Property 371 – Ironbridge Gorge, United Kingdom
Ironbridge Gorge would be an easy World Heritage site to hate if you were unlucky with your timing or approached it in the wrong way. A series of things went right for me during my visit, including but not limited to several prior days of boredom, excellent weather and a sleeping child.
I’d been staying in nearby Telford for family reasons, an unattractive and uninteresting shopping centre of a town in the English Midlands. I was bored rigid as there are only so many times you can visit Primark. However the weather was sunny and warm(ish), and so one fine morning I loaded my kid into a stroller and some lunch into a bag, and walked five miles south to Ironbridge Gorge.
Walking to happiness
In many ways the walk itself was the highlight. It was the kind of English day that English people go into raptures about, when they can distract themselves from the miseries of English winter. My route took me through a town park of hedgerows and fields, and then along a dismantled railway line which had been converted into a public space. The further I walked the more ineffably English the scenery became – sunlight filtered through oak leaves, smoke rising from cottage chimneys, aspirational conservatories and a friendly encounter with an overweight female Bobby on a pushbike. I ate a lunch of cheese and pickles on a the banks of the Severn under some willows, watching people drink ale in a riverside pub. Being something of an Anglophile, I found this all very agreeable.
I was thinking of boating stripes and Pimms by the time I made it to Ironbridge Gorge proper. The area has been nominated as a World Heritage site largely, I think, as a representative of the general industrial-revolution milieu of the area. Some of the tourist literature claims the Ironbridge area as being the “first” in a number of things related to industry. These may be accurate, but I don’t think they’re the point. Trying to pin down an idea or a movement as vast as the industrial revolution is futile, so one might as well nominate a pretty spot with a few interesting relics as “the origin” and then we can all get on with our day.
Indeed, this is what UNESCO have done. Ironbridge Gorge is essentially a stretch of river that runs for several miles through a deep valley, the area around which is littered with early industrial ruins. It sounds quite boring, and in many ways is, but for a relic-nerd such as myself it’s like a giant treasure hunt. My walk along the gorge towards the bridge took me past dozens of small brick buildings, semi-demolished huts, random iron girders and the remnants of what must have been massive machinery which has since been melted down or sold for scrap. Many of these remains have been overgrown and abandoned, but even overgrowth has happened in a tweed-jacket sort of way; moss and creepers rather than ferocious jungle or thickets of bracken.
The bridge itself, after which the town is named, is pretty although not awe inspiring. As the name would suggest it is made of iron and was the first bridge to have been so constructed, necessitating the development of a slew of new engineering techniques. I don’t claim to know anything about them, but they must have been impressive because the filigree appearance from a distance resolves into a distinctly rugged reality up close.
The town on the North side, also called Ironbridge, is worth a visit if only because the best view of the bridge can be found in the beer garden of one of the pubs. There’s a pretty decent little museum further down the road inhabited by the usual brand of very intense volunteers one finds in these kind of places.
I certainly enjoyed my visit to Ironbridge Gorge, but I think that was due to the aesthetic pleasure of the walk rather than any astounding insight gained from the site. Don’t let that stop you though. Even a rainy day spent in the pub in such a quintessentially middle-English place is not a day wasted.