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A Richer Earth

[To read the postings in their original sequence - more or less chronological - scroll down to the foot of this page]

Image: Much Wenclock Olympics

Streets Ahead of the Olympics

Much Wenlock in Shropshire has held the Wenlock Olympian Games since 1850. Baron de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 visited the town in 1890 and took inspiration from the annual event there. On returning to France de Coubertin said "If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes". Dr William Penny Brookes was the man who set the Much Wenlock Games going forty years before. The field used now for most of the events is shown with the torch symbol on top of an information panel. Early events took place in the town's streets - a disc marker in the middle lower photo records the scene of one of the races.

Dr Penny Brookes was the son of a local doctor. He studied in Italy and Paris before returning to Much Wenlock in 1831 to take over the practice of his father who had died the previous year. It is relevant to this web site that in Italy Penny Brookes had learnt of medicinal plants at the great botanical gardens in Padua. These had been founded in 1545 as a kind of encyclopaedia of all the known plants of the world, a kind of microcosm in circular form subdivided into thousands of beds each individual to one kind of plant. Doctors and apothecaries from all over Europe travelled to Padua to study: health tourism, once again, is by no means a new phenomenon. So Dr Penny Brookes, now qualified, went back to live in the family house (lower photos, second from left) where he lived until his death in December 1895. He became a magistrate and in 1841 founded an Agricultural Reading Society as a town lending library. As a concerned doctor and surgeon the general health of Wenlockians was uppermost in his mind. To help improve it he began the Wenlock Olympian Class in 1850 and in October of that year held its first Olympian Games. Athletics and sports such as cricket, football and quoits were included. Becoming an annual event there were also one-off fun competitions such as an old women’s race for a pound of tea or a wheelbarrow race. A procession with brass band, flags, officials and competitors led the way to the town racecourse. Later the venue was the Windmill Field, now known as the Gaskell Recreation Ground (top right).

A printed Town Trail is available from the Tourist Information Centre. When we visited in May 2011 this was being rebuilt and the TIC service was situated in the lending library behind the market building (bottom left). The Trail is about 1.3 miles long or 2,150 metres. A very neat idea is that it is marked every 100 metres or so by circular metal plates let in to the pavement showing how many metres you have walked. Matching a number on each to the trails gives historical information about the local Games but at times refers to the modern Olympics to link the two. So walking it all gives a reminder that you have taken exercise, and Dr William Penny Brookes would have been grateful at the thought.

[Top row, second from left: the Penny Brookes memorial in the Church of the Holy Trinity. Bottom right: the Olympic Games 2012 mascot is named Wenlock]

Image: The Ludlow Bone Bed

Geek’s Corner

Just to record another ‘fifty-years-later’ triumph. But you may yawn if you wish!

The Snailbeach visit recently (see previous post) was one of two catch-ups. The other was to find a locale where the Ludlow Bone Bed can be seen. It is a geological treasure trove only a few centimetres thick and just over 400 million years old. Geologists place it at the top of what is known as the Silurian period. The Bone Bed contains fossil remains of the first vertebrates known in Britain – small, early forms of fish. So don’t confuse the geological period with those creatures on Dr Who, bigger, often nastier but also named after a Welsh tribe that existed around the time of the Romans, the Silures. Mind you, Madame Vastra was rather nice.

The Ludlow Bone Bed is found near the town it was named after. Having heard of it during school geology lessons it always sounded well worth tracking down. I knew that rich fossil sites can be destroyed by unscrupulous collectors so assumed it might be difficult finding details of good locations. The web gave little detail at first and geology books were often silent on the matter. But searching the name led to the Automobile Association web site where a walk labelled ‘Breadwalk to Bone Bed’ popped up with a description of how to find it on a walk close to the town. As it says, a plaque on a cliff face right by the road junction at Ludford Corner marks the spot. The rock is friable and digging into it is frowned on for reasons of conservation. A short inspection of fragments didn’t show anything obviously fish-like, so I took some photos and contented myself with that. Another ambition ticked off the list!

Click here for the AA web page

Image: Bog Mine and Snail Beach

Heavy Metal

Coming to terms with the fact that the Coalbrookdale area was a scene of heavy industry is difficult enough. Exploring the Stiperstones hills and imagining them as the greatest centre of British lead production, as they were for many decades, is even harder. We are so used to seeing the Shropshire hill country in terms of natural beauty that its importance in the mining of metal is unnoticed. Yet the district hacked out more lead per acre of mining ground than anywhere else in Europe and the Romans were extracting that essential metal in quantity.

We took a drive through the area after a morning exploring Much Wenlock. So we had already followed the road close to the limestone of Wenlock Edge, passed through Church Stretton and promised ourselves a proper look at the town later, and then climbed the giddying road over the ancient rocks of the Longmynd. Wenlock Edge is a scarp – a thick bed of limestone sloping south-east with a steep scarp ‘face’ presented to the north-west. The Longmynd rocks are sediments and amongst the oldest in Britain, dating from late Pre-Cambrian times. There are volcanic rocks amongst them but the rugged hills exist because the sedimentary layers were folded into a sharply-defined U-shape known to geologists as a syncline, lifting them into high mountains that have over the millennia eroded down to the moorland uplands we know today. Rivers have cut deep valleys into them to make for spectacular views from the roads and footpaths threading the high ground. Church Stretton has the Cardingmill Valley and Ashes Hollow nearby amongst others. These delighted travellers in Victorian times and made the town an early tourist centre. The valley between the Longmynd and the hills of the Lawley, Caer Caradoc and Ragleth Hill was formed by earthquakes which tore the rocks apart here and opened up volcanoes, extinct now for over fifty million years.

Whether modern day tourists know it or not the scenery they enjoy so much is the outcome of geological activity and the work of human beings from centuries past. Walking or driving through it must surely demand answers to the question as to why it is as it is, or else the traveller would have to be a particularly dull-minded person.

Our route was planned to take in the location of the Bog Mine, a source of barytes and lead for the best part of two hundred years, before going on to Snailbeach, the village which has the most extensive remains of the lead mining industry in the country. When I dabbled in geology fifty years ago, there were plenty of mining sites with spoil heaps, derelict buildings and even some open tunnels and shafts to be explored. At least the shafts were usually fenced off and a stone dropped down one to await the echoing clatter at the bottom was the only satisfying thing to do with them. Some tunnels were open and accessible. Now most of those have been sealed off. The spoil heaps of waste rock were the treasure troves to be turned over. A good site in Staffordshire, Derbyshire or Shropshire would yield small crystals of galena (lead ore), pyrites (an iron sulphide) or lumps of malachite (copper carbonate) or hematite (iron oxide). Calcite, barytes and quartz – less exciting unless in large crystals – were common, but it was the metal-connected finds that were the real prizes.

What a change to some of these happy hunting grounds! In Staffordshire, Ecton on the River Manifold’s deep limestone valley is hardly a place at all in comparison with the old days. Trees and shrubs hide what used to be the open spaces of a major copper and lead mining hamlet. The spoil heaps are fenced off anyway and the level entrance to a veritable warren of tunnels and shafts has been blocked off. In Shropshire the story is similar. We reached the Bog Mine (photos below) and could easily have driven straight past. There is only limited evidence that this, too, was a busy, noisy, smoky mining community with engine houses, cottages and a Miners’ Institute or community centre. There were fewer buildings here in its heyday than in many mining centres as the ore was dressed a distance away in Minsterley. Yet it gave up barytes, zinc, lead and even silver over more than two centuries of mining. A pond, a tunnel, some spoil heaps – much overgrown – a powder house where blasting charges were stored and some walls and foundations of the Miners’ Institute are what is left. The powder house is tucked away between shrub-covered spoil mounds. The tunnel can be seen – it has a walkway up to its gated entrance – but was apparently driven during World War I after most mining has ceased. One account says it was dug as a way of employing local men in a period of economic downturn. It is called the Somme Tunnel, an evocative name linking it with the contemporary trench warfare and slaughter in Northern France. Just a short distance away from the mining location is the one remaining building of the village which stood here. It escaped demolition with the rest in 1972 and now serves as a visitor centre for the Bog Mine and the surrounding Stiperstones area where a conservation project is under way. However, we could not see inside the centre as it was closed at the time of our visit. It operated in 2011 from Wednesday to Sunday though in the school holidays opens every day of the week. It closes from the end of October until the Spring.

It was close to the end of my secondary school days that a coach load of us pupils plus two or three teachers made a trip to Shropshire. It was my introduction to places like Ironbridge and Church Stretton. We planned to see Snailbeach as well but had tried to pack too much in to the day and had to drop that visit. So getting there in 2011 was of particular interest. It proved a very positive stop with much more to see than expected. Health and Safety procedures and some landscaping and introduction of visitor aids – signs and pathways – might have changed the place but there is far more to enjoy than at most mining sites.

We arrived in the village, still inhabited and indeed quite large and apparently thriving, unlike that of the Bog Mine. I turned the car up the lane to the mine site, but we saw a sign saying ‘no visitors’ cars past here’. We did debate whether to pull up on a patch at the side of the lane near the mine buildings but thought better of it and returned to the main road. On the other side a proper parking area became apparent. It did mean responding to an Honesty Box towards the upkeep of the said car park, and being generally well behaved when confronted by no parking signs and sympathetic towards the costs of providing visitor facilities a coin was dropped in. It fell onto hard metal, a symptom perhaps of either no visitors or else only some ungenerous ones. Or perhaps the box had just been emptied of its own treasure trove from the day.

This was Point 1 on the visitor trail picked out by numbered posts. It was an excellent trail. Back across the road a stone path wound up the hill away from traffic, past Point 2 (remains of an engine house) to Point 3. This was a spoil heap, and quite a big one, that adults and children could turn over to their heart’s content in a search for specimens of the lead that was once taken out of the ground here. On the other side of the road which serves private houses are the many mine buildings and structures. Interpretive panels and numbered posts abound. Some of the mining remains are on private property and only occasionally accessible when guided tours are operated. They stretch up the hillside to an octagonal chimney that carried the fumes and smoke from the lead smelter operated at the mine and from the boilers that supplied steam to the winding engine and pumps helping drain the levels deep down below. There is a blacksmith’s forge that is operated on certain days, a visitor centre, boiler and compressor houses, a reconstructed mine headgear with cage and exposed lengths of narrow-gauge railways, one with a wagon with rock loaded into it.

Our visit was late in the day when the forge and visitor centre were not open. We had limited time to see what are said to be the most extensive range of buildings of any British lead mine to remain. At its height in the nineteenth century the Snailbeach Mine produced 2,700 tons of lead a year. There is evidence that it was at work in Roman times and only ceased production in 1955. While the site is less spectacular than the many mines strung along the cliffs of Cornwall and, unlike the Magpie Mine remains in Derbyshire it is embedded firmly in a busy rural village, the Snailbeach site has such a lot to see that it is well worth planning a visit to. In my case the fifty-year wait was rewarded especially by the more recent work of conservation, restoration and interpretation that helps bring history to life.

If you want a bit more persuading, follow the Virtual Tour on the Shropshire Mines Trust web site which is well illustrated and described, by clicking here:

Click here for a virtual tour of Snailbeach Mine

Image: The Bog Mine




Image: Haughmond Hill Geotrail

Rock On

A revisiting of Haughmond Hill on the present trip [May 2011] was fun. I started out to walk to the edge of the woodland on the western side with a view of the Wrekin. There are colour-coded trails shown on display maps at the main car park. Following the ‘All Routes’ sign takes you along the path to wooden stakes with the colours repeated with arrows with further directions. It was a cloudy day though hopefully clearing and as we were not likely to be back here for a while I thought it time to go round the whole hill. Brave man. Rain could still pour or the old legs give out, but what the heck – no pain, no gain and all that kind of thing.

It was certainly a pleasant walk. Trees are beautiful things but I am no expert on them so the finer points were completely lost on me. I recognised oaks and beech and noted the number of conifers. Underfoot earthen tracks were often made irregular by roots – and rocks. These are the subject of an interesting trail which has had features added to it since our first stay in the Haughmond area exactly a year ago.

The Forestry Commission owns the woodland on Haughmond Hill with Bardon Aggregates operating the huge chasm of a quarry on the northern edge. The Commission worked with the Shropshire Geological Society to devise a Geotrail which leads from the main car park to a magnificent viewpoint on the western edge looking across the Shropshire plain towards hills stretching from Wenlock Edge round to the Breiddens and then way out across the more level country to North Wales. Barden Aggregates sponsored the features along the route. Most of the on-site interpretation was devised by Andrew Jenkinson of Scenesetters, a long established practitioner based in Shropshire.

I was walking clockwise round the hill so came to the end of the trail and then traced it back to the car park. Here I will describe it as most visitors will encounter it. The photos above illustrate some of the highlights.

The start is marked by a large stone with a plaque saying “Bardon Geotrail”. This dates from 2009. From soon after this marker there appears the first of a series of more recent plaques in what I guess will be a tough resin. Each is around 30cms square and fixed close to ground level against a soil mound – perhaps concealing rocks helping to anchor the plaques against vandalism. One of them is shown in the photo bottom left. I have to say that I didn’t think them very good. First of all they might be ignored as strange square plates in the ground – other, earlier panels on the trail are colourful and attractive. Secondly, as in the example here, they make excellent alternatives to the woodland trees for dogs to pee on. At least two had been ‘appreciated’ by dogs this way. Third, the information on them will be rather obscure to most people and wasn’t at all clear to me with my A-level geology from fifty years ago and a few recent handbooks. The one in the picture has a line of text reading “362-418 Ma. Clee Hill’s red sandstone shows how fish evolved”. What do the figures represent – what does “Ma” mean? Is it ‘million years ago’? In which case aren’t the numbers the wrong way round? Or does it mean something else? As it happens I know where Clee Hill is, but visitors who don’t will be confused – and there are two Clee Hills anyway, Brown Clee and Titterstone Clee. The low-relief animals shown will explain nothing about fish evolution during Devonian and Carboniferous times – and there is nothing here to set the time period apart from the mysterious “362-418” – if they mean something in years. Having just checked the Devonian and Carboniferous dates, they do appear to mean that many years ago in millions.

The other features along the trail make much more sense and are very good. Sadly, attack dogs are not the only hazard they have to endure. At the quarry viewing point shown (bottom, middle picture) the very good interpretation panels have been cut deeply with initials and some offensive wording. Whether there is a budget for replacing damaged panels – an open-ended requirement as usual – I have no idea. The information at the quarry overview is good, but spoiled by the fact that an access track just beyond the wooden fence and an earth bank behind it obscure the view of much of the excavation. A large grading plant can be seen and heavy trucks moving round. Across the quarry the large cliff of rock is visible, except that late in the day, as on this my second visit, it is in shadow.

Further along is another graphic panel headed “See Changes Through Time” which explains some of the rock types present in Haughmond Hill, with three large boulders of different rock types by the path (blue graphics panels above).

The culmination of the Geotrail is a new toposcope at the point on the western edge of the hill already mentioned with a magnificent view across this part of Shropshire. Toposcopes are simple arrangements of some kind of panel which outlines features in sight and labels them. This one (three pictures at the left, excluding the one extreme lower left already discussed) is made of an arc of stone blocks from local quarries plus one more distant. These include blocks of turbidites and conglomerates from the Haughmond Hill quarry (turbidites are rocks formed in landslides with all kinds of broken fragments making them up. Conglomerates are similar but made of older pieces laid in beds under water, probably at the mouths of large rivers). Another block is of Carboniferous limestone from a quarry on Wenlock Edge. Clee Hill has contributed a block of dolerite, also of Carboniferous age. There is an example of sandstone of the kind also found at Clee Hill, though as it is no longer quarried in Shropshire this one comes from Millom in Cumbria. Finally there is a block of gabbro, an igneous rock – formed from molten rock deep underground – from Criggion in the Breidden Hills. Three of the blocks carry the labelled outlines of what can be seen looking outwards beyond them. All the blocks have both polished and rough-cut surfaces, helping to show their properties and to identify them.

While the Geotrail ends here there is a further viewpoint with what have been called three Family Stones – one shown at the right – with a hole in each. Looking outwards through these holes leads the eye towards the place where each was quarried.

All in all the Geotrail is a good example of what is becoming an important addition to the kinds of interesting walks to be had in Britain. Geology is a good subject for treasure-hunting enthusiasts and Shropshire has plenty of locations worth visiting. A new posting will be about the Bog Mine and Snailbeach Mine locations, the latter, especially, having much to explore. The deep beds of rock below the Shropshire earth were the sources of so much of what was needed for agriculture and industry here, on a scale more varied than almost anywhere else in Britain. On the other hand, safety considerations and landscaping work have of necessity deprived rock hounds of many opportunities of turning up minerals and fossils. Perhaps this is one reason for the many shops and web sites selling geological specimens brought in from commercial sources.

Image: Longden-upon-Tern aqueduct

Not Quite the First Aqueduct in Iron

Once iron could be produced in quantity, thanks to the introduction of coke-based smelting, the potential opened up for the increased use of the metal in all kinds of ways old and new. However, it took a long time for major innovations to appear. Iron wheels had been used in the 17th century. Iron rails of different kinds began to appear late in the 18th century, as did the first iron bridge (1779), iron boat (1787), iron aqueducts (1796) and iron-framed building (1797). Steam engine parts had been made for Thomas Newcomen’s successful steam engine in 1712. The important use of boring-mill tools to make steam cylinders out of iron ingots progressed slowly during the 1720s and 30s but only reached a high degree of accuracy with John Wilkinson’s patented method of 1774. It raises the question of what should be taken as the starting date for the Industrial Revolution. The Ironbridge Museum used to refer to Coalbrookdale in its publicity as being “where in 1709 the world’s Industrial Revolution began”. It is a complicated question but in many ways has a simple answer: the Revolution did not begin at one particular place in one particular year, but is best described as having been a rapidly rising curve. Many factors came to bear over a length of time and a wide area. It is beyond the scope of this posting to pursue the point further. It does raise a serious question about historical accuracy, even authenticity, and the ways in which historic centres promote themselves.

For the moment the focus of this posting is the iron aqueduct which still stands in Shropshire at Longdon-upon-Tern, seen above. This aqueduct is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is listed as Grade 1 historic importance. Recently a small lay-by, signposting and footpath complete with styles past fences have been installed to enable visitors to inspect it. For a while there was no access. Before that – say in the late 1970s and 80s – it was possible to see it only by climbing a fence to cross a farmer’s field. I took several parties to it this way until on one occasion we had to beat a retreat on the sight of a farmer carrying a shotgun approaching a distance away. Perhaps he was coming to offer a welcome and give a talk about cast-iron architecture, but I doubt it.

The Shrewsbury Canal, closed since 1944 and in many places completely bulldozed away – the aqueduct has little trace of a ‘cut’ nearby – had been opened in 1797. A brick and stone aqueduct had been built by the canal’s original engineer, Josiah Clowes, but was washed away in February 1795 by a flood. Clowes died later that year and was replaced by Thomas Telford. The new engineer took a different view of what was needed with the result that cast iron plates, bolted together and supported by cast-iron supporting piers, formed the 62-yard (57 metres) long trough spanning the river with its ends on Clowes’s more traditional brick and earth embankments. The sections of the trough were wedge-shaped like the voussoirs of the arch of a stone bridge, an arrangement which spread the weight and stresses throughout a wider span. The trough was 7.5 feet (2.3 metres) wide and 4.5 feet (1.4 metres) deep. A tow-path was bracketed out on one side. This proved problematic as barges almost filled the whole width of the trough and so water being displaced by their passage had little means of escaping past the boat, a bow wave being pushed ahead which slowed the passage.

The Longdon-upon-Tern aqueduct was not the very first in iron, however. Benjamin Outram opened one of 13.4 metres for the Derby Canal just one month before that of Thomas Telford. However it was much shorter and had to be repaired and strengthened several times to keep it in use, having been less well engineered.

When Telford designed the spectacular Pontcysyllte aqueduct nine years later near Wrexham he used the method employed at Longdon-upon-Tern. Pontcysyllte is almost five and a half times the length - and 126 feet (38 metres) above the River Dee. It has a towpath made within the trough and above the water level, so water displaced can pass astern along the side of the boat. The Llangollen Canal that it carries is fully operational as a narrow-boat route for tourists. Because the side of the canal trough opposite the towpath is only a few centimetres above the water level, is even less centimetres thick and has no safety rail, the crossing is a form of literally high adventure that ensures great popularity. It is a World Heritage Site.

That is only one of the reasons for the strength of industrial archaeology as a tourist attraction for millions of visitors every year. For the devotees of the subject, being able to trace the remains of constructions like the Shrewsbury Canal is a powerful attraction itself, a form of detective work or treasure hunt that brings many rich rewards.

Image: Shrewsbury Canal remnants


Image: Museum of Iron

Cast of Thousands

My first visit to Coalbrookdale was from my North Staffordshire school in 1962. It was two and a half years after Allied Iron founders opened their Museum of Iron based on the work of Arthur Raistrick. Seven years before Michael Rix, a Shropshire Adult Education tutor at Attingham Hall, had used the term ‘industrial archaeology’ in print for the very first time. With post-war changes gathering pace it was to be one of the new pursuits, dedicated to the identification, study and presentation to the public of industrial history. Which meant not only the kind of national-pride achievements whereby Britain led the change into the industrial revolution but also the recognition of the lives of millions of ordinary people usually lost under the shadow of kings, queens and other prominent figures.

What happened in Coalbrookdale did have immense influence on Britain and on the whole world. The key event was the successful smelting of iron using coke instead of charcoal in 1709. What might seem like a technical detail and no more was really a world-changing event in the long run. Iron was in demand for weapons and tools on an ever greater scale. It was made using a blast furnace in which iron ore, limestone and charcoal were heating by forced air blasts until liquid iron could be tapped, allowing it to flow into sand moulds, cooled until solid and then supplied to ironworkers. The charcoal was made from wood by controlled burning in air-tight heaps covered in turfs. It meant that iron foundries competed for timber with the builders of houses and ships, the makers of tools and anyone needing fuel for fires. To meet the demand for iron and to improve profits to plough back into new developments a more plentiful fuel was needed. Coal, at the time, could not be used directly, but turning it into coke in a way matching the production of charcoal from wood was the answer. Knowing how to do that required experimentation. It was the Quaker iron founder Abraham Darby I who solved the problem at his furnace site in Coalbrookdale in 1709, founding not only an innovative industry but a dynasty of iron founders including Abraham Darby III who took built the world’s first iron bridge nearby across the River Severn.

So Allied Ironfounders Ltd, as successors of the Coalbrookdale Company, had good reason to celebrate the 250th anniversary of that first coke-smelted iron by opening their museum. It would be twenty years later that the Ironbridge Gorge Museum moved the collection into the Great Warehouse alongside and adding much more to the exhibitions. It also was able to move away from the objects-with-labels approach of 1959 by designing narrative story lines using models, reconstructions and stage set-type exhibits mocking-up scenes from the past. Museum display and interpretation techniques had move immensely far in those twenty years. It can also be acknowledged that this brought about some criticisms of funfair approaches – “Disneyfication” – which in turn were countered by those pointing out the permanent need to explain, to teach, history in a lively and attractive way – without distorting or demeaning it.

The rich earth of Shropshire was uncovered to yield iron, limestone and coal to feed the furnaces. Clay was needed for bricks to build them and stone for foundations. Fine sand had to be obtained for making casting moulds. The rich earth also fed the crops and livestock needed by the workers who toiled daily in the quarries, mines, foundries and forges. They had little time to raise all of the food that they needed and so farming had to expand accordingly. At the same time the people who lived on this rich earth added their own richness of knowledge, of culture and social innovation that spread throughout the land.

Image: Wroxeter Roman house replica

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day – Even in Shropshire.

There are quite a few reconstructions or replicas of Roman buildings around the country. South Shields has Arbeia, a modern take on parts of a fort and gatehouse. Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall has a section of the wall replicated with a gatehouse, and displays of a temple, shop and house. At Baginton, Coventry, there is not only a gateway but a gyrus, or arena-like military training area, a granary and, from 1966, a section of wall and rampart defences. Fishbourne (West Sussex) has a Roman potting shed with tools, an essential for the fine villa which stood next door and whose original foundations and mosaic floors are well displayed.

Now Wroxeter has its own replica, of a Roman House. The building was designed and the work constantly checked by Professor Dai Morgan Evans of Chester University, a man with a strong track record in archaeology and a book about reconstructing a Roman Villa to his name as well as academic papers. As this is an English Heritage site that organisation saw the rebuilt house as a useful addition to what there is to see of the fourth largest Roman settlement in the country. Wroxeter has its museum to help interpret the remains to the public. Many remains, plus a high section of a massive wall, have been excavated, but there are far more fields around under whose turfs must lie still more treasures.

English Heritage teamed up with Channel 4 television to carry out a six-month project to result in a house built using traditional Roman methods. The finished product is an excellent illustration of building work of the time with many examples of different kinds of work to be seen and an overall impressive effect. It is in what English Heritage calls an ‘undressed state’ – without furniture, some of the wall finishes and virtually none of the impedimenta of daily life. It is in an L-shape – based on a house whose foundations were excavated at Wroxeter. In the inner angle of the L-shape is a gravelled area with large pots containing plants and small shrubs. The colours, as can be seen in the photos, are quite startling to modern eyes that might only have seen rough stone foundations and presumed that the originals looked the same.

The TV series, broadcast in January and February of 2011, revealed a number of cracks in the way the project was organised, however. A team of six builders had been recruited to do the work under the leadership of a very skilled foreman. They had various backgrounds and specialisations, though none had done this kind of period work previously. It was obvious – and entirely predictable, that the dramatic tensions of the TV shows would be based on the usual steep learning curves involved. In addition, also predictably, it depended on the characters of the guys. Now, if a contractor wanted a house building you would expect him or her to choose the best for the task. In this case it was clearly the mix of skilled workers and comedians who were selected, the extraverts along with the quieter personalities. In one case I suspect the show producers caused one of the most serious problems by not choosing the right man for the task required. But also that criterion of having to use ‘Roman methods’ was questionable, and proved in the event to be impossible.

Talking with people who watched it one of the memorable moments was when Professor Morgan Evans had a row with the foreman, who had allowed his team to use modern wheelbarrows when faced with time to move materials running dangerously behind schedule. The Prof insisted on a rough, two-wheeled wooden cart pulled by the lads. There were two problems with this. First, the carpenter who built it was a man with shop fitting experience and some restoration work. His cart fell apart within the first few runs, and it had taken time to design and build. Another team member hacked a log or two and made a better one much quicker. Loading, hauling and unloading stone with it still took far too long and in due course Morgan Evans gave in and allowed modern wheelbarrows, defeated by that need to impose a dramatic time restraint that was unworkable. The Romans would not have used only six men to build a house when they could draw on dozens of them including slaves. And just how different is a two-wheeled wooden cart from a single-wheeled metal barrow? Lighter, better balanced, easier running, yes, but just which principles were really being tested here?

The carpenter came off badly in the whole project. He must still be harbouring dark thoughts about what happened, and people who saw the key episode have been very critical in online forums about his position. At all stages he was taking far too long to plan out the timberwork designs that were needed, reflecting either his shop-fitting experience of careful finishes or else his own lack of the necessary skills. When the timber was being cut and assembled for the heavy roof trusses – dangerous frames to erect and ensure their stability in the structure – the foreman was very unhappy about the quality. Confronting the carpenter he wrote off the work saying it hadn’t even been cut straight, walking off and demanding a replacement carpenter. He got his new man and the old one left the show. Sure, the quality and production time for the timberwork was below standard, threatening the safety of building perhaps as well as its standard, but why was a team member selected apparently without proof of the quality of his work. I don’t know if the Romans wanted references but the TV producers should have been demanding them of their building crew. To cap it all, as Professor Morgan Evans realised that hand cutting the timber beams was too big a task for the team and the six-moth schedule, he decided to allow modern machine-cut wood from a timber yard. Having sacked a man for not hand-cutting things straight, among other reasons he then bought modern timber work. One viewer commented online that the rejected carpenter should have received a full apology. I wonder he didn’t sue.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Roman houses weren’t put up in six months by six men either.

Image: Wroxeter Vineyard

Wine from Shropshire

We hear a lot about climate change and grapes being grown in more parts of Britain, including Yorkshire. Yet it is still a surprise to come across a vineyard in the UK. One has existed in Shropshire for twenty years, tucked away behind the visible remains of the Roman city, Wroxeter. Just after the last World War the land occupied by the vineyard was purchased by William Parry, grandfather of Christine Millington. It is Chris and her husband David who run the winery here. David Millington had managed a large farm estate for CWS locally. However, he and his son Martin went to study viticulture in Devon under a lady called Gillian Pearkes who had herself established a vineyard there at Yearlstone. She was part of a movement that from the late 1940s had re-introduced growing grapes in England for wine. The Romans had made wine in Britain and vineyards existed right up until the mid nineteenth century when the government reduced import duty drastically. Wines from the bigger producing countries in Europe then began to be imported in great quantity, killing off the home production.

After World War II many brave new world projects of all kinds began, many of them such as national parks, transport preservation schemes and festivals having an influence on tourism growth. Setting up a viticulture research centre wasn’t one such influence, at least at the time, but in the longer term it would have a part to play. A man named Ray Barrington-Brock funded one in Oxted, Surrey, out of his own pocket in 1946. Six years later Major General Sir Guy Salisbury Jones planted three acres of vines at Hambledon, Hampshire where, incidentally, the game of cricket had first been formalised back in 1787. The demand for English wine (ie grapes grown and pressed in England, not imported) grew slowly at first. Then a rapidly-increasing taste for wine during the 1980s onwards opened up more opportunities and at the present there are somewhere around 400 vineyards in production.

David and Christine Millington decided to move into wine production after he spent time as an agricultural consultant travelling in California where wine making is big business but relatively recent in origin. If the Romans could do it, they thought, so could we. Part of their land at Wroxeter included fields which were not part of the protected archaeological site for the Roman city because ploughing had taken place years before the rules were introduced. So they were able to learn about growing grapes from Gillian Pearkes and then, on her advice, choose certain varieties suitable for Shropshire and plant them out. The vineyard in Devon where Gillian Pearkes helped to pioneer English wine and teach the necessary skills to people like the Millingtons is near to Bickleigh and Tiverton. Although she has died her vineyard was bought by the ex-BBC journalist Roger White and his wife and is open to visitors today.

Wroxeter Vineyard now produces thirteen wines from eight varieties of grape. Visitors can walk round the edge of the planted fields and call in to the shop to buy wine, Shropshire preserves or souvenirs. The Vineyard also hosts tours and events including Experiences – a tour, tasting session, lunch and a bottle of wine between each two guests. During our visit, in early May 2011, the vines were only just beginning to produce their new crop of grapes, as the photographs show.

Image: The Wernlas Collection

On the way to Ludlow we passed a sign for Rare Poultry Collection – white on brown (sounds like some kind of egg butty) so a tourist attraction. Pat would keep chickens given half a chance and a more suitable house – and no caravanning – and I’m always up for something new, so on leaving our friend after our Food Centre visit we drove back to Onibury and turned off to follow the signs. A long, narrow lane worked its way into hill country. “Guess they they don’t get many coach parties” said I. After a mile or so we entered a small parking area. Some quite stupendous views stretched out towards Brown Clee and Titterstone Clee. The weather was still very warm, the sky blue with little white clouds.

At the top of the field was a hut acting as the entry point and shop. In we went. A cheerful voice met us with a welcome. One of the owners, Shaun Hannon, stood by the door. Later we were to meet his wife Sue. For over fifty years Shaun has kept, and been totally fascinated by, poultry. He introduced us to their attraction, with quite a bit of time to give us as we were virtually the only visitors, a man buying a bantam hen being the only other one, later on. Spread out down a couple of fields to one side, sloping in to a small valley, were set out a large number of wooden poultry coops. Several of them were beyond a gate and not available for tourist inspection. On the other hand there were plenty of coops on the public side to be looked at. Shaun told us they had 66 breeds of poultry with many that justified the name Rare Poultry Collection. He and his wife had been raising birds for sale as breeding stock and selling eggs, not for eating, but for hatching.

We walked around. Here were birds that were totally unfamiliar to us: Partridge Cochin and Jubilee Indian Game, Transylvanian Naked Neck and Lavender Araucana. Only three birds were free to walk about un-cooped, so the others had to be seen behind chicken wire. When approached some of them came towards us, but others raised poultry-language cries of alarm and scurried into their nesting boxes. The colours and shapes were quite astonishing. Some were pure black and white and quite simple in patterning. Other birds could have acted in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat and got away with it – a bit croaky in voice but Oscar-winning quality in costume design.

The Hannons began their business at Wernlas near Oswestry then moved to their present location a few years ago, bringing the Wernlas name with them. Their attraction is more a breeding centre for rare poultry than a tourist attraction as such. Visitors help bring income through a small admission charge and some shop sales. It is a specialised attraction anyway, though children would love it. Part of the delight was in having found something unexpected in a beautiful setting run by dedicated people. Personal service, chatting and informal talks about the birds and the Hannon’s love for them were strongly evident.

Just be clear. This is not a Rare Pottery Collection. Shaun says that more than once people have arrived having misread the white on brown signs. It happens.

Image: Ludlow Food Centre

Early on in our stay in Shropshire we drove to Ludlow to meet an old friend. The arrangement was to have lunch at the Clive Restaurant near Onibury.

Getting there from our caravan site was easy – round the Shrewsbury bypass and down the A49. Near the turn-off for the A49 at Bayston Hill is the huge quarry where recently archaeologists discovered what they think must be 400 metres of a well-made, pre-Roman road, which would prove that at least in some places the British tribes were aware of the principles of good road building and were applying those principles to their constructions. It has to be said that some experts think it might have been a pre-Roman track to which the Roman engineers added one of their famous road surfaces. As far as we know there is no public access to the archaeological site, at least at the moment. It’s a visit which might have to wait a long time before it can be made.

So we continued down the A49 and arrived a little early at the Clive. Lunch proved a long, leisurely affair as reminisced of old times and considered new. After the meal we all walked over to the Ludlow Food Centre. Now, this location is a complex of buildings which are part of the Earl of Plymouth’s Bromfield Estate. Beside the Food Centre and the Clive Restaurant there are a Cafe and a company making children’s bicycles – and a post office in one of the new buildings.

Ludlow has built a reputation for food. We planned to visit the Farmers’ Market there and to look around for the specialist butchers and cheese shops well known amongst gourmets – or in our case, viewers of TV shows like those of Rick Stein. The Food Centre appears to be a development extended from the town’s fame, though there are plenty of farm shops round the country now. Last year I posted about the one at the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury site which has a good museum-type exhibition incorporated about that conflict. The Ludlow Centre is large, attractive and a treasure house of all kinds of foods including several new brands. It boasts that most of its products are made within four local counties within the Welsh borders. A nice touch is that visitors can view food preparation areas through glass windows where bread is baked, meat cut, cheese and other dairy produce prepared and so on. Like many up-market farm shops the store design uses baskets for many goods placed on well-designed wooden shelf displays. This one even has a wooden version of the ubiquitous shopping trolley. Everything is done to create a rural ambience – though without any of the muck and smells of the farmyard. There are some exotic foods on offer as well, some imported.

From our experience there are two kinds of farm shop. We use the very popular Keelham Farm Shop on the edge of Queensbury in West Yorkshire. It has a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables besides a well stocked butcher’s department and several other sections. Its attraction is not only the range but the prices which, with some careful choosing, are good. The second kind of farm shop is like the Ludlow Centre – up-market and full of premium price foods. The customers are middle class out of a prosperous county, and they might well use the restaurant and cafe on their visit, or be spending time at the Ludlow Race Course just behind the complex. We heard an interesting comment from another person stating on the caravan site that we used. He has done a lot of work in Ludlow so knows it quite well. According to him there is some local resentment that the developers of the Food Centre, on the Earl of Plymouth’s land, were able to obtain grant aid for its building. It then stands outside the town, easy to find and to park at (for free) as a rival to the whole of Ludlow town centre. So the situation of out of town supermarkets pulling well-off shoppers away from central, small, shops is being reproduced in this case in the world of quality farm food sales.

Image: A Richer Earth

Shropshire’s Farms and Fields

Pat and I parked our caravan near Haughmond Hill again a few days ago. We were here about the same time last year. Weather: changeable! Quite warm, brightly sunny at the moment but with gusty winds and a few sharp showers. I have a small weather station linked to my laptop via a monitor unit. It looks like one of those hi-tech arrays that you see on top of a pole at the side of motorways and other places. Ours is mounted on a pole attached to the caravan tow-bar. The spinning anemometer cups look a bit like a generator turbine on a tiny scale. It has become a talking point on most caravan sites we visit. Watching the weather change can be quite a fascination.

For farmers, of course, it’s an obsession. Crops can be ruined and animals suffer when the weather is bad. Predictable conditions that make for good planning of farm work are not easy to come by in Britain. Good weather when it is needed can be a luxury. At the moment (May 2011) the showers have just begun to supply some of the water that dried-out fields need – just in time. That’s not to say things have been all bad – we have seen hay already cut and crops coming on well. Lambs and calves have been arriving. Shropshire is good farming country, less tightly packed than some places so getting around exploring is easy – with a car. Here, cyclists are out and about and coach parties travelling, though not as much as on national holidays or in the summer months. We have already much to report and much more still to see.

Image: Precursors of the modern caravan

A big segment of the travel market in many industrial countries, at least in the west, is caravanning - or, RV or trailer touring. The present author has taken it up and many new postings are the result of caravan-based touring.

It has its antecedents, its history. Above are some examples from times before leisure caravan travel began. These vehicles are museum pieces now. Really they are wooden shelters on wheels that could be moved short distances to places of work. Shepherds had to be close to their flocks, especially at lambing time when they could be needed round the clock. Road menders might be busy miles from anywhere that they could rest overnight. Like shepherds they needed shelter in bad weather and storage space for tools. Showmen – with circuses or travelling fairs – lived on the move and on their entertainment pitches for a long season before taking to winter quarters for a few months. With their flair for – well, showmanship, their mobile homes had to be smart and impressive. The vehicle shown at the Blists Hill Museum in Shropshire is an example in wood from days gone by, beautifully decorated inside and out. Showmen’s caravans are still in use, glass, chrome and fibreglass palaces on wheels to go with their owner’s claims of being the best, the greatest. These Shropshire examples represent the foundations of modern caravanning. Even though they were used by people alongside their places of work, these vehicles would be the templates for the first leisure ‘vans. This will be a story to be told in a later set of new postings.

Image: Blists Hill - theatre in museum interpretation

Image: Blists Hill composite

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that most museums should be put into a museum. They were themselves dusty, boring and suitable only for antiquarians. More than a century later they have gone through a communications revolution which has meant that they have also had to make radical changes to their curatorial policies. So what they collect, study and show is now related much more to their particular audiences. In some ways they have shared the presentational switch-round with IKEA. Furniture shops, for example, used to have sections with a couple of dozen different chairs were ranked together, or rolls of carpet hung on racks, or dining table place settings shelved in boxes. IKEA still does, but its main contribution to display techniques has been to make those parts support mock-ups of sitting rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and kitchens in which all the elements of furniture, tableware and decorations are brought together. Customers can walk into and around the displays and imagine themselves proud owners.

Museums still have their glass cases themed with types of artefacts – pots, tools, ornaments and the like. But they also have constructed ‘total representations’ of houses, shops, gardens, workshops, factories, even mines and harbours. Visitors can walk into and around them and imagine themselves as Romans or Tudors or Victorians. Mind you, there is one way in which museums have gone the opposite way to IKEA: you can wander where you will and in any order. The York Castle Museum has been an example of the imposed flow-style of visitor handling where it was necessary to walk every inch of every corridor and see the whole lot even if it was only the last bit that was of interest. IKEA still does it, with just a few crafty short cuts and some areas for wandering more freely. IKEA is into marketing: museums do have to flog things in their shops in order to fulfil their purpose and to survive – IKEA’s reason for existence is to sell everything it has.

The Victorian Town at the Blists Hill Open Air Museum at Ironbridge is a case in point. All the components of a reconstruction of a town are progressively being assembled – pub, shops, bank, workshops, gardens, pig sties and hen coops. You wander around as you like, walking into the displays and often handling things in a way impossible with the old glass cases. But there are more differences to be found with old-style museums - and with those hard-line Swedish retailers. You can read guide books or interpretive panels, watch displays, listen to lectures, ask questions. Or even enjoy street theatre, sometimes mixing in with the action. All five senses are engaged, not just the single sense of sight of the older museum galleries. This is full-on communications, planned to grab your attention, stimulate the brain and make that essential mix of education and entertainment that builds up knowledge and understanding in a much more positive way. No wonder a third of a million people walk through the Ironbridge Museums every year – and regularly go back for more.

Image: Blists Hill commercials

The ‘Victorian Town’ in the Blists Hill Open Air Museum is part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum complex. While Coalbrookdale is about iron-making, Coalport about fine china and Jackfield tile manufacture, the Victorian Town brings technological and social history together in very lively fashion.

The Open Air Museum was originally planned as an area in which some relics of industry existing on the site would have others added from around the district. It would have become an open ‘park’ with interesting historical features. However, the establishment of a Museum Trust in 1967 led to the appointment of professional staff that changed the emphasis. The aim was for it to be one of a number of museums in a complex. High-grade conservation, visitor services and historical research would be established. Since all of these relied upon protection of the site and the raising of substantial funds, Blists Hill was to be fenced off and admission charges imposed.

This was not without opposition from some residents on the nearby Sutton Hill and Madeley areas who believed that people had an absolute right to continue wandering around the area. A more pragmatic approach prevailed, however, recognising that having anyone do what they liked when they liked on land they saw themselves as co-owning would in the long run destroy the chance of a hugely beneficial resource. The development of this and the other museums in the complex would bring economic renewal, educational and cultural advantages and an international profile. The argument can still be advanced that economic renewal linked to prestige cultural changes has increased property prices and attracted out of town people commuters to live here. But wasn’t that just what the Industrial Revolution did in its heyday? A second revolution has been taking place based on the legacy of the first one.

Very large amounts of money have been drawn in to the 40-year-plus project through highly effective charitable fund-raising and sponsorship, as well as visitor income and a special trust fund set up in 1991. This was on the occasion of the winding-up of the Telford Development Corporation which had created one of the 1960s-designated New Towns under national government policies. It has to be said that during the early decades the Development Corporation both inspired and rescued the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust through funding and staff secondments in a way that was often played down. Reputations were built on the Museum’s achievements: the real foundations were often to be found more realistically in the activities of Labour government policies linked to business enterprise at national and local levels. This is not to ignore the flair and flag-flying of gifted and visionary museum leaders. But risks were deliberately taken. Some resulted in stupendous successes publicised to the advantage of the Museum. Others resulted in people losing their jobs, their roles within the local community and their own dreams for the future.

Image: de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon

A famous Drury Lane theatre-artist called de Loutherbourg painted Coalbrookdale at Night in 1802 (seen above) and he used it as the backdrop for his own invention, the Eidophusikon. This was a kind of theatre in London in which an audience viewed a small stage on which were placed theatrical scenes of classical and real life. New, bright oil lanterns with coloured filters and masks were employed to create day and night time effects with flickering flames, moonlight and even thunderstorms. Sound effects were added. The Coalbrookdale painting is thought to have been made as a reference work for a backdrop to a depiction of the new industrial wonders of Britain. It would have been like having a tourist visitor centre in the capital to advertise visits to Shropshire – and the new uses of iron. De Loutherbourg had based his fiery picture on a scene round the Bedlam furnaces. The remains of these stand across the valley road from the river to this day.

Image: The Iron Bridge composite

The most spectacular production of the Coalbrookdale iron industry was undoubtedly the Iron Bridge. It is of primary significance in the history of industrialisation and a World Heritage Site. It was the first use of iron for structural purposes in the world. Since the eighteenth century ironmasters of the time were using cast iron, a radically new material for this kind of work, they built the bridge as though it was made of timber. Dovetail joints and wedged threaded-joints fixed the arches and cross-struts together. Massive masonry abutments formed the springing-points for the semicircular iron arches. The road deck was made of iron plates with a stone surface added. At that time barges called Severn trows were used to carry goods up and down the river. As they approached the bridge the bargemen would have seen the perfect circle made by the graceful arches reflected in the water below. Without a doubt the design was deliberate, not only to allow boats to pass easily, but also to appeal to ironmasters, landowners and others travelling to see the new wonder of the world.

Critics of the recent expansion of tourism in the UK have often appeared to see it as a new phenomenon. They have berated its growth at the expense of manufacturing industry. Some look upon it as a kind of parasite attacking ‘real’ economic activity. The truth is that tourism always complemented and helped to sustain industrial growth over the whole span of the industrial revolution.

The Iron Bridge story shows this well. Barrie Trinder and Sir Neil Cossons (The Iron Bridge, published by Phillimore and Co, 2002) have recounted it in detail. John Wilkinson, Abraham Darby I and others took up a suggestion by a Shrewsbury architect to use iron, not stone, for a much needed river crossing in the 1770s. The architect, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, had already built a stone bridge using a large semicircular arch at Bringewood Forge, Shropshire. The ironmasters realised the advantage of building a showpiece in iron to promote their foundries. The necessary Act of Parliament to sanction the bridge was obtained in 1776. Its arches were put in place in 1779 and it opened to traffic on New Year’s Day 1781.

To the north of the bridge a hotel was built called The Tontine, a reference to a popular way of financing major enterprises. Investors paid into a fund which was used to meet the expenses. Profits from the hotel were ploughed back in to it. They stayed in the account until the very last investor had been left alive after every other one had died – and that investor scooped the lot. Advertising in newspapers was used in the 1780s to promote the hotel as a base from which to see the bridge and many of the impressive furnaces, foundries, drilling mills, limeworks and watermills of the area. Paintings were commissioned which happened to stress the majestic nature of the river gorge at this point. Engravings were made from them, printed and distributed to the opinion formers of the day.

Image: Coalbrookdale composite

For hundreds of years farmers have relied on blacksmiths. Shoeing horses was only one job they were needed for. Farmers needed scythes, pitchforks, general tools, parts for harnesses and farm carts. The ploughs that they used were made more efficient more than two thousand years ago by making the cutting out of iron. Innovations like the seed drill in Italy and England between the sixteenth and very early eighteenth centuries relied on iron parts. By Victorian times numerous machines were in use for every stage of the crop-growing cycle.

Iron was in demand for tools and weapons ever since its discovery in prehistoric times. By the seventeenth century in Britain iron production was being limited by the difficulty of supplying enough charcoal to fire the furnaces that smelted iron. Woodlands were being fast depleted for charcoal burning, a relatively small-scale process as the Shropshire project shown below illustrates. Along the country bordering the River Severn iron ore and the limestone used as a flux in the smelting process were both available. Clay for bricks to build the furnace was plentiful. But timber was used for buildings, ships, road vehicles, tools and domestic goods.

The problem of being held back by a scarcity of fuel was solved in Shropshire by Abraham Darby, the first of a number of his family to bear that name. Darby was an iron founder in Coalbrookdale. Within that aptly-named area were mines which could produce plentiful fuel for the furnaces. It was Abraham Darby I who worked out how to convert coal into coke, rather like the way in which timber was turned into charcoal by burning it slowly in heaps covered by earth to reduce the amount of air available and to drive off water, coal-gas and tar. Charcoal and coke were both then usable as fuels to burn at high temperatures using copious amounts of air blown in by a bellows powered by hand or a water wheel. Furnaces were filled from above by tipping in the fuel, iron ore and limestone. After being lit air was blown in – hence the term blast furnace – for many hours, until liquid iron could be tapped through a hole near the base. It was fed into troughs in moulding sand to make what is called pig iron as a large channel fed a number of smaller side channels rather like a sow feeding her piglets. The working of a furnace is shown on the interpretation panel available for visitors to Darby’s furnace in Coalbrookdale. His grandson, Abraham Darby III, enlarged the furnace in 1777 so that it could help supply the huge amount of cast iron to be used in making the world’s first structural-iron bridge, usually dated as 1779 when the great arch of the bridge was erected.

The ‘old furnace’ was one of several along what is now called the Ironbridge Gorge. They took Britain into the Industrial Revolution. Cast iron was used for wheels, wagon-way rails, bridge parts, nails, columns and girders in buildings, steam engine cylinders and other components, for carts and wagons and boats. As supplies became more plentiful its use for tools (often by wrought-iron working to make it less brittle) expanded. Coalbrookdale prospered, the village by the bridge was named after it and, as Ironbridge, became a late-eighteenth century tourist attraction. Other, bigger coalfields in Britain, often with more space and better transport links, took over from the Shropshire ironmasters in making these new products. The Coalbrookdale trade continued by turning to art castings of high quality like tables, chairs, ornamental fountains and gates to be used in impressive houses and gardens. The successors of the Darby enterprise would also cast kitchen ranges and adopt the Swedish invention of the Aga cookers. These are still cast in the works in Coalbrookdale.

Visitors from around the world have flocked to the Ironbridge area since the early 1970s. A company museum had, in fact, been opened in Coalbrookdale in 1959 as a very early example of the new interest in industrial archaeology. I made my first visit with a party from my school in Staffordshire in 1961. Twelve years later I would join the Museum staff, working there in charge of the visitor operations of the charitable trust until early 1978. From 1968 when the modern Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was formed until today the growth of attractions that it operates and the quantities of visitors it draws in has remained strong. The whole area is a World Heritage Site. The Museum has taken a leading role in the ways in which museums as a whole are organised and operated in the UK. Its curatorial and interpretational staff, past and present, have travelled to many far-distant countries to advise and encourage on other peoples’ projects. But it has been as story with many strands, with failures as well as successes, and a number of issues have arisen for debate over the years. Some will be touched on here in subsequent postings.

Image: Acton Scott - brick-making

Many more people heard about life on the Victorian farm through the BBC2 series under that title which was shown in 2009. It was followed quickly by a second series showing the run-up to Christmas within a farming community of the period. Using three main presenters – Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands – who are all both knowledgeable and hands-on in their attitudes to history and a supporting cast of experts in every aspect of Victorian agricultural life the series were extended cameos set at Acton Scott. A hardback book was produced to add further detail and it was all available on DVD for further viewing.

The approach was the by-then familiar one of having our three heroes dress in period clothing and spending a year farming in period style. So wheat had to be sown, harvested and threshed using authentic equipment from the estate. The Shire horse Clumpe supplied the motive power for carts and machines. Pigs, sheep and fowl were tended as they would have been during the year. Ruth Goodman lived in one of the farm houses close to the hall. It had to be brought up to living standard as the Victorians would have known it, so candlelight, a tin bath and a renovated kitchen range for cooking were amongst her main facilities. The two men lived “in another house elsewhere on the estate” so maybe they had electricity and TV on hand – their accommodation didn’t feature in the episodes.

As the tasks of restoring the kitchen range, setting up a forge, mending cart wheels or harvesting crops needed to be tackled so an appropriately-dressed expert in the subject arrived. And pretty convincing they all appeared. The BBC costume department knew better than to deck them out in well laundered and pressed costumes. They looked to be lived-in garments. Thomas Acton and his son Rupert took part. The elder Acton played the squire to the trio’s farm tenants with his son as the estate manager. Neither man looked terribly at ease playing the parts. For enthusiasts who were inspiring both the Victorian Farm Museum and the television series they looked quite shy and nervous like adults playing along with the children playing at farm games.

One of the jobs to be done by the farm hands was the making of bricks to rebuild part of an old forge. It should be explained here that only parts of the Museum were used for filming. The buildings were those from another of farm on the estate. But a project jointly with Shropshire Museums Service was set up on the Working Farm itself. Two small brick kilns had been constructed next to a brick-firing clamp and a charcoal burning pile. These can still be seen today and parts are shown above. The wooden pile or clamp awaits covering with turf and lighting. Day and night a charcoal burner would tend the pile as it burnt slowly, deprived by its soil covering of oxygen so that charcoal was produced which could then be properly burnt to give great, clean heat in a forge or a furnace (or today, a barbecue).

The large kiln was brick-built with coal hearths at intervals around it. One of these has a cooking pan for the use of the brick makers to prepare meals. Clay would have been mixed and moulded in wooden box-shapes which formed each brick. Hundreds of these could be stacked carefully in the kiln before it was sealed and fired using coal. The process took two or three days of building up the heat, firing proper and then slowly allowing the bricks to cool. The whole sequence was shown in the second TV series, Peter Ginn labouring for a skilled brick-maker during the long hours of day and night. He looked shattered at the end of it, and no wonder. But a nice touch was to have impressed the names of the presenters into unfired bricks. After these were hardened by the kiln they were used in rebuilding the flue and chimney of a blacksmith’s forge. With the clay coming from a pit nearby and the bricks going into an estate building it continued the tradition of those older communities of constructing an architecture which was at one with the very ground upon which their houses stood.

At the time of writing a new BBC series using the same team is preparing Edwardian Farm, filmed at a location allowing them to look at wider aspects of food production and community life (see the News Page in the list to the left].

Image: Acton Scott Farm Museum

To have lived as a family in an idyllic spot in Shropshire for almost nine hundred years must suggest a rare luxury. The Acton family has owned houses and farmland near Church Stretton for that length of time. Acton Hall, its present residence, was built in 1580, but the family was established here at least by the time of the Battle of Hastings. The estate includes around 1,500 acres of ancient woodland, farmsteads and cottages.

In 1975 Shropshire County Council took over the Home Farm next to Acton Hall to use as a museum. Thomas Acton had decided not to bring in modern industrial farming techniques when after the last World War British agriculture was mechanising rapidly and adopting agrochemicals. Steeped in the long history of mixed farming using the power of farmhands and horses, he chose to stay with the older methods. There was a collection of buildings and equipment in an attractive setting. There should be a farming museum. A partnership with Shropshire’s Museums Service came into being. Over the years since then a fine Working Farm has been developed.

The essence of the farming practice here is late Victorian. It might have been earlier, but having the machines invented during the nineteenth century around them the museum staff had an obvious period of history to put on show. Besides, the early days of farm mechanisation would be easily understood by modern visitors while appreciating the ingenuity of blacksmiths and carpenters in solving farming problems. At the same time the fields of crops and animals were reminders of centuries-old traditions on that people could observe within the small compass of the Home Farm. Within the broader context of Shropshire’s attractions Acton Scott is of the same period of the county’s other great museum from the 1970s at Ironbridge. The Victorian Town at the Blists Hill Open Air Museum illustrates the urban equivalent to the farm with its coal mine, foundry, several other workshops and street scenes.

Cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and hens are raised in fields and enclosures. Wheat, barley and root crops are planted and harvested. There are shire horses available to help with the heavy hauling and powering of machinery. In the photo above one of the horses is walking in a circle turning a geared shaft which drives pulleys to operate simple processing equipment, in this case a kibbler that crushes ears of wheat for feeding to hens. Nearby a farrier was replacing horse shoes, a wagon-wheel was clamped ready for the wheelwright’s skilled finishing work and a smithy could be seen where all kinds of ironwork for tools and machines were being made. The little farming community had its own school, a handsome black-and-white affair overlooking the farm ponds.

What a lovely place to learn the three ‘R’s and the ways of the world of the late Victorian era! A happy farming life on sunlit fields, surrounded by a resourceful, supportive group of families and friends. The farmer passing by with his faithful shire horse on his way to till the rich earth that would feed them all....

Then I remembered my own parents’ stories of cane-wielding teachers a century ago, some sadistically frightening their classes into obedience, marking registers with the absence of twelve-year-olds who were having to labour in the fields in wind and rain. Many of that generation would have to fight and die in the mud baths of Flanders in the first great twentieth century conflict. They toiled in their own way in those fields and so many never returned, their remains rotting within a miserable kind of earth.

Let’s not make the mistake of seeing a farm set out as in the Victorian era and imagining it to be an idyllic sort of existence. Having deep family roots in the countryside could also mean for many being held trapped in a way of life cut off from the wider world, unable to escape from all that that implied.

Image: Battlefield 1403 Church

After the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 King Henry paid for a chapel to be built at the scene of the fighting. Some estimates say that over 6,000 men died in the battle and were buried there. They were to be prayed for by a master and five chaplains after 1410, an arrangement which lasted until 1538. At one time, a three-storey addition to the south side of the church housed individual rooms for them. Nearby are the remains of fishponds which supplied fish for many of their meals. After the time of the dissolution of the monasteries the church became increasingly derelict. Then in 1861 the local Corbett family paid for repairs, added a mortuary chapel from that date members of the family were buried there when they died.

The church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and is still consecrated, but is cared for now by the Churches Conservation Trust which also looks after St Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury amongst many others up and down the country. A statue of Henry IV stands outside the church on the wall high above the window behind the altar. Two framed sets of heraldic shields record key members of the armies on both sides. A model of the battle has been placed in the side chapel. When I made a visit I met one of the older volunteers who look after the church during opening times. He said that he used to drink in a local pub with a former gravedigger. That man sometimes dug graves and turned up what he thought were human bones and suspected they were from the soldiers buried there. He said that he would secretly enlarge the graves he was digging then arrange the bones out of sight to one side. For each he would say a prayer and then cover them with soil. The volunteer believed the main burials were beneath the car park at the entrance to the church.

Image: Battlefield 1403 Visitor Centre

Driving round the Shrewsbury ring road we encountered AA signs to the Battlefield 1403 Visitor Centre. A too-early turnoff from one roundabout brought us to a nondescript parking area with an interpretive panel and steel flags on top of a low mound. The information described the battle between Henry IV and rebels led by members of the Percy family in 1403. Looking out over modern fields, under the power cables strung between high pylons, there was no sense here of a scene of medieval slaughter. Shropshire County Council’s interpretation panel, now looking as though it had been through its own battle with the elements, described Battlefield Church to be seen in the distance and apparently worth seeing. But no sign here of a visitor centre or indication that one existed. Two joggers stood by their cars nearby: neither knew of a centre but one thought there was a farm shop up the next road where something might be found.

At the roundabout the error of our motorised ways became clear. Within a few metres along the correct road we picked up the signs to what was, indeed, a farm shop. Would there be a good visitor centre if some commercial setup was the focal point?

The answer was yes. On the top of a rise stood a set of well cared for farm buildings. One of these, a long single storey affair in nice warm brickwork proved to be the visitor centre. As the photos below depict it is very detailed with lots of information and some sensible cases of objects such as the arrows used by ranks of archers to some of the clothing and goods they used. There was no entry fee, nobody hanging around to keep an eye on you – though that meant there was no-one available here to answer questions. The exhibition is very detailed. It would be well described as being of “book on the wall” quantity, too much to take in for most people. Having said that, the only other visitors while we were there were a couple who seemed to be reading every last word with great interest.

Henry IV had deposed Richard II in 1399 with help from a few of his mates. Well, lots of them really and some powerful barons amongst their number, all of whom had been less than happy with Richard’s management style and policies. Henry Bolingbroke was well connected, the grandson of Edward III and son of John of Gaunt. He had led a coalition of barons against Richard, promising them their expenses and a lot on top as soon as he could take the throne. Richard was tipped out and died in captivity at Pontefract Castle in 1400. Henry IV had become king but was also to become most unpopular with his former comrades as he failed to deliver the rewards they expected. So Earl Henry Percy, of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, raised a small army and marched south to join his uncle Thomas Percy, Early of Worcester, recruiting a large army in Cheshire where Henry IV was not popular either. The king met the rebels close to Shrewsbury, crossing the river at an ancient fording place near to present-day Uffington. On 21 July 1403 they spent the morning parleying with no useful outcome other than mutual insults. Battle between them commenced that afternoon. It was a close-run thing but Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) was killed, Henry IV almost killed by an arrow to the face, and thousands of others slaughtered. The exhibition tells the whole story, including that of the invention by a physician of a special device to remove the iron arrow-point from Henry’s face. A replica of it is included.

Having read the story of the battle we crossed the former farmyard to the next building, the farm shop. A small photo is included below. It was one of the smartest such shops we have seen, with an excellent range of foods, much of which was the produce of six or eight farms on the Albrighton Estate which owns the whole complex. The staff were very friendly and happy to fill in some details of the Albrighton operation, which also includes a small restaurant and a garden area in the old farmyard. The garlic-sauced lamb that we carried away with one or two souvenirs went down particularly well the next night.

As we walked back to the car we met a man named Mark with two owls by his 4x4. He runs a kind of bookable event service in which he brings demonstrates birds of prey at the Battlefield 1403 Centre. It is called Hawks on Walks. The idea is for one person to make a booking and bring just as many to take part as they like, rather than have an event with a large audience. Within a few minutes a small group had joined us to talk to Mark and be shown three of his birds. It was a bonus for us and an addition to the Battlefield 1403 Centre – his being a separate operation from that of the Estate. Mark is clearly both good at showing his birds and talking to people. Once again we were getting the impression of how friendly and skilled the service given by people in tourism has become – which makes for much better experiences all round.

Image: Haughmond Abbey

Although it’s more ruinous than Shrewsbury Abbey there is a big advantage to visiting another such house at Haughmond three miles to the north east. Haughmond Abbey ceased being a religious centre after the Dissolution when part of it became a private residence. After the Civil War when a fire put paid to that usage it was turned over to farming. It was in 1933 that the site was taken under the wing of the governmental Office of Works and it is now cared for by English Heritage.

Haughmond has the advantage of a number of buildings being partially present – the Abbot’s residence, the refectory, warming room, chapter house and kitchens for example. In addition the church can be traced in outline from exposed foundations even though it was destroyed almost completely. So matching a visit to Haughmond to another at Shrewsbury Abbey gives the chance of patching together what a medieval religious foundation of this sort would have been like. But there is another advantage: at the entrance a neat little museum and history room sets the scene for the visitor using interpretive panels and artefacts. There are also interpretive panels around the site. One, showing the refectory, is seen in the photos here. They are well placed to be read while viewing their subject matter beyond.

As a functioning church Shrewsbury cannot quite tell its history ‘warts and all’, whereas under the care of English Heritage Haughmond can, at least in the guide book to the site (which also covers Lilleshall Abbey and Moreton Corbet Castle). So financial mismanagement and what would seem to be visits by prostitutes, at least in later days, are detailed. There were examples of boys being found in the monks’ dormitories. One abbot was disciplined for sexual activity and bad management.

It is a pity, though, that Haughmond is not well publicised in Shrewsbury. A very cheerful and friendly member of staff on duty was a little regretful of the fact. On our visits (I made two as the first was on a rather dull day and I wanted brighter photos) there were few people around. That made for a relaxed visit by us but the Abbey deserved more to call in and admire it. Pat thought that English Heritage were able to do a good job because conservation and interpretation were the two main tasks they had to carry out without having the clutter that a still-functioning church required or the commercialism that a private project would need. Mind you, they were selling Magnum ice cream on a very warm day. I’m saying nothing.

Image: Shrewsbury Abbey and St Mary's Church

Over the last few years I read all twenty of the Cadfael books by Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters. My wife Pat had collected and enjoyed the set. The books are ‘whodunnits’ set in twelfth century England during the civil-war-beset reign of King Stephen. Several were made into TV dramas a few years ago starring Sir Derek Jacobi. So a trip into Shrewsbury to see the Abbey was a must.

Shrewsbury is an attractive town with a strong feeling of its medieval past. There are timber frame buildings and ancient churches. Narrow alleys like Grope Lane hint at those earlier days. With every age having added its own style of buildings the town is a treasure house of history which attracts numerous visitors from around the world. Which makes the Abbey a sad reminder of how previous city fathers allowed developments to destroy some of that heritage.

Cadfael was Edith Pargeter’s Benedictine monk and a member of the religious community in Shrewsbury Abbey. He was not a detective but was frequently called upon to assist his acquaintance and friend the Sheriff of the county to solve some mystery or other, often involving a death. In The Potter’s Field it was the finding of the body of a woman buried in farmland outside the town that needed his help. Often given permission by his Abbot to travel away, Cadfael takes the reader to many locations near and far. Most of the time he necessarily inhabits the Abbey grounds where he is responsible for growing herbs that he uses to treat illnesses and injuries. In the small photo (top left below) the supposed position of the potter’s field where the body is found is seen from Haughmond Hill. Of course it is totally different from what “Cadfael” would have seen. Enclosed open fields growing large crops of barley, rape and root crops are today skirted by tarmac roads and crossed by electricity gridlines.

Different, too, is the town and very different is the English Bridge that he would have walked to reach the town across the River Severn. It has been completely rebuilt at least three times since the twelfth century. The old bridge had a gatehouse and domestic houses built on it. A second, Monks’ Bridge, extended to the east across a branch of the river and the Rea Brook almost to the Abbey. Cadfael’s Abbey was extensive and included the usual range of dormitories, chapter house and service buildings besides the main Abbey Church. They are virtually all gone. A lonely relic is the pulpit seen in a locked little garden surrounded by a thick hedge. From it a monk would read from the bible to the monks as they ate their meals in silence in their refectory. Now it is lost to any semblance of a religious setting as it stands between a main road and a public car park. The Abbey Church is also cut off on a wedge-shaped island between busy roads. Part is still the Romanesque nave that “Cadfael” would have known. The presbytery is much later.

I asked at the shop in the Abbey about the availability of the Cadfael Trail produced in the mid-1990s when the TV series was popular. The staff member on duty gave a sad shake of the head. It apparently exists somewhere, but a dispute between the person who claims copyright in it on the one hand and the local Council on the other means it is difficult to find and is not promoted by the tourism office. Though all the books remain popular and Shrewsbury has a literary figure which could attract tourists alongside Charles Darwin, the possibility has been lost, wasted even. It is a reminder of the way that the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century and the road-building in the early 19th century robbed Shrewsbury of one of the most important treasures it once possessed. On-line 'trails' mark out places connected with some of the stories sited further afield, but there is nothing of Cadfael's Shrewsbury easily available. Once upon a time there was a 'Shrewsbury Experience' across the road which tried to recreate some of the settings, but it has been gone a long time and is now the base for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

The figure of the Madonna and Child and the (German) stained glass are in St Mary's Church, Shrewsbury.

Image: Wroxeter Roman city

The Romans built a military camp called Viroconium on the banks of the River Severn besides their road we knew as Watling St. It grew into the fourth largest Roman city in Britain with a perimeter wall two miles long and around 6,000 inhabitants. To look at the excavated remains today would not suggest anything like a city of this size. An old wall (the 'Old Work' as it is known) used to be the main fragment visible. It is one of the biggest surviving Roman walls in Britain. Archaeological exploration has now opened up more of the centre of Viroconium - or Wroxeter as it is usually known now. Visible to modern eyes is the great bath house complex with exercise areas, baths with water heated by underfloor ducts to different temperatures, and some small shops. A new visitor centre has been built by English Heritage who manage the site. Work is now going on to uncover the Forum, the main meeting place for the inhabitants, and a film is being made by a company for showing on Channel 4 in 2011.

Image: Haughmond Hill views

The village is Uffington. The distant hills in the left-hand photo are those in the Church Stretton area. In the right the view is towards Hodnet.

Image: Haughmond Hill panorama

A slightly longer walk through the woods on Haughmond Hill from the main car parking area is well rewarded. At the south-western tip the view from high crags is breathtaking. On a gloriously clear, blue-sky sunny day the open farmland lay spread below. In the distance the Shropshire hills frame the view. Shrewsbury is there as well as villages and farms. This is a view to spend time taking in. The photo below shows the scope of the 180-degree sweep, but not the details, so some of these appear above the panorama in the group of pictures.

Image: Haughmond Hill - car par area

We found little if any mention of the woodland trails when we were setting out our programme for a visit. A chance car ride along the nearby road gave a glimpse of extensive parking. Driving in showed the scale of the place one early morning. The main visitors then - around 7 o'clock - were dog walkers, of whom there were many - like ourselves at the time.

There are good signs and a woodland map plus notice board and special display about a new cafe to be built. It wasn't obvious where the beginning of the geo-trail was: a wooden finger-post didn't quite work as the path from it curved around. It was not until we found a boulder commemorating Bardon Quarry's involvement with the project that we could be certain. A great strength of the entrance area is the number of very solidly-built picnic benches. People could happily take their meal at one and enjoy short walks around nearby or they could take on a walk of over an hour if they chose.

Image: Haughmond Hill woods

The woodlands on Haughmond Hill have been laid out with good footpaths running from a main car park and some other access points. They're well designed, extensive but divided up and given great variations in shape and surfacing. Woodland management has been arranged to leave features such as saw timber, up-ended root boles and local-rock boulders. On the visit we made using the geo-trail we were able to view the one-kilometre long quarry which supplied the stone used in making paths and parking markers.

Image: Haughmond Hill Quarry

Haughmond Hill Quarry is one of the places where Shropshire yields stone for humans to use. The Precambrian rocks here are more than 575 million years old. They are of two sorts, a conglomerate which is used for general road building, and a greywacke (a mix of fine and coarse grains, cemented very strongly) which makes for a high-quality road surfacing.

A Geotrail leads from an excellent car park to a viewing platform, as shown here. Sponsorship by Bardon who run the Quarry has helped Shropshire County Council to create a varied interpretive scheme for the Hill, this being one part. Andrew Jenkinson of Scenesetters produced the interpretation.

Image: Wrekin Panorama

Shropshire's famous landmark, the Wrekin, rises above the valley of the River Severn. Bright fields of rape flare amongst the green trees and hedgerows. May is always a beautiful month. The photo was taken from Haughmond Hill.

The Wrekin and Haughmond Hill are made of some of the most ancient rocks in Britain. Quarrying still takes road stone from them. In other parts of the county there are to be found representatives of most of the main divisions of the geological sequence from ancient to modern.

The hills and valleys of Shropshire have given up many kinds of building stone and many useful minerals for humans to use - iron, coal, limestone, copper, lead, zinc, tin, granite are just some of them. They have also formed the basic resource for farming cattle, sheep, wheat, barley and other useful and profitable produce.

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