After Ironbridge, it all went wrong.
We’d been touring the UK for two-and-a-half months since we finished converting The Beast, a 24.5 tonne Belgian Amy lorry.
With travel bans in place because of COVID-19, we had downgraded our ambition to overland to Mongolia. Although we set our sights on the Lake District and Scotland, the need to fix a succession of issues with the truck had dictated our destinations. Window latches in Halifax; an aborted attempt to change the tyres in Preston, a return to Bournemouth to collect our second spare wheel, since no-one in the country seemed able to change our tyres; after much research, a successful tyre change in Corby; a broken windscreen in the Yorkshire Dales; a mechanical once-over and lorry MOT in Leicestershire…
Listing it like this makes it all sound so simple. It wasn’t. Nothing to do with maintaining a 30-year-old Volvo army truck is straightforward, but that’s a whole other story!
Ironbridge was a blast in more ways than one. Our park up at the remains of the Bedlam Furnaces was just a few hundred metres from the historic Iron Bridge in the centre, from which the town takes its name.
A small terraced garden above the ruins of the Bedlam furnaces was perfect for a doggie stretch on the evening we arrived. At the top of the hill, just beyond the gardens, we discovered The Golden Ball pub. They gave us such a welcome, it became our local for the duration of our stay.
“Hiya – I met you at Sainsbury’s in Telford!” said a voice the second we walked in. It was Matt, a chap who came to ask about The Beast while we were doing our shopping. “I live around the corner from here!” Talk about coincidence. He called over his wife Helen and her friend Karen to say ‘Hi’.
Within moments, a crowd of children had gathered round our four cute furball dogs. The barmaid smiled and took our order for their special offer, pizza and a pint for £10, while we knelt on the floor to supervise the kiddie-puppy love session. When we finally sat down properly, we struck up a conversation with Connie and Tom at the next table. They knew Matt, Helen, and Karen, and when they found out why we were in Ironbridge, they invited us to sit with them.
You’re living our dream lifestyle!” they said.
Tom was German; son of a proud nation of overland truck lovers. One of the world’s ultimate overland shows is in Bad Kissingen, in Bavaria.
Four pints of foamin’ ale later, we were still protesting that we don’t really drink – we had been teetotal for nearly a year! We properly sealed our bibulous claim to temperance when Tom and Connie came back to see The Beast and we opened a bottle of whiskey for a nightcap. Or two. And some wine for the girls.
Connie and Tom returned the following lunchtime to join in the van life fun.
Jaqui next door took a photo of The Beast with her smaller neighbours, parked neatly in descending size,
“It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch: ‘I look down on him, because I am upper class…’”
A lovely vintage VW (Volkswagen) camper pulled on to the gravel. By now, the car park was full, but I told them they could stop in front of The Beast, as we weren’t moving.
When the couple introduced themselves, I said, “You’ve absolutely GOT TO get a sun strip with your names on!”
I don’t think I entirely suppressed my mirth.
“I know!” the lady said. “We’ve not been together very long, but Wayne and Jayne? It’s the biggest cliché in the world!”
My comment did not seem to offend Jayne. She was from Burnley – a fellow Lancashire lass – so we were on the same wavelength. A characteristic inherited from my mother – that it’s always worth it for the gag – made me question whether Mark and I ought to change our names to Wayne and Jayne, or something similar that would look good on a sun strip for The Beast.
As we chatted with Connie and Tom, Jayne and Wayne wandered into Ironbridge. They brought us a present from one of the many artisan shops that line the High Street and wharfage. The orange and yellow oriental garland complemented the rather understated interior décor of our truck perfectly. I could not get over their kindness.
Later, we walked into town with the pups. When I last saw the Iron Bridge around two decades ago, it was blue grey. While carrying out a major restoration, English Heritage discovered its true colours, and repainted it in its original rusty red ‘iron oxide’ hue, similar to the iconic Forth Rail Bridge.
I love bridges anyway, but the Iron Bridge is very special. It was revolutionary, since it was the first major cast iron bridge in the world, and became a powerful symbol of the industrial revolution.
If you have ever had a split fire back, you will know that cast iron is a very brittle material. It has a low tensile strength, so it would be useless for a suspension-type bridge, but under compression, as in an arch, it is very strong.
Geography dictated the bridge design. Rich deposits of iron, coal, clay, and limestone meant the area was already an industrial hub. A crossing of the River Severn in its steep-sided gorge would be a significant boost to local industry. However, the river’s steep and unstable banks dictated the need for a single-span bridge, which also had to be high enough to allow ships to continue using the waterway, which was an important trading thoroughfare.
The trustees in charge of the development were sceptical about using iron as a building material, and advertised for a stone, brick, or wood alternative. When they received no suitable plans, they accepted architect Thomas Pritchard’s cast iron proposal. After two years of construction, the bridge opened in 1781. A testament to the success of its design is that, after a major flood in 1795, it was the only bridge left undamaged on the entire river.
To me, the Iron Bridge is a perfect merger of beauty and function. Five cast iron ribs form the one-hundred-foot arched span of the bridge, with decorative rings and flourishes filling in the gaps. The bridge comprises nearly 1,700 custom components, and approximately 385 tonnes of iron, all smelted and cast by Abraham Darby III at the Bedlam Furnaces. These, too, were revolutionary. They were the first blast furnaces in Britain to be built exclusively for smelting iron using coke, a process pioneered by Darby. Coke is coal roasted without oxygen, which removes water, tar and other chemicals which would contaminate the iron. Previously, iron was smelted with charcoal as a source of heat and carbon. At the time, charcoal was scarce and more expensive.
From the comfort of our bed, we could visualise the whole blast furnace process. Workers poured crushed limestone and ironstone (iron ore, full of iron oxides) in the top. Blasts of air heated the coke to temperatures in excess of 2,000C. This causes carbon in the coke to react with the oxygen from the ore, leaving behind the iron, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Calcium from the limestone removes other impurities, such as silicates, which is what forms the remaining slag. As molten iron trickled out of the bottom of the blast furnace, it was drained into moulds.
It was easy to imagine the noise, heat, fumes, and filth that would have surrounded the furnace. It must have been like Hell. Two artists, John Sell Cotman and Paul Sandby Munn are credited with naming it Bedlam. Originally, the term ‘bedlam’ referred to a psychiatric hospital in London, Saint Mary of Bethlehem, which dates back to at least the 1400s. Bethlehem morphed into Bethlem, then Bedlam; a world which later became synonymous with any scene of uproar, chaos, or confusion.
Sadly for us, this was perhaps prophetic.
I will always look back on Ironbridge so fondly. We had a wonderful couple of days, filled with sun, fun, and beautiful walks through the dramatic gorge, but it definitely spelled an end to the good times.
Join us next time to see how bedlam unfolded in our lives when we drove The Beast up a mountain!