Thursday, October 8, 2009

At Iron Bridge Gorge

Iron Bridge Gorge, 1989

Have you ever become so interested in a place that you wanted to visit it, only when you finally got there it really let you down? This is one of those stories.

In the late 1970s, PBS ran a British series called Connections. The host, James Burke, took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention. Burke’s premise was that you couldn’t consider the development of any specific element of the modern world without understanding how it was the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own motivations with no idea of the consequences their action would set in motion.

To demonstrate, Burke began each episode with an event or innovation (usually something from Ancient or Medieval times) and traced the path from that event through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world. In one episode, for example, he traced the invention of plastics to the development of the fluyt, a sixteenth century Dutch sailing ship.

(Burke later wrote a book called The Pinball Effect that could be read from front-to-back or by jumping around from one section of the book to another in a completely non-linear way using a series of numeric guides that duck and weave like Internet hyperlinks.)

A pivotal element in the Connections story was the Iron Bridge over the Severn River Gorge in Shropshire, England. A long and hairy string of events that began with the idea of pumping air into and water out of coal mines in Wales led to the first blast furnace in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, and culminated in the building of this, the world’s first iron bridge. (The town and gorge were later renamed for the bridge.)

Burke spent a lot of time talking about this bridge because it was not only groundbreaking in terms of construction technology and architecture, but, when combined with the Watt steam engine and what the French were doing with Jacquard cards and looms, it was an essential building block of the Industrial Revolution.

But enough history. Suffice it to say that such was Burke’s enthusiasm that if I ever got to England, I wanted to see the Iron Bridge.

It would be ten years before I got there. From what I’d seen on Connections and in National Trust photos, I’d expected to find a quiet little hamlet slightly on the decaying side. Instead, my wife and I drove into town and found ourselves in the midst of activity and chaos more reminiscent of, say, Coney Island.

Every inch of the place was crawling with people. And like the people in America who say they’re going to see the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, but never get past the Buford T. Pusser Walking Tall Museum in the plains of Pigeon Forge, I can say with some confidence that most of the people we saw in Iron Bridge Gorge never set foot on the namesake iron bridge. They were too busy swilling ale in open-air pubs, yelling like raucous soccer fans, throwing trash along the side of the road and generally behaving crudely. Whatever it is you think of as a PBS or Rick Steves kind of traveler, they were exactly the opposite.

We’d intended to spend the night there. But when we discovered that the only place available was a room above a pub where the local flea circus was still performing on the bed pillows, we did a quick visit of the Iron Bridge Gorge Museum , snapped a few pictures and got the heck out of town.


  1. Chris: Oh, man-- I LOVED that "Connections" program. (Actually started watching in on re-runs in the 80s/90s.) Thanks for the memory rush. Had a chemistry prof in college like that & it was the only reason I managed to escape with a "C" in that class; got the history questions correct on his test, but couldn't do the lab work I was so lost.
    And YES, I've definitely been to those let-down places. (Wall St. in NYC is like that for me, as was Las Vegas and So. California.)

  2. There's a beautiful little film I saw recently that talks about the random almost accidental nature of history. The film's about many things but I think it might interest you. I think it will entertain you at the very least. It's called The History Boys adn written by the playwrite Allan Bennett, one of the original Beyond The Fringe members along with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It's very, very good.

  3. That's pretty funny--yes, I've had moments like that as well. Your bridge photo is serene and lovely, though--you'd never know what was surrounding it to see this. Conversely, I've had places I never expected to think anything about that blew me away and that I wound up falling in love with.

    OMG, I love Allan Bennett--just read pcb's note above. I love his writings, (especially about his mother, who had Alzheimer's.) I do remember the Connections program as well!

  4. The tones have almost a hand-colored feel to thme. This could have been taken in 1900. Lovely.

  5. Chris, Great work! Not only are your photos works of art, but your moments are fantastic! Keep up the creative work.