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  • Here in beautiful rural Shropshire on the River Severn

  • sits a key landmark in England's industrial history

  • This bridge was erected in 1779

  • and was one of the first freestanding cast iron structures anywhere in the world

  • It was part of a revolution in design and engineering

  • that would see iron become much more widely used in construction around the globe

  • I'm Rob Bell, engineer and adventurer

  • and I'm exploring some of the most fascinating and significant sites in

  • England's industrial history. We're here at the Iron Bridge

  • because this marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,

  • the rise of coal and a shift in the way people lived and worked

  • that continues to this day.

  • To find out more about this industrial icon

  • I'm meeting English Heritage historian, Matt Thompson

  • - Matt, hi, great to see you - Hi, good to see you too

  • Apart from being this useful crossing over the river here

  • what exactly is the Iron Bridge? What's its significance?

  • The Iron Bridge is this symbol of one of the most remarkable periods

  • in our nation's history - the Industrial Revolution,

  • when we saw huge changes to society, changes in technology,

  • changes in the way people saw the world.

  • It's the first freestanding metal structure.

  • So when you look at the Burj Khalifa or you look at

  • the skyline of New York and you see these steel framed skyscrapers,

  • the Iron Bridge is a kind of great great great great great grandparent of all of these structures.

  • So really, what happened here in Shropshire is something that went on to transform the world

  • Well tell me a bit more about the material used to

  • construct this bridge and and how that was actually made

  • Well the bridge as the name suggests is made out of iron. And iron of course is

  • the material of the Industrial Revolution. The name that's most

  • associated with the bridge, and for very good reasons, is Abraham Darby III

  • and he was part of a consortium really of local iron masters

  • who wanted to build a bridge across the river. But they also wanted to show

  • how good they were at their trade - what they could actually achieve

  • and so this is very much a sort of calling card for the Iron Masters of the

  • South Shropshire Coalfield. This is a story that goes back a bit

  • further and it goes back to Abraham Darby III's grandfather

  • Abraham Darby came to Coalbrookdale and by 1709

  • he was producing iron using coke as a fuel and not charcoal

  • and he is credited with being one of the first people

  • to use a mineral fuel to be able to smelt iron

  • and he could do that in a way that was cost effective.

  • The use of coal was really the next step forward that enabled

  • a more efficient process to take place.

  • This was the real beginning to the Industrial Revolution.

  • If this bridge was this showcase for this new material iron, why build it here?

  • Why build it in the Severn Gorge? What was it about this place?

  • This whole area is perfect for the manufacture of iron. Not only do we have all the raw

  • materials that you'd need - iron ore, limestone and also coal, that can be

  • turned into coke for fuel. And it's the presence of the River Severn

  • this is the motorway, it's the super highway of its day

  • You can bring goods in, your finished goods can go out to market

  • and also the steep sides of the gorge means that you've got a good supply of

  • running water which can be used to power water wheels

  • to give you blast or a draft into the furnaces.

  • The Severn Gorge here sounds like it would have been a very different place

  • Can you paint a picture of what it would have been like to stand here now?

  • What we would see, what we'd hear, what was going on around us?

  • I think some of the best pictures can be painted by people at the time. One poet

  • Anna Seward came here and she wrote a poem called 'O, violated Colebrook'

  • In it she talks about the sort of sulphurous air

  • which would be all the smoke and fumes coming from the lead smelters and the iron furnaces.

  • And she talks about the glassy stains on the water of the river

  • because of course there's lots of pollution going into the river as well

  • And she paints a picture almost of an apocalyptic vision of industry

  • destroying the environment. When we stand here and we see the bridge as this

  • fantastic monument to the age of industry

  • we also have to really be aware of what the implications were of that

  • moving forward in terms of climate change

  • and the situation that we find ourselves in now.

  • And what would life have been like here for people who were living in the Severn Gorge

  • or working here in all this industry?

  • There was no health and safety really in

  • those days, so it would have been hard work

  • it would have been incredibly hot work and it would have been dangerous work.

  • It was a remarkable place to visit, but it must be a very difficult place to work

  • We look at the bridge today and we celebrate it for what it represents

  • but when it was built, did it have an impact in Britain?

  • Absolutely, I mean it had an impact even before the bridge was opened.

  • So Abraham Darby commissioned a painter William Williams to paint this

  • beautiful painting of the bridge in all its glory

  • and very quickly artists, writers, poets, travellers

  • came here to see the Iron Bridge and to see the furnaces.

  • It was a tourist attraction

  • In 1986 it became a World Heritage Site, so that puts it on a par

  • with the pyramids or Petra, all these other fantastic sites

  • It's been a long journey of recognising its importance and

  • English Heritage now as a charity, we're delighted to be

  • the organisation that cares for this, to ensure that in another

  • 250 years' time it's still standing.

  • Not only is it a hugely important piece of our nations, our world history,

  • but it's also still a bridge. It's not in a glass case, there's no

  • velvet rope saying 'do not sit', 'do not stand', 'do not walk' on it

  • This is part of a vibrant living community. It's still a functional item.

  • There's something about that that I really love.

  • And it feels like a real privilege to be able to do that

  • to come and stand, to see it, to walk across it

  • use it as it was first intended to get from one side of the river to the other

  • Matt, thank you so much for your time today

  • Thank you

  • As we've seen today, the Iron Bridge is more than just a simple structure.

  • It's a British icon that's recognised around the world

  • as being a landmark to the burgeoning industrial age

  • The introduction of cast iron engineering had inspired the world to

  • create structures that weren't just functional, but beautiful as well

  • The Iron Bridge is accessible to visitors year round

  • and it's the perfect place to take a break

  • and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Severn Gorge

  • Check the English Heritage website for more details

Here in beautiful rural Shropshire on the River Severn

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How England Was Made | Episode 2: Iron Bridge

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    Summer posted on 2020/09/09
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