Ramblings in Shropshire – Part 1

9 04 2007

5-9 April 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4

Journeying to Coalport

It’s been a busy week, from the moment of my return from Patterdale to the moment of departure to Shropshire, where Coalport is my first place of call. The hangover, the introspection and the experience of being on the Striding Edge remained with me for most of Monday. On Tuesday I started thinking about visiting Shropshire but it was still quite a vague idea. On Wednesday I visited Luton Central Library where I managed to borrow some maps of Shropshire. On the same day I started researching in brief the towns, villages, hills and heritage of Shropshire. I made a rough itinerary. With work keeping me busy every minute of the day, I left office at eleven at night. On Thursday, I arrived at work at half-seven. I managed to complete a good deal of critical work. Only at two o’clock did I get to plan the rest of my trip. I booked the tickets and made some arrangements for accommodation. I had to revisit the library to pick up yet another map.

I left Luton the same evening. I returned from office. I had no time for a meal. I had precisely 45 minutes to change, pack my stuff and leave. I have now perfected this art of packing and unpacking. Everything I need for any weekend trip is in order. Each item is kept in exactly the same place, sometimes in the same worn-out Ziploc bag. I do not even need to check the contents.

All in all, every minute of my week has been important. Nothing has been wasted. I have found real meaning to what is implied when people say “make the most of your day”, “live every moment to the fullest” or “live each day as if it’s your last”. This realisation has not come by chance or out of nothing. It has come because of my travel goals. It has come because of my steadfast belief that there is something good and great in travelling.

The bus from Luton to Birmingham departed at 1930 hours and arrived at its destination without any delay. For Thursday night, I had considered staying at Birmingham to save myself the trouble of a late night. However, Birmingham did not yield any suitable budget accommodation conveniently located close to the bus station. The city appeared to have plenty of hostels but each one I called turned out to be temporary lodgings for the homeless and drug addicts. Staying in Birmingham did not appeal at all.

Chimney of the Coalport China Museum

Chimney of the Coalport China Museum next to the YHA

Since the bus station is not close to the train station (Birmingham New Street), I had to walk quite a bit. The result was that I missed the next immediate train to Telford. I was forced to wait for 40 minutes while munching on a sandwich. When I finally reached Telford, it was past eleven. Here I found a queue for taxis but no taxis. There was an information board inside the station building that could have very well contained a local taxi number, but the building was locked. I obtained a number from someone in the queue. I called. A taxi was despatched. It arrived 20 minutes later. The driver did not know Coalport very well. We drove to Ironbridge, subtitled “World Heritage Site” and found the road to Coalport closed. So we left this World Heritage Site in darkness and without being impressed. We had to drive a long way back towards Telford and take a different route to Coalport. The expense to me from such a diversion was considerable. When I finally arrived at the YHA it was few minutes to midnight. The warden had kindly agreed to stay up late to receive me.

Whoever said travelling is easy? It isn’t. It begins as a vague idea. Perhaps this idea is limited to the place and what’s in it. There is less of an idea as to why we want to go there in the first place. We simply believe in good faith the self-praise that websites, brochures and guidebooks indulge in; and when so many speak highly of a place it must necessarily be worth visiting. However, a lot has to happen before this idea can be realised. A lot has to be done before we can actually hit the road. The picture of the destination with its wonderful promises of comfort and happiness is hung before our eyes from the outset. Reality on the other hand is imperfect and unpredictable. A long journey has to be undertaken before we reach that picture-perfect destination that has been a dream. This gap between what we seek and what is given, between what we aim for and what we achieve is at the heart of human happiness. Happiness depends on how easily we accept and adjust to this gap.

There is something interesting to be noted about the journey from Luton to Birmingham on the bus. I mention this only as an example. I have observed similar incidents on earlier journeys. A young Indian couple boarded the bus along with me at Luton. The general practice among all travellers is to prefer sitting at a row of empty seats rather than sitting next to an occupied seat. The result is that we often find couples sitting separately if they are among the last to board. This was not the case with the Indian couple. They requested others on the bus to swap seats so that they could sit next to each other. This couple had certain expectation from strangers who may well see their need and oblige. On this journey this caused some confusion to an English traveller. It was inconceivable for her that a stranger should ask her to adjust her own comfort for that sake of a companion traveller who she may very well not meet for the rest of her life. In Western societies, the individual towers above everything else. All of society is organised to serve the individual, to enable her to express herself fully and freely, to give her maximum safety, security and comfort. If the individual should serve society it is purely at her own will.

The second point of observation is that Indian couples who live outside the country, depend greatly on each other for support. They do not have a social network or the support of family as they do back home. As a result, their relationship is deeper and grows stronger with time. They understand each other better. Inhibitions that may normally be present back home are not seen here. Public displays of affection are common, though this is limited to touching. Kissing in public is a rare gesture among Indians. Without experience, I am ill-qualified to write about such things. In any case, this is one of the fundamentals of travel. We do not travel alone. We share the travelling space with others. At times, this may be irksome but mostly it contributes to the understanding of people and cultures we set out to see.

An Industrial Heritage

At the youth hostel, I purchased a “passport ticket” for £12.60. This allows me entry to as many as ten museums that lie scattered about the gorge at Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge, Jackfield, Blists Hill and Coalport. Today I managed to visit only four of them. However, I can always come back here because this ticket is valid for a year.

“Why so many museums?” we may ask. In trying to answer this question we may very well find that this place well-deserves to be a World Heritage Site. It is common to find places of antiquity. It is common to find Roman mosaics, Roman villas and Roman baths. It is common to find battle-ravaged castles and earthen embankments. It is common to find abbeys crumbling since the time of the Dissolution. All these are great places of political history and have much to interest any visitor. Yet none of these are to be found at Ironbridge whose fame is quite different altogether. The museums here do not speak of some distant forgotten past buried beneath layers of a modern life that has little in common with those ancient ways of life. The museums here speak of recent changes that have shaped our own way of life. They speak of changes whose effects are with us even today. If not for those changes, perhaps our life today might have been quite different.

This is actually giving too much credit to this place but there is some truth in it. It was here that a number of innovations took place. Iron had been traditionally produced with expensive charcoal but it was here that the technique of using cheap coke for iron-smelting was born. Once this was perfected, there was nothing they could not make with cast-iron. Neither design nor scale stood to challenge them. Cast-iron cylinders were produced for Thomas Newcomen’s steam engines. Iron rails and wheels were made for the railways. The world’s first iron bridge was made. This industrial wonder soon became popular and gave the town its present name. Steam engines were made for Richard Trevethick’s steam railway locomotive. Boats with iron hulls were made. When competition became stiffer, owners realised the potential in creating decorative items as well. Window frames, ornate gates, door lintels, garden sculptures, garden furniture, fountains, lamp-posts, railings, fences – all these came to be made of cast-iron.

Innovations were not limited to iron alone. At Jackfield, decorative tiles could be made by a faster process called dust-pressing. At Coalport, the process of lead-free glazing was introduced at an early stage in the 1820s. It was only in the 1950s that this became compulsory. At Blists Hill, the slow process of using locks along the Shropshire Canal was avoided by using a revolutionary Hay Inclined Plane in 1792. This rail track enabled coal to be transported from Blists Hill to the river in a matter of minutes when it would have previously taken hours.

The famous iron bridge

The famous iron bridge

The iron bridge itself is a small achievement in comparison of the great bridges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet, for 18th century times and technologies it was a huge achievement. Although iron bridges are known to have existed in China earlier, nothing on this scale had ever been attempted. So the people here claim that the world’s first cast-iron bridge was built across the River Severn. This was in 1779. This bridge is still standing today, as elegant as ever, but reinforced with concrete in an unobtrusive way. In this gorge, nature had challenged man for a long time. Man avoided this challenge by simply plying his trade on the waters of the Severn. Then in 1773, an idea sparked in the mind of an architect to build a bridge out of nothing but iron. This idea received support from iron enthusiasts although there remained many who were sceptical. A design was ready by 1775. An Act of Parliament was passed the next year disallowing ferry traffic within 500 yards of its construction. The furnaces of Coalbrookdale went into action – burning, firing, smoking, bellowing and smelting. By 1779, the bridge was raised for the world to view. Toll charges were set and the bridge was in full operation by 1781.

The bridge viewed from below

The bridge viewed from below

We can view this bridge in many ways. The worst view is when we are on it. There is no pleasure in crossing it for we do not have any view of its structure. The best view is from the wooded walks along the gorge. The bridge is an elegant semicircle that gets reflected in the waters of the Severn. This view is enhanced by the winding course of the river, by the wooded slopes that line the gorge and by the town itself that give it added interest. The walkways that are supported by these massive iron arches, rise from either side of the gorge in gradual inclination. They rise as if they were always destined to join at the centre. When they do join, they seem to carry the veins of their beings into each other; so that the bridge appears not as a completion of two halves but as a single unit of engineering ingenuity. Although the bridge is symmetric across the river, this symmetry is lost at its ends. The north side of the bridge is completed by a stone abutment. On the south side of the bridge is a pair of smaller arches, more modern than the main arch. These are little details. They are powerless to distract from the sweeping flawless metalwork that is great engineering but greater art.

Yet another view of the bridge is from below. I made my way to the bridge, passed the “Table of Tolls”, crossed the bridge to the town side, viewed it across the luxuriant pinks of cherry blossoms and then walked down a path to stand directly beneath the bridge. From here I saw a lattice of metal beams working together for strength and stability. Here I saw these beams bending, rising, falling, linking, joining, intersecting and supporting each other. I was reminded very much of Eiffel Tower.

As I looking at the bridge from many angles, far and near, I made my way back to Coalport where I have decided to sleep at the YHA for one more night. As I crossed the bridge once more, I noted an artist drawing a view of the gorge looking south-east. She was drawing with an ink pen on a B4 white paper. She has been at it for three days and she said it’s only half done. She has been coming to the bridge at about half-three in the afternoons in good weather. She draws for only two hours from this exact spot where the bridge begins. “The light has to be right”, she informed.

There are many other things I have seen today. There are many other little experiences that could be described but it would take an age to even write them all down. I therefore choose to mention only a handful.

Blists Hill Victorian Town
Demonstration on an old printing press

Demonstration on an old printing press

The decaying ruins of this industrial settlement has been revived as a Victorian town with period businesses run by costumed guides playing their parts so well that we are tempted to believe we are in an another age. Everything here is of curious interest: the sweetshop; the chemist and her glass bottles of colourful liquids; the candle workshop where tallow dips are made; the tinsmith making copper pans, pots, ladles and scoops; the photographer; the baker who seems to set the time for the village as people often make reference to the “first bake” or the “second bake”; the printer who prints posters and newspapers from a manually operated machine built on the same model as great Gutenberg; the same printer who tells us to mind our “p’s and q’s” and shows us how to “coin a phrase”; the cobbler whose soles are wearing out the pavement… the list is long.

Although I enjoyed this visit, from the start I felt I had come to the wrong place. I arrived early in the day when the place had not yet opened. I must have waited for fifteen minutes and without my noticing it, a queue had somehow formed itself at the entrance. The place became noisier as the queue grew in length. Grandmothers, elderly couples, families with children continued to join this queue as the minutes passed. This place promised to be little more than a theme park to make every visitor part with his money. My guess turned out to be true. Despite paying a stiff entry fee we have to pay for the buns at the bakery, to buy a friendship band, to ride on the carousel in a Victorian playground, to have our photographs taken, to ride the horse-drawn carriage, or to buy something off the chemist or the grocer. When I entered, the Victorian town was there alright but it was difficult to immerse in its atmosphere. The reason is simple. Every scene had in it elements of our own time, the most intrusive of them being other visitors and the litter they leave behind.

Coalport China Museum

Visit to any museum must begin with curiosity and end with questions. We may learn much but we must also question beyond what we learn. We must visit with an open mind but we must also seek to broaden it based on our own experiences. We must read even the most boring details. We must read with interest things that are far from the vocations we pursue. We must persist till we get something out of every visit. We must not be contented with gathering of facts but seek an experience for the expansion of the mind and an opening of the soul.

I had never paid much attention to tea-cups but there is so much to be learned from a simple tea-cup. In this museum, I found a detailed account of tea-cups including the history and evolution of their shapes. There was an interesting display of tea-cups stripped of all their ornamentation, design and colour. Flowers and foliage had been stripped. All gildings and enamels had been removed. Without all such details, the shape of each cup came out boldly and I took notice. Different shapes were presented and explained – Bute Shape, London Shape, Adelaide Shape, Waisted Shape, Spiral Moulding and Revival Antique Shape. The cultural significances were explained. The historical background was laid out with the artistic tastes of the period. The context as applicable to Coalport was introduced. I began to see each tea-cup as it was meant to be seen, in its bare essentials meant to fulfil a purpose with elegance and style. Cups with flaring mouths or splayed foot were compared with cups with ribbed flutes spiralling on their sides. Plain smooth handles were compared against angular ones formed by struts joined at sharp points. When I had seen the cups in this way, I was ready to go back to usual displays of tea sets and dinner sets, knowing that I would never again look at a tea-cup in just a passing glance.

Much of what I learnt at this museum came from a guided tour. I learnt about the famous Indian Tree design that had appeared on numerous porcelain ware. I am sure most Indians have never heard of it. It is not even certain that the design has any link to India other than a popular story that the design was brought back from India on a piece of silk by an officer. I learnt of old local terms – jigger and jolly used as moulds in the making of plates; saggar used as a safety box for porcelain before they were to be fired in the kilns.

Finally, I had some difficulty finding the exit. When I did find a sign, it was accompanied by another that read, “Gift shop entrance”. When I entered this gift shop I was made to wander about the many useless items while the exit itself stood artfully hidden in a corner. This has been the case in all these establishments about the gorge. The exit route always leads into a gift shop. They appeal to higher ideals of affection and generosity. Even if you don’t need anything, perhaps you could consider a gift for someone you love? Frankly, a tourist souvenir has no meaning as a gift. The receiver will not see its worth the way the buyer sees it. It is the same with travel notes. The reader may sense a little of the place but will not have a defining personal experience. It can be obtained only by being there.

Jackfield Tile Museum
Intricate shapes, designs and colours

Intricate shapes, designs and colours

What can there be in tiles? Even if they are decorative what can they inspire? Approaching this museum, all we see is a sprawling complex of dilapidated buildings of old red brick. We realise that they have seen glorious days but barely survive today. They stand with some stoicism, keeping up appearances, putting on a brave front in the face of rapidly changing times. The museum opens with the following paragraph from Henry Dunnill from 1870 which I promptly put into practice as I walked through the rooms:

I recommend to you to read as much as you can; it will
enlarge your ideas, and help you to understand that
Jackfied is not all the world, but a very poor bit of the fag
end of it – made up of old pit shafts, pit mounds, rubbish
heaps, brick-ends, broken drain and roof and paving tiles,
dilapidated houses, sloughy lanes, and miry roads; and that
in this neglected, forlorn, and desolate place it is yet possible
to understand and follow the great movements of the world,
and to share in the thoughts and emotions of the great
leaders of human thought.

This museum surprised in unexpected ways. At times I was overcome by the beauty of the tiles, the art of their designs and patterns. Gothic revival in architecture affected tile making so that tiles with medieval patterns became popular. These were called “encaustics”. I have seen such floor tiles at the Great Malvern Priory Church. The design and philosophy of William Morris, with focus on individuality and craftmanship rather than mass production, came to tile making as well. Aesthetic movement in art did not bypass the work at Jackfield. I was intrigued to learn that Maw & Co. also made the tiles for Bombay’s Victoria Station in the 1880s. The next time I am in the London Underground I am sure to take special note of the wall tiles such as those at Covent Garden station.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4




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