New Works For Old ~ From Foundry To Teddy Bear Factory And More Besides

We’re standing on a riverbank just upstream from the Iron Bridge, at the foot of the Coal Brook that once powered the furnaces of the Coalbrookdale Company (the place where coke-fuelled iron casting was invented in 1709), and across the road from a little lane surprisingly called Paradise, which long ago was my daily route to work. As retail parks go, then, this site of re-purposed industrial workshops, it is pretty unusual.

The roof-lit buildings once belonged to the Severn Foundry. They were built in 1901  when Alfred Darby II, last of the dynasty of Coalbrookdale ironmasters, was company chairman. By this time the business was contracting – that is to say, it was moving away from heavy industry to more domestic production, and operating only within the Coalbrookdale Valley. Even so, in 1900 the company still employed 1,100 men, a huge workforce for a small semi-rural community.

The reasons for the new foundry, built on the site of an old timber yard, seem rather remarkable now. Demand for its products came from unexpected quarters in faraway London.  From the late C19th the then new London County Council had begun clearing the city’s slum dwellings and putting up council houses – this in response to the passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Requirements for improved living standards included cast-iron fireplaces and gas cookers, both of which were produced by the Coalbrookdale Company.

Iron founding is of course a dangerous, if highly skilled trade. The pouring of red hot molten metal from handheld crucibles into moulds provided plenty of scope for industrial accidents.  The workforce undoubtedly benefited from the better lighting conditions of these roof-lit premises. Although not for long. The London County Council contract was short-lived, and the foundry closed in 1917. Thereafter, the former industrial prosperity of Severn Gorge and the Shropshire Coalfield went into rapid decline, and the foundry buildings were left empty…

…until 1930 when, in another odd twist, along came Merrythought – a small family business producing high quality soft toys and handmade mohair teddies. They took over the foundry buildings and, also benefiting from the well-lit workshops, went into production. By 1940 they were employing 200 workers, mostly women. And yes, those noses and paws are all hand-stitched with, it is said, much pursing of lips by fastidious craftswomen who liked to get the job done without inflicting too much pain to their creations.

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And the firm is still going – into the fourth generation, and run by the two elder daughters of the previous chairman, Oliver Holmes, a man with great flair and drive, who sadly died before his time. The company is Britain’s last surviving teddy bear maker. It has had to fight to hold its own against competition from cheap soft toy producers and now specialises in limited edition bears, which it also sells in the Teddy Bear Shop just round the corner from the factory. The shop was the brainchild of my sister – back in the 1980s when she was running the Ironbridge Gorge Museums’ shops and did a deal with Oliver, who until that time only traded through the famous London toy store Hamleys.

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Recently, after Oliver Holmes’ death, Merrythought developed the former foundry site, providing new retail spaces in all the buildings not needed for teddy bear production. So now we have a fine little art gallery specialising in prints and print-making equipment, an antiques centre with riverside cafe, a bespoke kitchen fitters, and a small Co-Op store. Oh yes, and the Teddy Bear Shop just around the corner, with Guardsman Bear outside the door, overseeing Paradise.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Roof Squares 13

Ironbridge Cooling Tower As Seen From Under Another Severn Bridge

I’m standing under the Albert Edward Bridge to take this photo. It was built in 1863 and opened the following year, named for Queen Victoria’s eldest long before he became the totally notorious  King Edward VII.

You might also say the Albert Edward Bridge is the ugly great great grandchild of Darby’s Iron Bridge just downstream; and the end of the line too – in all senses. It is the last large cast iron railway bridge to be built in the UK, and originally carried the Severn Junction Railway across the river to meet up with the Severn Valley Railway (one of England’s loveliest lines decimated by Mr. Beeching in the 1960s). In more recent times it was used to carry coal to the power station.

It may not be as striking as its ground-breaking elder (and it certainly proved very hard to photograph) but it has much in common with Darby’s bridge. Designed by Sir John Fowler, the single 200 foot span comprises 4 cast iron ribs, each of 9 parts bolted together. The moulds for the spans were prepared nearby at the Darby family’s Coalbrookdale Company ironworks. The steel deck that you can see in the photo was installed in 1933, replacing the original timber and wrought iron deck.

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Now that the power station has run out of steam, one wonders what will become of Albert Edward. Fortunately it is a Grade II listed building  so it will be preserved. At least one hopes it will.  Also the local Telford Steam Railway enthusiasts have their sights set on it to extend their rather limited rail track, and since there is presently a 5mph speed limit on the bridge due to its age, one can conjure a slow and splendid steam-train trundle across the Gorge to Buildwas – poop-poop!

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Roof Squares 12 Not quite a roof, I know, but I was standing under it for the header shot. Please pop over to Becky’s for a plethora of rooftops.

Many Reflections On The Iron Bridge

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Last week we were in Ironbridge inspecting the restoration works on the C18th cast iron bridge that gave the town its name. People come from all over the world to see the bridge, so to find most of it shrouded in plastic would doubtless be a big disappointment. English Heritage, the conservation body whose engineers are carrying out the repairs over the next few months, thoughtfully decided to make a spectacle of their operations. Just beneath the main span they have constructed a walkway with perspex covered viewing portholes along its length. Now visitors have once-in-a-lifetime access to view the structural parts at close quarters.

And while doing this I happened to notice that, at certain angles, the portholes and their surrounds created multiple reflections. Suddenly the town appeared meshed in the dove-tailed struts and roundels of the bridge supports. It seemed fitting somehow – the town within the bridge that gave rise to it; a glimpse of the Gorge whose lucky combination of natural resources: iron ore, coal, fire clay, limestone, made the construction of the world’s first cast iron bridge in this location possible: the now quiet resort place that some call the crucible of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, a once horrifying hell-hole of pounding steam hammers, sulphurous fumes, and streams of white-hot iron.

Thursday’s Special: reflective

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

P.S. Click on the English Heritage link above for more about the restoration project and a very good short video.

Some Ironbridge Towers ~ The River Between

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Following on from yesterday’s Iron Bridge visit, this first photo is for Jude. She wanted to know if the Ironbridge cooling towers still existed. The power station, just upstream from the Iron Bridge, has been recently decommissioned. There are plans for demolition, and the site to be developed for housing.

There are four cooling towers, and if you walk along the river they loom dramatically above you. Love them or hate them,  Jude and I are for them. They are anyway part of our industrial heritage, though mainly I like them because they look like giant flower pots. And I like them even more now they aren’t giving off dirty-coal fumes.

Across the river, just downstream of the cooling towers is the Severn Warehouse – now part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum (where I used to work). This building has much smaller towers, but they are impressive in their own way. Built in the gothic style by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1834, it was used to store the factory’s iron goods until they could be shipped by barge to Bristol and thence out to the wide world. You can see the tramway down to the wharfage (bottom left). A veritable citadel of industry then, though a spot of weeding looks to be called for up in the castellations:

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If you would like to take a very interesting walk around the Ironbridge Gorge there is an excellent trail guide HERE

 

Roof Squares  See Becky’s very unusual Portuguese bread oven

Six Word Saturday  And some marvellously commemorative artwork from Debbie

Rooftops Galore In The Severn Gorge ~ Even The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge Has One

Yesterday we treated ourselves to a Big Day Out, and on our own doorstep. We went to Ironbridge – all of five miles from the Farrell domain. We wanted to see what English Heritage was up to with Abraham Darby III’s monumental bridge – the high-tech PR stunt of 1779 in which a Coalbrookdale ironmaster set out to demonstrate that cast iron was the building material of the future.

He built a single arch bridge at the site of a notoriously dangerous ferry crossing, over a river prone to massive flooding while also accommodating the passage (without de-masting) of the large sailing barges (trows) that plied the Severn from Worcester.  All the numerous other Severn bridges required the trows to lower their masts. Doubtless this novel feature alone would have made the new bridge the talk of the river.

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Here’s a pre-wrapped winter view, glimpse of the toll house on the far right (since the Iron Bridge was always intended to make money too):

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Interestingly though, and here’s where the new ‘roof’ comes in, while Darby’s construction was daring in its vision and materials, its design has distinctly retro features – the  cast iron components were fabricated and assembled according to tried and tested carpentry methods with lots of dove-tail joints. On top of that, there has been much ground movement, general wear and tear and even structural shrinkage, so now the bridge is in serious need of restoration. While the work is underway, much of the bridge is shrouded in plastic. A walkway has been constructed along the north side of the bridge with viewing windows created at various points  so visitors can view the underbelly of the bridge at close quarters and see the restoration work in progress. It is one stunning enterprise.

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There may well be some controversy ahead though. Once the work is done, the bridge will be repainted – in its original colour on the opening day of 1781: a reddish-brown research has shown. For decades the bridge has been black or slate grey. Reddish-brown will be a real turn-up for the Severn Gorge location and doubtless a shock to some people’s systems. I can’t wait to see it – completion date is set for November just in time for a pleasing backdrop of autumn leaves.

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Here’s a view of the Wharfage from the Iron Bridge. The town of Ironbridge owes its existence to the bridge, which attracted tourists right from its opening in 1781. In 1784 the handsome Tontine Hotel was built overlooking bridge, and today is still a popular place to stay. The Severn Gorge is now a World Heritage Site.

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For more about the restoration project including a brilliant short video see:

English Heritage Saving The Iron Bridge

 

Roof Squares 8  Please pop over the Becky’s to join in the June Roof Extravaganza

Following In The Footsteps Of The Green Man

Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun, are the quietest places under the sun.

A E Housman A Shropshire Lad

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We arrived in Clun last Tuesday in summer weather and headed for the Bridge Cafe. The little South Shropshire town was indeed quiet, although the young woman at the cafe apologised for still being in a bit of a confusion after the town’s two-day Green Man Festival. It was quite a do from all accounts, and the Green Man duly defeated the Ice Queen after heavy battling on the bridge.

One can easily imagine, too, that if the Green Man still lived anywhere, then it would be in the Clun Valley. The mysterious manifestation of spring renewal has ancient roots, possibly Celtic, or maybe older still, back in Stone Age. Trees and greenery have anyway long been reverenced in many cultures across the world. And you will certainly see his face peering from a garland of leaves among the carvings and gargoyles of many medieval churches.

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But I forgot to look for him at the parish church of St. George, our next stop up the hill from the cafe. I was too diverted with other finds there. Most particularly the graves of playwright John Osborne and his journalist wife, Helen Osborne. John Osborne blazed into the theatrical world with Look Back In Anger (1956) and The Entertainer (1957) changing British theatre forever. In fact he changed the air we breathed in post-war England, especially in the sixties when his plays were often performed. We grew up questioning establishment mores. These were the days of activism.

After his death, Helen honoured his wishes to hang on to their house, The Hurst, at nearby Clunton – this despite massive debts – and later ensured that it would serve future would-be writers. It is now one of the three homes of the world famous Arvon Foundation that nurtures creative writing and writers on its residential courses.

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Let me know where you’re working tomorrow night and I’ll come and see you

Inscription on John Osborne’s grave

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The church itself is very old, begun in the C12th, but added to in the C13th, C14th, and C17th centuries and considerably and carefully restored in 1877. It has some fine Norman arches, and a magnificent timber ceiling with added angels. Also in the porch are some interesting C18th and C19th boards announcing  donations by the well off to the poor of the parish. Beyond the acts of generosity, the public proclamation of them at the church door rather struck me as more of a bid to ensure holy favours for the donors.

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One of the most pleasing aspects of St. George’s are the fine views of the countryside from the churchyard. The town itself has a population of around 700.

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From the church it’s back down the hill and over the river, and up another hill into the main street where there is a butcher’s, a Spar supermarket, two inns, a gift shop, hair salon, hardwear store, cafe and (in the old town hall) a small museum. By the time we got there, after stopping to eat some very fine fish cakes in the Malt House Cafe, the summer weather had gone, so the following photos have lost their sunny lustre.

The museum is well worth a visit – mostly for its quirkiness. It is very much the community attic (and none the worse for that in my professional museum person’s opinion). It houses a melee of artefacts and memorabilia dating from 10,000 years ago (Mesolithic micro-flints used in the making of harpoons) to the silk dress worn by one Mrs Nora Bright in 1928. Hanging on the wall there is also a horrific mantrap (use illegal in England since 1827 apart from within houses at night to deter thieves). Alongside are spears and various agricultural implements, and in nearby Victorian display cases there’s an array of prehistoric flint tools, a Roman bead, and the once personal belongings of Clun’s inhabitants. Upstairs the display is more themed and mostly features military and war-time service uniforms with associated period objets. You can also rifle through three files of the town’s photographic collection – a must for those with tendencies to nosiness.

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Back into town:

 

We had saved the best of this visit until last. Because Clun also has a castle – or at least some very dramatic ruins thereof. The only problem was, by the time we reached it, the weather gods had opened the door and let winter back in. So much for the Green Man’s conquest of the Ice Queen. Not only was it too cold to explore – the sudden wind cutting us in half, but the light was very poor. So these next photos only give a quick view of this ancient Norman motte and bailey fortress. But just look at the scale of the earthworks – and think of the enforced human-power necessary to construct them.

Norman rule was all about domination of locals. The castle was built to control the rebellious souls of the Welsh Marches in the late C11th  by one of King William’s marcher lords, Picot de Say. In 1155 it passed by the marriage of Isabella de Say into the powerful Fitzalan dynasty (later known as the Earls of Arundel).

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English Heritage kindly provide a visual reconstruction for the year 1300 as drawn by Dominic Andrews, by which time life was less martial in aspect, and lords in castles also went in for pleasure gardens. You can see them in the right hand top corner. The castle also had its own farm (bottom right) and accommodation with associated trades for the soldiers and servants (left outer bailey).

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And with this final very green view of the Clun Valley and of St. George’s church, Dr. and Mrs. Farrell hotfooted it back to the car before it started to rain.

I’m linking this to Jo’s Monday Walk. I’m thinking she might have paid Clun a wee visit during her Shropshire safari last summer.

The Little Church By The Sea

It stands beside the Wales Coast Path looking down on St. Bride’s Haven, a rocky cove with a long, long history. The church is also called St. Bride’s and is dedicated to St. Bridget of Kildare who, it is said, arrived on these shores from Ireland c500 CE.  The original chapel dedicated to her is long gone, though before it went, local fishermen used the place for curing herring, for which act of ecclesiastical disrespect, the herring have ever since steered clear of St. Brides Haven.

It’s a good, if fishy yarn.

The present church was probably  built by at least the 14th century, during which time it would have served the lords of the neighbouring medieval manor house known as The Abbey, and whose ruins may still be seen in the nearby woods. The old church was then thoroughly renovated in 1868, by which time it was very much the family church of the occupants of St. Bride’s Castle, a great baronial pile built by the Allen-Phillips family in 1830, but subsequently the second home of the Barons Kensington between 1880-1920. The latter marked their passing with monumental Celtic Crosses that rise starkly in the windy graveyard.

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Between the church and the beach there are the remains of a lime kiln. Lime burning was an important trade in Pembrokeshire from at least the 13th century, the resulting quick lime used to neutralize acidity of farm fields before sowing wheat and barley. It was also an essential material in the building trade – for the mixing of lime mortar and whitewash. For 500 hundred years ships landed on Pembrokeshire’s beaches, coming and going with the tides, and bringing in cargoes of limestone and culm (coal chippings and anthracite dust) to be burned in the kilns. It was a highly skilled process, and a dangerous one.

These days the ships seen off St. Bride’s Haven are oil tankers waiting their turn to put in at the great oil refineries of Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock. Their presence adds to the daily seascape below St. Bride’s Castle.

After the Barons Kensington sold up, the Castle became a sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis. Those poor souls who did not recover also have their graves in St. Bride’s graveyard. After World War Two it was a convalescent home. More recently the Castle and grounds have been given over to holiday apartments and cottages, the Castle’s public rooms – great hall, library, and billiard room – restored in English country house style for shared use by all the guests. And here we had our week’s family gathering (including cockerpoo puppy), staying in one of the cottages in the old walled garden. The only sounds were racketing rooks and jackdaws busy building their nests in the woods, and more distantly, the crash of surf on the cliffs at St. Bride’s Haven.

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At the start I mentioned that St. Bride’s Haven has a long, long history. So far, time-wise, I’ve only scratched the surface. Later I discovered that if I’d taken the coast path around the cove and behind the cottages I would have come upon an Iron Age hillfort (c 800 years BCE). And more ancient still, near this site had also been found Mesolithic tools (9,000-6,000 BCE). This Middle Stone Age era of the post Ice Age is distinguished by the making of tiny flint arrowheads called microliths – usually around 1 cm in size. These were then mounted on a wooden shaft to create a hunting harpoon. Mesolithic hunters were also very fond of shell fish, camping out at likely beaches as part of their seasonal food gathering round. They thus left archaeologists with that other very exciting prehistoric find – the shell midden. Some are enormous, and were possibly used for several generations.

So next time we go to St. Bride’s I have promised myself a  microlith ‘n midden hunt. It will make a change from gathering seashells.

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In which Six Go Potty In Pembroke With Cockerpoo Puppy  – holiday snaps #2

 

Jo’s Monday Walk

Please visit Jo for some captivating scenes of Portuguese fisher-folk and a very gentle walk.

March Square #21

And pop over to Becky’s for more March squares and circles in squares.

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St David’s Cathedral ~ Thursday’s Special

These ruins of the Bishop’s Palace at St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, South Wales stand on the site of the monastery of Menevia founded in the 6th century by St. David, patron saint of Wales (500-589 CE). The nearby cathedral (coming up below) was consecrated in 1131, but has undergone many phases of re-building, including major remedial work, first after an earthquake c 1247, and then after the devastation wrought under Cromwell’s Commonwealth of the 1650s. Welsh architect John Nash oversaw extensive repairs in 1793, but his work, proving substandard, made it necessary for the whole cathedral to undergo complete restoration by George Gilbert Scott in the late 19th century. A bit of a mash-up then, architecturally speaking – Gothic and Perpendicular not the least of it – but still an imposingly handsome building. It also hosts a very excellent cafeteria.

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St. David’s has long been a place of pilgrimage, papal decree stating in 1123 that two pilgrimages to St. David’s was the equivalent of one to Rome. England’s monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards hot-footed here, which probably accounts for the increasing grandeur of the Bishop’s Palace, still apparent today despite its ruinous state. After confession comfortable lodgings and some fine dining would doubtless be the next royal requirements.

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The cathedral’s presence confers city status on the community of St. David’s. This may seem a trifle curious for a place scarcely larger than a village. With a population of less than 2,000, it thus has the distinction of being the United Kingdom’s smallest city, and so by default the loveliest – its peninsula siting bounded by scenic coastlines west, north and south and its hinterland composed of rolling Pembrokeshire farmland. A good place to visit then, although perhaps best done out of season.

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P.S.  The daffodils on the cusp of opening in the header photo are the national flower of Wales and worn on St. David’s Day on the 1st of March.

Thursday’s Special: Traces of the Past

Round And Round The Circle In Bishops Castle With A Few Squares And A Steam Roller Thrown In

Bishops Castle is another favourite Farrell destination – a sleepy rural town in the Shropshire-Welsh borderland. It is full of quirky and ancient houses, though this one at the top of the town must surely take the prize for being the most smile-inducing. I thought this pared down photo would tick all Becky’s boxes (square ones naturally).

But I was sure you would like to see the full picture too:

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And the houses at the bottom of the town, sporting their Michaelmas Fair-Steam Rally banners:

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And a taste of the Steam Rally:

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You can see more about Bishops Castle at Summer Came Back On Saturday And Took Us To The Fair

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March Square 8

Winter On The Menai Strait ~ Soulful Sunday

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I’m posting this photo, taken one December morning on the North Wales island of Anglesey (Ynys Mon) to remind myself that winter in the British Isles can sometimes be blissful. In fact we have experienced perfect winter weather days on this island on several occasions – cold certainly, but utterly still and dazzlingly bright with hardly a cloud in the sky, only the calls of seabirds and waders echoing over the water.

Ynys Mon is of course an island brimming with spirits. It was the last stand of the Celtic Druids against the Romans (see Island of Old Ghosts); there are the cells and wells of early Christian hermits, and many a prehistoric chambered tomb dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. There are also all manner of mythical connotations too. In the centre of this shot you can see the Great Orme across the Menai Strait at Llandudno. It was named by the Vikings, the word orme deriving from the old Norse for a sea serpent. In this view you can well see why they came up with it.

All in all, then, I thought this view added up to a suitable contribution for Ali’s new meme: Soulful Sunday. Please visit her blog The Mindful Gardener – a must-go-to spot for anyone who loves gardens or gardening or marmalade flapjacks. There are also some glorious pictures of the Kent countryside in yesterday’s snow

The Mindful Gardener: Soulful Sunday