Reviewed by Alex Wilde
I remember visiting Ironbridge in my last year of Primary School (which is further back than I care to acknowledge!) and I have extremely clear and fond memories of exploring ‘Blists Hill Victorian Town’ and staring out from the magnificent Abraham Darby III Iron Bridge which traverses the River Severn. The river cuts a gorge through the famous town which boasts itself to be the ‘Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’.
This isn’t a review of the rich history, geography or geology of the area – of which there is certainly plenty should that be where your interests lie – but an honest account of a family day out to the Ironbridge Gorge Museums.
Almost three decades on from my previous visit, myself and my wife decided to take our six-year-old daughter to Ironbridge for the day. In preparation, we visited the highly informative and easy to navigate museum website ironbridge.org.uk. What I didn’t realise was that there are actually ten museums and places of interest to explore, spread out across 6 square miles. We opted to visit ‘Blists Hills’ first and see where the mood took us.
We set out from Derby on a drizzly and grey Sunday morning, quite a change from the glorious September sunshine the day before, and spent just over an hour in the car to reach Telford, Shropshire. The various sites are extremely well signposted by the ubiquitous brown tourist boards and we easily found our way to the correct destination. Parking was ample and advertised as pay & display, however the machine was broken.
The three of us were greeted warmly by the staff in the visitors centre, where we opted for admission tickets to all ten sites. Single attraction tickets are available, but it is far better value to purchase an Annual Passport ticket.
Leaflets, map and themed trail for children collected, we stepped out of the foyer into a large warehouse space. Projected onto the walls were videos of industrious Victorians hard at work in the forges, factories and dark pits. The simple films gave a taste of the lives we were about to explore.
The village was accessed by stairs, however a lift is available for those with limited mobility or wheelchair users. You literally open two doors to the past and step into an excellent recreation – we were greeted by a towering green steam engine and the sound of hooves as a large pit pony trotted by. Blists Hill is a living museum: actors in traditional garments walk the streets, man the shops and welcome you into their businesses and homes.
A marker of the ‘Queen Victoria Lost Luggage Trail’ was visible immediately – a great way to engage my daughter from the off. It would certainly be suitable for younger children too. Our first stop was the bank to exchange our modern money for pennies and shillings; a really nice touch which added to our enjoyment of the day. The recreation coins can be spent in all of the themed shops. The teller recommended we exchange between £5 and £10 for a child to enjoy spending around the site and advised us of approximately what that could buy. We opted for £5 which bought us a lollipop from the confectioners, a cone of chips, a biscuit from the bakers, a candle and one game at the fairground. Excellent value! Other than the coffee shop and restaurant, all the retailers stay in character and only accept cash. Unfortunately, the cash point in the coffee shop by the visitors centre was out of order, so I recommend taking change with you to fully enjoy the bygone atmosphere.
Before midday, we had visited numerous stores and chatted amiably to a chemist, baker and greengrocer. All the cast engage with you, demonstrate their typical role and are adept at answering questions. We were particularly impressed with how well everyone seemed to adapt to their audience. Our daughter was fascinated by the hands-on experiences and enjoyed the perfectly pitched historical learning.
Our toilet break was at the local pub, again populated by characters around a welcome roaring fire; one of whom was playing the accordion to entertain the patrons. A wonderfully unexpected enhancement!
We supplemented our packed lunch with delicious freshly cooked chips from the Fish ’n Chip Shop, because of the rain we had to eat inside. The room to the side of this takeaway has no seating, so be happy to stand. On drier days, there is plenty of outdoor seating which would be suitable.
After lunch, we popped into the confectioners and photographers (where you can dress-up and pay for a family portrait – reasonably priced at £20); followed by morse code practice at the Post Office and a nosy around the Drapers and Outfitters. Whilst the seamstress was skilfully at work on a Singer, she pointed out the school uniform to our little girl, talked about the different customers who would have visited and how the garments were made. From there we wove in and out of homes and backyards, meeting residents and discussing amongst ourselves the differences to modern life.
Shortly after, we crossed the disused canal, and a family of ducks, and took the short uphill climb to the former brick and tile works. There are no interactive elements to this part of the town, but informative information boards at adult comprehension levels are present.
The nearby iron foundry wasn’t manned when we visited, which was a shame because it would have been great to see iron smelted and worked, and contributed to the context of the visit. To be fair, the museum does make it clear that exhibits do only operate on certain days, I’m not sure whether or not this is advertised ahead of time.
Around every corner, there was something new to see and engage with – a cobblers, the plumbers, tinsmith, the list goes on. We did really enjoy the demonstration of the steam powered mine shaft elevator – an original feature of the site.
Before we knew it, it was 2pm, and having only covered half of the site, we were drawn back to the main street and Goods Shed by hymns. The inhabitants of the town were in chorus, participating in a short afternoon service. We joined the busy congregation and enjoyed singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Surprisingly, the sun was summoned and after the service we were treated to Morris dancing in the street!
We headed down the hill, exploring yet more cottages, offices and places of interest. At the bottom of the incline there is an expansive ironworks to explore, blacksmith to see at work, a school, a fairground, plus much more. For your information we didn’t go further than point 49 on the visitor map, there is much more to explore.
Our daughter was of course drawn to the fairground, although the rides were for older and taller children she thoroughly enjoyed the low-priced, simple games of chance – winning a skipping rope and windmill. Also, for free, you can play with a selection of wooden toys, including stilts – of which we were determined to master! There are picnic benches available in this area too. It was now 4pm and closing time, so we headed back up the hill. Expecting to be ushered out as we passed shuttered shops, we met a crowd at the Candle Makers. The craftsman was animatedly and enthusiastically demonstrating the process of candle making to a few families.
After they had departed, he kindly treated us to a second talk. For twenty-minutes he held our daughter’s attention on the subject of candles, sharing knowledge and asking questions at an age-appropriate level, with a little juggling thrown in for good measure! His passion, experience and dedication was evident and epitomised our whole experience of the day and the people we met.
I have only one complaint, there wasn’t enough time in the day! After almost six hours, we only covered 10% of what was on offer… there are nine more sites to visit – including the famous bridge itself! My advice: visit for the weekend, nay a long weekend, you won’t have trouble filling your time!
In conclusion, we had an incredible family day out! History was brought to life in a fun, fascinating and engaging way. I hope our daughter will have the same treasured memories of the place as I do. On the journey home, we asked her what she enjoyed about the day, fully expecting her to say, “the sweet shop.” However, perfectly encapsulating our day she replied, “EVERYTHING!”
A great value Annual Passport Ticket allowing multiple visits into all 10 Ironbridge Gorge Museums costs £26.50 per adult, £20.50 for seniors, £16.50 for children (16 years or under), £70 for a family of two adults and all their children and £50 for a family with one adult; under 5s free (terms and conditions apply); Passports can also be bought online in advance saving 5% and individual entry tickets are available at each museum. Activities will vary from day-to-day and some additional costs will apply. For further information, call the Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre on 01952 433 424 or visit www.ironbridge.org.uk. The Gorge is easily reached via the M54 motorway exiting at Telford junction 4 or 6; some museums have seasonal opening, check website before travelling.
For more information or to buy tickets online visit www.ironbridge.org.uk.
The Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Coalbrookdale, Telford, TF8 7DQ