It seemed like a good way for the Farrells to mark the winter solstice – a little wander through Ironbridge town and over the bridge itself. It was anyway a glorious day, and the bridge was looking its festive best in its ochre-red livery.
A fine exemplar of Shropshire’s heritage.
Those of you who come here often will know that this is reputedly the world’s first cast iron bridge, built by Abraham Darby III and opened for the carriage trade and other toll paying traffic in the New Year of 1781.
Of course, as was intended all along, it became the sightseeing phenomenon of the age. Everyone who was anyone had to come, look and pronounce on this pioneering wonder. The Coalbrookdale Company of ironmasters were naturally well prepared. They had also built the Tontine inn, a smart hostelry at the foot of the bridge.
Here it is with its mint green shutters, and still open for business. Also if you squint, you can ‘see’ the church clock is just striking noon. Can you hear the chimes ringing out on the cold December air?
The middle of the bridge is a good spot to stop for views of the Severn Gorge, now a World Heritage Site.
Once, this upstream view would have been filled with busyness. There were boat builders’ yards along the left bank. Then there was the river traffic itself, Severn trows, the great sailing barges up from Gloucester and Bristol, putting in at the Coalbrookdale Company’s warehouse, just visible at the river’s vanishing point. The trows brought in luxury goods: fine glassware, casks of port, Madeira, Spanish wines, sugar, molasses, serge cloth, the latest hats and bonnets, peach wood for cabinet making, blocks of marble, tobacco, salt fish.
On the return voyage the trows took on consignments of pig iron and castings of every kind, in particular the iron cauldrons, latterly known as missionary pots. They came in all sizes from the family porridge pot to large scale containers for industrial processes. They were rarely, if ever, deployed for the braising of missionaries.
This downstream view suggests unchanging tranquillity, but think again. Come the February flood season, the force of water rushing down from Wales and through the Gorge can be devastating. Even these days, with flood defences in place, there can be extensive overflow. The Great Flood of 1795 saw every Severn bridge damaged or taken out. Only the Iron Bridge remained unscathed.
Times of drought brought other perils. Large sandbanks formed and well loaded barges could find themselves grounded, often for weeks at a time. Such eventualities were catered for by a string of inns along both banks. And these were not only places of respite for the stranded. The riverside taverns were also said to be the haunt of industrial spies, out to gather company secrets over a jug or two of ale.
On Wednesday noon, 21st Dec. 2022, the Wharfage slumbered in the winter sunshine. There was barely a sign of a Christmas shopper. No coach and horses clattering up the hill to the Tontine. No carts unloading and loading precious goods in transit. No crowds of merchants’ clerks checking the cargo lists, or shouts of boat masters cajoling their crews. Or the pounding of the steam hammer at the riverside ironworks, that caused the men who worked it to grow deaf; the thud and thud and thud rebounding down the Gorge. Some things change for the better.
Happy New Year One And All
And whatever our beliefs, or lack of them, a strong prayer for more sanity and truth will not come amiss