Many thousands of years ago, when half of Britain was covered in ice, the River Severn flowed north, into the Dee estuary. But then, when the ice retreated, the god Zeus spoke to Hercules and said, “It is my desire that the Severn should now flow southwards. Take your club and beat out a new channel for the river”.
Hercules took his club and began his labour at the northern end of the new river-bed. But the god of the northern marshes, fearing that his wetlands would be drained, sent out his reed-girls to distract Hercules. And the reed-girls said, “Stop your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Come back when I’ve finished!” and he continued with his work. But he was thinking so much about the beauty of the reed-girls that he beat out his channel shallower than he intended, so some of the wetlands survive to this day.
As Hercules worked further southwards, the river god, annoyed that he had not been consulted, sent river-nymphs to distract Hercules. The river-nymphs danced round Hercules and sang, “Stop your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Come back when I’ve finished!” But he was so confused by the nymphs dancing in circles around him that he lost all sense of direction, and the course of the river-bed he was beating out, through where Shrewsbury now stands, instead of being a straight line, now ran in great loops and meanders.
Hercules now reached a line of hills and began to beat a passage through them. But the god of the hills, foreseeing that men would come and cut down his trees to fire their furnaces, and blacken his rocks with their smoke, sent woodland dryads to distract Hercules. The dryads sang, “Leave your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Comeback when I’ve finished!” But he was so eager to sample the pleasures that the dryads had promised that he stopped he work early, so that the Ironbridge Gorge was narrower than intended, and it remains a place of fierce and dangerous waters to this day.
At last Hercules finished his labours, and the Severn now flowed southwards in a new path. And Hercules went and sat down to rest in the Quarry gardens, and he called out, “Ho! Reed-girls and water-nymphs and tree-dryads! I’m finished at last! Where are the pleasures beyond imagining that you promised me?” But there was no answer, for they had all gone away. And Hercules smashed his club on the ground in frustration, causing a great pit which is now the Dingle gardens. But eventually he fell asleep, exhausted by his labours.
The god of the River Severn saw him asleep and thought, “Now I’ll have my revenge! Reject the pleasures offered by my water-nymphs, did he? Not to mention the reed-girls and dryads too! I’ll cast a spell on him so that he’ll never be able to enjoy such pleasures again!” And he cast the spell, but Hercules did not realize it till he awoke.
Men came and erected a statue of Hercules, which you can still see in the Quarry today. This angered the river-god, and he was angrier still when he realized that, thanks to the labours of Hercules, he now faced a very long and weary route to the sea. His anger continues to this day; and every few years he sends down a flood, which often fills the Quarry garden and surrounds the statue of Hercules, but he has never yet managed to topple it. And if you go to the Quarry, you can still see Hercules, naked, with his lion-skin and mighty club and his gigantic muscles – but if you look closely you will notice that, thanks to the river-god’s curse, the only clothing he is obliged to wear is an improbably tiny fig-leaf.