A sparkling adventure playground where the littlest visitors can hurtle down a super-sized coal chute. Sweet county horses. An old-fashioned candy… Blist Hill The Victorian Town, Shropshire Open Air Museum easily captures my sons attention, but it’s a different exhibit that gets me thinking. In a hangar-like space, I see the Spry’s beefy black hull. The only surviving complete Severn trow – these distinctive barges once carried stone, coal and iron downstream to Cardiff and Bristol, and in shallow water they were hauled up with ropes. It’s a stark reminder of what this stretch of the Severn might have looked like 150 years ago, when up to 70 boats a day traveled this river route.
If the Spry took me back to Victorian times, I’m about to go back much further. Before the industrial revolution – and, in many cases, long after – local people crossed and fished the river in coracles. These small round boats, traditionally made for one person from thicket wood and cow or bull hide, were used for everything from poaching to transporting goods during floods. In a nod to this more rural heritage, Shropshire Rafting Tours plans to start renting coracles on the river from Easter, and my boys and I are in Ironbridge to test them.
Waiting for us on a small gravel beach near the town Gorges Museum is Nigel, our guide, and what looks like a giant bread basket. While Nigel holds the coracle, we all climb up and perch on the wooden bench inside, admiring the intricately woven bamboo form of the boat. “We were looking for something new to offer,” he says, jumping up and out of the bank. “We wanted an experience that a whole family could have together and feel really stable.”
On a sunny spring morning, months after the end of the winter flooding, it certainly looks stable. These larger coracles are rowed with a standard kayak or SUP stroke rather than the traditional figure-eight motion used by coraclers, and as we take turns trying to paddle, it feels like we’re handling a lightweight canoe. Or, when Nigel shows us how to shoot, a slow-motion carnival cup of tea. Following his advice that the idea is to meander, not run, we drift slowly downstream in a pool of refracting sunlight like in a very relaxing tale from The Borrowers Afloat.
Able to accommodate between two and four people, these coracles are not of the conventional type. Built by an expatriate Vietnamese boatbuilder whom Nigel happened to meet while kayaking downriver in Bewdley, they’re made from bamboo, so they’re light but strong and, most importantly, a lot less tippy than a traditional coracle. The charter will start and end in Jackfield, about a mile downriver, and while Nigel will be on hand to help first-timers, his customers will get the boats out on their own.
As we have Nigel with us, we take the opportunity to row just under the city’s emblematic bridge. Built in 1779, the world’s first iron bridge is a star player in the history of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. After Abraham Darby perfected iron smelting with coke rather than charcoal in 1709, the area became a veritable industrial melting pot, producing cast iron, tiles, pipes, bricks and porcelain. Now it’s a world heritage site, with museums centered on these industries and streets that whisper their heritage; look closely and you’ll see iron-lined sidewalks and houses with bricks and flashy tiles.
In the 1930s, James Hornell published a historical study of coracles in which he reported seeing them hanging outside every cottage in Ironbridge. We don’t see any from the water today, but we pass by old pubs where freight trades were once done, old stones marked with lugger ropes and, fittingly, the old shed to coracle of Eustace Rogersa local man whose death in 2003 marked the end of a long line of Ironbridge coracle makers.
The boys want to keep paddling the rapids ahead of us but instead we leave the coracle and Nigel at Jackfield and paddle up the bank to Coalbrookdale’s Green Wood Center. This moving place, with a community garden and a café serving plates of shakshuka and halloumi salads, is where we must meet Marion Blockley of the National Lottery-funded Ironbridge Coracle Heritage project. In conjunction with the Ironbridge Coracle Trust, the project aims to promote local Coracling culture and heritage. As well as holding coracle courses, holding an annual coracle regatta each August and holding coracle trials in April-May Ironbridge Walking Festivalthe Trust’s recent work has focused on New Coracle shed. It was built in 2020 at the Green Wood Centre, when Rogers’ former coracle hangar was deemed unsuitable for public access, and its size belies the extent of its contents, which include valuable wreckage from Rogers’ hangar as well than a community workshop space and a fascinating, if tiny, museum.
As the boys sit in one of the museum’s coracles, engrossed in the local artist Cal Westbrook‘s animated story, Colin in a Coracle, Marion tells me there has been a resurgence of interest in boats as people seek out slower activities in the digital age. “The craft of doing, of slowing down, of sharing stories, of being on the river – that’s what we’re all about,” she says. “We work with groups of refugees, young carers, pensioners. They paddle and all the tension is released. It’s a bit like yoga. You find your sense of balance and then you relax. The feeling of well-being is universal.
If you know what you’re looking for, says Marion, “you can distinguish a Welsh coracle from a Shrewsbury, Ironbridge or Bewdley coracle. They all have their differences. We look at an archetypal Ironbridge, made by Rogers and painted shiny green and black, and I wonder what he would think of our Vietnamese-style craft. I hope he would be happy that in 2022 these small boats – in whatever form – continue to cross the river at Ironbridge.
One Hour Coracle to rent out from £30 for a two-seater with Shropshire Rafting Tours. Entrance to the New Coracle The shed is free (ironbridgecoracles.org). An annual pass to Blists Hill costs £31 adult, £20 child, from £51 for a familyand gives unlimited access to all Ironbridge Gorge Museums. More information at visitshropshire.co.uk and coraclesociety.org.uk