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Bridge to Britain's Industrial Heyday

June 07, 1987|KATHARINE McCORMACK | McCormack is a Tarzana free-lance travel writer and specialist on travel in Britain.

IRON BRIDGE, England — A traveler passing beside the quiet River Severn here would scarcely credit the visions of hell that 19th-Century painters drew of this section of Shropshire.

Huge smokestacks belching fire and smoke, tiny figures and stark buildings silhouetted against a fiery mass reaching high into the sky presented a truly Dante-esque scene.

There's no smoke or fire or starkly etched buildings here now. Instead, stretched along six square miles of wooded hillside lie the several sites of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, a living commemoration of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

A standing joke in town tells of a visitor who spent some time looking over the relics at one of the sites, roaming among old buildings and yawning furnaces, and finally asking, "Where's the museum?"

And well he might ask, for the "museum" is five distinct entities. The attractions are the remains of a mining and iron-producing town--a part of Coalbrookdale whose heyday was in the 18th and 19th centuries--which were literally dug out of a tangle of undergrowth.

Industrial Archeology

All this digging out and scraping of old industrial relics comes under the heading of industrial archeology, a term that refers to the physical remains of technologies and buildings. It was first used in an article by Michael Hix in 1955 in which he urged that buildings and structures associated with early industry be preserved, mainly for aesthetic reasons.

The subject gained further credibility with the establishment of the Journal of Industrial Archeology and the Assn. for Industrial Archeology in 1973. Interest in the subject burgeoned quickly, and Britishers now find a Sunday afternoon's outing to a disused sewer or refurbished dockside warehouse very much to their liking.

Railways and canals were among the first to be revived. Efforts were spearheaded by residents, joined soon by commercial interests that recognized the value of linking their enterprises with the past and encouraging visitors to tour their premises.

But back to Iron Bridge. The town lays claim to being the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution, and with good cause. Already a busy iron-producing area in the late 17th Century, it became the prime production center in Britain after the discovery in 1709 by Andrew Darby, an ironmaster, of the use of coke in place of charcoal in the smelting of iron ore.

Moving the Goods

Because rich deposits of coal, as well as iron ore nearby, offset dwindling supplies of charcoal, the way was opened for the manufacture of huge iron structures, such as engines, bridges, rails, aqueducts--the means of fast, efficient transportation of goods.

When other centers became more productive and the area's second industry, pottery making, began to die out, signs of activity became entangled in the undergrowth and largely forgotten.

In the late 1950s, the prosperity of the new town of Telford and projected expansion into the gorge threatened to erase all vestiges of former activity.

Enter the local contingent of enthusiasts, who formed the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust with the purpose of reviving the site as an industrial archeological location and tourist attraction. In 1973, the museum was formally opened to the public.

This is not a place to visit for an hour or two only, although two hours would be better than nothing. I spent the better part of two days among the sites and still did not see the entire museum.

Starting at the Center

Sites are scattered and hidden from each other. Visitors park at any one of 13 areas and would never dream that thousands of other people are wandering among the relics and reconstructions.

The place to start is the visitor center, housed in a former Victorian warehouse on the river. Here you may view a film on the Industrial Revolution, tour a series of exhibits pertaining to life in the 18th and 19th centuries and buy a "passport" entitling you to tour all sites, with no time limit on its use, for 3.95 pounds. You may also buy tickets at sites from 75 pence to 2.95 pounds. Children's prices are cheaper.

From there you might want to walk downriver to the bridge, a graceful iron structure from which the town gets its name, and built by a grandson of Andrew Darby as a monument to the town's iron-producing history.

Cross it (it's a footbridge only now) for a look at the old toll house and a view of the town, appealing as it stretches along a steep hillside, church and hotel overlooking bridge and river.

Heading downriver by car, you pass the cavernous Bedlam Furnace on the left and in a mile or so reach the Coalport China Museum. A priceless collection of Coalport china is exhibited in the same beehive-like kilns and brick structures in use as late as 1926.

Jackfield Tiles

Across the river by another footbridge, or by road if you prefer, is the Jackfield Tile Museum, where you can see a truly kaleidoscopic display of tiles manufactured there from the beginning of its existence.

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