Seasonal Archaeology: The Last Iron Bridge (in Shropshire at least!)

The Edward Albert Railway Bridge arching across the River Severn, September 2021.

The autumnal equinox for 2021 was signalled by the early morning dew heavy upon grass and leaves. In the countryside, the changing colours and gradual die-back of vegetation provided a frame for some stunning landscape views of archaeology sites. Exploring the Ironbridge Gorge during the late winter, spring, summer, and autumn of 2021 for a book I am writing, I’ve had the opportunity to track the impact of the seasons on some well-known industrial archaeology sites within the World Heritage Site. These include the world-famous Ironbridge, and also the Bedlam Furnaces, Darby’s furnace, and the line of the Severn Valley Railway along the river.

Walking along the northern riverbank I was arrested by an image akin to an Italian renaissance pastoral scene, (a trope used in early paintings of the Ironbridge), with rocks, trees, and river framing one of the lesser-known bridges in the gorge: the Albert Edward Bridge, with its brown bridge abutments and single arched span looming out of the early autumn mists. All that was missing was a figure on the bridge and a wild animal – I did see a small deer close by, but it refused to pose, scampering off up the riverbank as soon as it spotted me.

There are four bridges spanning this part of the River Severn, the earliest and best known being the internationally famous Ironbridge, built in 1779. The others include the Coalport Bridge, the second Ironbridge in the gorge built in 1799 and rebuilt in 1818, and Jackfield Bridge, a concrete bridge from 1994 which replaced the earlier concrete Free Bridge opened in 1909.

Unlike the three road bridges elsewhere in the gorge, the bridge I had wandered beneath was a railway viaduct, so it was unlikely that I would capture a figure crossing its structure. It was built to carry the Wenlock, Craven Arms and Lightmoor Extension Railway of the Wellington and Severn Junction Railway across the river. The Albert Edward Bridge, named after the then Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) was opened on 1st November 1864 and has one of the largest remaining cast-iron spans in Britain at 201 feet (61.3m) with four ribs, each made from nine segments with bolted joints. The bridge’s timber and iron deck was replaced by a structural steel deck in 1933. Plates at the apex of the arch record that the iron work was cast by the Coalbrookdale Company further up the gorge. It was designed by Sir John Fowler, elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1865, and erected by Brassey and Field. Sir John is best remembered for his work on the design of the Forth Railway Bridge with Sir Benjamin Baker. This was the first large-scale steel structure in Britain when it opened in 1890, and marked the transition on the railways from cast-iron structures to steel.

During the 20th century Albert Edward Bridge served the two Ironbridge coal-fired power stations, in operation from 1932 to 2015, carrying coal to both. These 20th century power generation sites have been out-lived by the railway bridge. The twin-track cast-iron bridge was made a Garde II listed structure in 1986 (entry number 1055277) and lies within the Ironbridge World Heritage Site. Although not used since the power station closed in 2015, it may yet have an active future. The Telford Steam Railway, who operate on part of the Wellington and Severn Junction Railway, have aspirations to run trains over the bridge using the unused track as part of their proposed southern extension to Buildwas. Until then the bridge remains silent, except for the rustle of autumn leaves, the splash of birds on the water, the rushing of the river during heavy rain, and the soft foot fall of the occasional deer.

The underside of the railway deck of the Albert Edward viaduct.

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