Power Lines ~ Ironbridge Switch-Off

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Ironbridge Power Station has run out of steam, its huge cooling towers presently stark monuments to the era of dirty energy, an era that kicked off in this very valley, the Ironbridge Gorge, where in millennia past the River Severn turned its back on the north and, turbo-charged by glacial melt-water, drilled its way through inconvenient uplands and headed south, thereby exposing strata whose properties ingenious humankind would one day find well suited to industrial enterprise.

Limestone. Ironstone. Coal. Fire and brick clay. These were the materials revealed by Severn’s pre-emptive workings. They provided the means for the building and fuelling of blast furnaces. The first iron works in nearby Coalbrookdale were run by monks and lay workers of Wenlock Priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, there was a massive sell-off of monastic land and facilities around the Gorge to London merchants and get-rich-quick gentry all keen to make iron; or mine coal; or extract natural bitumen that also occurs here.

The Gorge and its tributary valleys were, in their way, covert places, and later proved attractive locations for 17th century iron masters set on pioneering new technologies: coke-fired casting; fine boring of cannon; trialling of new materials in new constructions that would astonish the world and change it and us forever.

But back to the power station that now no longer burns trainloads of coal to feed the national grid. It sits on a floodplain at the head of the Gorge, a World Heritage Site no less, the Ironbridge Gorge. A local lordly landowner once observed to me that the discharges of warm water from the cooling towers heated up the river along his stretch of bank by one degree, thus ruining his salmon fishing; the salmon, he said, did not care for warmth and rushed on by. To his credit his lordship did not seem too bothered. At least for now the river is subject only to natural forces when it comes to temperature.

Soon the demolition teams will move in, and trainloads of furnace ash will be shipped out along with countless tons of strategic reserves of gravel which happen to occur on the site. And down will come the four cooling towers – and what a sight that will be. Then the plan is to build 1,000 homes and create a business park to create thousands of jobs, and all beside a river with a history of monumental flooding, and on a site with all manner of embedded pollutants, and in a geographical cul de sac with only two narrow lanes either side the river by which to access the outside world. The head of our local authority that is championing the scheme is on record saying that he won’t let considerations of climate emergency get in the way of the county’s need for economic growth.

It takes one’s breath away – this Age of Bonkers!

Line Squares #23

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.

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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.