Scenery is nice, and I’ll happily spend a day in an art museum, but what really makes me excited is seeing big machines. Thus, the west of England was a treat since the industrial might on display, the things that made Britain ‘Great,’ as one docent in Ironbridge noted, are now accessible to the public.
Bristol is full of engineering gems. Its former harbor, once one of the most advanced in the world, is lined with shops, museums, and relics of the past like old steam-powered cranes (some still functional). The SS Great Britain, one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s many engineering feats built in the city (in addition to the Great Western Railway and the Clifton Suspension Bridge), was proudly restored to look as it did when it became the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven oceanliner in the world in 1841. A Victorian-era powerhouse, lavishly decorated (as even industrial buildings were in that time period), houses hydraulic equipment that was used to power machinery (i.e. cranes, locks,…) until 2010. I absolutely loved seeing these things.
Ironbridge is another place with Britain’s best engineering on display. While it wasn’t my next destination after Bristol, it fits the industrial theme I have going here (and is non-linear editing even avant-garde these days?). The main attraction there is the iron bridge, the first in the world, which has been open since 1781. There are plenty of other examples of Victorian industrial might, from the Coalport China Museum (the owner of that was renowned for developing a lead-free glaze – the workers still had many health hazards though) to the Blists Hill Victorian Town, a living museum devoted to showing life in a Victorian industrial town (with time-period actors and non-decimalized currency to enhance the feel). Seeing a Richard Trevithick steam engine from 1804 puff along and buying a doorstop made in the working iron foundry there were treats.
Needless to say, not everything about these places is fun and cheerful. Bristol became, thanks in part to its advanced harbor, one of the most important and richest ports in the slave trade. The ‘triangle trade,’ as it was known, was so lucrative that a single voyage could secure a man’s comfortable retirement. Many of the Victorian-era factories in Ironbridge would have employed child labor and families couldn’t afford to let a potential wage-earner go off to school. Both Bristol and Ironbridge shared the issues relating to industrial decline – Bristol’s port was abandoned when it was deemed too small for container ships and factories in Ironbridge closed as rivers and canals were replaced by railways as the main transportation corridors. Still, there is hope. Ironbridge, once completely industrial, is now a park-like place perfect for tourists to visit. M-Shed, in Bristol, sheds some light on the slave trade (for instance, slave owners were compensated when it became illegal but not slaves themselves) and tells the story of a now multicultural city that has adapted to remain successful in the world.