Friday, March 17, 2006

Ironbridge and heritage

click photo to enlarge
A couple of weeks ago I visited Ironbridge in Shropshire. It's a fascinating place, well worth seeing, that has been called the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1709 Abraham Darby developed the smelting of iron with coke and the rest followed. I saw the Bedlam Furnaces, the wooded gorge, and the world's first iron bridge completed in 1781, spanning the River Severn. I had visited before, many years ago. But, since that time the area has been designated a World Heritage Site (WHS), and this information was boldly proclaimed wherever I went.

I like history, I like to study the past, and I give practical support to preservation and conservation. I think the idea behind World Heritage Site status is well-intentioned. However, I am concerned that designation could accentuate the problem it was designed to address. That is to say, that people will flock to such places, because of this additional title, and in so doing degrade them: that their conferred status will not protect them for the future, but will change them, in some cases for the worse. Now I am sure that those involved with such sites are aware of this danger. But are they ready for operators running tours based on lists of WHS - "10 WHS in a week: see the best the world has to offer!" Or publications based on WHS being used by people as tick lists to be checked as they visit them, in much the same way that the Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet (the so called Munros) are "collected" by hill walkers, regardless of the environmental damage caused. These things will come! Some will say that if we don't designate, then such places will slowly change anyway. Maybe. However, high-profiling with WHS status risks doing it too. There's no easy answer to this problem, and I raise the question without knowing the solution.

It was a heavily overcast day with rain when I made my visit, and the dour aspect the weather gave recreated some of the character that probably prevailed in the eighteenth century. Signage, paint and provision for tourists have already affected Ironbridge's character, so I decided that my photograph needed to be black and white to compensate. I waited for some people to cross the bridge to give top left interest and scale, and then pressed the shutter. Not the greatest picture of this special bridge, but one that does, I think, capture something of the spirit of the place.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen