Any alumnus of Grade 10 history knows this about The Industrial Revolution: there were factories. Lots of them.
As for any other details, they’re about as foggy as a breath of London air circa 1860.
The problem is that this event failed to stimulate the youthful imagination like the knights of the round table, the guillotine and – well, geez – even Sir John A. Macdonald seemed sexy in comparison. Yes, sexy.
So when I heard that I’d be visiting sites linked to the Industrial Revolution in England, my instinct was to fall into an instant coma.
But then, like a shrill recess bell, something jostled out of my stupor. It’s called Ironbridge.
The “icon of the Industrial Revolution,” the bridge was built in 1779 to demonstrate iron’s potential. And, as my guide Roger Bailey explained, it was so much more than a road over the river: it ushered our ancestors into the future.
“Everything you see around you today – cars, vehicles, lights – everything is from that era, really,” he reflected. “I don’t think we put enough importance on what this place represents.”
I actually found myself thinking: this is fascinating.
The original ironman was Abraham Darby.
In 1709, he smelted iron with coke at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, single-handedly firing the starting gun for the Industrial Revolution.
70 later his grandson erected Ironbridge, which was greeted with slack-jawed awe. Unfortunately, so was the area, which – choked with smoke and pollution – was soon dubbed “black country.”
“They called it `the furnace of the world.’ There were thousands of factories. Nothing lived there – no grass, no trees, no parks,” says Bailey.
But I’m happy to report that Ironbridge Gorge has ditched all the symptoms of its old coke habit. The legacy, however, remains. A series of 10 superb museums (known as the Ironbridge Gorge Museums) lines the peaceful River Severn.
Rent a bike and cruise from one to the next. Peer down the furnace where Darby struck gold (er, iron), don a hard hat and creep into a sticky cave at the Tar Tunnel or stroll across picturesque Ironbridge itself.
My favourite is definitely Blists Hill Victorian Town, because I’m a huge sucker for those recreated villages with costumed actors milling about and pretending they’ve never heard of Rihanna, no matter how much you badger them or wave an iPhone in their face asking them “what’s this, then? WHAT’S THIS YOU SMART ALECK?!”.
The town was also the backdrop for BBC’s Victorian Pharmacy (great show, enjoyed by both myself and my dad).
Why not play along and pop into the pharmacy and complain about a tar-filled lung? They may just indulge you and give you some strong medicine to fix it. Arsenic, perhaps.
Can’t fathom driving on “the other side?” Get around Britain the easy-peasy way with a BritRail pass.
And don’t forget to visit my Across the Pond homepage!
Travel arrangements courtesy of Visit Britain.