Saturday, 1 September 2007

The Cradle of the Industrial Revolution

Ironbridge Gorge is a World Heritage Site because it is recognised as the 'Cradle of the Industrial Revolution'. The significance of the ironmaking industry which started there cannot be overestimated. Man had been able to make iron for centuries, but never before on such a large scale. On the 1st September 2007, Keith Watson, John Archer and the writer visited the Gorge.

First, we paid homage to the 'Iron Bridge' itself. The bridge over the Severn Gorge is the first iron bridge in the world, built 1779 and still in use as a pedestrian bridge. It is constructed from a large number of interlocking cast parts, in part mimicking wooden construction but the challenge of building in this new material called for great resourcefulness.

There are ten museums in the area but Blists Hill Victorian Town is probably the best known. The site includes early ironworks and tileworks and numerous old buildings have been transported to make a complete township with working factories, populated by people in period dress who explain the way of life.

Keith soon spotted a Wallis & Steevens 3-ton steam roller and a small portable engine in a locked yard. The helpful staff quickly summoned somebody with a key to give us a better view.

Nearby is a foundry where the art of sand moulding cast iron is demonstrated. Small decorative items for sale are produced here.

In 1802 the Coalbrookdale Company built what's claimed to be the world's first steam locomotive to Richard Trevithick's designs. The museum has a working replica on a short demonstration line, although it was not working on our visit. Sadly, the locomotive is left outside. Its appearance is hardly improved by a plastic cover over the top of the chimney, especially since the cover is fixed to a long piece of wood to allow it to be set in place from ground level.

Nearby, there is a colliery winding house with a single-cylinder steam engine to lift a tub up and down a shallow shaft. This was working.

Next, the unmistakeable 'thump - thump' of a steam hammer drew us to the ironworks, where they actually make wrought iron. We spent some time watching the steam hammer re-shaping cut links of massive mooring chains into the short, thick slabs called 'blooms'. These have to be made red hot in an oven and then quickly transported on a two-wheeled truck to the hammer. After re-heating the blooms can be 'worked' by being passed a number of times through a 'cogging mill' - a type of rolling mill - driven by a steam engine. The steam for the hammer and the mill comes from a modern, package boiler, but there is a non-functional re-creation of an original boiler. It was an awesome experience to watch the men working for real in the very hazardous environment - watch the video clip below.

Nearby we found two massive beam blowing engines, David and Sampson, built in Glasgow and erected at Priorslee Ironworks in 1851. They're not working but impressive for their size and decoration, with elaborate fluted supporting columns.

These are just the highlights of our visit - there's so much to see, including the purely domestic (I was able to buy Coltsfoot Rock at the sweet shop).

As we were leaving, we came upon the preserved section of plateway with its odd-looking points. The horse-drawn wagons on a plateway used ordinary wagon wheels without a flange. Steering was provided by a vertical flange on the rail. Points have a 'crossing' and 'check rails', just like modern points, but in a plateway they are 'inside out' as the photographs show.

My Ironbridge photographs.