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GREAT HEROES OF GREAT BRITAIN

          Travel is people. You may go abroad to see the famous sites, but what you remember best are the people you meet. Among them, like unexpected treasure, are a few memorable contacts that will make your travels unique, special, and delightful. "People" is devoted to some of those you may come in contact with during your Home At First travels.

VISIONARY ENGINEER OF THE INDUSTRIAL AGE — PART TWO

This article first appeared in October, 2004. Most recent update: 2015.

It seems most everywhere we go we run into his name on bridges, on canals, on roadways, on harbors. There are towns named after him in England and Pennsylvania. We had to find out more about this man whose path we — and Home At First guests to England, Scotland, Wales, and

"The Colossus

of Roads"

 

Sweden — often cross,
the man called:

THOMAS TELFORD


THOMAS TELFORD didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution, but he was its first great star, a star of the order of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates. He was the most glamorous and most sought after civil engineer of his time. He made engineering into a science and an art. He helped invent modern times, literally paving the way into the future. Like Elvis prepared the world for the Beatles, Telford caught the public’s imagination, making public acceptance easy for the geniuses that followed, especially Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
 
         Telford was a lowlands Scot, born August 9, 1757, near Langholm, Dumfries & Galloway, a few miles from the English border, and mid-way between dramatic Hermitage Castle and the ill-fated town of Locherbie. In this region where sheep vastly outnumber people, Telford was the son of a poor shepherd, and helped support the family as a shepherd until becoming an apprentice stonemason at 14. From the family farm at Bentpath (west of the A7 on the B709 in Eskdale), Telford’s path led to Scotland, England, Wales, and Sweden, and always went uphill. The path led ultimately to Westminster Abbey, where Telford, who died September 2, 1834, aged 77, was buried among the great kings and citizens of Britain.
          Along the way, the path of Thomas Telford crossed many paths familiar to us at
Home at First. Join us as we journey with Telford to some of the fascinating destinations we share.

PART TWO OF A FOUR-PART SERIES:

TELFORD IN ENGLAND

A stormy Thames lashes at the riverside facade of Somerset House in this romantic painting by Edward Dayes from circa 1790. Thomas Telford learned civil engineering working on this grand building, now home to some of London's finest art collections.
A stormy Thames lashes at the riverside
 facade of Somerset House in this romantic
 painting by Edward Dayes from circa 1790.
Thomas Telford learned civil engineering
 working on this grand building, now home
to some of London's finest art collections.

London: After working on Edinburgh’s New Town, young Thomas Telford went to London to work on the construction of Somerset House (shown left from a contemporary painting). The great neo-classical building replaced a crumbling Tudor palace on the banks of the Thames northeast of Westminster (and today just across the river from the London Eye Ferris wheel). It was here that Telford gained his engineering education and gained a reputation as an emerging talent. A visit to Somerset House is still informative. Its size and complexity make it a complete course in the trades of architecture and civil engineering. Today, Somerset House no longer is home to government offices and the Royal Navy, but to some of Britain’s great art treasures and an ever-changing calendar of events, many classical,

 

many eclectic. That its immediate neighbor to the

east, London’s prestigious King’s College, is

 

styled like Somerset House, suggests a connection between art, architecture, education, and engineering that Thomas Telford would instantly understand.
          Telford went on to build the trunk road from London to
Holyhead, Wales (and its ferry port to Dublin) that became one of Britain’s main transport routes. While it was the Welsh portion of this road that presented Telford his greatest challenge, it

Detail from Telford's preserved iron footbridge at St. Katharine's Docks, London. Photo © Home At First.
Detail from Telford's preserved iron footbridge
at St. Katharine's Docks, London.
Photo © Home At First

was the importance of London as hub of the

 

 

empire that Telford’s work was expanding.

Once the import center of Britain, Thomas Telford's St. Katharine's Docks have been converted into St. Katharine's Marina, an upscale, pedestrians-only complex of shops, restaurants and residences next to the River Thames at the Tower of London. Photo © Home At First.
Once the import center  of
 Britain, Thomas Telford's
St. Katharine's Docks
have been converted into
St. Katharine's Marina,
an upscale, pedestrians-
only complex of shops,
restaurants and residences
next to the River Thames
at theTower of London.

Photo © Home At First

           Such works made the science of civil engineering and the name Thomas Telford inseparable. When, in 1818, London’s new Institute of Civil Engineers named its first president, no one was surprised by the choice: Thomas Telford. But late in life Telford did not slow down. He moved to London, but not to settle down. As he approached 70 old age in the Victorian era he was still unmarried and still hard at work, among other things, designing and building (1824-8) London’s great, modern dock facilities just east of the Tower of London. Called St. Katharine’s Docks, these state-of-the-art wharves and warehouses welcomed clipper ships bringing exotic cargoes of rare feathers, decorative shells, tea, indigo, marble, perfume, and ivory from around the British Empire. The docks served London well until becoming obliterated by Nazi bombs during the Blitz.
         Today, St. Katharine’s Docks are East London’s great success story of urban renewal, having become an upscale yacht basin with trendy shops, restaurants and fashionable residences, including
Home at First’s Apartments at St. Katharine’s Marina. The Center Dock at St. Katharine’s has preserved Thomas Telford’s original iron pedestrian

 

drawbridge, an elegant relic very much in keeping with the

style of the modern marina architecture.
           Six years after St. Katharine’s Docks opened Thomas Telford died in London at 77 years old. He was buried in the nave of
Westminster Abbey. Twenty-five years later the body of the great bridge designer and railway engineer, Robert Stephenson, was interred next to Telford’s grave. Demonstrating a sense of what he owed to his great predecessor, Stephenson had requested burial by Telford. (Other scientists and engineers buried in Westminster Abbey include: Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Ernest Rutherford, and Sir J. J. Thomson.)


Shropshire: If London gave Telford the education he had lacked, Shropshire gave him his first great responsibility and first major achievements. The year was 1788, and the Industrial Revolution was being fought hard in Shropshire, a sleepy county in western England bordering North Wales. The new transportation technology that was sweeping England canals made it feasible to haul goods and people across the flat lands of the Midlands (around Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool). But could that same technology be installed across the rugged topography of the Severn River Valley and the hill country that surrounded it? Telford, who had made a name for himself in London as an up-and-coming

Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen, Wales, is still the world's highest and longest canal aquaduct. Boat tours carry visitors across its 1000-foot length 126 feet above the River Dee from nearby Llangollen.
Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct  near
 Llangollen, Wales, is still the world's
highest and longest canal aqueduct.
Boat tours carry visitors across its
1000-foot length 126 feet above the
River Dee from nearby Llangollen.

civil engineer and impressed some influential

 

friends, looked like an ambitious young man that might tackle the problems of canal building in hill country. He was appointed Shropshire’s Surveyor of Public Works, and, by 1793, was building the Ellsmere (now the Llangollen) Canal connecting Shropshire with North Wales. Telford attacked the problem of crossing deep river valleys between the hills by designing huge masonry aqueducts supporting a canal in cast iron troughs and a towpath. These strong and elegant structures seemed to fly across the eastern Welsh valleys and still do today. Home at First visitors to Shropshire can easily see Telford’s great arched Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (and even ride across it’s 1,000-foot length in a canal boat 126 feet above the River Dee) near Llangollen, Wales, and the dual Chirk Aqueduct and Viaduct by Chirk Castle near the Welsh/English border town of Wrexham. The great works once carried iron, coal, freight, mail and passengers in the days before the railroads came to Britain. Today, more than two centuries later, the canals carry canal boats and other pleasure craft full of vacationers who see Wales and England slowly on board narrow boats. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 2009, being judged "a pioneering masterpiece of engineering and monumental metal architecture, conceived by the celebrated civil engineer Thomas Telford."

 

          Closer to home, guests to Home At First

Walking along the Shropshire Union Canal. No hills, rural scenery, pub refreshments.
Walking along the Shropshire Union Canal.
No hills, rural scenery, pub refreshments.

cottages on the Shropshire/Cheshire border can walk along the towpaths of Telford’s Llangollen Canal and his Shropshire Union Canal (built 1826-35 as the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal). Canal walking is a great way to enjoy the sleepy countryside of pretty western England. Enhance your walk with a stop at any of many public houses that serve canal travelers to this day.
          Shropshire has not always slumbered. In the early 18th century, a fellow named
Abraham Darby, who lived in the Shropshire hill country east of Shrewsbury, figured out a way to mass produce

 

cast iron. This discovery set in motion a chain of

events that changed the world. Today we call this momentous change the Industrial Revolution. Among the first applications of mass produced cast iron was in a bridge at a place near Coalbrookdale along the River Severn now called Ironbridge. The graceful great arch still stands, and is another of Britain’s contributions to the United Nations list of World Heritage Sites. Thomas Telford certainly knew Ironbridge. His own iron and masonry bridges crossed the Severn at several

points, including Montfort (1792), Bildwas (1796)

 

Bridgnorth (1810), Bewdley (1797-1801), Holt Fleet (1828), Mythe (Tewkesbury, 1826), and Over (Gloucester, 1831). These latter four bridges may be visited by Home at First guests to the Cotswolds simply by tracing the River Severn north from Gloucester.
          Telford also built the A5 trunk road from London to Holyhead, Wales, right through Shropshire, passing just to the north of Ironbridge Gorge. When the British government decided to build a completely new town to wake up the economy of this sleepiest part of Shropshire in

A statue of Thomas Telford leans on his namesake town's sign in Shropshire.
A statue of Thomas Telford leans on his
 namesake town's sign in Shropshire.

the 1960’s, the high-tech town was named after its best-known adopted son, Thomas Telford.

 

END OF PART 2 — TELFORD IN ENGLAND

PART 1 — TELFORD IN SCOTLAND

PART 3 — TELFORD IN WALES

PART 4 — TELFORD IN SWEDEN

You can travel in the footsteps of Thomas Telford and discover
history from some of the living monuments to this great engineer.
More information about travel with Home At First:

To ENGLAND    To SCOTLAND    To WALES    To SWEDEN

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