A Day Out: The Iron Bridge

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It's been a busy week here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters.  First, some News About Pam.  I received the paperwork for my next big international gig!  I'm going to work on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the inaugural European Games, which will be held in June 2015.  "European Games?  What?"  Yeah, I know.  That's what I said too.   Apparently when the European Olympic committee got together after London 2012 they decided they needed their own games just for European athletes, I suppose as a counterpoint to the Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and Left-Handed Games and Upside-Down Polka-Dot Dinosaur Games and whatever.  No matter, if they're having a ceremony, I'll be there.

And just exactly where will that be?  Good question.  Naturally, the inaugural European Games are being held in the first city you think of when you think Europe: Baku, Azerbaijan. "Wha...?" Yeah, again, I know.  I was actually pretty sure Azerbaijan was fictional, located somewhere southeast of Narnia on the way to Mordor.  But it turns out it's a real place!  It's on the Caspian Sea, tucked between Georgia (not the peach one), Armenia, Iran and Russia. Yep, Russia.  Baku is a mere 1,000km from Sochi.  And while the official language is Azerbaijani (sometimes called Azeri), there's also a lot of Russian spoken.  Irony can be dammed ironic sometimes, can't it?  In fact, Baku is supposed to be an unexpectedly pleasant, pretty, fun place.  Reports from those who are already there are really encouraging. So I'll be packing my bags again to start work at the beginning of November.

There are also other big developments on life in London that came to a head this week, which are definitely a whole other post, or perhaps even a whole other blog (don't hold your breath for that).  In the mean time, let's move on to today's topic, which I visited on a Grand Day Out this week: the Iron Bridge.

Who doesn't love a good bridge? 

What's so special about the Iron Bridge?  Well, as you might expect from the name, it's made of iron.  In fact, it's the first bridge made from iron in the world.  I figured this probably happened some time in the mid-nineteenth century, so I was pretty impressed to discover that construction started in 1779.  Cast iron had recently become much more efficient and economical to produce after Abraham Darby invented the process of smelting with coke.  I could go down a rabbit hole here with the whole iron-production process, but let's just say there ended up being a lot more refined iron around the area, which was already well-supplied with easy to access ore deposits.  Building a bridge out of iron was intended to be a showpiece to demonstrate the remarkable properties of the material and a monument to the skills of Shropshire ironmasters.  And it had the added benefit of allowing people to cross the deep gorge without having to detour to another bridge two miles away, while allowing barge traffic to pass under its tall single span.  (Documents concerning the commissioning of the bridge include the first recorded use in English of the phrase "Win-Win Situation".)

Ironbridge Gorge

The bridge itself is lovely but what you can't tell from the photos is that all of those pieces are SOLID IRON.  These days we're used to I-beams and hollow tubing that have immense strength because of their cross-sectional shapes.  In the 18th century, before the advent of true structural engineering calculations, they simply built the bridge as if they were making it from wood, but used iron instead.  The same dimensions and techniques as a wooden structure - right down to the dove-tailed joints - but solid iron.  The result is that the whole thing is massively over-engineered.  There are estimates that half the structure could be removed and the bridge would still stand (This is from a half-remembered conversation that took place at Birmingham University about a decade ago and was reported in passing by my companion for the day.  Which is about on par with the rigorous level of fact-checking that I normally employ for the blog.  It’s not exactly the New York Times over here.)

That's solid iron, with my hand for scale.

And see?  Dovetails!

After it was completed the Iron Bridge remained a unique curiosity for the first 20 years of its existence.  However, severe flooding on the Severn river in 1795 damaged or washed away all the bridges in the area except the Iron Bridge, so people started to take the construction method much more seriously.  The development of a single-span cast-iron bridge genuinely represents a turning point in British bridge design and engineering, after which cast iron became widely used in the construction of bridges, aqueducts and buildings.  Some sources call the Iron Bridge the most important bridge in the world. (I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere, but see above note about fact-checking.)

A consequence of the vast weight of iron used in the bridge (more than 378 tons) is that it puts enormous pressure on the stone abutments on either side of the bank, which started to show cracks as early as 1784.  Repairs and replacement to the stonework have been an ongoing theme of the bridge’s life, culminating in the installation of an upside-down underwater reinforced concrete arch in the riverbed in the mid-1970s, which helps hold the two piers apart.  The ironwork also shows signs of wear, with many pieces suffering serious cracks.  Keep in mind this was long before people got used to the idea that all the bits in big structures need room to expand and contract, so it's not surprising that the whole thing is riddled with breaks.

For instance, I'm no structural engineer, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be able to see light through this join...

The bridge was closed to vehicle traffic in 1934, having been in use for more than 150 years. It remains open for pedestrian use today, and was still charging a toll to each person passing over until 1950.  Apparently even royalty were not exempt from the charge.  There’s a little museum in the tollhouse on one side of the bridge, and it included pictures of Prince Charles visiting the bridge and ceremonially paying the toll with a penny from 1779.  The museum also had some nice displays about how they think the bridge was actually assembled, including a nice model. And if you go you should definitely visit the pork pie shop on the other side of the gorge. Well worth the trip - hand raised, spicy, with nice chunky bits of pork and savoury jelly.


The bridge was actually just a fun detour on the way home from the real purpose of the Grand Day Out.  So once we completed our main mission, and the detour to the bridge, my fellow adventurer - the Officer in Charge of Iron Smelting Explanations, Driving and Diesel Engine Inspection - and I - the Office in Charge of Navigation, Catering and Broadway Show Tunes - took another detour to Hemel Hempstead to visit a Magic Roundabout, which astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember from last week’s post.  This particular iteration of the magic roundabout concept includes SIX mini roundabouts arrayed in a larger overall roundabout configuration, which we piloted for several circuits in a zippy rented Fiat.

It turns out to be not bad, but very disconcerting when you end up going what feels like the wrong way around the inner ring of the roundabout.  I still don't quite understand the point, despite the best efforts of the OiC ISE, D & DEI to explain why multiple mini roundabouts actually increase the flow of traffic.  But it was fun, really.

And just because it had to be done, we stopped for photos of this sign.

We didn't visit the Secret Bunker because it cost £8.50 and it wasn't even located appealingly far underground.  But this is a gratuitous picture of the OiC ISE, D & DEI trying to figure out where the Secret Bunker is. 
"I'm sure it's around here somewhere... If only it wasn't so damned secret!"  
(And yes, we did phone each other in the morning to colour-coordinate outfits.)

Oh, and did I mention that we swung by Warwick Castle too?  And went for a nice Italian dinner in Berkhamsted?  And still made it back to London in time for a gin and tonic?  Truly, it was a Grand Day Out.

Specialist Subject for the week: Words!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Life is ticking over fairly pleasantly these days. The show I production managed on my return from Russia has finished its run, but I’m back at the same theatre doing some relatively low-key administrative work over the summer months.  It’s an undemanding way to spend my days while still keeping a bit of money coming in.  I’m also zeroing in on the next big international job too, but you’ll have to wait to hear about that one.  And I'm looking at canal boats...  In the mean time, I thought it’s been a long time since we talked about words, so today I’m digging out a few fun phrases that we haven't covered yet, starting with one that's got particular resonance for me, considering the show I just finished.

"On the coal face" = Similar to "on the shop floor". Refers to doing the actual work involved in a job, as opposed to planning or talking about it. Construction workers are at the coal face; architects are not. But it can also be used more broadly when standing around the water cooler, as in "That new CEO is a right wanker. He's got no idea what it's like for those of us on the coal face."

My boys on the coal face in "Wonderland"

"Putting the boot in" = Kicking someone when he's down. As in, "Too right about the new guy, mate! Did you see that last memo he sent out? Closing the canteen, after they announced pay cuts? That was really putting the boot in!"

"Swings and roundabouts" = Shorter form of the complete phrase "What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts." Describing a situation when there are as many advantages as disadvantages. Somewhat similar to "six of one, half a dozen of the other". Our disgruntled boys at the coal face might not like the fact that the canteen has closed, but if it means they eat fewer plates of pie and chips it might just do them some good so, you know, it's all swings and roundabouts.

Swindon Magic Roundabout
The Swindon "magic roundabout". Gordon Bennett! What twisted freak devised this abomination?

"Gordon Bennet!” = A mild expression of surprise, used in polite company to replace earthier expressions. Similar to saying “Taking the mickey” or “Taking the Michael” instead of saying “Taking the piss.” There’s much debate about which historical Gordon Bennet is immortalised in the saying. The two most popular candidates are a Scottish-born journalist and his playboy son, both of the same name. Then again, it’s quite possible the phrase doesn’t actually refer to a real figure and is simply a drawn out and sanitised version of “God” or “Gawd.” Indeed, a study of the etymology of the phrase would really require someone for whom English idioms was a Specialist Subject.

“Specialist Subject” =  Ooooooo! This is some classic modern British pop culture this is, coming from the long-running BBC tv quiz show “Mastermind”. (Not to be confused with the popular board game with coloured pegs from the 1970s). BBC’s version has been running since 1972, and is known for its challenging questions, intimidating aura and big black chair. In the first round of the show, each of four contestants takes a seat under a bright spotlight in the famous chair to answer a series of questions on a topic of their choosing, called their “specialist subject”.  A point is awarded for each correct answer given in a set period. In the second round contestants answer a series of general knowledge questions and the person with the highest score after two rounds wins. Winners go on to compete in later shows, and must nominate a new specialist subject for each new show.

The range of topics covered by peoples’ specialist subjects is vast and eclectic and has included Flag of the World, The Life and Works of Gilbert and Sullivan, the History of Lancashire Cricket Club, the Lifecycle and Habits of the Honeybee, the Franco-Prussian War, Doctor Who, and the Films of Jim Carey, the last of which produced the worst score in the history of “Mastermind, a shatteringly dismal ONE POINT, scored by Simon Curtis of West Yorkshire. (Though in fairness this was the second appearance by Mr. Curtis, who won a previous show answering questions on the rock band The Jam.) In any case, the phrase “specialist subject” has passed into the vernacular and is now used most often in a tongue-in-cheek way, as in “Oh yes, I’m quite good at opening beer bottles with my eye socket. It’s my specialist subject.”

The famous black chair, where Simon Curtis blotted his copybook.

"Blot one's copybook" = To tarnish one's reputation. As in, “She really blotted her copybook with me when I saw her staggering up the train platform in a miniskirt and bare feet last Tuesday morning. She’d obviously been out on the tiles.”

“Out on the tiles” = One in a long long long list of phrases to do with drinking and being drunk. To be out on the tiles is to be out drinking at pubs, parties, night clubs, etc… (See also “on the lash”, “on the piss” etc…) Possibly from Ireland, where pubs are often tiled, but really who cares?  Used thusly: “I've been out on the tiles all night and I’m bursting! I need to spend a penny."

“Spend a penny” = Use the toilet. In fairness, this is an old euphemism that’s not really in use anymore other than by ladies of a certain age (who are unlikely to have been out on the tiles, but give me a bit of poetic license ok?)  It derives from the fact that it used to take a penny to open the locks on public toilets for women. Men’s urinals were free; I suppose the authorities realised that attempting to force men to pay to use a public facility would be the barest folly. As for the phrase, its death knell was tolled in 1977 when prices went up and the Daily Telegraph headlined an article “2p to spend a penny”. And that was in new money, not old money.

Naturally, they also took ha'pennies.

“What’s that in old money?” = Referring to the decimalisation of the pound sterling, which took place on February 15, 1971. Prior to that date, a pound was made up of 240 pence, with 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Of course. And don’t get me started on farthings and crown and guineas. Ok, too late. A farthing was a quarter of a penny (or half a ha’penny). A crown was 5 shillings, and a guineau was one pound and one shilling. Bloody hell. They might as well have been dealing in brass knuts and silver sickles. In any case, it was a cause for great debate and consternation when they decided to do away with all that malarky and simply divide the pound into one hundred pence and be done with it. Thus, the question, “What’s that in old money?” Everyone’s pretty much got the one hundred pennies thing figured out these days, so the phrase is now applied in any situation when unfamiliar units of measure are used. For instance, “What a gorgeous day! It’s supposed to get up to 31 degrees!” “31 degrees? What’s that in old money?” Or, “150 grams of flour? What’s that in old money?"

And that’s all I’ve got for you this week. Stay tuned for news on upcoming work, and to find out whether I buy a canal boat!