Sky-Rise

100_8787Telford

Telford is Much Wenlock’s closest town, just a few miles away across the River Severn. It’s a new town in fact, begun in the 1960s when its developers laid claim to the brownfield land between the traditional coalfield communities of Wellington, Madeley, Ironbridge, Dawley and Oakengates, places whose inhabitants had played their part in Britain’s industrial revolution from at least the 17th century.

One new-town aim was to provide fresh work opportunities and decent housing for families of the ever-expanding West Midlands (Birmingham-Wolverhampton) conurbations. Another was to revive the old Shropshire coalfield towns and villages, including Ironbridge, which by the 1960s, with their declining local industries, appeared to have lost the will to live. Back then I recall visiting Ironbridge on a school history trip. We peered at the decaying bottle kilns of the Coalport China Works through a jungle of waste-ground weeds and wondered why on earth Miss Price had brought us to such a dreary place.

From the start, then, Telford Development Corporation (TDC) panjandrums had a mission: their new town had heritage. They chose to name it after a man of vision: Thomas Telford 1757-1843, father of modern civil engineering and a man with strong local connections. At the start of his career, after leaving his Scottish homeland, he had been Surveyor and Engineer for Shropshire. He left us many striking landmarks too, including the breath-taking Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

The ‘new town with a past’ message was not simply a piece of window-dressing. TDC committed huge resources to saving the historic industrial fabric of the coalfield settlements, deploying teams of conservation architects and builders across the district, restoring everything from workers’ cottages and toll houses, to ironworks warehouses and riverside tile factories. It is probably fair to say that without all the new-town investment in conservation, the internationally famous Ironbridge Gorge Museums might never have made it off the starting blocks.

100_8788Telford

This particular high-rise, Darby House, is also a nod to the past. HQ for the Telford and Wrekin Council, it rises above one of town centre’s notoriously numerous traffic islands, and salutes the ingenuity of the Darby ironmasters of Coalbrookdale. (Abraham Darby I invented the means to smelt iron using coke instead of charcoal, and  Abraham Darby III built the world’s first cast iron bridge over the River Severn).

One can’t help but wonder though what Thomas Telford and the Darbys would think of these tributes – the new-fangled new-town architecture, the dizzying, multiplying networks of roads, shops, business parks and housing. But then you could say these were men who started it all; played their part in the pioneering of cast-iron construction which gave rise to the high-rise and more besides.

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Anyway, here, by contrast, is a building that the Coalbrookdale ironmasters considered  ‘just the thing’ in its day. Designed in the Gothic style around 1840, it was the riverside warehouse for the despatch cast iron goods down the River Severn to Bristol. It is also one of the many buildings saved from decay by Telford Development Corporation and now part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum complex.

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And finally the Iron Bridge (1779) (restored and owned by English Heritage).

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For those of us who tend to think the modern more ugly than picturesque and prefer to take comfort in the ‘antique’, it is worth remembering that in its day, this bridge, the manner of its construction, was unthinkable for most people. There it was, replacing the stalwart, heavily buttressed stone bridges that everyone had used for hundreds of years. It literally was ‘the shock of the new’, a daring piece of pioneering technology designed to show off and sell a concept. In this respect then, you could say it has very much in common with the enterprise and entrepreneurial zeal that gave rise to Telford ‘new town’. Surprising or no, the connections are real ones.

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Buildings

25 thoughts on “Sky-Rise

    1. I know what you mean. I think it’s because these days the new tends arrive wholesale and large-scale, whereas in the past it was more likely to be an add-on to the more traditional landscape.

  1. Coming from a country with a “civilised” history going bac a little over 14 years, I am still fascinated by the local histories I find all over the UK.

  2. Tish, do you know Telford’s cast iron aquaduct that he built at Longdon-on-Tern? It’s not far from my old home; another odd little hamlet called Roden. As a kid I would sometimes cycle out there and clamber onto it, before popping back across the road to the filling station to top up on sweets. I think it may even be the oldest iron aquaduct in the world (although the wikipedia page doesn’t say so) but being rather plain and undramatic very few people seem to notice it. Which makes it all-the-more special, of course!

    1. I’ve never actually visited it. Shame on me. A good notion for a visit out. You may well be right that it is the earliest cast-iron aqueduct. It certainly featured a lot in iron-pioneering lectures when I was working at the Ironbridge Gorge Museums.

      1. Interesting. I didn’t know you worked at the museum – that’s another place I have very fond childhood memories of. I believe two of the windows from a chapel my parents converted in Bagley (where I also lived for a few years) went to one of the museums there. I’d have to verify that though. I do have a postcard of the aquaduct somewhere too – probably bought it in one of the museum shops in fact.

  3. Most other developers would come and flatten everything as if the past is not important then put up tall glass buildings. TDC did good

    1. It has been a pretty well-planned development, still ongoing. Also a huge amount of tree planting along all major roads, plus foot and cycle paths, huge town park, lots of entertainment facilities, public transport systems. The main development has been on brownfield land. Apart from the good notions of reviving the historic fabric of the Severn Gorge, I think they might have had their work cut out building anything new there: lots of ancient mine shafts for one!

    2. I’ve also just remembered there was a bit of canny judgement involved too. TDC was trying to attract Japanese firms to their business parks, and it turned out that Japanese CEOs were often well versed in their engineering history. One had written a biography of Telford. They were also well up on the history of the Darby family and their pioneering cast iron bridge – so the notion of a new town with history was actually quite a good ‘sales’ pitch.

      1. That’s a shame. It cuts off a resource AND more importantly it limits intelligent understanding of where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

      2. exactly, and given Winchester’s best bit is its heritage you’d think they’d have more sensible hats on.

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