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As I wander through Ironbridge, past tiers of brown brick houses overlooking the River Severn snaking far below, it’s hard to imagine this sleepy village was once at the white-hot leading edge of industrial technology and innovation.
Rich in natural resources, from the late 16th century the Shropshire Hills were dotted with mines and factories creating goods such as clay pipes, tiles and china crockery. But it was the entrepreneurial idea of Abraham Darby in 1709 — to use energy-efficient coke rather than charcoal to smelt iron — that put the area on the map as the crucible of the Industrial Revolution.
I am here for a tour of the village’s star attraction: the eponymous iron bridge built in 1779 by Darby’s grandson as a monument to the area’s industry and as a calling card to show off its abilities to the world. Somewhat worse for wear after 240 years of service, the bridge is currently being restored by English Heritage — a £3.6m project which began in November and will last about a year. From this Easter weekend, visitors will be able to see the restoration up close, watching the conservators at work from a specially constructed 80-metre walkway that hangs alongside the bridge.
“It wouldn’t be preposterous to call this structure the great-grandfather of the modern skyscraper,” our tour guide, Matt Thompson, head of collections at English Heritage, tells us as we approach. Although heavy scaffolding makes it hard to equate this Shropshire bridge with the capitalist totems of Shanghai and Madison Avenue, I am quickly convinced of its importance.
Its creation led to several copycat bridges and buildings, including the Ditherington Flax Mill nearby, and before long, metal-framed structures were the norm, Thompson tells us. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge can trace its origins here and Timothy Laurence, chairman of English Heritage, argues that the area’s culture of “pushing limits, discovering new things and sharing ideas made it the Silicon Valley of its day”.
As we survey the town from its south bank, Thompson explains how the impact of Darby, his son and grandson (all called Abraham) was so great that “the stages of the village’s history are referred to locally as AD1, AD2 and AD3”. A painting commissioned by Abraham Darby III shows how the 180-degree arches of the bridge were designed to create a perfect circle when reflected in the water. Such focus on form as well as function reminds me of Apple’s design philosophy today. Indeed, part of English Heritage’s mission with the project, says Thompson, “is to promote the aesthetic virtues of industrial heritage”.
Tourism here is nothing new. Originally a toll bridge that required a small fee to cross, Ironbridge quickly became a stop-off in the domestic grand tour of industrial sites that emerged in 18th-century Britain and was popular among artists, poets and writers. Still open today, the Tontine Hotel was built in 1784 by the bridge’s shareholders in order to capitalise on its many visitors.
Having filled in a health-and-safety questionnaire, we put on hard hats and climb into the scaffolding. Three-dimensional computer modelling has given the team a structural understanding of the bridge even greater than its creators, and has revealed various problems. Most significant is cracking in the ironwork resulting from gradual ground movement over the years, an earthquake at the end of the 19th century, and as a result of defects in the original construction.
Visitors to the walkway will be able to see the experts scraping, hammering and ultimately repainting the iron, a process performed with a surprising delicacy. Thompson explains that the team are at pains not to “interact with its historic fabric in a way that is permanent . . . but to ensure its safety and survival moving forward”.
It is an unusual setting for a heritage day out — surrounded by scaffolding and orange-suited workmen, the dark waters of the Severn flowing below — and yet there’s a fascination to being up close to such a seminal object. “It’s the first ever free-standing structure made entirely of metal,” says Thompson. “As such, it’s a symbol of the birth of the modern world.”