Bridgnorth scene Shropshire by Gordon DickensBridgnorth has the happy atmosphere of a seaside town – just without the sea © Gordon Dickens

The more closely you look, the more secrets southeast Shropshire yields. This is a perfect reason to slow down and be guided simply by your appetite for eating and daylight for walking.

Besieged by Henry I and ravaged during the Civil War, Bridgnorth’s violent past is belied today by hanging baskets and Britain in Bloom awards. Maybe it’s the cheery influence of the river which in summer is covered with the dainty white flowers of water crowfoot, but on a sunny day I find Bridgnorth has the happy atmosphere of a seaside town – just without the sea.

There are plenty of picnic spots (try Castle Gardens or Severn Park), bars for alfresco drinking and dining, and views over the Severn Valley that Charles I is reputed to have declared the finest in all his kingdom. In the soft red sandstone at several locations around the town is evidence of former cave houses, dwellings of the poor.  Guided tours of Bridgnorth are available on Friday and Saturday from April to October, leaving from the visitor information centre (Listley Street) at 14.15

What to see and do

High Town

Most of Bridgnorth’s attractions are ‘up in heaven’, in High Town, where you’ll find two important churches, the crooked remains of a castle and a healthy dose of independent shops. Reach High Town by ascending one of seven different flights of steps (choose the donkey-friendly Stoneway Steps to pass an 18th-century congregational chapel which is now Theatre on the Steps), the Cartway, the road snaking up from Low Town (rock-cut cave dwellings here were inhabited by families until 1856) or – most people’s favourite – the funicular railway.

The oak-framed black-and-white building dominating Bridgnorth’s High Street, forcing traffic around its stone pillar stilts like a marvellously stubborn time traveller, is the old Town Hall. In an early version of upcycling, it was constructed in 1652 partly from a redundant tithe barn from Much Wenlock. Underneath is a covered market area: you’ll find traders there on Fridays, Saturdays and often on Sundays.

Or, if you visit on non-market days, it’s easier to see the ‘Millennium boards’ charting Bridgnorth’s lively history from 895 to the late 1990s. You can go inside the Town Hall on Saturdays in summer (10.15–12.30) and see the old council chamber, court room and waiting room; the last is now a comfortable tea room. The striking stained glass depicting English monarchs was installed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee.

Like the Town Hall, North Gate cuts a striking figure across Bridgnorth’s High Street. It’s the only one remaining of the town’s five medieval fortifications and even this has been rebuilt, remodelled, patched and propped. The outside steps lead to Northgate Museum (Easter–Oct w/ends, bank hol Mon & Wed afternoons) which has been run by volunteers from the Bridgnorth & District Historical Society since 1951. It contains over 4,000 local-interest objects, including a coracle used in the 1930s. Admission is free, but donations are of course welcome and help to keep the museum running.

Bridgnorth Castle Shropshire © Ruth Ashmore, ShutterstockThe surrounding Bridgnorth Castle Gardens are a peaceful place to sit – and don’t miss the views down from Castle Walk © Ruth Ashmore, Shutterstock

Bridgnorth’s two main churches, both in High Town, are remarkable in different ways. Tucked behind High Street in a cathedral-like close, St Leonard’s is a Victorian restoration of a Gothic church, its tower soaring into the Bridgnorth skyline, its spirelet a cocked little finger. The original church was almost entirely destroyed during the Civil War, catching fire and partially exploding (perhaps unsurprisingly given its use as an ammunition store) after being hit by cannon shot fired from the castle by Royalists. The dark red sandstone of the exterior hides an airiness inside.

Markedly different yet equally impressive, the church of St Mary Magdalene at the end of handsome East Castle Street is a Thomas Telford design, built between 1792 and 1795. Six great windows flood the interior with light. Unusually, St Mary’s is built to a north–south orientation, ensuring its grand square tower with four clock faces and green dome casts a benevolent gaze over the Severn Valley. It provides a charming venue for English Haydn Festival concerts in early June.

St Mary’s shares grounds with the remains of Bridgnorth Castle. A Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, this once-great building was besieged for four weeks before the king’s men surrendered. Parliamentarians pulled down the castle’s walls and attempted to blow up the keep; their botched job means the ruin leans at 17 degrees – three times more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The surrounding Castle Gardens are a peaceful place to sit and listen for SVR engines chuffing through the valley – and don’t miss the views down from Castle Walk.

Bridgnorth Cliff Railway

Bridgnorth Cliff Railway Shropshire © Deatonphotos, Shutterstock © Deatonphotos, Shutterstock

For the definitive Bridgnorth experience – and a neat way to avoid the steps between High Town and Low Town – take a ride in ‘England’s oldest and steepest inland electric funicular railway’. Built in 1892, Bridgnorth Cliff Railway operates two cars on parallel tracks which counterbalance each other via steel ropes.

The original design used a water ballast system and wooden cars but the model you’ll ride today has aluminium cars (from 1955, so still agreeably vintage) powered by an electric winding engine. It’s an inexpensive ride (a return ticket currently costs £1.60), and because it makes at least 150 trips every day, you’ll never have to wait for long.

Low Town

In pre-rail times Bridgnorth was a busy port, the River Severn a vital passage to Bristol and beyond. From High Town you can follow the steep Cartway downward by foot to see where goods were hauled from barges and trows to the markets above. Look for the sign commemorating the cave dwelling, occupied until 1856.

Towards the bottom of Cartway, you’ll find a striking black-and-white building with a cobblestone front. The late-Elizabethan manor is known as Bishop Percy’s House after a former owner, the author and reverend Thomas Percy, later Bishop of Dromore. Dated 1580 it’s a rare survivor of medieval Bridgnorth, as much of the town was destroyed by fire during the Civil War. It has recently been revived into a lovely tea room (with a cabinet of objects commemorating another former inhabitant: Bridgnorth Boys’ Club) and, upstairs, characterful and luxurious holiday apartments.

In Low Town, besides inspiring views back up to High Town, you’ll find Severn Park, with children’s playground and picnic area. The Hermitage Caves on the brow over Low Town (over the Wolverhampton Road) were once dwellings, dating to Saxon times and occupied until 1939. One, 33ft in length, was used as a chapel. Several generations of children played in the empty caves but now they are permanently closed following a tragic accident.

The soft red sandstone from which the caves were carved is so much a part of Bridgnorth’s story. In the landscaped gardens by Underhill Street you can see Lavington’s Hole, a partial tunnel dug on the orders of Colonel Lavington during the Civil War. It was meant to reach beneath Castle Hill to allow Parliamentarian soldiers to blow up St Mary’s Church, which housed munitions. But the Royalists surrendered before the tunnel was finished.

The clock tower on the bridge has a plaque commemorating the 1808 building of the world’s first passenger locomotive at a nearby foundry.

Getting there and away

The most scenic way to arrive in Bridgnorth is on the Severn Valley Railway from Kidderminster, one of the best heritage lines in the country. Otherwise Arriva bus service numbers 113, 114, 115 and 116 run via Shifnal to Bridgnorth from Telford town centre bus station; the number 8 goes via Broseley and Ironbridge. You can also catch the Arriva bus number 436 from Shrewsbury or the number 9 from Wolverhampton.

Parking isn’t always easy, especially at weekends: there’s a pay and display car park opposite the library building on Listley Street (WV16 4AW) or you could try the larger private car park opposite Sainsbury’s on Whitburn Street. Bridgnorth Chamber of Commerce operates a park and ride scheme from an auction yard in Tasley (WV16 4QR) but occasional breaks in service mean you should plan in advance.

A memorable way of arriving on foot is to walk along the Severn – either from Ironbridge to the north (then catch the bus back), or from the south from any of several stations on the Severn Valley Railway (then return by train).

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