The Stream in the Sky
- Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover
Bloomsbury, 403 pp, £10.99, January, 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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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 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.