In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

The Stream in the SkyJohn Barrell
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain 
by Julian Glover.
Bloomsbury, 403 pp., £10.99, January 2018, 978 1 4088 3748 1
Show More
Show More

For the last​ eight or nine years I have been collecting – casually enough, and without the greedy fanaticism that has characterised my other short-term collecting crazes – the great Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. To be more precise, when out driving, I have been going out of my way to visit engineering projects he was involved in designing or building. I came across the most recent addition to my collection in early October. I had driven through Telford, the Shropshire new town named after the engineer, on the lookout for one of his very first constructions, an aqueduct that once carried the Shrewsbury Canal over the River Tern. It is now a scheduled ancient monument tucked away in flat farmland, its whereabouts indicated by a brown road sign pointing across a field of beet (or so it was last autumn). The aqueduct is a fairly short affair; it carried the canal across a narrow, shallow river valley, and replaced an earlier one, still unfinished when it was swept away by a violent flood in 1795. The flood left intact only the brick and stone abutments at either end of the aqueduct, but they were solid enough to be reused by Telford when, at the very beginning of his career as county surveyor for Shropshire, he was asked to rebuild it.

‘The Longdon aqueduct has often been interpreted,’ the historian and industrial archaeologist Barrie Trinder writes, ‘as a kind of overture for the awe-inspiring waterway’ that is the best known and no doubt the most visited navigable aqueduct in Britain: the oldest, highest and longest. ‘The stream in the sky’, as Walter Scott called it, at Pontcysyllte on the Llangollen Canal, is also attributed to Telford, though with the active collaboration of the more senior engineer William Jessop and the ironmaster William Hazledine. It consists of an iron trough supported on arched iron ribs and carried more than 120 feet above the Dee Valley on delicately tapered stone piers. It is dramatically beautiful, especially in the early morning or late afternoon when the long shadows of its 19 slender arches are projected onto the meadows and woods on either side of the river. To walk along the towpath is an excitingly vertiginous experience: in my mid-seventies, with my head for heights no longer what it was, I’m not sure I’d care to try it again.

One thing that Julian Glover, the author of this latest biography of Telford, finds so exciting about his work is ‘the connection, rather than contradiction, between massive pieces of civil engineering, beauty and landscape’. ‘He never built an ugly thing or a boring one.’ But the aqueduct at Longdon may seem to challenge this dictum. It too consists of an iron trough, but a shallow one, and only sixty yards long between the abutments. It is supported on three pairs of squat iron trestles, I would guess not more than 15 feet high, bedded into squares of masonry. Running alongside the trough is a narrow towpath edged by a simple railing. The aqueduct Telford replaced was built of stone, and there used to be some disagreement about whether Telford’s was the first to be constructed primarily in iron; it now seems that the tiny Holmes Aqueduct on the Derby Canal, has priority.

If the Longdon aqueduct is not ‘an ugly thing’, it certainly isn’t competing in a beauty pageant. It has none of the grandeur of Pontcysyllte: its fascination is in its plainness, its modesty, innocent of any decoration unless you count the diagonal flanges through which the iron plates are bolted together. No water has run through it since 1944, and it now functions as a bridge for cows crossing the river from the pastures on one side to those on the other. The dry, empty iron trough now looks – and sounds too – as it would have done on the day the construction was complete, before the stop-planks were raised and the waters of the canal first flowed across the Tern. It rings loudly under the boots of walkers, and amplifies to a hollow clangour the rhythmic tapping of their walking-sticks.

The first piece of Telford I collected was in Wales. The Holyhead Road has been the subject of a number of excellent studies, notably by Charles G. Harper more than a century ago, and more recently in a report for the Council for British Archaeology by Barrie Trinder, Jamie Quartermaine and Rick Turner. The need for a new road between Holyhead and London became apparent with the Act of Union of 1800, which unified the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland and required the members for Irish constituencies to travel regularly between the two capital cities, along the old road through the Welsh mountains. The old Holyhead Road was largely a chain of turnpikes, maintained, but ill-maintained, by private turnpike trusts; but the importance of strengthening the link between London and Dublin persuaded the government that the portion of the new road especially in need of replacement or renewal, between Shrewsbury and the Menai Strait, would be expensive beyond what the local trusts could afford, and would have to be paid for from Treasury funds. ‘Nothing like it had been proposed in Britain since the Romans,’ Glover writes, ‘and there was to be nothing like it again until the building of the first motorways in the 1950s.’

My interest in it is mainly focused on a section a few hundred yards long, known to surveyors as the Glyn Bends, which I came across when I was researching an engraving after the Welsh artist and writer Edward Pugh, made some twenty-odd years before Telford began his work. According to Telford, the Irish politicians summoned to Westminster several times a year ‘dreaded’ the part of the journey that lay through North Wales. The stretch of the old road about five miles from Corwen, running alongside the river Ceirw, was especially intimidating, ‘gradually deepening and contracting into a profound and narrow gorge’, Harper wrote, ‘the road running round cornices of rock, fenced by breast-high masonry on the one side, and overhung by rocky cliffs on the other’. A drawing by Turner made about ten years before Telford’s improvements shows it as a jagged pathway barely wide enough for a single coach, the view closed by a single-arched bridge through which the river tumbles into the gorge. But ‘with boring-tools, pickaxe and blasting-powder, Telford forced a way for his road round the shoulder of the mountain and converted what had been a narrow and dangerous track into a smooth highway, 36 feet in width.’

By the end of the last century, however, this stretch of Telford’s new road, running between high rock walls on one side and a ninety-foot drop on the other, had itself come to seem a ‘narrow and dangerous track’. The bends that Telford had tamed and made ‘acceptable for stagecoach travel’ were now much too tight for fast motor traffic. The Glyn Bends were closed to vehicular traffic in the 1990s, bypassed by a new, straighter road on the hill above. What is left of Telford’s road is still open to pedestrians and, apart from its cracked and weedy tarmac surface, it remains much as he created it. ‘His greatest work,’ Glover writes, ‘the Holyhead Road, the Menai Bridge, his canals and the thousand miles of road he built through Scotland … was set and built in deep countryside, and intended to enhance not obliterate it.’ Even before Telford’s improvements, Glyn Diffwys had become a tourist magnet. During the war with the French Republic, English tourists, prevented from travelling in Europe, began exploring Wales and Ireland, and before Snowdonia one of few places on the Holyhead Road thought to be worth stopping at was the Ceirw gorge with its romantic bridge and waterfall. That Telford thought of his new road as enhancing the pleasure of the landscape there is made apparent by the fact that he set into the retaining wall a viewing refuge, a ‘little balcony built out from the road’, as Harper described it, where pedestrians could gaze into the depths of the glen and enjoy the landscape without fear of being hit by passing coaches.

The view of the Ceirw gorge from Telford’s ‘little look-down’ no longer exists. Glyn Diffwys has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest by virtue of the presence there of the limestone woundwort, transplanted to the glen in 1998 and growing in what Conwy Council describes as ‘rare semi-natural ancient broadleaved woodland’. This woodland has been allowed to grow up to the point where even in winter the bridge and the waterfall, intended to be the focal point from Telford’s refuge, are invisible, except for the odd glimpse of white water; in summer nothing whatever can be seen. A plaque, unveiled in 1996 by the parliamentary under-secretary of state for Wales, and commemorating George Borrow’s enjoyment of what he described as ‘one of the wildest and most beautiful scenes imaginable’, seems a very bad joke indeed. This view is surely as much part of the heritage of Wales as the transplanted woundwort, and it is impossible to believe that to make it visible again would have any very adverse effect on the flora of the glen. To open a narrow passage from the refuge, across the plunge-pool to the waterfall and bridge, would require nothing more than lopping a few branches, felling a handful of scrawny trees and ensuring, year by year, that new branches and saplings didn’t grow up to obscure the view.

Among my favourite bridges designed by Telford are two that were never built. One was the enormously ambitious design for a new London Bridge, conceived around 1800, near the beginning of his career, and ‘on a massive scale’, Glover writes, ‘that would still astonish today’. It took the form of a graceful single arch springing from Southwark Cathedral on the south bank to Angel Lane on the north. As we can see from a wonderful aquatint after Thomas Malton, the artist laureate of the architecture of late Georgian London, ‘it would have been,’ as Glover writes, ‘beautiful and impressive beyond belief; a fine, arched, metal latticework, 600 feet across and 65 feet high at the centre; designed with a sort of perfected, pinched purity, so that despite its bulk it would have seemed light.’ The point of spanning the river with a single arch was to allow ships of two hundred tons to pass beneath it, and thus to extend the port of London as far as Blackfriars. The design was for the most part enthusiastically received. According to one Edinburgh professor, there was ‘nothing like it in the whole solar system except the Rings of Saturn’. But the huge expense of constructing the arch, in wartime, and the enormous length of the ramps that would be needed to reach from street level to the crossing, seemed to make the project impossible to realise.

My other favourite unbuilt Telford bridge is one nobody else seems to admire: his plan, conceived late in life, for a suspension bridge across the Clifton Gorge, which lost out in an architectural competition to a design by the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sarah Guppy. Telford’s bridge was to be of iron, supported on two slender Gothic towers, standing on each river-edge. There is something intriguingly ungrammatical about them, severely perpendicular in style and at the same time resolutely modern. The towers are like early versions of the Tribune Tower in Chicago, built a hundred years later, but no one seems to have thought them worth anything except Southey. The public reaction to them was the worst humiliation Telford ever experienced.

This​ is an excellent biography, and it can’t have been easy to write. Telford was a brilliant, innovative engineer; there is a wonderful variety about the projects he took on. But they can’t be fitted together into a coherent chronological narrative. Most of them took years to complete, and ran concurrently, sometimes dozens at a time; and though Telford put them in the charge of trusted project managers, he felt compelled to visit and revisit them, travelling, whatever the weather and season, to the midlands, to the north of England, to Wales and to Scotland to inspect progress and to deal with unexpected problems. He would have been almost perpetually away from home had he had a home to be away from; but until his last years, when he took a house conveniently close to Parliament and the committees he was so often required to attend, there was no room in his life for a home. There was no pattern or structure to his life, and Glover does very well to make some kind of a story out of it.

Telford had no home because he never married, and was the father of no family, or perhaps he never married and fathered no family because then he would have been obliged to set up home. But another main difficulty confronting his biographer is that he seems to have had no personal life: no lovers of either sex, plenty of friends, many of them engineers whose gifts had originally been spotted by Telford, but not what we would call personal friends, with the arguable exception of Andrew Little, with whom he had been at school. The pair corresponded until Little died when they were in their forties. Telford was a sociable, if not a gregarious man. Late in life he clearly enjoyed the company of the apprentices whom he had living in his London house; he had lots of good friends, mates even, but not the kind to whom you could confess your desires and ambitions. It’s actually refreshing to read a biography that doesn’t assume that the real point of the genre is to show us the ‘real’ person, and assumes the ‘real’ person is to be found in hitherto unrevealed depths of feeling, but it’s probably harder for a biographer to be confident of holding the attention of readers who expect to learn secrets. Glover’s book relies mainly on the interest inherent in what Telford built, and it works supremely well.

The more I admired Glover’s biography, however, the more irritated I became with his patronising attitude to Telford’s good friend Southey, who is almost never mentioned without some scornful remark, sometimes to the effect that Telford himself, who wrote a bit of verse, was just as good a poet. At one point, discussing the inscriptions Southey wrote to be set up along the route of the Caledonian Canal, Glover praises him for being prepared to write poetry (‘if badly’) about engineering, at the same time as sneering at his canal poems for being ‘obsessed with locks’, the most conspicuously engineered objects on the waterway. Quoting from one of these poems – ‘TELFORD, who o’er the vale of Cambrian Dee,/Aloft in air, at giddy height upborne/Carried his navigable road’ – Glover describes the lines as ‘tottering’. But there is nothing obviously tottering about them: they scan perfectly well, are perfectly grammatical as far as they go, and their diction is appropriate to an inscription, a genre of short poem at which Southey was especially adept. Whatever ‘tottering’ verse there is in this book, it is not written by Southey, but (once Glover has got hold of them) by William Cowper, Byron, the sailor-satirist Edward Thompson, and the anonymous author of a splendid poem called ‘The Stage Coach’, much anthologised in the Georgian period. A few lines are quoted from each of these writers, and every single quotation contains one or more obvious errors – often, it seems, the result of Glover’s inability to recognise when an iambic pentameter line is too long or too short. Here and there the result is nonsense: Cowper, for example, in an abolitionist passage in The Task, said he had no need of a slave to ‘fan’ him while he slept. In Glover’s version, Cowper has no need of anyone to ‘toss’ him while asleep. My only other beef about this book (and it should probably be aimed at the publisher, not at Glover) is the paucity of photographs. As we have seen, Telford’s works are repeatedly praised for being beautiful in themselves, and for enhancing the beauty of their settings; but of a list of some 180 projects in which Telford was involved, only seven are illustrated, along with a few plans and preparatory drawings.

According to a puff on the dust-jacket from Andrew Marr, Man of Iron ‘brings back to vivid life a man who should never have been forgotten’. When I read this, I wondered for a moment whether this book would be about the same Telford that I admired. Did Telford have a less famous younger brother? It can be a useful strategy for an author to claim that the subject of a proposed biography has been neglected, even forgotten, but the response surely of a publisher confronted with the claim that Telford had been forgotten would have been to invite the author to pull the other one. It is true, as Glover points out, that in the years after his death Telford ‘slipped from our consciousness’ – or the consciousness at least of those who were alive in the years after his death. Telford built canals and roads just at the point when railways were the coming thing. The Pontcysyllte aqueduct quickly became a ‘purposeless curiosity’; the Caledonian Canal, on which Telford was the leading engineer, ‘has always been of more use to pleasure boats than freighters’, and the same is true of the great Gota Canal in Sweden, for which Telford was the original engineer. Telford’s Menai Bridge was soon overshadowed by Stephenson’s innovative railway crossing to Anglesey. But whatever wrong was done to Telford’s memory by the Victorians, or by the march of technology, was surely righted decades ago. I’ve recently read or part-read some 15 books either devoted to him or containing substantial sections discussing his work. They include several sizeable biographies and two shorter ones written for the more short-winded ‘general reader’, four books of excellent photographs of his works, each with a useful informative text and reinforcing Glover’s claim (as the illustrations in Man of Iron hardly do) that Telford never built an ugly thing; a volume of seminar proceedings edited by Alastair Penfold, as well as Penfold’s catalogue of the Telford exhibition held at Ironbridge in 1981, subtitled ‘Colossus of Roads’ (the joke was Southey’s); Telford’s competent but very old-fashioned verses in praise of his birthplace, Eskdale: A Descriptive Poem; and I think the most recent of all before Glover’s book, Peter Wakelin’s superb Pontcysyllte: Aqueduct and Canal, the best study I know of any individual work by Telford. Most civil engineers, even the greatest, would be content, I imagine, to be as ‘forgotten’ as Telford has been. Man of Iron, good as it is, is properly dependent on a number of writers who had already done much to ‘keep his memory alive’, and Glover is happy to acknowledge as much.

I should confess here that I have done my share of forgetting too. According to Borrow, when, in 1854, he stood in Telford’s viewing refuge, he saw, incised in the slate coping, ‘several names, doubtless those of tourists … amongst which I observed, in remarkably bold letters, that of T******’ – whether cut by the engineer himself, or by an admirer on his behalf, it was impossible to know. I didn’t see Telford’s name when I visited Glyn Diffwys – I had forgotten it was meant to be there. For the same reason, when I visited Langholm, in Dumfries and Galloway, I did not see his reputed mason’s mark, under the westernmost arch of the bridge built just downstream of the meeting of Ewes Water and the Esk. Telford was born in Eskdale, and as a teenage stonemason, he helped build the bridge. Perhaps the grandeur of his works diminished in my mind the significance of his personal signature, rather as his character as a great engineer left no room for the personal experience that modern biography so often takes to be the only thing of real interest in a life.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 40 No. 8 · 26 April 2018

John Barrell writes that Y Glyn-diffwys ‘has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by virtue of the presence there of the limestone woundwort, transplanted to the glen in 1998 and growing in what Conwy Council describes as “rare semi-natural ancient broad-leaved woodland"’ (LRB, 22 March). This woodland has, he adds, ‘been allowed to grow up to the point’ where it is an impediment to views into the gorge of the Afon Ceirw from Thomas Telford’s ‘little look-down’ on the Holyhead road. I was responsible for the SSSI between 1996 and 2012 and instigated the transplanting of the limestone woundwort in my capacity as a conservation officer for the then Countryside Council for Wales.

Limestone woundwort is a rare flowering plant, found in only two other locations in the British Isles, near Ruthin in Denbighshire and in Gloucestershire. It is a short-lived perennial that takes advantage of periods when the woodland canopy is opened by clearance; the disturbance of the ground gives the long dormant seeds an opportunity to germinate. It was first recorded in the vicinity of Pont y Glyn-diffwys in 1927, but the colony was believed to have been destroyed by road-widening at a later date. The shady, humid conditions created by the tree canopy in the gorge are ideal for several species of notable bryophytes (liverworts and mosses). Any management of the canopy would have to take their survival into account.

The building of the new Glyn Bends bypass in the 1990s required that small portions of the SSSI, which was created in 1990 (before the woundwort was re-established) as an example of ancient woodland in a river gorge, be destroyed by the deep rock cutting needed for the new carriageway. It was agreed with the Highways Directorate that it would be a nice reversal of fortune for the limestone woundwort if a colony could be reinstated within the SSSI. Young plants were grown from seed collected at Ruthin and transplanted in 1998. The great majority of these were placed along the base of Telford’s retaining wall, in the woodland on the upslope side of the old carriageway and on some of the rock benches in the new cutting. Only a very few were planted deep in the gorge (by a daredevil botanist, not me). The success or otherwise of these plantings was monitored until 2003, beyond which time I don’t know what happened to them. However, the point is that to ensure the continued survival of the limestone woundwort occasional tree removal and ground disturbance is essential. Perhaps this doesn’t occur as frequently as Barrell would wish – trees do have an unfortunate habit of growing taller and wider – but the presence of limestone woundwort definitely isn’t responsible for impeding views of the gorge.

The new Glyn Bends are, by the way, now a notorious speed-trap, so there’s not much chance these days of stopping to admire the view.

John Osley
Abergele, Clwyd

John Barrell doesn’t mention the political affiliations of Thomas Telford’s biographer, Julian Glover. He wrote speeches for David Cameron; he was special adviser to the undistinguished transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin; he’s a shill for HS2; he writes for George Osborne’s Evening Standard. His account of Telford features a walk-on role for Ayn Rand, some Carlylean hero worship, a distinct suspicion of state and collective endeavour, as well as – in keeping with the mishmash of modern Toryism – a nod to Heseltinean public activism.

David Walker
London NW3

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.