Gorge goes full circle

The Iron Bridge - first opened in 1781
The Iron Bridge - first opened in 1781
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Helen Werin reports from the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s 25 years since Ironbridge Gorge joined the likes of the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge as one of the most important heritage sites in the world. And it’s more than 300 years since the great Quaker ironmaster Abraham Darby discovered the secret of smelting iron with cheap and plentiful coke that lead to Ironbridge becoming the anvil of the Industrial Revolution.

Now it’s so peaceful on the cast-iron bridge that Darby’s grandson built to span the Severn that I can hear every word that others are saying.

They’re all wondering the same thing; how can the spectacular valley of Coalbrookdale, once a flaming crucible of industry, with more deafening forges and raging furnaces in two miles of river bank than anywhere else, be so beautiful and tranquil? What happened to the place that was, by the end of the 18th century, the most technologically advanced area in the world?

Three centuries ago the dale was the ideal place to build an ironworks because of its access to water power. It was eventually left behind because the Severn was either too low for barges to transport the local products, or too dangerous to use in times of flood.

It takes a 12-metre model of how the valley looked in the 18th century to appreciate the changes. In The Museum of the Gorge, housed in a Gothic-style warehouse beside the river, this model, down to the last minuscule sheep, barge, ironworker’s cottage, quarry and mine, explains how, in 1785, a series of weirs and locks were proposed between Bewdley and the gorge to provide at least four feet of water in the Severn. Objections from landowners and hauliers killed that idea. That rang the death knell for the valley, as industry went elsewhere. In 1818 the blast furnaces closed.

We’ve got another nine museums to go, all within a four mile or so radius of the bridge. They all celebrate the achievements of pioneering industrialists who helped to shape the future. A small shuttle bus circulates around the museums on weekends and Bank Holidays and my daughter Sophie is ecstatic when she sees the next stop is Enginuity. She’s been avidly reading about all the have-a-go gizmos and gadgets and can’t wait to get inside.

Enginuity calls itself a design and technology education centre that gives visitors the chance to become apprentice engineers. I learn more about scientific and engineering principles in half a day than in six years of high school and have so much fun doing so.

We fall over laughing at our attempts to build a self-supporting bridge, like Darby’s masterpiece, out of large, soft bricks. A supermarket-like scanner is our aid to discovering the secrets of objects around the walls. We learn about radio signals, how ships float, how neon lights are made, even how tennis racquets withstand the impact of high speed balls and loads more.

As a quieter contrast, just up the hill are the elegant Darby Houses, giving us a peek at the gracious lifestyle of the family which made such an impact on our history. The Darby family’s legacy is explained in the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron next to Enginuity.

But it’s the Old Furnace which is the real star. This is where Abraham Darby I started to experiment using coke to smelt iron. Within a year he’d succeeded, treating his workmen to a consignment of beer to celebrate.

The huge furnace is encased in a stark, modern building. We walk right inside the furnace, climbing metal stairs to look over the top of it. It all feels a bit surreal; this fuming, spitting, giant that was to change how people live, work and communicate now sleeping in an echoey, eerily-lit hall.

The gorge was home to other industries, from ceramic tiles to clay pipes to Coalport china. It is beautiful in the valley now, but in the canalside factory that was the home of Coalport China we hear about the backbreaking work that children did. One of their jobs was wedging; repeatedly throwing clumps of clay on to a workbench to remove air bubbles.

One of the common causes of death in the pottery industry was lead poisoning, known as Potter’s Rot. The lead was used in Coalport glaze to stop it from cracking. Glaze dippers got covered, while many painters used to lick the end of their brush to produce a finer point. At first, their gums would show a bluish tinge. Eventually, paralysis would set in.

We hop back on the bus to Blists Hill Victorian Town where we’re instantly transported to the 19th century. Friendly characters in period costume appear at every corner and in every shop and men on penny farthings ride by.

Then we walk up to the Rotunda viewpoint for the best vista of Ironbridge Gorge. In the 1760s Quaker ironmaster Richard Reynolds created landscaped Sabbath walks like this one for his workers to enjoy in their time off from the factories below.

Getting there

Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre 01952 433 424. www.ironbridge.org.uk.

The Gorge is reached via the M6 and M54, exiting at Telford (M54 junction four or six).

Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, Shifnal. TF11 8UP. www.rafmuseum.org /01902 376200. Free entry. Parking charge. Vast halls housing more than 70 aircraft, including the world’s oldest Spitfire, the huge Belfast transport craft, rockets and experimental jets.

Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom, Preston-on-the-Weald Moors, Telford, TF6 6DJ. www.hoofarm.com, 01952 677917.

The 450-acre Telford Town Park has exciting play areas for youngsters. www.telford.gov.uk/leisure