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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: Ironbridge

We're looking for the world's first iron bridge. It's 25 miles northwest of Birmingham, half that southeast of Shrewsbury. The site isn't quite the birthplace of the industrial revolution, but it is one early chapter in that story--and important enough that UNESCO in 1986 placed Ironbridge on its World Heritage list.

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A quiet spot on the Severn, here flowing east from Shrewsbury but soon curving south toward Worcester, Gloucester, and the Bristol Channel. From the 15th to the 19th century the river was used to haul freight as far upstream as Shrewsbury. Two miles downstream a wooden bridge crossed the river; two miles up there was a stone bridge. In 1709 Abraham Darby at nearby Coalbrookdale discovered how to use coking coal instead of charcoal as the fuel to make cast iron. A ferry was soon in operation, but Darby's grandson, Abraham Darby III, undertook to build a new bridge. He did it, incredibly, in all of three months.

The United Kingdom: Ironbridge picture 2

It wasn't Darby's idea: credit for planning the world's first weight-bearing cast-iron bridge goes to Thomas Pritchard, an architect who died before the bridge's completion. Darby was commissioned to build the thing, however, and he was stuck paying for it. He wound up using 379 tons of iron and at his death, a bit over a decade later, was still paying.

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Arthur Young came by in 1776, while the work was yet to begin. He wrote, "Mr. Darby has undertaken to build a bridge of one arch of 120 feet, of cast iron." As built, the arch was reduced to 100 feet. A flood in 1795 washed away the old wood and stone bridges but not this one. The south abutment arch, however, dates from 1821, after ground movement forced the demolition of the original south abutment. .

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There's been an invisible recent change, too: to solidify the bridge further, a concrete counter-arch was laid under the river in 1972.

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Because nobody had ever built a bridge with weight-bearing iron girders, Darby was cautious and overbuilt the bridge, using twice as much iron as later bridges. Some 482 main castings were using, of which the largest were the 10 half-ribs, each 70 feet long and weighing six tons. Many of the castings are solid.

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Each of the five arches has three ribs, horizontally braced and reinforced with chain-like diagonal spacers.

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With dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints, many of the casting shapes are copied from carpentry.

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A railing detail, with the date 1779.

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The bridge, originally decked with iron plates covered with clay and slag, closed to traffic in 1934. In 1999 the plates were replaced with steel and a top surface. On the other side is the town of Ironbridge with its prominent church. What's it made of? One guess.

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We'll go take a look. We have to pass the traffic circle that once funneled traffic onto the bridge. The town of Ironbridge has about 2,500 people today, but in 1840 it had over 4,000. One resident, Charles Hulbert, wrote in 1837 that the town had a "...weekly market, the Post Office, the Printing Office, principal inns, Drapery, Grocery and Ironmongery, Watch Making, Cabinet Making, Timber and Boat Building establishments; Subscription Library, Subscription Dispensary, Branch Bank, Subscription Baths, Gentlemen of the Legal and Medical professions, Ladies Boarding School, etc." (Quoted by W. Grant Muter, The Buildings of an Industrial Community: Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, 1979, p. 8.)

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Main street. The dark building in the left distance is the Tontine Hotel, built by the Darby family in the 1780s.

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No beating about the bush here.

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Booze to pews. This is the parish church of St. Luke, completed in 1837 with funds from a public subscription. The builders feared that the ground on the west end was too unstable to bear the weight of the tower, so they turned tradition on its head, put the tower and entrance at the east end of the building and the sanctuary at the west.

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The interior columns of cast iron are straight from Darby's Coalbrookdale furnaces. The glass windows were made nearby, in Shrewsbury. The timber had a longer journey, coming from the Baltic and hauled up the Severn.

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Downstream a mile, at Coalport, there's a pottery from the 1860s and a canal flanking the river.

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The canal ends here at the Hay Inclined Plane, where for a century starting in 1791 tub boats were lifted or lowered between the Severn and, up top, the Shropshire Union Canal. Unlike some planes, there was no steam engine here. Instead, two boats, linked by a rope, moved simultaneously, one up counterbalanced by one down. The rails descend into the water so the tub boats--each could carry five tons of freight--could be floated onto a cradle already resting on the track.

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The lift is 200 feet.

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We're heading to Coalbrookdale, which is on the upstream side of Ironbridge. Along the way, we pass a public school.

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Close to the school is Trinity Hall, opened in 1901 as a hall for the nearby Trinity Church. The cornerstone carries the name of Muriel Darby. The building is now a doctor's office. Notice the black lamp post? It was moved here when it got in the way of traffic, but look more closely.

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The United Kingdom: Ironbridge picture 21

Now a hostel, this was the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute, built in 1850 with company funds and the company's blue brick. Over the years it's lost its gables, as well as an entablature that once grandly read "Literary and Scientific Institution."

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Coalbrookdale's Holy Trinity Church was built in the 1850s and paid for by Abraham Darby IV, who departed from the Quaker observance of his forebears and became an Anglican.

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Another view of the church.

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At least eight Darbys are listed as donors.

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Unlike Darby I, II, and III, all of whom are buried in a nearby Quaker burial ground, Abraham Darby IV is in the churchyard here.

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There are many stout houses in the neighborhood. Here's one, from Tea Kettle Row.

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Another, this one down on the river at Ironbridge.

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