Bridge to Britain's Industrial Heyday

McCormack is a Tarzana free-lance travel writer and specialist on travel in Britain.

A traveler passing beside the quiet River Severn here would scarcely credit the visions of hell that 19th-Century painters drew of this section of Shropshire.

Huge smokestacks belching fire and smoke, tiny figures and stark buildings silhouetted against a fiery mass reaching high into the sky presented a truly Dante-esque scene.

There's no smoke or fire or starkly etched buildings here now. Instead, stretched along six square miles of wooded hillside lie the several sites of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, a living commemoration of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

A standing joke in town tells of a visitor who spent some time looking over the relics at one of the sites, roaming among old buildings and yawning furnaces, and finally asking, "Where's the museum?"

And well he might ask, for the "museum" is five distinct entities. The attractions are the remains of a mining and iron-producing town--a part of Coalbrookdale whose heyday was in the 18th and 19th centuries--which were literally dug out of a tangle of undergrowth.

Industrial Archeology

All this digging out and scraping of old industrial relics comes under the heading of industrial archeology, a term that refers to the physical remains of technologies and buildings. It was first used in an article by Michael Hix in 1955 in which he urged that buildings and structures associated with early industry be preserved, mainly for aesthetic reasons.

The subject gained further credibility with the establishment of the Journal of Industrial Archeology and the Assn. for Industrial Archeology in 1973. Interest in the subject burgeoned quickly, and Britishers now find a Sunday afternoon's outing to a disused sewer or refurbished dockside warehouse very much to their liking.

Railways and canals were among the first to be revived. Efforts were spearheaded by residents, joined soon by commercial interests that recognized the value of linking their enterprises with the past and encouraging visitors to tour their premises.

But back to Iron Bridge. The town lays claim to being the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution, and with good cause. Already a busy iron-producing area in the late 17th Century, it became the prime production center in Britain after the discovery in 1709 by Andrew Darby, an ironmaster, of the use of coke in place of charcoal in the smelting of iron ore.

Moving the Goods

Because rich deposits of coal, as well as iron ore nearby, offset dwindling supplies of charcoal, the way was opened for the manufacture of huge iron structures, such as engines, bridges, rails, aqueducts--the means of fast, efficient transportation of goods.

When other centers became more productive and the area's second industry, pottery making, began to die out, signs of activity became entangled in the undergrowth and largely forgotten.

In the late 1950s, the prosperity of the new town of Telford and projected expansion into the gorge threatened to erase all vestiges of former activity.

Enter the local contingent of enthusiasts, who formed the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust with the purpose of reviving the site as an industrial archeological location and tourist attraction. In 1973, the museum was formally opened to the public.

This is not a place to visit for an hour or two only, although two hours would be better than nothing. I spent the better part of two days among the sites and still did not see the entire museum.

Starting at the Center

Sites are scattered and hidden from each other. Visitors park at any one of 13 areas and would never dream that thousands of other people are wandering among the relics and reconstructions.

The place to start is the visitor center, housed in a former Victorian warehouse on the river. Here you may view a film on the Industrial Revolution, tour a series of exhibits pertaining to life in the 18th and 19th centuries and buy a "passport" entitling you to tour all sites, with no time limit on its use, for 3.95 pounds. You may also buy tickets at sites from 75 pence to 2.95 pounds. Children's prices are cheaper.

From there you might want to walk downriver to the bridge, a graceful iron structure from which the town gets its name, and built by a grandson of Andrew Darby as a monument to the town's iron-producing history.

Cross it (it's a footbridge only now) for a look at the old toll house and a view of the town, appealing as it stretches along a steep hillside, church and hotel overlooking bridge and river.

Heading downriver by car, you pass the cavernous Bedlam Furnace on the left and in a mile or so reach the Coalport China Museum. A priceless collection of Coalport china is exhibited in the same beehive-like kilns and brick structures in use as late as 1926.

Jackfield Tiles

Across the river by another footbridge, or by road if you prefer, is the Jackfield Tile Museum, where you can see a truly kaleidoscopic display of tiles manufactured there from the beginning of its existence.

Backtracking a bit, a road to the right leads through the woods to Blists Hill Open Air Museum, covering 50 acres and where you see in place, exactly as they stood when in operation, rails and rolling stock, pit heads, yawning blast furnaces, a canal and dock and an engineering wonder of the day, the Hay inclined plane. This plane was used to haul huge tubs, via parallel tracks, up a steep hillside from the Severn to the canal above.

To reproduce a typical town of the 19th Century, houses and shops were collected from the vicinity and reassembled along a simulated main street, giving the visitor an impression of stepping back into a living community of the 1890s. Artisans and shopkeepers perform tasks just as they would have been doing when this site was a bustling community.

Stopping in the chemist's shop (drugstore to us), I was given a demonstration of pill-making, and was surprised to learn that well-to-do Victorians ordered their pills covered in gold leaf as a mark of their station in life.

I'll mention in connection with the Blists Hill site that a guidebook, available at the entrance, is indispensable for a good understanding of the exhibits and routes to be taken.

Original Furnace

The last major site is the Museum of Iron and Darby Furnace. The exhibit, now enclosed in a glass house, is Darby's original furnace. Taking a close look from a platform, you may see how it was enlarged over the years. Cross an open space in front of the glass house to see exhibits tracing the history of production in the Museum of Iron.

No need to repark your car for a more human view of the times. Cross the yard, go under a railroad viaduct and climb the hill, just as Darby's grandson must have done, to see the restored three-story house, Rosehill, furnished in the style of an iron master of the time.

Industrial archeology has fired the imaginations of the British to such an extent that thousands have lent strong backs, given up weekends and vacations to act as guides and demonstrators, and organized fund-raising appeals.

At Iron Bridge, the local group, Friends of Ironbridge Gorge Museum, had their endeavors significantly rewarded when the museum received Britain's Museum of the Year award in 1977 and the first presentation of the European Museum of the Year award the following year.

Places to stay within a few miles of Iron Bridge, and in Shrewsbury, are plentiful. About five miles southwest is the handsome Gaskell Arms, in Much Wenlock, a medieval-appearing town with both a priory and an abbey and many half-timbered houses.

Ten miles southeast at Bridgnorth is the Swan Hotel, and at Shrewsbury, an ancient city lying in a bend of the Severn, are two fine pubs with overnight accommodations, the Swan Hotel and the Prince Rubert Hotel.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum is 20 miles southeast of Shrewsbury, open every day of the year.

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