Abraham Darby went through several iterations
before his name allowed itself the pleasure of some fame.
A self-effacing Quaker, each regeneration brought the
ironmaster’s brand a step towards its immortality,
and now it’s cast into the very metal of his trade,
the mighty coping of his furnaces, the base
of pots, the soaring spans of trademark bridges.

A pioneer, he took the sulphurous coal the other
smelters left as too impure and breathed God’s fire
into the glowing ore till hell’s hoofprint burnt away.
It was a lesson others took to heart, and blessed with
roads, canals and space, took to the rise of wealth
and profit like lords of everything unclaimed.

So runs the parable of our times, the rags to riches
of a wit and wisdom bi-ped ape, who takes the offered
tool and beats a mighty share with it; who makes
the hammer into wand, and shapes the earth into a
kingdom for the poor to glimpse, the clever to exploit,
the owners of account to play like gods. This vision
so far never fails.   With tweaks and nods to justice,
rights of man, some post-modern stuff about
our equals, science and persistent fear of pain
and death, we’re still aboard that occident express.

So celebrate the prophet of the age, whichever Abraham
it was, who smote the ore from rock, who split
the coal from hidden seams, who tamed the crucible
of fire. Remember how he led his flocks through woodland
paths on Sundays with the Lord, and weekdays brought
the boats through rushing waters of the mighty Severn
to ship his pots and castings to the World. And if it sounds
as if a Spielberg or De Mille was standing ready, with crew
and talent in the wings, that’s how it was, that day of days.

Today, the workshop’s closed, the streams of iron
cooled, the men and women passed away. Key names
remain on show: the warehouse is a many levelled hall,
its curiosities accessed by comfortable lift. Hemmed in
by hills and rendered picturesque by bosky vales,
no room to make the massive steels and girders
that went to span whole continents with steam.
All greatness turns upon itself, as coke to ash.

Coalbrookdale November 2017

As ill luck would have it, the Mighty Aga Factory that still used iron cast in Coalbrookdale, was closed two weeks after we visited, on the very day I finished writing this. 35 ironmasters lost their jobs as cheaper metal had been found elsewhere. An American company had bought the global brand, and did what business has to do – moved on to better bottom lines. 

One thought on “Coalbrookdale

  1. This is masterly, John, not least because it could not have been written by anybody else – its voice is uniquely yours. Its special qualities are – in no order of priority – the authoritative and engaging tone, the range of allusions, the command of historical fact, the irony, the wit: all of which contribute to the remarkable richness of the piece. Thank you.


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