The Stream in the Sky

John Barrell

  • Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover
    Bloomsbury, 403 pp, £10.99, January 2018, ISBN 978 1 4088 3748 1

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.