In a putative ‘Concise History of World Civilization’, Britain might garner a few mentions (Magna Carta, Parliamentary democracy) but would probably be awarded only one substantial passage. This would be an account of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. The modern world began in the English Midlands.
It is difficult to overestimate the global impact of the technological developments which took place in this relatively out-of-the-way region of Europe (there were few roads in pre-modern Shropshire and Staffordshire). Enabled by the abundance of accessible mineral resources, propelled by an Enlightenment spirit of enquiry and experiment, and forged by the enterprise and ambition of a few exceptional individuals, Britain came to lead the world in manufacturing, commerce and science through to the middle of the nineteenth century.
Places have been chosen to show most of the main constituents of the Industrial Revolution: water power and steam, coal and iron, textiles and pottery, the factory system and urbanisation, canals and roads. Sights include the visible remains of early industrial enterprise of the highest importance.
The subsequent two centuries are not ignored. Indeed, much of the industrial archaeology and the art we see takes us well into the twentieth century.
The tour concentrates on five centres. Two are the upper reaches of fast-moving rivers, the Severn in Shropshire (now dubbed Ironbridge Gorge) and the Derwent in Derbyshire. (Both, incidentally, are now tranquil and fairly rural, the Derwent Valley in particular being a place of outstanding natural beauty.) The six towns of the Potteries in Staffordshire were a unique concentration of the ceramic industry – as indeed they still are. The fourth is the group of towns in the West Midlands known as The Black Country, and the fifth is Birmingham, ‘workshop of the world’.
Birmingham. The coach leaves from New Street Railway Station at 11.45am and there follows a walk around a nexus of canals – Birmingham famously has more canals than Venice. Soho House, excellently restored and presented, was the home of Matthew Boulton and a meeting place of the Lunar Society, a group of progressive thinkers, scientists and manufacturers who played key roles in the Industrial Revolution. Continue to Telford for the first of two nights there.
Ironbridge Gorge. By the end of the 18th century this short stretch of the upper River Severn (a unesco Heritage Site) was the most heavily industrialised location in the world. The blast furnace at Coalbrookdale, where in 1709 Abraham Darby I achieved the smelting of iron with coke and thus ushered in the modern world, survives as part of a fascinating Museum of Iron. Abraham Darby III was largely responsible for the Iron Bridge of 1779, an epoch-making structure of powerful beauty as well as an icon of the Industrial Revolution. Two mansions lived in by the Darby family overlooking the works retain original furnishings. Renovation works on the Iron Bridge begin in Spring 2017. Overnight Telford.
Dudley, Barlaston. The Black Country is a contender for the title ‘birthplace of industry’, being named after the smoke from the unequalled density of mines, workshops and factories. An outstanding museum shows historic industrial installations, many in working order, including a replica of a Newcomen steam engine of c. 1717, and rescued houses, shops and other buildings furnished as 100 years ago. Josiah Wedgwood was a genius of the Industrial Revolution, dedicated equally to improvements in design and technology, to natural philosophy and commerce, and to social amelioration and progressive politics. The award-winning Wedgwood Museum, one of the finest ceramics museums in the world, well documents the development of an iconic English brand. First of three nights in Stoke-on-Trent.
Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent remains the world’s foremost pottery city despite the loss of much mainstream production. The Gladstone Pottery Museum is the only complete Victorian pottery factory: original workshops, bottle ovens, historic products. See the wonderfully archaic production processes at Burleigh Pottery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, which excellently displays Staffordshire wares and other ceramics; another outstanding museum. Overnight Stoke-on-Trent.
Derwent Valley, Derby, Cheadle. A stretch of the River Derwent in Derbyshire is the birthplace of the modern textile industry (and another unesco Heritage Site). The world’s first water-powered cotton-spinning mill, built by Richard Arkwright in 1771, survives at Cromford, and his 1783 Masson Mills are equipped with 19th-cent. machinery. The Derby Museum displays many paintings by Joseph Wright, one of Britain’s finest 18th-cent. painters, who excelled at innovatory scenes of industry and scientific experiment and portraits of industrialists. The Church of St Giles at Cheadle, 1841–7, A.W. Pugin’s masterpiece, has been called ‘the outstanding English church of the 19th century’. Overnight Stoke-on-Trent.
Birmingham. Established in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in 1881, J.W. Evans is an exceptional survival of a historic factory where little has changed for a century. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has the largest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world. The tour ends at New Street Station by 4.00pm.
Lecturer, writer, curator and broadcaster specialising in the art, architecture and design of the 19th and 20th centuries. Has published many books on pottery, porcelain, silver and antiques, also on canals and railways, and two books on the Thames. He has worked as an external curator of the V&A on a number of exhibitions including Pugin & The Victorian Vision and was Historical Advisor to Royal Doulton in Stoke-on-Trent. He is a long standing expert on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £1,570. Single occupancy: £1,740.
Hotel accommodation; private coach travel; breakfasts, 1 lunch, 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Telford Hotel and Golf Resort: a modern, 4-star hotel in a quiet location on the edge of town. Swimming pool, fitness centre, spa. The Best Western Moat House: though incorporating the shell of Etruria Hall, Josiah Wedgwood’s home, it is also a new 4-star hotel, adequately comfortable, lively. Of both it can be said that the rooms are comfortable and the service willing, and that they are the best available in their localities. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
Some walking is unavoidable on this tour, which would not be suitable for anyone who has any difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 42 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Suggested travel for combining with The Victorian Achievement, (13–20 August 2018)
11 August: Finish at Birmingham New Street Station at 4pm. Train to Manchester (c. 1.5 hrs) and stay nights of 11th & 12th in Manchester. [Alternative suggestion – train to Shrewsbury - 1h 10 mins for a two night stay. Then train to Manchester (1h 20 m)].
MRT can book the extra two nights in Manchester. Prices on enquiry. You would need to book the train yourself.
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