Nestled upon the banks of the River Severn lies the Shropshire town of Ironbridge, a modest Victorian settlement with a world-changing history.
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Travelling from the market town of Ludlow via the quaint villages of Much Wenlock and Buildwas will take you past charming brickwork houses, stone abbeys and priory ruins – all hidden among the rolling green hills of the rural English countryside – to the spectacular Gorge of Ironbridge.
But Shropshire’s most famous architectural attraction isn’t made of brick or stone. Instead, its iron form represents an important shift in engineering and design, one that drove the British Victorian era to the modern world with the power and speed of a 7,000-horsepower locomotive.
The classic story tells of local industrialist Abraham Darby who perfected the technique of smelting iron ore with coke, a fuel made from coal, in the nearby village of Coalbrookdale, allowing for the cheaper production of cast iron and generating the means for his grandson to commission and cast the mighty iron fretwork that still stretches across the River Severn today.
The truth is that the beginnings of such a progression took place across Europe over a large period – but it was these developments in Shropshire that lead to a new wave of industry and optimism, and captivated the imaginations of architects, designers and engineers for future generations.
Wide shot of Ironbridge with town center (Credit: Chris Griffiths)
Even without such a remarkable landmark at its centre, the town holds enough quintessential British culture and heritage to pull tourists in. World-famous pork pies, traditional ice creams, second-hand bookshops and fish and chips by the river provide a glorious snapshot of rural English town charm, while the picturesque gothic church and beautiful Victorian architecture hold their own story and sense of character.
But this idyllic picture is a world away from the realities of the hardship and endurance on which the bridge was built; it’s important to stop and take a moment to reflect upon the staggering achievements of the past generations who shaped and created this present-day, postcard-perfect view.
Older man posing in front of furnace (Credit: Chris Griffiths)
Visitors can get a glimpse into life during this pioneering era by exploring Blists Hill, a recreation of a Victorian town and many of its industries during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Once home to brick and tile works, blast furnaces and coal, iron and fire clay mines operated by the Madeley Wood Company, the museum is located 3.5km east of Ironbridge within the Madeley area of the gorge. Among displays of authentic and recreated Victorian architecture – including the original blast furnace site where the iron struts supporting the iconic bridge were pressed, rolled and cast – visitors can watch expert demonstrators and guides re-enact life at this time.
It’s one of 10 museums in and around Ironbridge – including the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron and Tar Tunnel, an 18th-Century passageway with tar oozing through its brickwork from a nearby bitumen spring – and so there is more than enough to keep a history enthusiast busy for the day.
Man in bowler hat working in workshop (Credit: Chris Griffiths)
The astonishing achievement of the bridge’s construction brought a growth in population around the area. Quickly becoming a centre of all things industrial and inventive, locksmiths, blacksmiths, tilers and potters descended upon the Gorge of Ironbridge and began mass-producing goods using modern machinery.
The region set trends across the nation, with the nearby town of Broseley producing the finest ceramic tobacco smoking pipes in Britain, Coalport becoming famous for porcelain china and Jackfield establishing itself as the heart of British tile production. The development of iron (and steel) technology allowed the manufacturing of products ranging from tiny needles to the mighty 7,000-horsepower steam engines powering ships and locomotives, which opened up trade and travel on a global scale.
Looming over the River Severn a few miles down from the Iron Bridge lies another reminder of a more recent industrial past. Now fallen into disuse, the ominous cooling towers of Buildwas Power Stations once produced electricity using coal in the same way the nearby blast furnaces of Coalbrookedale used coal to produce iron and steel. The close proximity to the river and good connection to railway lines meant Ironbridge became a suitable site for British industry once more, with construction of Ironbridge A Power Station beginning in 1929. An increased demand for electricity followed World War II and work on Ironbridge B was granted in 1962. The second site began reaching its full capacity of contributing 1000mw of power to the National Grid in 1970 before reaching its 20,000 hour generation limit in 2015.
Flower in a field with the bridge in the background (Credit: Chris Griffiths)
While the innovations of these myriad industries can’t be attributed to a single bridge, the leap forward in engineering and design that the Iron Bridge symbolised deservedly brought an otherwise humble town into the industrial revolution’s limelight. It’s no wonder that the Gorge of Iron Bridge is now listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.
And with the ever-increasing demand to meet the environmental needs of industry and engineering, who knows what else will spring up from the banks of the River Severn.