourist hotspot, with coachloads of tourists wandering its streets and peering into the deep gorge below the town.

Ironbridge was where Abraham Darby developed the process of iron smelting – heating pig iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coke and not charcoal – to product cast iron. It was a development that is credited with aiding the Industrial Revolution. We vow to return to the town on our homeward leg. But first we need to get on the road. 

Fault line

Having spent the previous day riding in fierce Welsh winds, it comes as a welcome relief to find that it’s calmer on this side of the border. Cressage is a typical English village with a pub, playground and not a lot going on, but it’s a good starting point from which to explore the area.

We spend a few minutes donning shoes and filling pockets with just the right number of Jelly Babies (think the n+1 principle and you’re on the right track), and roll gently away from the village war memorial. Our first stop is Church Stretton, called ‘Little Switzerland’ by the Victorians. There are no jagged peaks or chalets to be seen but, given the plethora of sharp, steep hills and deep valleys, I understand the sentiment. 

Church Stretton lies on a fault. In fact, the Church Stretton Fault bisects the whole of Shropshire, dividing it in two before coming to an end in the Cheshire Basin. The peacefulness of our surroundings makes it hard to envisage geological forces at work beneath our feet, but despite the current lack of earthquakes I can’t help picturing a scene where the earth opens up and bikes and riders are tossed into a buckling crevasse a mile deep. 

Church Stretton is also home to an evil climb and, like all good climbs on a bike, the one to the top of The Burway starts with a coffee and cake. The Burway, which scores 9/10 in Simon Warren’s book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, is the road that leads to the Long Mynd, a moorland plateau of heather and rocks and a popular place for walkers, geography field trips and cyclists.

Proof that using a large hill as an aid to digestion is stupid comes at the end of a pretty, unassuming lane. Flanked by trees and an old stone wall, the approach to The Burway is like a delayed hangover that gets steadily worse. What starts at 3% is soon 9%, and crossing a cattle grid to the foot of the climb proper is the bit where the proverbial tequila shots kick in. Here it hits 20% and it stays there for the
first 200m. My sensible head tells me that if I go too hard I’ll be crawling to the top just over 2km away, so I slow to pedestrian pace, feeling slightly nauseous.

The road hugs the hillside with a sheer drop to the right. For the first few hundred metres the views are hidden, but as we approach a beaten-up guardrail at the side of the road, the knolls and knots of the ancient English landscape come into view – a blanket of heather and lush grass laid over an upturned egg box scoured by the wind, rain and sun. To the east is The Wrekin, a fort-like mound from which I’m almost expecting the Teletubbies to appear. 

A steep left-hand bend forces me out of the saddle once more and the little grim enthusiasm I have for drowning in lactic acid starts to wane. A small lip leads into a blissful downhill but it doesn’t last for long and there’s one last ramp to slog up before we are rewarded with a view that stretches across the border into Wales.

Pros in training

It’s true that for every uphill struggle you’re invariably rewarded with a racetrack leading back downhill. But as sweet as that reward is, it’s made all the sweeter when you spot a pro in pain on the way up the other side. At the top of that final ramp, the road splits and we take the right-hand fork to Ratlinghope, a steep and narrow gravelly descent that takes nerves of steel to negotiate. The first obstacle is a herd of hyperactive sheep playing chicken in the road, and the second a series of deep potholes scoured out of the tarmac.

After 3km of descent we turn left towards Bridges, where we pass a rider in familiar team kit. After research on my return – thanks to Strava Flyby – I work out that it is Liam Holohan of Team Wiggins. Holohan is a Shrewsbury local and, quite figuratively, owns all the climbs around here. If there’s a Strava segment with a steep gradient attached, you can be certain that Holohan’s name is at the top of the list.

Somehow, by a weird kind of osmosis, seeing an actual pro makes me want to dig a little deeper and suffer a little bit more, despite the fact that I’m not being paid to ride a bike. Besides, we’re nearing the turning point on our ride, and we have the prospect of a tough headwind as we begin the blast back towards our base in Cressage. 

From Bridges we turn north and then settle in for a long slog, pushing hard against the wind in our faces. Thankfully Andy is still feeling sprightly and he takes the front as we roll past signs for places that require a clipped BBC annunciation, like Stiperstones, Picklescott and Pulverbatch. As we head east, a scythe-like crosswind kicks in, and it becomes more difficult to hide behind Andy. I resign myself to the fact that I’m going to finish this ride tired, and will my legs to keep pushing on the pedals. 

Passing fields of wheat, linseed and potatoes on what feels like a never-ending road, I’m starting to get the sense that my bike computer must be broken. Surely this much effort can’t have translated into such slow progress? Eventually we hit the A458 and we time-trial the last 10km back to Cressage. When we set out this morning I was certain that we were in for a relatively short (by Cyclist’s standards) and pleasant spin in the countryside, but the aching in my legs and sweat on my brow tell me that this has been a proper ride. 

As a reward for our efforts we load our bikes onto the car and drive back to Ironbridge for sustenance. Because the (disputed) birthplace of the Industrial Revolution is a tourist hotspot there’s a good choice of tearooms, cafes and ice cream parlours in which to replenish our depleted glycogen stores.

The sun is shining and we’re not the only cyclists to be enjoying a sit down. A group from Newport Shropshire CC is tucking into cake on the high street opposite the town’s iron bridge. As we settle down in the sunshine to enjoy our own small feasts, it’s hard to imagine this idyllic corner of rural Britain as ever having been riven by geological fissures and scorched by the fires of heavy industry. For me, it’s just a beautiful place to ride a bike, and a welcoming spot for a coffee and slice of cake. 

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