A gleaming adventure playground where younger visitors can tumble down an oversized coal slide. Gentle Shire horses. An old-fashioned sweet shop… Blists Hill Victorian Town, the open-air museum in Shropshire, easily draws my sons’ attention, but it’s another exhibition that gives me pause. In a hangar-like room, I spot the Spry’s bold black hull. The only fully preserved Severn Trow – these distinctive barges once transported stone, coal and iron downriver to Cardiff and Bristol and were hauled back up by ropes in shallow waters. It’s a vivid reminder of what this stretch of the Severn might have looked like 150 years ago, when up to 70 boats a day used this river route.
However, if Spry took me back to the Victorian era, I’ll rewind a lot further. Before the Industrial Revolution—and in many cases long after—locals used coracles to cross and fish the river. Traditionally made from harvested wood and a cow or bull hide for only one person, these small round boats were used for everything from poaching to transporting goods during floods. In a nod to this more rural heritage, Shropshire Raft Tours are planning to hire out boat boats on the river from Easter and my boys and I are in Ironbridge to test them out.
On a small pebble beach by the town’s Museum of the Gorge, Nigel, our guide, and what appears to be a giant breadbasket await us. While Nigel holds the coracle, we all climb inside and sit on the wooden bench inside and admire the finely woven bamboo shape of the boat. “We were looking for something new,” he says, getting in and pushing himself off the bench. “We wanted an experience that a whole family could do together and that felt really stable.”
It sure feels stable on a sunny spring morning, months after the winter tides have subsided. These larger coracles are rowed with a standard kayak or SUP stroke rather than the figure eight motion that traditional coraclers use and as we take turns paddling it feels like steering a lightweight canoe. Or, if Nigel shows us how to spin, a slo-mo fairground teacup. Taking his advice that the idea is to meander, not race, we slowly drift downstream in a pool of refracting sunlight as if we’re in a very chilled retelling of The Borrowers Afloat.
These coracles can accommodate two to four people and are not the conventional type. They were built by a Vietnamese expat boat builder whom Nigel happened to meet while kayaking down the river in Bewdley. They are made from bamboo so are light but strong and most importantly much less wobbly than a traditional coracle. Rentals begin and end in Jackfield about a mile downstream and while Nigel is available to assist beginners his clients will drive the boats out themselves.
Having Nigel with us we make the most of it and paddle right under the town’s famous bridge. Built in 1779, the world’s first iron bridge is a star in the history of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. After Abraham Darby perfected iron smelting using coke instead of charcoal in 1709, the area became a veritable industrial melting pot, producing cast iron, tile, pipe, brick and porcelain. Now it’s a World Heritage Site, with museums focusing on these industries and streets whispering their legacy; Look closely and you’ll see iron-lined sidewalks and houses with gleaming brickwork and tiles.
In the 1930s, James Hornell published a seminal study of coracles, reporting that they hung outside every cottage in Ironbridge. We don’t see any from the water today, but we pass old pubs where freight deals were once made, old stones scratched by tug ropes and, fittingly, the old coracle shed of Eustace Rogers, a local whose Death 2003 marked the end of a long line of coracle makers in Ironbridge.
The boys want to keep paddling into the rapids ahead of us but instead we leave the coracle and nigel at Jackfield and head up the river bank to Coalbrookdale’s Green Wood Centre. At this soulful spot with a community garden and cafe serving plates of shakshuka and halloumi salad, we meet Marion Blockley of the National Lottery-funded Ironbridge Coracle Heritage Project. In partnership with the Ironbridge Coracle Trust, the project aims to promote local coracling culture and heritage. In addition to running coracle making courses, organizing an annual coracle regatta each August and hosting coracle trials during the Ironbridge Walking Festival in April-May, the Trust’s recent work has focused on the New Coracle Shed. Built at the Green Wood Center in 2020 when Rogers’ old coracle shed was deemed unsuitable for public access, its size belies the breadth of its contents, which include valuable flotsam from Rogers’ shed, as well as a community workshop – a compelling if also tiny museum.
As the boys sit in one of the museum’s coracles and are engrossed in local artist Cal Westbrook’s animated story, Colin in a Coracle, Marion tells me that interest in the boats is new as people move into this digital world Ages looking for slower pursuits. “The craft of making, slowing down, sharing stories, being on the flow — that’s what we’re all about,” she says. “We work with refugee groups, young carers, retirees. You paddle out and all tensions are 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 tell a Welshpool coracle from one from Shrewsbury, Ironbridge or Bewdley. They all have their differences.” We’re looking at an archetypal Ironbridge, made by Rogers and finished in glossy green and black, and I wonder what he’d think of our Vietnamese craftsmanship. I hope he’d be glad those little boats – in whatever form – are still zipping back and forth across the river in Ironbridge in 2022.
One hour coracle to rent costs from £30 for a two seater with Shropshire Raft Tours. Entrance to the New Coracle dandruff is free (ironbridgecoracles.org). An annual pass to Blists Hill is £31 for adults, £20 for children, from £51 for a familyand grants unlimited entry to all museums in Ironbridge Gorge. Visit visitshropshire.co.uk for more information and coraclesociety.org.uk