The Titans of Telford – The People’s Friend

The People’s Friend – 4th May 2024

Leaning on the ‘O’ in Telford stands a giant statue of the civil engineer, Thomas Telford.

If Thomas had stood at this spot when he was alive in the 19th century, he’d be standing in a field. Back then, Telford town didn’t exist.

The Government created Dawley New Town here in 1963, naming it after a nearby village. It was one of several new towns created after the Second World War.

Four years later, it expanded considerably, and officials decided this new town needed a completely new name.

Not only was Scottish-born Thomas Telford a brilliant engineer, he worked in Shropshire as the county’s Surveyor of Public Works.

He built over forty bridges in this county and oversaw the construction of the main A5 London to Holyhead road, which passes through Telford today.

“If you’re going to name a town after someone,” I suggest to bronze Thomas, “then a giant of the engineering world is worthy of the accolade.”

“He’s not a giant!” says a little voice behind me.

Spinning round, I spy a young boy and his grandad feeding pigeons.

“He looks pretty big to me,” I reply.

“He’s not as big as the Wrekin Giant,” says my new friend. “He’s really, really, big!”

“And where will I find him?”

“Head towards the town park,” says Grandad, giving me a wink and pointing over my shoulder.

To get there, I have to cut through Telford’s popular indoor shopping centre. I pause at Sherwood Square, where a gathered crowd is looking up towards the roof.

“It’s a giant frog!” squeals a little girl.

Sure enough, a gigantic wheel carries a golden ball across the square to an awaiting frog perched above a clock. It’s a mechanical marvel that’s been entertaining crowds since 1996.

I emerge from the shopping centre into the town’s shiny new Southwater development with its cinema, bowling alley, restaurants, and library, all beside a giant lake.

Ducks and swans glide gracefully across the water here and, as they do so, I spy some reflected words shapeshifting in the ripples. Is that Giant?

Turning round, I find myself beside a pub called The Wrekin Giant. Grandad was pulling my leg, it seems!

One thing that is giant here is Telford Town Park. This local nature reserve in the town’s heart is an enormous 450 acres.

It’s hugely popular with children and families, thanks to the themed adventure play areas for different age groups. There’s a gigantic rocket slide for children to clamber up and then return to earth in one of two spiralling covered chutes. Brave children looking to test their sense of balance can ascend a 12-metre-wide climbing net, once the biggest in Britain.

Serenity-seekers should slip into Telford’s Chelsea Gardens. These were originally built for London’s Chelsea Flower Show at the end of the 1970s and have now matured into a beautiful and tranquil space.

When the Japanese manufacturer Maxwell moved into Telford over thirty years ago, they gifted several Japanese-flowering cherry trees to the town park.

These were planted in an oriental-style garden, where their pink cherry blossom provides a visual feast for the eyes, and the sound of cascading water soothes the spirit. I feel like I’ve taken one giant step and transported myself halfway around the world to Japan.

It seems I can travel to other parts of the world here too, including a rainforest and a desert. Just off the main path through the Town Park is Telford Exotic Zoo. Is this home to any giants?

The Patagonian Maras look like giant rabbits, and I never realised a wallaby tail was quite so long! I couldn’t spot any giants in the Common Dwarf Mongoose enclosure, but the cheeky meerkats tried to make themselves look bigger by standing on their back legs.

There is one giant there. The zoo’s museum has a life-size T-Rex skull. It’s so big, it would eat children like sweeties!

At just over fifty years old, Telford is still relatively new, but the villages and communities that existed here before date back centuries. Their history can still be found here because Telford Town Park is littered with clues.

There are over fourteen miles of cycle-friendly footpaths around the park, and one brings me around to the Blue Pool. Today, it’s popular with Brown Hawker dragonflies and Common Blue damselflies, but in the late 19th century it was a huge clay pit.

Clay was quarried from here and used by the nearby Randlay Brickworks. It’s called the Blue Pool because it has a deep blue hue in certain lighting conditions when the light refracts off the clay particles suspended in the water.

Along with Blue Pool, its larger, neighbouring Randlay Pool is also popular with those who enjoy fishing.

“Caught anything yet?” I whisper to a waiting angler, waiting for his line to twitch.

“Nah, they’re not biting today,” he replies, as he pours himself a tea from his flask. “There’s carp, roach, tench and pike in here, supposedly.” He grins.

“What’s the biggest you’ve caught?”

He wrinkles his nose, and then holds up his hands about two feet apart. “It was three weeks ago. A pike.”

That might be gigantic for the local anglers, but it’s not the Wrekin Giant I’m looking for.

This area was once littered with railway lines because there were so many mines around here. The lovely flat path I’m walking along used to be the Mineral Railway. Operated by Great Western Railway, it served the coal and iron industries in the area.

Another remnant of the past, once served by the railway, catches my eye. Thrusting high above the tree line is a true giant local landmark. It might not be the Wrekin Giant, but it could be called the Stirchley Giant.

The Stirchley Chimney towers some 209 feet into the sky. Completed in 1873, it’s made out of bricks from the neighbouring Randlay Brickworks. It was part of Thomas Botfield’s ironworks, and the chimney was connected to them via a tunnel.

From here, a path takes me through the trees to join the Silkin Way. This fourteen-mile cycle and footpath connects Bratton, in north Telford, with Coalport on the banks of the River Severn. It uses parts of the old Wellington to Market Drayton and Wellington to Coalport railway lines.

Moments later, I’m passing a reminder of those days when I reach the old platform of Dawley and Stirchley Railway Station. It’s a popular resting place for those cycling the Silkin Way, although there’s quite a wait for the next train. Passenger services stopped running here back in 1952!

A mile and a half away is Telford Steam Railway, where you can catch a service during Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of September. There may only be a mile of track, but they pack three stations and a tunnel in that short distance!

They’re steam-mad here, for not only is there the steam railway, there’s also a narrow-gauge railway adjacent to Horsehay Pool, and a model railway in the tearooms.

Checking my map, I spy my biggest Wrekin Giant clue. I’m close to Telford’s iconic hill, which is called The Wrekin. It’s pronounced reekin, and from some angles, it looks like a volcano. However, while it may be made from volcanic rock, it’s not an extinct volcano that some claim it is.

At 1,335 feet high, it’s a steep climb along a popular track that zigzags its way up to the summit. I’m not the only one who stops to catch my breath several times, but the exertion is worth it.

The views are amazing! Looking north, I can just make out the Winter Hill transmitter near Manchester, over sixty miles away. Turning round, the Brecon Beacons form a hazy outline over sixty miles south.

Beside the summit’s toposcope stands a teacher, chatting to a group of schoolchildren.

“And do you know how The Wrekin came to be here?” he asks them.

They shake their heads.

Intrigued, I edge closer, pretending to admire the view.

“It’s all down to the Wellington Cobbler,” the teacher begins. “One day, he was carrying a huge sack full of his customers’ worn-out shoes to repair, when he passed a giant carrying a huge spade of earth.”

“‘Where are you taking that?’ the cobbler asked.”

“‘I’m going to dam the River Severn and drown the people of Shrewsbury’ said the giant.”

“’It’s a long way to Shrewsbury,’ says the cobbler. ‘I started from there, and look at all these shoes I’ve worn out just getting here.’”

“The giant let out a deep sigh. ‘I haven’t got time to go all that way,’ he says. So he threw the earth off the spade, and it landed right here, creating The Wrekin.”

“Hooray!” cheer the children.

I smile. The Wrekin Giant chose a good spot to throw away his spade of earth. It’s the perfect vantage point to look back over my giant-exploring day in Telford.