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This is were it all began...
Ironbridge Gorge Museum (Ironbridge)
Member Name: merv
Ironbridge Gorge Museum (Ironbridge)
Date: 21/09/02, updated on 21/09/02 (247 review reads)
Advantages: Heritage personified, A must for modern historians, Extremely valuable for students
Disadvantages: Only certain aspects will appeal to most children
Coincidentally, my favourite subject was ‘Economic and Social History’, taught by a passionate and slightly mad Welshman, a character straight out of Alexander Cordell’s ‘Host of Rebecca’. This involved learning about railways, canals, spinning jennies and Jethro Tull which was much more interesting than Kings and Queens and all that political stuff, especially as I lived in Shropshire - the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.
Anyone studying economic history nowadays or for that matter anybody who’s looking for a great day out should visit the Ironbridge Gorge Museum
The world’s first iron bridge straddling the Severn is the centerpiece of the valley that changed the world in the eighteenth century. This is where the Industrial Revolution began. It was here in 1709 that Abraham Darby pioneered the use of inexpensive coke rather than charcoal to smelt iron ore, which encouraged the use of iron in bridges, ships and buildings and transformed this tranquil and picturesque gorge into one of the world’s great iron making centers.
Industrial decline in the twentieth century led to the gorge’s decay and its hard to believe that smoke once filled the fiery sky, tumult issued from the foundries’ forges and sulphurous fumes rose from furnaces, for today this deeply wooded, tranquil and beautiful valley strung along the banks of the River Severn has been transformed into one the world’s finest heritage museums.
This is so very different from any other museum I’ve visited before, probably because it is not just one museum but several all of which present a unique insight into what life must have been like in those changing times.
There are nine Museums altogether
, spread out over the valley, and you have to travel between them using your own transport. If you want to see everything, you should allow at least a full day. The Iron Bridge is a good starting point and is in itself worth a visit to the area, a wonderful monument to the ironmasters’ skills in a beautiful setting. The toll-house on the south bank charts its construction. This is where you can buy tickets to visit the museums.
Located in the old Severn Warehouse a short walk along the river from the Iron Bridge is the Museum of the Gorge. Built in the 1830’s this Gothic building was built by the Coalbrookdale Company to store their goods on the edge of the river. It’s a good idea to visit this museum first as it contains a 40ft scale model of the three mile stretch of the Ironbridge Gorge between Dale End (Coalbrookdale) and Coalport China Works putting into perspective what the gorge must have looked like in 1796.
Further west of Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale and the Museum of Iron trace the history of iron and the men who made it. The Darby Furnace is the original blast furnace used to smelt iron, and Dale House and Rosehill, the are the houses of Coalbrookdale, which remain within a landscape largely unchanged since the eighteenth century. This is where the Darby Ironmasters and their families lived and worked in eighteenth century homes, which have been painstakingly restored. This is where the Industrial Revolution was born - the first iron railway tracks, iron railway wheels and iron bridge and the first steam railway locomotive were all made here. A restored locomotive and cast iron statues commissioned for the Great Exhibition of 1851are among the a wealth of Coalbrookdale products on display.
One of this museum’s main themes is the history of the Darby dynasty. They were a Quaker family who had a great impact on the community of Coalbrookdale and the larger than life exhibits show the social and working co
nditions faced by the labourers who sometimes toiled for twenty four hours at a stretch.
To the south of the Iron bridge is the Broseley Pipeworks Museum which contains the original equipment installed in the 1880s and used until the site was abandoned at the end of the 1950s. The resultant ‘time capsule’ remains the heart of this Museum, with other adjacent rooms used to explain the local clay tobacco pipe-making industry from its origins in the late 16th century through to 1960. Tools lie on the benches, clay is stacked in the yard – it appears as though the workers have just popped out for a lunch!
There are more treasures to be found to the east of the Iron Bridge, where the Jackfield Tile Museum occupies a two storey, gas-lit factory were Victorian decorative tiles were made. Starting off as a ramshackle pottery it was transformed into the largest tile factory in the world making tiles and ceramics of the highest quality and using all the latest innovations, such as heating and ventilation. Nowadays the model works show logically how tiles were produced ‘from dust to dispatch’.
Living in a village which is also famous for its tile and brickworks, I particularly liked the kaleidoscopic displays of colourful decorative tiles and ceramics and the 'Great Rock Sandwich' exhibition, explaining what lies under our feet.
The Coalport China Museum is full of contemporary workshops, demonstrations and hands-on activities. Tthe Coalport and Caughley porcelain collections are displayed on the site of the original Coalport China Works and are designated of national importance.
From the China Museum it is a short walk along the canal to the Tar Tunnel which was driven into the hillside in 1786 to connect the underground workings of the Blists Hill mines with the new Coalport Canal and the River Severn. However, when the tunnelers hit a spring of natural bitumen, it proved more lucrat
ive to exploit that mineral than to use the tunnel to move coal to the river.
Blists Hill Victorian Town is my personal favourite of the nine museums and is indeed the largest and most popular site. Set in 50 acres of woodland, Industrial monuments are preserved in-situ alongside reconstructed Victorian buildings to recreate in a very original way the environment of a late 19th century working town.
The Shropshire Canal runs past the remains of a large brick and tile works to the incredible ‘Hay Inclined Plane’ which from 1792 to 1894 transported boats up and down the hillside between Blists Hill and Coalport separated by a vertical drop of 207 feet. Built up against the canal were three enormous blast furnaces which look like an abandoned castle and were operative until 1912.
Most of the buildings in the Victorian town have been rescued and re-erected, or are replicas of existing structures elsewhere. Together they form a fascinating museum with a bank, chemist, public house, tinsmiths, bakers, candlemakers, saw mill, sweetshop, doctor’s surgery, school, iron foundry, ironworks, railway siding, funfair and much more. Visitors can exchange their modern money for Victorian pounds, shillings and pence. Museum staff wear authentic costumes and demonstrate everything from candle dipping to casting iron. The baker has beautiful fresh bread and the sweetshop sells all the old favourites, while the fairground brought back loads of memories of the days before Nemesis and the like.
This really is an excellent day out and would be really useful for anyone following an economic and social history course as well as putting into perspective what life was like in those days. Someone told me that the museum had progressed a lot in the last twelve months, becoming much more interactive with a variety of different events taking place at weekends.
The main season runs from late March to early November when all museum
s are open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm.
The Ironbridge Gorge is situated on the River Severn, 5 miles south of Telford in Shropshire. Take junction 4 from the M54, and brown and white signs take you straight to Blists Hill. Alternatively follow the signs to the town of Ironbridge itself and plan your visit from here starting at Tollhouse, The Museum of the Gorge or The Tourist Information Centre.
Parking is free at all Museums, except the Museum of the Gorge and Ironbridge which are pay and display.
Entry is by Passport Ticket which allow you to see as many of the museums as you wish, returning any time in the future to see the ones you missed. Adult tickets are £10.50, Concessions (children and students) £6.50 and Family tickets (2 adults and up to 5 children!) are £32.50 which believe me is excellent value for what must be one of the finest and most important heritage museums in Europe.
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