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Bliss at Blists Hill?
Blists Hill Victorian Town Heritage Site (Ironbridge Gorge)
Member Name: MizzMolko
Blists Hill Victorian Town Heritage Site (Ironbridge Gorge)
Advantages: A working Victorian village with a fair amount to see and do; child friendly .
Disadvantages: Lacking in information; some displays closed at peak times .
OK SO IT'S A VICTORIAN TOWN IN IRONBRIDGE. WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO KNOW ABOUT BLISTS HILL?
Blists Hill is an open-air museum which was built upon the grounds of an old industrial complex in the 1970s. The museum is essentially a collection of working shops, industrial workplaces and houses that people living in the 19th century would have used on a daily basis. The buildings themselves were either already present on the original site, such as the blast furnace; have been based upon several shops from the era, such as the locksmith; or have incorporated original fixtures and fittings from other places across England, such as the New Inn which used to stand in Walsall. Blists Hill is set across fifty acres of woodland but to me it didn't seem as if we'd walked that much or that far by the end of the day: the different buildings were separated across the area but not in a way that was unmanageable.
As a tourist attraction, Blists Hill is host to several different displays, some of which are 'manned' on some days so that visitors (in theory) can listen to stories about certain trades and how shops used to produce their goods. Other areas are merely there for historical interest and viewing purposes, such as the remains of the blast furnace. Although there is a fair amount to see and do, Blists Hill has a very relaxed pace to it; you can spend as much or as little time looking around every nook and cranny as you please but the organisers recommend that you set aside at least three hours for your visit which is a good estimate. Obviously, this time will increase or decrease depending upon when you visit as the weekends and bank holiday periods tend to include special events.
One thing that really, really irks me about any tourist attraction is when you have to pay for the privilege of using their car park. True, Blists Hill is situated a short distance away from the heart of Ironbridge but I think you'd have to be a fairly avid walker to park up at Blists Hill and stroll all of the way to the town centre as it is still quite a distance. After the jobsworth tells you where to park, collecting your £1.50 as you pass go, it's a relatively short distance to the entrance where you purchase your tickets. If, like us, you have not got an Ironbridge passport, a one off payment of £22.50 for adults which allows you to visit all of the area's ten museums, you can expect to pay the following per ticket at Blists Hill:
Adults ~ £14.95
Adults over the age of sixty ~ £11.95
Child/student ~ £9.95
The lady on the desk was pleasant but the place was heaving with people; we had decided, perhaps unwisely, to visit Blists Hill last Bank Holiday Monday and by the time we'd paid and returned to our car for a bit of lunch at 12.30pm, the car park was full. I would be lying if I said that the amount of people in attendance that day didn't make things troublesome; although Blists Hill covers a vast area of land, the key points of the attraction were filled to the brim, making it hard to really have a proper look around. Therefore, if you can, it's my recommendation to visit the museum when it's not the height of summer or at any other point during the school holidays. The Victorian Town's opening times can be found at the bottom of this review but the above prices are fixed until March 2012.
JUST WHAT IS THERE TO DO AT BLISTS HILL?
I'm not going to go through each and every building, you'll be pleased to read; instead, I'm going to select a few that struck me as the most interesting and those that I found to be a little disappointing so that you know what to expect overall.
As you enter the visitor centre, the first port of call after purchasing your tickets, you're invited to watch a five or so minute long video which is a mixture of modern day recreations and photographs taken during the Victorian era. The footage is projected in sections across the tall walls and at times, not all of the footage is the same so you have the choice to look at different visuals of the same topic. Personally, I felt that the video package was one of the most informative parts of Blists Hill; without the need for many words, instead combining music with the sound of machinery, the videos depicted the sometimes tragic life of those living in Victorian England. There was nothing gruesome or sensationalist about it; even the montage of clips showing coal miners being taken to their final resting place was tastefully done with just a solemnly-sung hymn in the background. The video was certainly not all doom and gloom as it managed to capture what an exciting, experimental time Victorian Britain was, particularly with regards to industrial growth which Ironbridge is renowned for.
Once you arrive at the top floor of the visitor centre, you exit to the outside and I have to say that I liked the way the town itself had been organised at the point of construction: the area towards the visitor centre creates a high street where you get to see some traditional Victorian shops, such as the grocers, before venturing out to the industrial area and homes. As I enjoy looking at fashion from years gone by, I was instantly drawn to the outfitters on the left side street; it had a lovely array of feathered hats, nightwear, corsets and ribbons and I found the note on the door to be very amusing - something along the lines of 'if you're a peasant, keep out until after closing time when I may be able to cobble you an outfit together out of odds and ends'. Charming!
Another part of the attraction which I really enjoyed looking around was the Doctor's surgery, a quaint little cottage with fire engine red window panes, located towards the bottom end of the town. Whilst it was a joy to look around at the house's decor, particularly the row upon row of leather bounded books, I really enjoyed looking through the Doctor's notes about the patients he diagnosed on a daily basis. I found the various treatment methods for illnesses such as indigestion to be particularly amusing and it really makes you appreciate how much medical science has advanced over the past hundred to hundred-and-fifty years. The gardens at the back of the house are particularly tranquil and allow you to take a moment away from the very busy street life elsewhere at Blists Hill.
There was a particularly striking juxtaposition between the types of houses people used to live in, from the moderately well off to those living on the breadline. The squatter cottage close to the mine was a very humble display, adorned with ragged patchwork quilts and the most basic of kitchen utensils. One of the most discreet exhibits on display in the squatter's cottage was the crucifixes hanging both in the bedroom and the sitting area. It was a subtle display but enough to give you a bit of an insight into the beliefs of those living at the time.
However, by far the most absorbing exhibit was the candle makers, situated at the heart of Blists Hill. By the time we'd arrived, quite a crowd had entered the little brick building and the gentleman behind the railings, who was making candles for sale and display purposes, began a wonderful prose about what life was truly like for candle makers at the time. His speech was engaging, with pauses in-between which invited questions from the visitors, and full of interesting historical details including what candle makers and miners used to do with the leftover candles at the end of the day. The facts were quite unusual and I genuinely felt as if I'd learnt something valuable by the end of his talk.
Sadly, the amount of information across the board at Blists Hill was rather scarce; besides the postal museum archives, blast furnace and mine experience centre, there was very little written information available. Many of the members of staff at the attraction failed to engage visitors in the same way that the candle maker did; some may say that visitors should start the conversations first but I believe that many people would not think to ask the question that the candle maker answered, without the workers starting the discussion. Whilst the dress maker was happy to natter away to a couple of tourists, when my Brother asked a question in the chemists, the lady simply didn't know the answer so Mum answered it for her! To the chemist lady's defence, she didn't normally 'work' in there: she was covering another staff member's absence. Yet it just epitomises to me how Blists Hill should produce a little more written information just to offer some basic statements about the displays.
Having said that, at times, the workers were rather a hindrance: in the squatter cottage it was impossible to take a good look at the fireplace because two of them were sat in rocking chairs right in front of it!
Another thing that really bugged me about Blists Hill was the fact that it felt more like a shopping centre than a museum. True, there is a recession on and places of historical interest need to do all they can to raise funds in order to keep going. However, whilst in some shops it was a pleasant touch for them to sell products made on site, such as the pork scratchings costing a pound a bag at the butchers and four candles for a pound at the candle makers, in other places, it felt unnecessary; in the dress makers, there was the chance to purchase a cardboard doll and 'dress' her in the supplied paper clothes. Now, I know for a fact that when I was younger, I would have begged my Mum to buy me one and she probably would have obliged. But when you take into consideration that there's a gift shop at the exit, a sweet shop, a fish and chip shop, a photographers, a chemists that sells smelly soaps and then several vintage fairground rides that you have to pay to go on, it can soon turn into an expensive day. Also, places such as the butchers and bakers seemed to be open purely for the purpose of selling food so were not exactly much of a historical display in comparison to the cottages, printers or candle makers.
Speaking of expense, I think it's quite cheeky that Blists Hill wants its customers to spend an additional £2 a head to watch a six minute video about mining which also includes a two minute trip there and back on a train. As the coal mining centre was one of the few places on the site which has been jam-packed full of information, I do have to question whether the further two pounds is worth the extra money. Instead, we decided to take a short trip on the steady incline lift, which is already included in the price of the tickets, so we could see Blists Hill in its entirety from a distance.
Considering we were visiting on a Bank holiday weekend, I found it disappointing that places such as the church and the school were out of bounds to the general public: the most you could do was go and have a quick peek through the glass doors at both. The church does not necessarily need to be 'manned' any day of the week but the school hosts a mock lesson every Sunday. Considering how many children were loitering around Blists Hill on the day we visited, it's arguable that there's a demand for an old-fashioned school lesson at least once or twice a day during peak times. Personally, I found it a bit odd that Blists Hill did not have anything such as that arranged for visitors that Monday as there were several people in the queue to get tickets who were really looking forward to going inside the school itself.
BESIDES THE SCHOOL, HOW CHILD FRIENDLY IS BLISTS HILL?
I would say that Blists Hill is very child friendly place; besides the fairground rides, which are understandably only open during the spring and summer months, there are different events to educate and entertain children which occur throughout the year. On the day we visited, there was a tie-dye candle dipping class which did cost a little extra per child's participation. Sadly, by the time we were heading for the exit at about 3.30pm, the tent had already closed because they had run out of candles so if you do have little ones who enjoy arts and crafts, I'd recommend doing anything like that as and when you see it.
Another really sweet touch is the fact that the bank allows you to swap present-day money for old currency so that you can 'buy' gifts and food on the premises with Victorian-era coins. At first I was a bit cynical about that; to me, the bank was pretty pointless unless you actually wanted to exchange your money for old-fashioned coinage because it just had queues upon queues of people waiting to do just that. But then I thought it was a nice touch for children as they would get to learn about the currency from the day. If you don't fancy standing in line and waiting to exchange money, you can buy everything on site with today's money which does make the exercise seem somewhat pointless but the children doing so seemed to be having a good time.
That bank holiday weekend, Blists Hill also promoted a number of displays based upon the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Although we didn't watch any of them (I have a phobia of furries) we did catch the cast roaming around the streets and they actively got the children involved by goading them into watching the play later that afternoon. Based on that little snippet, I imagine that for children it would have been a fun, pantomime-like demonstration and, of course, a good way for the book to be brought to life.
ACCESSIBILITY AND OTHER INFO
Whilst there are ways for people in wheelchairs to get about the Victorian Town, I will say that many of the paths are very uneven in places. Lifts are a feature of many of the newer buildings and, from what I can recall, there was no need to go upstairs in any of the older buildings so people with limited mobility would not be missing out in any way. There are also several disabled toilets on site. The female loos close to the cafe area were in a good condition although the lock on one of the doors could do with being changed.
Visitors are allowed to take dogs onto the site if they're on a lead. There are however many lovely animals throughout Blists Hill which is why doggies must be contained; I would hate to think that the cockerels and black piglets would be in danger! There is the option to have a ride on a horse-drawn carriage too so you might have to play a game of turd dodging as you're walking around the grounds as nobody working at Blists Hill seemed to be the designated poop-picker-upper...
We didn't purchase any food from Blists Hill: frankly, I got bored of waiting in line for the sweet shop and we would have probably been waiting for a further half an hour before getting in there, with no exaggeration. We did however get some drinks from the cafe next to the visitor centre and the price for two coffees, an organic apple juice and a bottle of Curiosity Cola, basically an indulgently sugary, old-fashioned soft drink, cost somewhere in the region of six to seven pounds. The cafe was not too busy by about half past three in the afternoon but it is rather limited in terms of seating. There are other places to eat and drink on site, including the New Inn pub and the Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion, and opening times vary but at the pub, there was a large blackboard which stated when food would be served throughout the day.
The shop towards the exit sells a range of gifts for the young and old alike using materials sourced locally. I purchased an adorable elephant necklace on a black cord chain for £1 which was made in Ironbridge and I would say that overall, the gift shop is pretty reasonably priced; old-fashioned sweets cost £2.50 for a smallish jar and a miniature but cute mouse doorstop cost just a pound more.
OVERALL: WOULD I RETURN TO BLISTS HILL?
Perhaps if I had children, I would go back: there is a lot for them to do in terms of the extras on site, like the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland display and the candle dipping. But for adults, I think the Blists Hill experience is a lot more limited due to the fact that there was such an inadequate amount of information available. To me, Blists Hill's worth as a historical attraction would increase no end if there was more written information across the grounds as I felt that it was very much a place for looking at and admiring rather than finding out about the past in a profound way. Don't get me wrong, the buildings looked authentic and aesthetically pleasing but that's about all.
It's difficult to get past the fact that Blists Hill felt more like a collection of shops rather than a museum with the added bonus of being able to purchase prezzies made on site, particularly when it comes to areas like the butchers and bakers being included for that purpose alone. I also think that Blists Hill's staff should make a concerted effort to talk to visitors and to ask them if they have any questions or, like the candle-maker, to start talking about the trade when a significant amount of people are around. The chemist's is one area that particularly stands out in that respect as lacking: there were a lot of people who were just wandering about glancing at the 'stock' before leaving again. There was a dentist's booth adjacent to that building and I felt that it would be a key area to have a member of staff pretending to be a dentist from the era and talking about what a trip to the dentist's office would have been like back then and the same goes for the doctor's.
In terms of how it compares to similar attractions, then I think Blists Hill is a little weaker than the Black Country Museum: the Black Country Museum had more places to look around, such as the observatory and buildings for entertainment purposes like the cinema, and was more atmospheric yet some of the staff were a little on the rude side; the people who were working at Blists Hill seemed agreeable enough overall and some were very, very knowledgeable. The Black Country Museum is marginally cheaper and does offer more for car enthusiasts as there's a big display of old fashioned motors. But back to Blists Hill and overall, it's an attraction which offers visitors a pleasant day out: it's not too taxing and in the warmer weather, it's a sweet place to take a stroll around. However, it would be a good idea for them to develop the site a little more in the future as there's certainly the space to add displays of pertinent cultural value, like a cinema, if Blists Hill wanted to present a fuller picture of life in the Victorian era.
Address: Legges Way, Madeley, Ironbridge, TF7 5DU
Phone number: 01952 884391
Opening times: All day, every day, Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Presumably, Christmas Day is out-of-bounds.
How long does it take to complete?: Three to four hours.
Transportation: Between Easter and October, a bus service which is free to Ironbridge passport holders, operates Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. Telford train station is five miles away.
Website: http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/blist s_hill_victorian_town/
(Please note: review previously posted 'on the other side' under the same user name.)
Summary: A reasonable tourist attraction which could offer more.
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