Dispatch Two

A keep
Jonathan Mathews

St. Briaevel's: a 12th-century castle turned youth hostel.

Ironbridge Gorge, England, UK—We wake up early at St. Briaevel's in Lydney, a 12th-century castle turned youth hostel with modern amenities, including fantastic hot showers and Internet access.

The students have radically different packing styles, some bringing small, manageable bags, others risking the allowed weight limit for economy-class airline passengers. The heavy packers find negotiating the narrow castle staircases challenging, if not treacherous. The 15-passenger vans, too, are not easily navigated through the narrow stone streets of tiny English villages.

The breakfast room at St. Briaevel's is segregated, with the faculty—Derek Elsworth, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, Eser, and Mathews—drinking pots of tea at their own table. Mathews, born and raised in England, brews his with exaggerated precision: "What you need to do is add hot water, wait 47.5 seconds, stir clockwise four rotations, then remove the teabags. It's an art form, really." The students sit at the other tables, many huddling over cups of instant coffee and discussing their group research projects.

4 orange power plant cooling towers next to railroad tracks
Jonathan Mathews

The cooling towers at Ironbridge coal plant are"shaped like lovely ladies," says tour guide Sydney Armstrong.

Jen Holzhauser, a geosciences major, is part of a team exploring the differences in energy policy between Iceland and the UK. The students spent the first few days of their trip getting a first-hand look at geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources in Reykjavik. "Iceland plans to be fossil fuel-free by 2020, and I think they can do it," Holzhauser says. "It's a small country with a small infrastructure that can be changed." The UK lags behind Iceland's pace, but its energy policy is moving in the same direction. By 2010, the UK plans to produce at least ten percent of its energy from renewable sources like wind or water.

We load up the vans after breakfast and drive two hours along the border of England and Wales to Ironbridge Gorge, considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and now a United Nations' Heritage site. The gorge had all the necessary ingredients for industrialization: coal, clays, ironstone, and limestone exposed at the surface; the Severn River, a vital transport link to major cities; and the ingenuity of men called Pritchard and Darby, among others.

A couple hundred years ago this area boasted more furnaces and forges along two miles of riverbank than any such stretch anywhere. The world's first cast-iron bridge, spanning the Severn at Coalbrookdale, was built in 1779 using iron from furnaces owned by Abraham Darby III; its scallops and intricate curves were designed by architect Thomas Pritchard.

By the mid-1700s, the blood red skies of the gorge meant power and success to the pioneering industrialists. But the water was so polluted with waste that it wasn't fit to drink, life expectancy was low, and many of the children never made it out of infancy. Darby himself died at 39.

Ironbridge Gorge is a tourist site now, full of quaint shops and museums. The furnaces and forges no longer roar. The river has been cleaned up. The two cooling towers of a small coal power plant—one of a dwindling number in the UK—stand as backdrop to the old bridge, now limited to foot traffic.

Two smiling men in white hardhats standing outside a power plant.
Jonathan Mathews

Chatty tour guides Sydney Armstrong and Brian Edwards.

We get a tour of the plant from Brian Edwards and Sydney Armstrong, a chatty pair of retired floor managers who now spend their days teaching 10-year-olds about energy as part of the national curriculum.

"Coal isn't very popular in this country, until the wintertime. Then people probably don't care where there electricity comes from," says Armstrong.

He tells us that this plant produces 1000 megawatts of energy and supplies 400,000 volts of electricity to the UK's national electricity grid.

"Coal plants are being closed down, but with today's technologies, to replace a 1000 Megawatt power station would require 7000 wind turbines," says Edwards.

Indeed, when Edwards and Armstrong show us a map of the national grid, with bulbs of various colors designating the different types of power plants—nuclear, hydro, oil, and coal—the energy generated by wind isn't even represented. At least, not yet.

Last Updated May 01, 2003