Some 'heritage' is neither very old nor very impressive, and is perhaps little more than a local idiosyncrasy; however it can provide a marker for a more significant series of events which carries a wider resonance. Such is the case with the 'wooden road' at Jackfield, in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.
Parts of the Gorge are well-known for their geological instability, with landslides reported from the early eighteenth century. At Jackfield a series of events occurred in the early 1950s which completely transformed the landscape. Over the winter of 1951-52 a stretch of ground between the Jackfield Tile Works (shown above) and the 'Half Moon' pub began a slow slide into the River Severn. This dramatically accelerated in February 1952 and affected several houses which had to be evacuated, and later demolished.
According to a report by the geologist A. W. Skempton: 'Six houses were completely broken up, gas mains had to be relaid above ground, the railway could be maintained only by daily adjustments to the track and a minor road along the river had to be closed to traffic.' (Skempton 1964). During 1952 and 1953 the slip continued to work its way upslope. By the end of 1953 around 300,000 tonnes of ground had moved; the slip was about 215m long and 200m wide - and the width of the river had been reduced from 38.1m to 24.4m (High-Point Rendel 2005).
This photograph shows the central part of the landslip today, with the water main and other services still carried above ground alongside the road.
Further movement has continued since 1953. Between 1966 and 1971, for example, there were slippages on Salthouse Road, 'which involved some further 8m movement towards the river and 2m of subsidence' (Halcrow 1990). In 1984 part of Salthouse Road was lost completely. This is when the wooden road was constructed, along the line of the former railway.
This detail of the wooden road shows how it has been constructed: a series of articulated iron-bound timber planks to enable the road to accommodate ground movement. The above-ground water main is also visible here. The wooden road was a unique response to the unique geological circumstances of Jackfield; simple, functional and undramatic, it nevertheless serves as a reminder of the 1952 catastrophe and its aftermath.
Sadly, the days of this local landscape feature are numbered. Over the next few years the Jackfield Stabilisation Project will improve drainage and attempt to reduce ground movement through piling; Salthouse Road will be re-routed to the north of the present road. The wooden road will be no more. A similar scheme undertaken a few years ago at The Lloyds had a design life of 100 years, but the river and land here is still recovering from the last ice age and there is ultimately nothing that can be done to stop it.
Whilst access for visitors and residents alike will no doubt be improved, another little piece of late twentieth century history - and a reminder of the unstoppable forces of geology - will disappear from the Ironbridge Gorge.
Skempton, A. W. 1964, 'Long-term stability of clay slopes', Geotechnique, 14, 77-101.
Halcrow 1990, Landslides at Ironbridge: Jackfield and Lloyd’s Coppice. Report on Hazard Mapping, report for Shropshire County Council.
High-Point Rendel 2005, Ironbridge Gorge Instability: The Interpretation of Ground Investigations at Jackfield and the Lloyds, report for Telford and Wrekin Council (R/2088/01).
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