Last week I took you on a walk along Wenlock Edge behind our house, and talked about the melting ice fields of the last Ice Age (around 15,000 years ago), and how the River Severn that once flowed north, started to back up against the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge and so formed Lake Lapworth. And then I said how the expanding melt waters worked their way through the rock wall, and so formed the Severn Gorge, and at the same time created a whole new southerly course for Britain’s longest river. Well, this is where it all happened – at the northerly end of Wenlock Edge.
Off to the left of the photo, and out of shot, is the old Ironbridge Power Station. It’s coming up next in a ‘zoomed in’ shot.
The power station stands on the riverbank at the entrance of the Gorge, and below Benthall Edge, and thus marks the spot where the Severn first headed south. And just to orientate you further, dead ahead to the left of the power station is Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, and to the right, and below the power station is the road to Much Wenlock. You can just see the house roofs along it. Benthall Edge is thus a southerly spur striking off from Wenlock Edge.
Like Wenlock Edge, Benthall Edge is also composed of limestone strata formed around 400 million years ago when both Edges were part of the Silurian Sea. From the early 1200s the monks of nearby Buildwas Abbey had the rights from Lord Benthall to quarry the limestone, which they burned in kilns to make fertilizer for their farm fields, and lime mortar for building. They also cropped the woodland along Benthall Edge to make charcoal.
In later centuries the Benthall limestone was used in local blast furnaces, tipped in with ironstone, and when fired, acted as a flux which drew impurities from the metal. This was tapped off as slag, and the resulting molten iron cast into ‘pigs’ on the furnace floor. The pig iron was then shipped on to the forge to be worked further into wrought iron, a more durable product than cast iron, which has a tendency to fracture. So now, if you can picture it, see that little stretch of the Gorge by the power station thick with sulphurous smoke, and hear the whole place banging and clanging with forge hammers.
These days Benthall Edge is a tranquil place of hanging woodland and winding paths, although you can still spot the remains of old quarries among the trees. The ‘Lime Trail’ information leaflet of the Severn Gorge Countryside Trust provides an extraordinary statistic about the quarrying. It says that over a period of 750 years an estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of limestone was removed from the Edge. So there we have it: landscape formed both by human and natural agencies – though I’m wondering how that piece of man-made intervention was calculated.
But now to get back to the other feature of note at this spot – the River Severn’s meanders between the villages of Buildwas and Leighton.
I’ve not really done it justice, this looping riverscape formed by silting on the one hand, and erosion on the other; an oxbow lake in the making. I think I probably needed to climb a tree to achieve a better panorama:
It is of course a favourite viewpoint for geography fieldtrippers, and a very fine place to linger, although not for too long on a winter’s afternoon, however bright and beautiful.
As we headed home, the December sun was lighting up cascades of Old Man’s Beard along the roadside; the trailing seed heads of wild clematis making their own festive streamers. Caught here through the car windscreen. (I wasn’t driving).