10 Museums on One Remarkable Stretch of River

Iron Bridge

Ferne Arfin

Near the English village of Ironbridge in Shropshire, the River Severn cuts a particularly beautiful gorge. Lush, deep green forests tumble down the steep river banks and the occasional whitewashed cottage peeks through the foliage as if placed there for special effect by Constable. A single kayaker slices silently across the dark green water, barely leaving a ripple on the surface. It's hard to believe that this peaceful spot was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

A graceful single arch span, 100 feet wide, carries a road 60 feet above the river. The British public voted this bridge, the Iron Bridge, one of 21 new English icons in 2006. It has given its name to the village, to the gorge and to the UNESCO World Heritage site that surrounds it. Hard as it is to imagine in this quiet, bucolic place, the Ironbridge Gorge was one of the earliest centers of industry in the world and the place where the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown.

The Ingredients Were Here

Plentiful iron, limestone, and coal brought individual craftsmen and cottage industries to the region for hundreds of years. Iron and steel were made in the region from about 1615. Charcoal was used which involved filling large numbers of trees, so iron making was expensive. Then in 1709, Abraham Darby came to the region and began making iron with coke, produced from coking coal, readily available in the gorge. The method was cheaper, the fuel burned hotter and large iron castings - for rail tracks, machinery and, eventually the arches of the Iron Bridge (the world's first arched bridge made of cast iron) could be more easily made.

Soon, a range of industrial activities was attracted to the area including clay pipe works, a brick factory, tile and porcelain factories. Today ten museums, most in original buildings and all within a few miles of each other, make up the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.

Even if you think you have no interest in industrial history. the Ironbridge Gorge Museums will surprise and fascinate you. Plan on spending at least two days in the area as there is far too much to see in one. Follow my visit to:

  • Blists Hill Victorian Town
  • The Museum of Iron and The Old Furnace
  • The Iron Bridge and Toll House
  • The Coalport China Museum
01 of 04

Blists Hill Victorian Town

Blists Hill High Street
© Ferne Arfin

At lunch time on Blists Hill High Street, the shopkeepers lock their doors and go home for a midday meal. That's what shopkeepers did in Victorian times and Blists Hill is a thoroughly Victorian town.

Part of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site, this is a living, working town, spread over 50 acres, with shops, factories, and locals in a character who demonstrate and explain what everyday life was like in a town with an ironworks, a brick, and tile factory and a coal mine.

Among the shops to visit:

  • A bank where conservatively dressed bankers serve customers from behind old-fashioned tiles. Change your modern money for Victorian token coins to spend in the shops.
  • A chemist's shop (pharmacy) where the lady chemist will tell you about the best Victorian remedies for what ails you. There's a terrifying looking dental surgery in an adjoining room and while you are visiting you can buy blocks of handmade carbolic soap (at Victorian prices) and bottles of scent.
  • A draper and milliner where Mrs. Phillips, the dressmaker, and Milliner presides over a collection of laces, fabrics and beautiful Victorian clothes for women and children from her personal collection.
  • An iron foundry where the "founder" casts ornaments in iron using the sand casting method patented by Abraham Darby himself.

There is a fish and chip shop where they fry the Victorian way with beef fat, a sweet shop selling Victorian dietetic and sugar-free sweets (who knew). Naturally, Blists Hill has a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. It also has a working pub where you can buy a pint, or have a snack, as well as a handful of workshops - cobbler, plaster case maker, plumber.

Several of the buildings at Blists Hill, including the Brick and Tile Works and the Blast Furnace, are the Victorian originals in situ; others are have been relocated from nearby and a few were newly built based on research and carefully sourced Victorian materials.

The village boasts the real smells of Victorian times. I don't know about that since I have nothing to compare, but while I was there, the foundry was producing hot iron and the industrial fumes of the place made my eyes burn and made my mouth taste too metallic to eat anything. If you are sensitive to industrial smells, plan on having your midday meal somewhere else (the village of Ironbridge has several visitor friendly cafes).

If you have time and energy climb up to the top of the town to see the Hay Inclined Plane. It's a stretch of the Shropshire Canal that links Blists Hill with the River Severn. Through an ingenious series of rails and wheeled cradles, it raised and lowered the flat bottom canal boats through a distance of about 210 feet.

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02 of 04

The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron and the Old Furnace

Coalbrookdale, where the Museum of Iron and Old Furnace are located, was where industrial scale cast iron manufacture began. The Museum is housed in a building known as "The Great Warehouse", built in 1838. Before you go inside, look at the window frames, lintels and sills - they are made of cast iron.

The museum relates the story of the Darby family - father, son and grandson (who built the Iron Bridge in 1779). Different galleries explain the process of making iron (so clearly and interestingly that even I could understand it). My favorite galleries, on the top floors, have samples of the delicate furniture and architectural ornamentation made of cast iron in the Victorian Era. There are a cafe and a gift shop to pass through on your way out.

The Old Furnace, now conserved in a sort of glass-walled teepee, is where Abraham Darby first smelted iron using coke instead of charcoal in 1709. It originated at least 50 years before that. It's possible to walk right into the heart of the blast furnace and to see various other pieces of equipment and structures vital to the process.

Also within the Coalbrookdale Trail are two early 18th century houses, complete with furniture, clothing, and accessories. Rosehill House was built in the 1720s and lived in by members of the Darby family. Dale House was traditionally occupied by company managers.

While you are in Coalbrookdale, particularly if you have children with you, visit Enginuity - just behind the Iron Museum. This modern interactive exhibition center is full of hands-on experiences and demonstrations of the power and workings of different types of engines.

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03 of 04

The Iron Bridge

Iron Bridge
© Ferne Arfin

The Iron Bridge was erected across the Severn in Shropshire by Abraham Darby III, grandson of the Abraham Darby who first perfected the method of making cast iron with coke in 1709.

Raised in 1779, the bridge was the first arch span bridge made of cast iron. Its construction presented the iron makers and foundry workers at Coalbrookdale, who cast the components, with a number of engineering challenges. Since nothing of its type had ever been built before in iron, the arches and other components had to be modeled in wood before casting. Carpentry and joinery methods, including mortise and tenon and dovetail joints, were used to put the bridge together. Hundreds of individual parts were cast for the bridge, the largest being the half ribs of the Arch. Each one is 70ft long and weighs more than five tons. The total arch span is 100 feet and the bridge is about 60 feet above the river.

From its earliest days, the Iron Bridge has considered a wonder of the world and visitors came from all over to see it. The village of Ironbridge, on the north side the bridge, grew up to serve the tourist trade and is still the best place in Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site area for tourist information, shopping, and food. Today, the Iron Bridge is only open to pedestrian traffic. A small tollhouse museum near the south side of the bridge tells the story of its construction.

For the best views of the Iron Bridge approach from the west and turn off Tontine Hill onto the path that goes down toward the river. You'll go under the Iron Bridge for a fascinating, close-up look at its arches. Then continue on this path, going east and climbing the hill. There are wonderful photo ops from this position.

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04 of 04

Coalport China Museum and other Ironbridge Gorge Attractions

Coalport China
© Ferne Arfin

Coalport China was one of the early industries established in Ironbridge Gorge at the end of the 18th century. The company is today a maker of porcelain collectibles that is part of the Wedgewood group. But in its heyday, it was known for elaborate Sèvres-inspired porcelains and beautifully handpainted tableware, heavily decorated with deep cobalt blue and gold ornamentation.

The Coalport China Museum occupies a series of beautiful listed buildings where fine bone china was made between 1796 and 1926. Like much of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site, these factories are nestled in a lush forested valley. The Shropshire Canal, which connected the East Shropshire coalfields with the River Severn runs beside it.

Exhibits include:

  • The National Collection of Coalport china and porcelain
  • The Northumberland Vase Made for the International Exhibition of 1862, it is the largest piece of Coalport China ever produced.
  • A range of large ornamental works painted in vivid colors by some of Coalport's leading 19th-century artists.
  • Coalbrookdaleware decorated with three-dimensional - and very fragile flowers and birds.
  • Flower making demonstrations. The artists at Coalport could make a fragile china rose in just 30 seconds. This popular demonstration shows you how it was done.
  • Demonstrations of a range of other traditional China making crafts including pot throwing, china painting and the use of a "jigger" and "jolly" to mass produce up to 1,000 plates at a time.
  • Saggar making Saggars were fired clay boxes in which the china was stacked before being fired in the kilns. Some of the saggars made in the demonstrations are available for sale and look like they'd make interesting planters.
  • Bottle Kilns Two of the original kilns were preserved. Visitors can go inside one of the bottle-shaped chimneys to see how the china was stacked and fired.

There are also hundreds of examples of historic Coalport designs including the Indian Tree pattern and rare examples of Caughley porcelain. Caughley was an 18th-century porcelain factory where John Rose, founder of Coalport China apprenticed. The factory was eventually incorporated into Rose's Coalport works.

Other Museums of Ironbridge Gorge

There's a lot to see at Ironbridge Gorge. Among the museums I missed but hope to return to see:

  • The Jackfield Tile Museum, housed in a former tile works with hundreds of examples of decorative tiles and tile murals as well as a typical Victorian tile showroom. This craft is believed to have been practiced in Shropshire from the 16th century.
  • The Museum of the Gorge, housed in a Victorian warehouse, the exhibits in this museum explain why the Ironbridge Gorge became a World Heritage site.
  • The Broseley Pipe Works, once Britain's biggest clay pipe makers, preserved, like a time capsule, as it was when the workers downed tools and the factory closed in 1950.
  • The Tar Tunnel, a brick-lined tunnel where treacly bitumen still oozes through the walls.
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