diamond geezer

 Friday, October 23, 2020

Gadabout: TELFORD

Telford is a new town in Shropshire, and a very large one at that, located roughly midway between Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton. It grew up in the '60s and '70s to house families relocated from Birmingham and swiftly enveloped the existing towns of Wellington, Oakengates, Dawley and Madeley. The industrial crucible of Ironbridge lies on its southern edge, which is where I was heading a year ago today. And although I blogged at length about how excellent Ironbridge was I never blogged about Telford, so today I'm planning to put that right...
...assuming I can remember much about the place, that is. Problem one is that I was only passing through, crossing between the railway station and the bus station (and later back again). Problem two is that I gave the place short shrift in my diary, focusing instead on the attractions in the gorge. And problem three is that, looking back, I see I only took nine photographs. I'll do my best.

Telford's town centre is a soulless place, having been nowhere of significance before the new town arrived. Let's build a huge shopping centre here, they said, then surround it with car parks and maybe the odd office block. It has a very open feel as a result, at least until you venture inside the shopping centre at which point you could be absolutely anywhere. And because Telford was built with the motor car in mind it turns out that the bus station is on one side and the railway station further away on the other, which isn't ideal for anyone with interchange in mind.

The railway station was added late, in 1986, so the path across to the town centre feels very much like an afterthought. A very new footbridge carries you high above two dual carriageways, one of which is nominally the A5, before dumping you amidst an administrative backlot. The path then wends in a minor manner via an inconvenient set of steps towards a separate footbridge above the innermost ring road, after which it trails between a car park and the edge of Aldi. At least at this time of year the trees are stunning.

The shopping centre is a giant grey box, highly irregular in shape, and almost all at ground floor level because there was never any need to save space. It covers 25 acres and runs to well over 150 shops in total, which means a lengthy trek from Debenhams on one side to House of Fraser on the other. M&S and Primark have the other two flagship stores, which is all bases covered, but you'll also find a Zara, a Krispy Kreme and a Betfred. The Queen came to open the mall in 1981, and has only been back to Telford once since.

The best reason to visit the shopping centre, assuming you have no intention of buying anything, is to view the Frog Clock. Officially it's called the Telford Time Machine, but the big green frog is what strikes any shopper who pauses awhile in Sherwood Square. It sits atop a starry clockface looking out across a long metal track strung high above HSBC. Every half hour the contraption springs to life as a gold ball is wheeled from one end of the track to the other where it passes through the frog and drops gently down a set of metal prongs. I only caught the denouement, alas, as the red wheel headed back towards Boots.

The clock's creator was none other than famous Masquerade hare-hider Kit Williams, who also produced a very similar timepiece for Milton Keynes Shopping Centre and a Wishing Fish for Cheltenham's Regent Arcade. Telford's version was installed in 1995. Originally the frog blew a stream of bubbles and a burst of jolly music played, which must have been impressive, but sadly these features were switched off some years ago.

A town centre that's mostly shopping mall is a rotten place for nightlife, so in 2014 councillors opened the Southwater retail park nextdoor. They got a new civic library out of it, and residents of Telford got an 11-screen IMAX cinema, an ice rink, tenpin bowling and a dozen restaurants. But I'd been disoriented by the mall so failed to find it, indeed I spent much of my time in Telford bemoaning the lack of decent pedestrian signage. As a result I missed seeing the "Zen-like" water fountain recently installed in Southwater Square, not to mention the recreational glories of Town Park beyond.

But what I did do, on my way to and from Ironbridge, was ride a couple of single deckers between the town centre and the outskirts. We followed tree-lined arterials to carefully-segregated industrial estates. We looped round a seemingly endless chain of spacious but nondescript housing estates. We weaved between open greenspace and patches of preserved woodland. And we stopped off amid the remnants of a Victorian town centre as confirmation that this urban maze is nothing but an imposed modern construct. The fine detail may have faded, one year on, but I'm pleased to have experienced the real Telford.

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