The future of the world’s first Iron Bridge has been secured as the famous bridge fully re-opened to the public today.
Following an investment by English Heritage of £3.6m, the bridge, now resplendent in its original red-brown paint colour, once again stands proud across the river Severn. Meticulous repair work – including bespoke replacements for hundreds of iron wedges which hold the structure together – means the bridge will continue to connect communities across the gorge just as its pioneering designer, Abraham Darby III, intended 240 years ago.
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, said: “Caring for an internationally significant historic structure such as the Iron Bridge is at the heart of English Heritage’s charitable purpose. The Iron Bridge was revolutionary when it was built, it has long been copied but it could never be replaced – so it was vital for us to undertake this major project to conserve it for future generations.
“We know how much the Iron Bridge means to people near and far, whether as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the spot for a romantic proposal, a memorable holiday, or just the view from the window every day. As a charity we’re committed to securing the bridge’s future and we’re extremely grateful for the support and hard work of everyone who has played a part.”
Erected in 1779 over the River Severn in Shropshire, the Iron Bridge was the first single span arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron and was a turning point in British engineering – it is the great-great grandfather of today’s railways and skyscrapers.
However investigations showed that it was under threat from cracking due to stresses in the ironwork dating from the original construction, ground movement over the centuries, and an earthquake in the 19th century. The Iron Bridge was in urgent need of repair, so in late 2017 English Heritage started work to save this masterpiece of engineering.
The whole of the bridge’s elaborate structure has now been cleaned, conserved and repaired, from the iron radials and braces holding the bridge together to the deck plates and wedges, as well as the main iron arch itself.
The project has also seen the bridge returned to its original colour for the first time, after samples of the earliest paintwork were discovered during the conservation process. The dark red-brown paintwork is the same colour as depicted in William Williams’ 1780 painting, Cast Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale, one of the earliest depictions of the structure. A team of six painters used more than 2,400 litres of paint to complete the works, using a similar paint system to that on the Forth Bridge.
A €1m donation from the German Hermann Reemtsma Foundation and public support via English Heritage’s first crowd-funding campaign have helped to fund this £3.6m conservation project, the largest since English Heritage became a charity in 2015.