Here’s a piece of history to look down on. It was captured a couple of winters ago from Wenlock Edge – steam rising from three of the four great cooling towers that served Ironbridge power station on the banks of the River Severn. A last gasp if you like, for in November 2015, after fifty odd years of coal-fired production, and a last minute fling with wood chips, the station generators were switched off.
The cooling towers, however, remain. Their future is uncertain – to be demolished or re-used: who knows.
What is known is that until the last-ditch biomass conversion, Ironbridge Power Station was among the UK’s dirtiest electricity producers. In 2003 Friends of the Earth were calling such power stations (most built in the 1960s) carbon dinosaurs. FOE made their point by producing a table of the worst carbon emissions polluters, each rated by a fossil factor based on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity produced. Ironbridge was ranked at sixth place with a fossil factor of 9.4. By way of comparison the table included a gas-fired power station with a fossil factor of 5.4.
Of course pollution is nothing new in this part of Shropshire. The Severn Gorge through Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge has a several hundred year heritage of carbon fall-out. Much of this history is preserved and explained in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum complex that includes ironworks, china works, workers housing and a decorative tile museum housed in the original factory.
The place makes strong claims to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It was here from 1609 onwards that the Quaker Darby family pioneered the use of coke instead of charcoal in their blast furnaces, and worked flat out to promote cast iron in every possible permutation – from steam engine boilers and cannon to garden seats and hat stands.
By the late eighteenth century, a new class of well-heeled see-Britain tourists would write of the fiery outpourings of forge and furnace as if they had ventured into hell itself. There was the ear-splitting clang of steam-hammers, the sulphurous fumes, the heat, smoke, the monstrous machines, and unnerving ingenuity of the men who had contrived this living techno-nightmare.
There was also the shocking novelty of the world’s first cast iron bridge which alone attracted thousands of tourists. New coach services and a hotel with bridge view were laid on specially. Built in 1779 as a public relations promotion for versatility of cast iron, the Iron Bridge still draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. And the Gorge that it spans, just a step or two downstream of the power station, is designated a World Heritage Site.
All of which is a touch confusing when you start to think of it. Too much irony by half in the Ironbridge locality. On the one hand dirty coal-fired power stations are bad. I think everyone is agreed on that. On the other hand, heritage is good: it preserves important things that we need to know about, and every year up to half a million people come to Ironbridge to celebrate Britain’s industrial past.
But here’s the rub, also much provoked by today’s Guardian headlines about the world’s likely failure to meet the global emissions target. If carbon emissions cause global warming, and the ironmasters of Coalbrookdale were responsible for inventing coke fuelled manufacturing, and promoting its use, then suddenly Shropshire has a very discomfiting claim to fame. This present-day scenic agricultural county is the place where it all began – man-made global warming?
copyright 2016 Tish Farrell