Thursday, 18 August 2016

Industrial Grand Tour - Ironbridge, Coalport and Coalbrookdale

Above is the classic painting Coalbrookdale At Night, painted by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in 1801. It shows the 'satanic' flames and lit-up smoke of the primitive iron-smelting process of the time, the utilitarian new buildings, and, by way of contrast, a tree with a country cottage beneath it and a horse-drawn wagon. This is the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the artist seems in no doubt that pastoral beauty will be sacrificed to the stern needs of King Iron. If you can endure what comes in between, I describe my own visit to Coalbrookdale towards the end of this post.

Back in the early 1970s, there was a series on BBC 2 called Industrial Grand Tour. 'Industrial Archaeology' was just taking off as a popular mass-interest, and this series showcased the best of the Northern collieries, mills, factories, steel-works, railways, canals, and anything made of grimy stone and metal that had featured in the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly the Victorian end of it. There was a 'preservation' flavour to the programmes: it was celebrating what was rusting or crumbling away, or about to be demolished, but might yet be saved as part of local history and local culture, or even as part of the National Heritage. The series clearly intended to stir up interest in the fast-vanishing fabric of another age. At the time it would be an uphill struggle. Local people might have very bad memories of appalling working conditions in mines, mills and factories, and therefore had no love of them, and could not see how their unborn grandchildren might ever cherish these things. Machinery-loving historians, then mostly bearded men, had to show the way.

Industrial archaeology was also being embraced in a hip, dilettante fashion by a curious class of well-educated young adults in their twenties and thirties, whose imaginations had been fired up by the enthusiasm of the local historians. I can recall attending at least two extra-mural archaeological lectures in 1971 at Southampton University. One was about the latest work being done at Iron Age sites. It was presented by a young but already distinguished professor, Barry Cunliffe (See The other lecture was presented by somebody equally prominent at the university at the time, but it was about Industrial Archaeology, with particular reference to Hampshire. Well, it did seem to me that there was more in this subject than met the eye; but getting involved would be like joining a stag party in which the participants wouldn't mind committing themselves to a lot of physical work - dirty, wet work at that, with only beer promised at the end of the day. It lacked appeal. I left the subject alone. And in fact I never have taken a deep interest in the relics of old industrial processes - the buildings, the machinery - except insofar as they make a good photograph.

One thing I did like very much about the TV series Industrial Grand Tour was its music. The mills and factories and collieries and talking heads were sandwiched between short pieces of brass band music, which introduced and finished each programme. I can hum the tune even now. I once had a spool tape recording of it, long gone. If I could find the tune on YouTube, I would give the link here; but I can't. It was a traditional, rousing, heroic Yorkshire colliery brass band playing its heart out. The sound of it took you into a dazzling alternative world, where proud men with rich Yorkshire accents really said 'By gum, that were champion!' A world far removed from the airy-fairy fancy talk and city ways of the soft South.

I will track the Industrial Grand Tour theme music down if I can. But I have little hope. The trouble is, the BBC have in the past been very cavalier about preserving publishable copies of their programmes. There was for example a fine early-1970s TV drama series that I remember (watched with as much keenness as I used to watch Peyton Place), called The Roads to Freedom, based on Jean-Paul Sartre's trilogy, with a gorgeous haunting theme song sung in French, La Route est Dure. If it was ever taped, then the BBC apparently wiped those tapes - although there may be some hope, as a film version of the TV series was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. But nothing is available online at the moment.

Anyway, on with my post. On this latest visit to Shropshire, I decided to venture forth with my Industrial Archaeological hat on. I went first to Ironbridge, not visited since passing through in 1996. It happened to be a warm, sunny afternoon. The centrepiece here is the amazing iron bridge, the wonder of its time. I got some great shots of it.

The inflatable had drifted down the river (it was the Severn) with a crew of one - barely in control, I thought - and several captive passengers.

In their shoes, I would have been regretting the impulse to get wet in this way, but I'll concede they had a fine view of the Bridge. I took the usual selfies, of course, to prove that I was actually there in person:

Every inch the keen Industrial Archaeology student, don't you think?

The bridge (See was opened in 1781 and was built with locally-forged cast iron, each piece non-standard and made separately, all fitted together to form an arch structure. Close-up, you could see how crude the technique really was, but nevertheless I was impressed.

It was amazing how the cast iron had lasted. It was pitted in places, but still smooth in others.

The arch itself was graceful, indeed rather beautiful.

No traffic is now allowed across the bridge, in case the brittle cast iron cracks. Only pedestrians. I decided to see where the path under the span led. This led me past a shed that was used to make coracles - traditional little rowing boats - and then some cottages on the far bank.

I was astonished how 'natural' and 'unspoiled' the riverbank looked. A fantasy pastoral scene, almost.

The path now left the river and returned to the main road above. I walked back into the town centre, noting the Georgian buildings and their ornate brickwork, some of which had clearly been erected for some kind of industrial purpose.

There was a church high above, and paths were indicated. If I wanted a view - which I did - I'd have to put the effort in, and climb some steps! I found some. They stretched away upwards, apparently without end, going through some kind of tunnel near the far, far distant summit.

This must be so creepy at night!

At last, I reached the top, and could look back down through the tunnel at all those steps.

Well, the lofty view was pretty good.

You could go up even higher. There was an old but modernised building not far off called The Old Armoury. I suppose this had meant guns, not swords, which might explain its position high on the hill, away from the main part of town. You know, in case the gunpowder exploded.

I made my way down again using the steep and narrow back lanes, amazed that people were able to get their cars up them. This maze of narrow back lanes might look picturesque, and I suppose most residents had a fine view, but it was to my mind a most inconvenient kind of place to live. You'd keep fit, though: a trip downhill and back for bread or milk - or a pork pie - would be major exercise!

On the town side of the bridge were various memorials and plaques.

The Iron Bridge deserved its fame.

By now I was interested enough to see some more stuff like this. So it was Coalport next. Coalport had come to be a major location for making china. Approaching, I saw a set of very steep railway lines on my left. I parked Fiona and walked back. It was clearly an incline for winch-hauled wagons.

The rails and sleepers were in remarkably good condition, even though the incline must have been out of use for donkeys years. At the bottom end, the rails simply plunged underwater:

It was a section of canal, which led to the kilns of the china works not far away. I found a board that explained how canal boats arriving at the top of the hill would be manoeuvred onto cradles that then ran on the rails of the incline, carrying the boat all the way down to the river-level section of canal.

I followed the canal to the buildings at Coalport proper. It was only a short walk. All was peaceful in the early-evening sunshine.

The River Severn was close by: I had a look. It was so green and wooded. It was impossible to imagine it as it used to be, with a railway on the opposite bank, and the river sides cleared of vegetation, and everywhere the dirty scars of industry.

The China Works - now a museum complex - had closed for the day. It looked worth a visit, but the cost was significant: £20, even with an age concession. That did get you into all the other museums in the area; and the ticket was valid for a whole year, so that you could make repeat visits at no extra charge. As if you ever really would, of course. Personally, I'd rather pay £5 for one visit only. I would never be more than a casual visitor. I wouldn't be coming back again and again. As it was, I got some free shots of the exteriors and was satisfied.

Then onwards to Coalbrookdale! I was half-expecting to see the dark satanic steelworks in the painting that begins this post. But I was disappointed. Nature had reclaimed Coalbrookdale and greened it thoroughly. The most impressive monument to nineteenth-century industry was a long but low railway viaduct, still in use: it served the power station west of Ironbridge, down by the river. Here's the viaduct, and the cooling towers of the power station. Maybe at night those cooling towers were lit up luridly, and glowed orange?

Hmm. My cooling tower picture definitely needs some jazzing-up:

Ah, that's brighter! Those are now sexy cooling towers.

I did discover some old-looking buildings in Coalbrookdale, but they were not traditional ironworks. Aga and Rayburn cookers were now made here.

However, I found a small relic of the valley's iron heritage up a nearby road named Paradise. Outside the modern Youth Hostel was an all-iron War Memorial, the only completely metallic one I have ever come across:

There was of course a big museum in Coalbrookdale, but it was closed when I passed, and looked technical and boring. What a come-down from the dramatic promise of the first picture in this post!

My advice, then. Go to Ironbridge, for the bridge, and for a little takeaway treat from Eleys Pork Pies. And if as rich as Croesus, pay £20 (if me) or £25 (if a normal person) and get what joy you can at Coalport. But ignore 'satanic' Coalbrookdale like the very devil, unless cast iron war memorials are your sole interest in life.


  1. What have you done with Lucy? Who wrote this post about museums not being worth visiting!?

    The ironbridge is built that way because it was based on wooden bridges which was all they knew at the time, it is a thing of absolute beauty...

  2. Only some museums, Coline! I loved the museums I visited in Oxford not long ago. But I'm not really into mechanical stuff, unless of course it makes a good picture.


  3. I never saw Industrial Grand Tour which is a pity as I would probably have enjoyed it. Perhaps I was too busy falling in love at the time.

    You may well have inspired a future post on my own blog, though, for I well remember when I first became an enthusiast for Industrial Archaeology, after discovering a complex of canals, leats, railway tracks and a water wheel in a Cornish valley. I still find myself battling bracken and stinging nettles to see some relic of our industrial past, and imagining the people who once worked there.

    1. I have a thing for cast iron, corrugated iron and even concrete!


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford