In The Red ~ Iron Bridge Makeover

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For much of last year this 240-year-old bridge was under wraps while English Heritage engineers carried out major repairs on the iron work. And it was during this process that the original paint colour of the world’s first cast iron bridge was discovered – a rusty red. This seems to have struck many as surprising, probably because in the living memory of most Shropshire folk, the bridge has either been lugubrious black (as I remember it in the 1960s) or battleship grey – its most recent shade before the overhaul.

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And this is how it looked last week bathed in May sunshine. A much more jaunty effort.

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That the bridge was originally this colour, or as near as can be recreated, was documented at the time. While Abraham Darby III was having it built (between 1779 and its official opening in 1781) he commissioned some promotional artwork from William Williams. He wanted to show the wide world what marvels could be created using cast iron.

Iron Bridge

William Williams c 1780 Cast Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale  Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

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Needless to say, as with all propaganda, inconvenient truths have been elided from the view, and we have instead notions of paradisal punting and extreme millinery rather than the filthy outpourings of riverside ironworks and coke burning furnaces that were actually in the vicinity. (And don’t forget the ear-splitting soundscape of clanging steam hammers and the general clamour of the wharves and boat-building yards).

In fact if you want an image of where man-made global warming began or a metaphor of how some of us prefer to deny responsibility for the damage caused by our industrial excesses, then this painting could well serve the purpose. Beguiling, isn’t it?

Standing on the freshly caparisoned bridge today and looking at a river empty of the the fleets of trading barges that once plied these waters from early monastic times and into the 19th century, the lush hanging woodland of the Severn Gorge all around, it is hard to believe that the Industrial Revolution had its roots here; that the innovations in iron making and casting made by the Darby dynasty and John (Iron Mad) Wilkinson sparked the multiplier effect of technological invention (from the soul-sapping iron-framed textile factories of the north to the transport systems of Stephenson and Brunel) and so on around the world; and that now, after all the excitement and technical derring-do and ingenuity we’re left to contemplate the mess that industrialisation has made of the planet.

However, on a warm afternoon in May, with the little town of Ironbridge quietly hosting the season’s first sightseers, it seems altogether like too much irony (cast, rolled, puddled or wrought). We’ll just enjoy the views then.

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copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Six Word Saturday Pop over to Debbie’s to see her wonderful naked man.

49 thoughts on “In The Red ~ Iron Bridge Makeover

  1. They did a really nice restoration job on it. It looks like the original. I guess sail boats once passed beneath it, which would explain it’s height. Excellent work. I also like the company’s “logo” painted on it. Gives it a bit of class.

    1. Yes, the big sailing barges (Severn trows) could sail under it without lowering their masts. And that was another big selling point for cast iron design. It was the first bridge on the river to be constructed with a single span, and, as you say, tall enough, to allow the boats to pass under. The Darbys were great entrepreneurs as well as manufacturers.

    1. It is incredibly leafy these days. In the past the valley timber was exploited for charcoal burning – from monastic times onwards. Lots of stone quarrying went on there too.

  2. Lovely piece of writing Tish. Captivated by this phrase: notions of paradisal punting and extreme millinery. I would never have thought to describe it like that, and yet it’s so evocative. I hope I can be as good a writer as you when I grow up. 🙂
    The painting is beautiful even if a tad manipulative. Love your shot of the river through the bridge.
    Alison

  3. You raise such complex issues here. Where would we be without the wonders that the industrial revolution opened the floodgates too. Certainly not commuting across the globe so easily and certainly not being worried sick about climate change. What a complex world we live in. Your photos are great. I love the bridge now being a rusty red. We have old iron bridges painted that colour over here too. I always think they look their best red.

  4. You make some excellent points about the Industrial Revolution. The noise and pollution from those early days was legendary. We tend to forget those ‘inconvenient truths’. Your photos demonstrate that the earth can recover when we stop our abusive behaviours, but I’m still inclined to be very concerned about the disaster started in the 50s/60s with the proliferation of plastic.

    btw – it’s a stunning bridge and I’m glad that a beauty like this one is carefully protected and maintained.

    1. That’s a good point, Joanne – the plastic invasion. It’s hard to know how we’ll get rid of it. I dug some so-called compostable plastic bags out of a compost bin yesterday. I had shredded it to help it along, and after over-wintering and nearly a year later it’s as intact as it was when I put it in there. So I had to fish it out and put it in the general rubbish. Duh!

  5. Beautiful bridge, Tish, and as always you skillfully provide the backdrop…everything has a history, with the good and the bad.

  6. I like the rusty red – seems more fitting by name as well as history. I used to bring my children here and will never forget the candle maker in the nearby ‘ironbridge museum’ that kept a pig and fed it on leftover tallow! Thanks for sharing and for using one of my favourite words -“lugubrious” –

    1. The candle making still goes on, Laura, and Blists Hill is now quite a bustling Victorian ‘shopping mall’ – not quite what the original museum founders had in mind. One of the Severn trows has now been fully restored and housed in its own huge boat shed. You can walk up above it. Quite phenomenal when you realise how big they were.

    1. We do have spring, albeit cool today, but promises of summer temps in a day or too. Still all very confused weather-wise. How are things in your neck of the woods?

  7. oh wow doesn’t it glorious now. So much better than when we visited just before its makeover. Have to come back!

    You are right though it is most bizarre how all the paintings are peaceful scenes, this must have been such a noisy dreadful place at the height of the industrial revolution

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