Two Days at Ironbridge

It has not been the best of times. I attended my sister’s funeral on the Friday (only sibling) and not a ball was bowled after my arrival at the Rose Bowl (Hampshire County ground for those who only have eyes for rugby and soccer) the following Tuesday – thanks to rain. Nevertheless, the next day, Wednesday the seventh, things improved. Despite its ageing state, the Tom Tom took me from Barton-on-Sea to the Best Western Valley hotel, just up the road from the cast-iron bridge crossing of the upper Severn, designed by Thomas Pritchard and built in 1779 by Abraham Darby III. I arrived in time to meet the Master and fellow past-Master, Bob Smith, on their return from a first reconnaissance of the late eighteenth century engineering marvel and to take a cup of tea together against the verdant background of the surrounding hills. As was later explained to me, the rich arboreal growth was due to a policy based on the assumption that, for every three saplings planted, one would die and one would be nicked. In the event, they all survived and the rains of recent months have caused them to flourish. Another visit in a week or so’s time would be rewarded with a splendid panoply of reds, oranges, golds and tan.

GMS Ironbridge trip - all photos 426The early September weather was kind and warm enough for us to sit outside congratulating ourselves on the ambience. Over supper that evening, more than acceptable fare, we had the opportunity to catch up on Guild gossip which, in my case at least, was welcome after several months’ absence following bereavement. A thousand wordy emails are no substitute for a meeting a trois.

Thanks to Bob, who is a particularly competent navigator, we found five Walsall Academy apprentices, as arranged, at the entrance to Blists Hill Victorian Town. Well worth a look on Google; better still, a day spent walking around the presentation of end of nineteenth century life in the Severn gorge, complete with local volunteers dressed in costume of the time and able to act the part. Walking down one street, I was approached by a young lady who said she was out shopping and was upset because the postman (seen earlier in the same street) had upbraided her for being drunk the night before. A few hours later, I met the same lady at the vicar’s house doing some brass cleaning. I reminded her not to get drunk again that evening. Somewhat surprised and not remembering our first encounter, she asked me how I knew. The postman told me, I said. History brought alive, I thought.

Another strong impression received by both Bob and I was the severity of the life men and women endured in a community producing ironware all those years ago. We had the foundry work explained to us and could picture the awful conditions faced by the “puddlers” as they stirred the molten ore and scraped off the slag with spoons I would not have been able to hold, let alone manipulate. Few foundrymen survived beyond forty after employment from the age of twelve, enduring twelve to fourteen hour shifts, and six days a week. Their only respite was chapel on Sunday, the pub and, possibly, the male voice choir. On their backs, our consumer-led society was made possible.

We all lunched together at the fish and chip shop, having already purchased our bags of liquorice, apple gob-stoppers, sherbet lemons and jelly beans. This proved a good opportunity for us all to get to know one another. Arun Suman and William Weston have just completed their first year at university and Ciara Lawlor, Freya Robson and Ellie Squire are about to become freshers. Their commitment to the Guild was manifest.

GMS Ironbridge trip - all photos 160GMS Ironbridge trip - all photos 320

We spent the evening together at the Woodbridge Inn, a mile or so down-river from Ironbridge. We were joined there by Ben Wood, the popular school liaison officer for the Academy, another good opportunity to talk over Guild matters and plans for the future. After a number (many) of pints of assorted ales had been sunk, we all managed to find the way back to our respective hostelries after pledges to keep in touch. Our congratulations go out to all five apprentices on their obvious academic success. Bob and I would record our appreciation of the Master’s vision behind her organisation of the event in the year of the Guild’s seventieth anniversary. Following its success, a third annual event in the ‘north’ would be very welcome next year. And perhaps there might be more takers to enjoy what has become a most congenial gathering and just as good an opportunity, if not better, for getting to know one another, as a dinner in London


17 September 2017


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