Tuesday, May 22, 2007
It was our wedding anniversary (OK, I forgot) so we went to the Ironbridge Gorge for the weekend. The area has been lovingly restored by the heritage industry. We bought a £14 ticket that gave entrance to ten museums.
The Museum of the Gorge explains why as a World Heritage site it ranks alongside the Pyramids and Taj Mahal – just a touch of hyperbole?
In 1709 Abraham Darby perfected a way to use coke to smelt iron – stocks of charcoal were running out. Darby was a Quaker and as they were excluded from the universities, the professions and parliament, they devoted their talents to industry. Like other wealthy non-conformists, by the mid-nineteenth century the Darby’s had converted to the Church of England.
At Coalbrookdale you can visit their houses, the furnace and factory that churned out iron castings and later the Aga cooking stoves. Retired volunteers are only too happy to give you chapter and verse about the history of the area. Enginuity is a fabulous hands-on museum for children.
The Tar Tunnel began as a project to link the coal workings to the River Severn, but they hit a seam of bitumen and another Quaker Joseph Reynolds spotted an opportunity.
The Tile Museum features exhibits from the Maws collection and is in real life settings like bars, a tube station, butchers and a church. The China museum shows the history of industry with its artists in residence and strict gender hierarchies – gilders were male, burnishers female.
The Ironbridge Gorge was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution but on a very small scale and was swiftly superseded by larger and better-connected cities. The bridge itself is tiny compared to the Firth of Forth Railway Bridge, production techniques were continually revolutionised.
Lastly, Blists Hill is a mock Victorian town with school, bank, butchers, shops, tollhouse and original blast furnaces. The volunteers bring the town to life. We finished by watching an excellent mime performance by the Kaleidoscope Theatre Company, some of whose actors have Down’s Syndrome.
We stayed the night in Telford, it’s composed of roundabouts, shopping malls, roundabouts, hotels, roundabouts, gigantic car parks, roundabouts, retail sheds, more roundabouts… We kept looking for the town centre, but the shopping centre is the town centre, obviously the architects worked on the philosophy of, ‘I shop, therefore I am’.
Telford was part of the second wave of 1960s New Towns along with Runcorn and Skelmersdale. It was due to have 250,000 inhabitants but at a certain stage they realised people didn’t want to live there and scaled back. Tribes of bored teenagers populate the underpasses, they really do have an excuse, there genuinely is ‘nothing to do’. Some of the peripheral estates are stuck in a spiral of decline with high crime rates, stagnant property prices, lack of public transport and amenities.
When it came to their cities the Victorians built imposing town halls, art galleries, museums, swimming baths, libraries, gothic railway stations and parks and squares for people to congregate. Telford is joyless and utilitarian, a failed experiment in social engineering, a town built to venerate and worship the car.
John Betjeman wrote his famous poem that began,
‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now’
I wouldn’t want to impose that fate on Telford, but it does need razing to the ground. At night there is an endless vista of empty car parks, a truly dispiriting place. It put me on edge, I couldn’t wait to leave.