“There’s a giraffe, Granddad!” An excited six-year-old girl bounces up and down on her seat as she points out of the train window.
Granddad buries his nose in his weekend newspapers. “Don’t be silly, Sophie. We don’t get giraffes in Worcestershire.”
“And there’s an elephant!” Sophie squeals. “Look, Granddad!”
Slowly, Granddad lowers his paper onto the table, winks at me, then leans closer to the window, just as we pass a thick hedge of trees.
“I can’t see any giraffes or elephants. You’re teasing me, Sophie, aren’t you?”
Granddad looks at me again, smiles, then returns to reading his newspaper.
“They were there, Granddad. Honest!” Sophie pushes her face flat against the window as the train slows.
I can’t help but smile. Sophie is right. It’s her granddad who is teasing her.
The best way to arrive in Bewdley is by train. However, you can’t catch a regular train here, so I’ve hopped onto the historic Severn Valley Railway, which runs steam and diesel trains between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.
Bewdley is only a fifteen minute journey from Kidderminster, but as the train approaches its outskirts, there’s a moment when it passes the West Midlands Safari Park. There can’t be many steam train journeys where travellers can spot giraffes and elephants from the window!
Opened in 1973 by Sophia Loren, the West Midlands Safari Park is now home to over 140 different animal species, including rhinos, cheetahs, red pandas and Sumatran tigers.
A four-mile self-drive safari explores the two distinct areas of Africa and Asia, where the animals roam freely. But don’t panic – there are no monkeys in the park, so your windscreen wipers are safe! And if you don’t fancy driving round yourself, there are regular minibus tours.
“Bewdley! This is Bewdley!” shouts the station manager on the platform, as the carriages squeal and shudder to a halt. I say goodbye to Sophie and her granddad and step off the train.
It’s like stepping back over one hundred years. Hanging baskets and planters full of flowers bedeck the platforms, and old advertising signs for products like Bovril, Cadbury’s, and Robertson’s marmalade line the walls. There is even a selection of metal milk churns standing beside the footbridge.
Bewdley station was built in 1862, as part of the original Severn Valley Railway line that stretched from Shrewsbury in the north down to Hartlebury, near Droitwich.
Two years later, the Tenbury Wells to Bewdley line opened, and then in 1878 another branch line connected it with Kidderminster on the Great Western Railway line between Worcester and Birmingham. Both branch lines closed in the early 1960s, before Dr Beeching made his notorious cuts.
It’s a short walk into town, and my first proper glimpse appears along the Stourport Road. Across the wide River Severn stands a majestic row of proud Georgian buildings, which I can reach via the three-arched sandstone Bewdley Bridge.
This bridge helped make Bewdley what it is today. Thomas Telford designed it in 1798 after floods swept away the previous 15th century bridge, three years earlier. Amazingly, workers built it in one season, during a prolonged dry period. That can’t have made transporting the stone by boat from Arley quarry, four miles upstream, very easy.
Just before the bridge lies an octagonal-shaped plaque on the pavement. This commemorates where Thomas Telford’s tollhouse once stood. Tolls were collected here for 36 years to cover the bridge’s construction costs, but the tollhouse was demolished in 1960, having fallen into disrepair.
With a new, solid bridge in place, the town prospered over the coming years, hence the wealth of fine Georgian buildings that line the river frontage.
As I stand gazing up and down river today, watching the swans and ducks gliding gracefully by, it’s difficult to imagine this as a bustling port.
Its proximity to Birmingham and the industrial Black Country meant manufacturers sent their goods to Bewdley by road, where they were transferred onto barges and then shipped down the River Severn to Bristol. From there, the goods travelled all over the world.
Sadly, the town lost much of that trade when the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal opened. This linked many of Birmingham’s industrial areas, allowing them to put their goods onto a barge at the factory and ship them directly to larger boats on the River Severn at Stourport, four miles downstream from Bewdley.
Across the bridge, I enter Load Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. Its name is derived from lode, the old word for ferry. It’s a wide street, so I’m not surprised that markets were once held here.
Outside the imposing building of the Bewdley Museum stands a proud statue of Stanley Baldwin. He was born here in 1867, and he served as the town’s MP, later becoming Prime Minister on three separate occasions.
Bewdley Museum is a fascinating mixture of informative displays and exhibits, recounting the town’s history, dotted along The Shambles. This narrow street, lined with hanging baskets, leads from the original town hall building, which also housed the town’s court, is also home to a variety of craft outlets, including a foundry artist, acrylic artist, a wood turner and French polisher, printmaker and pewter artist.
I slip into the air raid shelter built by the Ministry of Defence in 1940 for use by staff of the neighbouring Post Office during a raid. Its curved metal-lined walls feel claustrophobic, and the wooden benches aren’t that comfortable either!
In 1605, James I granted the town the right to police itself and deal with minor offences. Originally, the town’s jail stood on the bridge across the river until it was swept away in the 1795 floods.
The replacement stone lock-ups, built in 1802 near the bottom of The Shambles, are popular with parents and grandparents as they entice their children to experience what it’s like to be trapped in the stocks!
Opposite this is an exhibit to the town’s rope-making industry. Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory began life in 1801. An old photograph shows premises near the railway arches on the other side of the river, and when I check the map, I spot a road called Rope Walk running alongside the railway line.
It can’t have been easy working there, for the photo shows the factory was open to the elements. At the time, they made rope from hemp or flax fibres, which aren’t affected by the weather conditions as much as today’s ropes created from man-made substances.
At the end of The Shambles, I step through a narrow gateway into a wonderful surprise. The Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Gardens are a stunning oasis in the centre of town. Covering 8,600 square metres, there are ornamental fish ponds, an orchard, and even an outdoor green theatre, hosting children’s performances.
I sit down on one of the many benches and enjoy the day’s sunshine, as a blackbird sings in the apple tree behind me and a hopeful robin hops across the grass towards me.
A quick stroll takes me uphill to the High Street. Unlike most other towns where the High Street is the main shopping street, in Bewdley it’s called the High Street because it’s higher up the hill and away from the river. I’ve spotted several flood-markers around town, but none along here!
The street’s finest building is the magnificent Bailiff’s House, built from timbers cut from the nearby Wyre Forest in 1607. It was the first house in the country to be dated using dendrochronology, a scientific technique that accurately counts tree rings.
Bewdley’s Wyre Forest is the largest woodland National Nature Reserve in the country. It’s a playground for locals, perfect for walking the dog, climbing trees, horse-riding, biking or walking. It’s also has an arboretum, once home to Britain’s rarest tree. The Whitty Pear is common in Europe, but only one existed here in 1678.
Strolling through the forest, I drop onto the disused Bewdley to Tenbury Wells railway line. I wonder what travellers thought as they sped through the forest. Would they have seen Knowles Mill in the valley below?
This was one of six mills along the Dowles Brook. Taming the River Severn was challenging, so it was easier to dam and control the brook to provide a steady stream of power for the mills. This enabled Knowles Mill, like its neighbours, to produce most of Bewdley’s flour during the 19th century.
This is the only mill building along the brook that kept most of its corn grinding machinery, which is why it was acquired by the National Trust. In the heavily cobwebbed windowsill, stands a range of tools and glass bottles. The scene looks like it did when the final miller, William Smith, last stepped out of the room.
I chuckle to myself. It’s amazing what you can spot from a railway line near Bewdley. I wonder if Sophie persuaded her granddad that she really did see a giraffe and an elephant from the train window.
- Bewdley Station is the only station on the Severn Valley Railway with three platforms. It also appeared in the 1992 film adaptation of Howard’s End.
- Bewdley Bridge cost £9,264 to build in 1798, equivalent to over £1.2 million today.
- Mary Whitehouse lived in Bewdley during the 1960s.
- The tower of St Anne’s Church was built in 1695. The rest of the building was completed 53 years later, in 1748.
- The worst floods to hit the town were in March 1947. The height of the River Severn rose by 5.8 metres (19 feet) above normal summer levels.
Bewdley lies three miles from Kidderminster on the A456, 14 miles from M5 (Junction 4) and 22 miles from Birmingham. Bus services connect Bewdley to Worcester, Bridgnorth, Ludlow and Kidderminster. Check with the Severn Valley Railway for up-to-date timetable.
Want To Know More?
Bewdley Tourist Information Centre
Load Street, Bewdley, Worcestershire. DY12 2AE
Tel: 0845 6077819
Severn Valley Railway
Tel: 01562 757900
© Simon Whaley