‘Now, as you can see,’ gruffles a man from his car boot stall, who in this ridiculous heat really should wear something on his bald head. ‘This knife will cut through just about anything’.
That he is slicing through a cooking apple rather than the outer shell of a coconut doesn’t put off the throng of pensioners who have gathered around his demonstration. Neither does the dollop of fag ash which drops onto the chopping board from the cigarette clinging onto his bottom lip. It doesn’t entice anyone to stump up for his miracle blade either, mind you.
The site is heaving with spendthrift punters (our purchases are a reel of thread for Eleanor and a handmade robot birthday card for our nephew), but this is also market day, and the entire main drag of Bridgnorth town centre is given over to dozens of traders. Unlike most of the markets I’m familiar with on the outskirts of Manchester – Rochdale market has just been saved from closure after more than seven hundred years in business – there’s no danger of decay setting in here. There’s a melee of limbs pawing at produce from local farms, bakeries and the odd far flung sweatshop. Progress along the gabled High Street is so slow as to be almost imperceptible, so we dart between tarpaulins and head for the Cliff Railway.
Necessitated by the High Town being an invigorating two hundred steps above the Low Town, it is now the oldest and steepest inland track in the UK. Opened in the summer of 1892 by mayor John Anderson, barely a couple of hours after he took office, he endeared himself to the residents by immediately declaring a public holiday. It has been used more-or-less continuously ever since, and I’m duty-bound to say that it puts the fun in funicular.
The upper station sits astride a precipice with panoramic views over the Severn Valley, with luscious strands of Salopian countryside rising like a verdant veil to conceal the West Midlands conurbation further east. Painted in cream and blue, a pair of aluminium carriages shuttle between here and the terminus at the bottom of the hill every few minutes, the £1.60 return fare coming complete with a free sauna. It’s 30°C outside and a good 50% hotter inside, prompting boulders of sweat to cascade freely from every available pore. Even the reliably unmeltable Eleanor is struggling, her face dappled in Monet rivulets as we descend the 64% slope.
‘I think I’m dying, El,’ I gasp, understating the situation if anything.
‘Hmmm, it is quite warm, I suppose,’ she shrugs.
Fifteen minutes later and we’re on our marks waiting for the 436 to show up. After a calamitous bout of heat exhaustion in Brussels a few years back, I’m always careful to keep a water bottle topped up on days like this. The bus is running late though, and open to the elements we glug down most of our supplies, with Eleanor kindly fashioning herself into a makeshift parasol to shield me from the brutal rays.
It’s not only us struggling to quench our thirsts. When the 436 arrives almost fifteen minutes late, the driver is on the phone to his depot.
‘The warning alarm for the water’s coming on all the time, but I can’t top up until I get back to you. Shall I press on? Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy on the hills.’
It’s oppressively warm onboard, too, made all the worse by a full load of passengers compelling us to take the back seats, directly over the engine. The engine which isn’t being cooled properly. As soon as we set off, a venomous burst of heat is thrown out of the vent immediately behind us.
‘Can you smell burning?’ Eleanor asks with a wrinkle of her nose.
‘Yeah, I think it’s my hair.’
We shuffle over towards the centre of the row, away from the vent, where I spot a scene of destruction on my forearms. Dozens of tiny black bugs have assembled on my skin, but rather than them ravishing my body as per usual, they have instead feasted on globs of sun cream and perspiration. This heady concoction has violently disagreed with the wee beasties, leaving their lifeless exoskeletons strewn between my freckles, and leading to a very rare victory for me against insects.
The outskirts of Bridgnorth are much the same as any other town, except that the semi-detached homes here are almost all the next size up, with ample gardens, driveways and sundry embellishments to the brickwork. Still, we’ve got a lot of time to make up on our bolt to Shrewsbury, so we angle our bodies like sunflowers to capture as much of the breeze which comes rushing into the carriage as a result of the galloping pace.
Morville is the first settlement on our trip north-west, a small village which boasts the Elizabethan Morville Hall and grand St Gregory’s church on the site of a former priory. Sadly, the Acton Arms which lies across the A458 from them has poured its last pint for the time being, leaving the locals without a local despite initial lobbying from the tiny community to take charge. If you’ve got the £625,000 asking price to take the pub on, you’ll be located in the middle of some beautiful, billowing hinterland, with vibrant fields and gently rising hills in whichever way you happen to swivel your head.
As undemanding as these inclines are, they still cause the bus’s water alarm to blare out a high-pitched wail whenever a gear is dropped and the throttle opened. This has the knock-on effect of sending a toddler into a meltdown of his own, whose screams are even more oppressive than that of the bus’s warning system. At least it’s not just us who are overheating.
The distinctive iguana hump of The Wrekin reclines in the distance as we approach Much Wenlock. Most famous for sparking interest in reviving the Olympics, the town has held its own ‘Olympian Games’ since 1850. An annual event which spans the whole summer, it has a scaled down selection of sports compared to its more illustrious international brethren. The penny farthing racing may have bitten the dust, but it does include Kwik Cricket, a road race, and new for 2019: bowls. We’re a day early for the relay race, which amazingly enough, is won in a course record time by four lads whose average age is just eleven. Keep an eye out for them at LA 2028.
There’s plenty more to Much Wenlock than amateur athletics. It has a devastatingly cute centre, with creaking timber frames and stumpy cottages par for the course, most of which we hardly catch due to the route of the 436 feeding us in a loop around the back end of town. It’s a tantalising glimpse, though, and is yet another place to add to the ‘We’ve Got to Go Back There One Day’ file.
Incredibly, an elderly couple board at the Queen Street stop in full winter garb, with the gent even adding a woollen flat cap to his hefty wax jacket as a temperature-baiting flourish. Maybe their physician has advised to sweat out a fever after cupping, leeching and bloodletting have all failed, because they seriously must be roasting. Even so, they don’t even so much as unzip their coats as they hobble to the front seats inside our mobile oven.
Wenlock is barely behind us by time the driver chugs us uphill and down into a minor gorge, which the driver of a mini takes as her cue to swoop past us, tucking in on a bend scant yards before the oncoming traffic makes mincemeat out of her.
On the evidence of the past couple of days, Shropshire is the most unsung county in England with its ancient towns and kaleidoscopic scenery. The dinky village of Harley keeps the form going, resembling a real-life version of Postman Pat’s beloved Greendale, complete with thatched roofs, creeping wisteria and a perfect little church overseeing it all.
Cressage is next just a couple of miles up the road, where we nearly come a cropper turning onto a housing estate. A man is gabbing away, phone pressed to his ear with one hand, the other hand grasps his SUV’s steering wheel, while his right foot belatedly stabs at the brake, eliciting a sharp parp of the bus’s horn. There’s no hand of acknowledgment or hint of an apology from the car driver. He just carries on his natter while reversing slowly out of the way.
A couple of departing passengers mean that there are finally a couple of spare pews, so we squelch down the aisle into much cooler air on the final stretch into Shrewsbury. The road is unwaveringly straight, a double screen of hedges and mature trees in full colour obscuring the Severn, which slithers a meandering course towards our destination. Houses are few and far between, but they are miles above most people’s pay grade, and are likely to be the exclusive domain of the moneyed football stars of Shrewsbury Town, AFC Telford United and Whitchurch Alport.
Even the bus shelters here are extravagant, with a pair of them in Cross Houses resembling a mini-cathedral and a futurist Soviet-style contraption, respectively. They’re incredible. Constructed from materials recovered from the demolition of an old hospital, both are an immeasurable improvement on the usual unloved glass structures which barely protect anyone from the lightest of adverse weather elsewhere in the country.
White potato flowers jostle for the sunshine’s attention as we reach Shrewsbury’s southern periphery. It’s the more affluent side of town, with one residence boasting a turret so tall that they really should employ their own Rapunzel to wave at passers-by. Aside from that, glum arterial roads clogged with Anywheresville semis beat a path to the area’s heart. As mentioned previously, Shrewsbury has a fantastic centre, the start of which is signalled by its Abbey, which has been on this site in one form or another for over 900 years, and is where the Cadfael stories were set. Right outside, the English Bridge takes us back over the Severn for the first time since Bewdley, and onto a quick skirt around the inside edge of the peninsula which the deep bow of the river forms.
We stagger off the 436 at the bus station, shattered and a good stone lighter apiece in lost fluids, which we’ll need to replenish somewhere. Luckily, we know just the place before we catch the 70a to Oswestry…