Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

 A view of the bridge

The Darby family of Coalbrookdale were among the greatest industrialists of their time, the people who revolutionized the production of iron. Abraham Darby I pioneered ironmaking in blast furnaces fuelled by coke, enabling the metal to be produced in the quantities needed for industry to expand rapidly. He also developed a way of casting pots using sand moulds that proved very lucrative. Later generations carried on in the business and Abraham Darby III, grandson of the first Abraham, working with the architect Thomas Pritchard, gave us the area’s most famous structure, the world’s first iron bridge.

The Darbys lived in a pair of houses a couple of hundred yards up the hill from their furnace and works. These houses are substantial Georgian middle-class homes, but not at all flashy. The Darbys were Quakers and did not go in for lavish living – the rooms are quite small and rather plain. But look closely, and one sees evidence of their achievements. This fireplace must be one of thousands produced at Coalbrookdale. But they don’t all have an image of the celebrated iron bridge cast into them. Examine the lower arch of this fireplace and that’s just what you see – an outline that’s world famous now and must have been one of the things of which the Darbys were most proud. How like them to mark this achievement so discreetly.
The iron bridge itself has survived over 230 years, a marvel of graceful design. It manages to span the Severn almost transparently, but its outline is instantly recognisable. It’s in need of repair now – ground movement over the years, an earthquake in the 19th century, and stresses that have always existed have caused cracking. A major project is beginning to repair the bridge, so that it can last far into the future as a monument to the skill and ingenuity of the Darbys and their architect.

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