Chris Upton looks at how a precariously positioned church was transformed into one of the country’s most unusual theatres.
"Bridgnorth," proclaimed a flowery journalist from the local paper back in 1889. “Who shall fitly describe her, seated, queen-like on her rocky throne?”
The age of the rhetorical question has long since passed, Therefore – prosaic or not – I shall risk a description. Bridgnorth is a Shropshire town perched on a sandstone ridge above the River Severn.
Such hilltop sites are two-a-penny in Tuscany, but extremely rare in England. It means that, approached from any direction other than the west, the town presents itself dramatically to the eye.
The attractions of a lofty location must often have been lost on Bridgnorth’s occupants. How did one descend safely from the rocky throne, queen-like or otherwise, to go and do the shopping, or to take a paddle in the river ?
At one time there was but a single road – aptly called Cartway – that took wheeled vehicles from the high town on the ridge down to the low town and the bridge over the river. A winding and steep descent it still is, even today, and many carts and horses (more likely this way round) must have tumbled painfully to the bottom.
By the 19th century they had had enough of the extravagant dangers of Cartway and cut an alternative. Still known today as New Road, the Victorian by-pass looped behind the castle and swung round the ridge to the south.
More recently still, a large and unexciting multi-lane approach (A458) by-passes the high town. Indeed, it avoids Bridgnorth entirely. The motorist’s loss is the town’s gain.
Give Bridnorthians a hill and they will find numerous ways to get down and up it. The most famous route from high to low town is surely the Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway, opened in 1892. This is the only inland cliff railway in the country, and was the bright idea of the entrepreneur and publisher, George Newnes.
Newnes had developed a similar link between Lynton and Lynmouth in Devon. In less than five minutes the visitor is lifted effortlessly up 111 feet and out onto Castle Walk.
Yet even after the application of Victorian technology, there were plenty who preferred the alternative. The one useful thing about sandstone is that it is a relatively simple task to cut steps in it.
There are at least half a dozen little passages hewn out over the centuries – Ebenezer Steps, St Leonard’s Steps, Granary Steps, Bank Steps – cut into the rock and heading down towards the River Severn. Each had a different reason for being there.
The Stoneway Steps – a short-cut from the top of Cartway down to the riverside – are probably the longest and most romantic climb. Romantic, at least, if you’re heading downwards.
So steep is the Stoneway that the town must have been tempted to place a cottage hospital half-way up it. Instead, they built a chapel.
In 1711 the Presbyterians came to occupy a couple of the old tenements clinging to the north side of Stoneway. Protestant nonconformity was still a new and fragile bloom in early 18th-century Shropshire; popular and official disapproval was widespread and it was not easy finding anyone willing to lease them a site. As a sect they were regularly persecuted and, even when they were not, they liked to think that they were.
An unassuming house, tucked away on the narrow steps, was the easiest way to avoid unhelpful confrontation. The little chapel clung on through the course of the 1700s, often with hardly enough worshippers to fill it.
The term “Presbyterian” gave way to “Congegationalist”, but still the chapel lived on. If the song suggests that there are only three steps to heaven, for the Bridgnorth Congregationalists there were considerably more.
In the early 19th century the chapel on the steps even began to expand, and the congregation began to grow. In 1829 the first building was taken down and a larger chapel erected, along with a manse for the minister and then school rooms.
Only when the Congregationalists and Methodists came together in the 1960s to form the United Reform Church was the Stoneway Chapel finally deemed surplus to requirements. There was already a Methodist church on Cartway and the congregation decamped there instead. And so the last-but-one chapter of this story ended.
The final chapter is perhaps the most surprising of all. In 1962, when the chapel finally emptied, steps were taken (a lot of steps, of course) to turn the old building into a theatre instead. At this date, as far as I can see, Bridgnorth didn’t have one.
This is the kind of idea that reason and sober reflection played no part in. Full of energy and enthusiasm, a group of volunteers – including students from Europe and prisoners from Shrewsbury Jail – began the “get out” and the “get in”.
Out went the pews, the pulpit and the organ, and in came a stage, a fire-escape and seating. A lot of the stuff had to be begged and borrowed. The lighting equipment came from the old Midland Institute in Birmingham, and the seats were from the Odeon cinema in Coseley. Getting all that material up and down the Stoneway Steps was a suitably dramatic achievement.
The Theatre-on-the-Steps was finally ready for opening in 1965. It ranks as one of the country’s most unusual theatres, both for its earlier history and for its location. Today the place seats around 180 people, has recently been refurbished and is largely still run by volunteers.
Short of turning the old cliff railway into a venue for very short plays (now, there’s an idea...) the Theatre-on-the-Steps will remain Bridgnorth’s cultural highlight.