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The sublime 30-metre iron bridge, built in 1779, showcases the genius of the Coalbrookdale ironmasters © stocker1970, Shutterstock
It’s no exaggeration to say Ironbridge Gorge – then called Severn Gorge – was the birthplace of heavy modern industry, paving the way for much that we now take for granted.
Ironbridge Gorge covers a three-mile stretch around the River Severn from Coalbrookdale to Coalport, taking in Ironbridge, Jackfield and part of the former mining town of Madeley. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 in recognition of its unique contribution to the Industrial Revolution.
A few years ago the BBC ran a series of programmes telling the history of the world in 100 objects. It’s significant that several of the featured objects exist in this disproportionately small area, including a replica of the Trevithick engine, the world’s first steam railway locomotive (Blists Hill Victorian Town) and a cast-iron cooking pot and patent secured by Abraham Darby I (Museum of Iron). And of course nothing is more representative of the gorge’s contribution to industrialised society than the first iron bridge, built in 1779 to link Broseley, Madeley and Coalbrookdale. It gave the area, originally called Severn Gorge, its name.
While you enjoy the lush greenness of the gorge today (I love it most in the hour after a spell of rain), it’s hard to imagine the smelting, the banging, the plumes of smoke that billowed up during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Ironbridge Gorge is surrounded by accessible countryside, footpaths, meadows and walks and, because of the river, it’s easier and more rewarding to navigate on foot or by bike than negotiating the twisty narrow roads by car.
What to see and do
The geographical, historical, industrial and social stories of Ironbridge Gorge are brought to life in nine museums (ten if you count the Tar Tunnel separately) run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. This independent educational charity has a strong environmental policy and resulting Green Tourism Gold award. While each is unique in character and content, the museums are united through being housed in ‘original’ buildings (such as former warehouses and factories connected with the gorge’s heritage). Gift shops, where present, are thoughtfully curated with an attention to handmade and locally produced goods, including tiles and iron ware.
Don’t try to squeeze all the museums into one day, or even two. The Trust’s Annual Passport Ticket lasts a year and represents the best value for money, even if you’re only visiting a handful of the attractions. You can save 5% by buying the ticket at ironbridge.org.uk.
Here is our pick of the bunch.
Coalport China Museum
We tend to give Staffordshire much of the credit for British ceramics, but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries Shropshire was at the heart of china making. In 1796 John Rose, who had learned his trade with Caughley china, founded a porcelain factory in Coalport, the ‘new town’ that was already heaving with industry. Rose had the impeccable timing of every great entrepreneur.
© Nigel Jarvis, Shutterstock
Thanks to a cut in tax in the previous decade, tea had ceased being an exotic luxury and was now the refreshment of choice for all. In 1795 imports of tea had increased fourfold and, simply, people needed cups and saucers to drink from. In a riverside location in part of the later factory (including a bottle kiln), Coalport China Museum tells the manufacturing and social stories of Coalport and Caughley china. In the Long Workshop you can see craftspeople in action and, on certain days, try your hand at clay modelling, painting and glazing.
If you’re visiting on a Wednesday, you can take a guided tour of the Tar Tunnel too, a pleasant five minutes’ walk away, along the canal. The tunnel was dug in 1786 under William Reynolds’s watch, with the aim of building a canal to transport coal from the mines located where Blists Hill Victorian Town is today. After driving through for about 300yds, the miners struck a spring of natural bitumen. This oozy, treacle-like substance isn’t actually tar (a by-product of coal production) but the microscopic remains of plants and animals, millions of years old, useful for lining the bottoms of ships, creating lamp oil, even for medicinal preparations. It’s thought that in the early days around 1,000 gallons of bitumen were extracted here every week.
If you’re in need of refreshment, YHA Coalport over the courtyard from Coalport China Museum has a welcoming licensed café. It’s in the John Rose Building, the earliest surviving part of the China Works.
Jackfield Tile Museum
If you feel unenthused by the prospect of looking around a tile museum, keep an open mind. I felt the same; now I thoroughly recommend Jackfield Tile Museum, recounting as it does the history of Jackfield industry and British tile making, celebrating the joint aesthetic and hygienic function of tiles (which should appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in interior design).
The extensive museum includes reconstructions of a tiled Victorian pub and Edwardian tube station, and adorably unfashionable pictorial tile panels rescued from 1960s children’s hospital wards. Housed in the still-operational Craven Dunnill factory, it’s a living museum where on certain days you’ll find tile makers busy in their workshops. I was lucky enough to see Minton encaustic floor tiles being made for the Palace of Westminster; such is the calibre of the workmanship here in Jackfield. Look out for events, including tile-making workshops for both adults and children.
While you’re visiting, you may also wish to see who’s at work in the studios of adjacent Fusion, so called because the original building on its site was a foundry of non-ferrous metals. Fusion houses talented craftspeople and artists including Kinki Glass and lino-printer Amanda Hillier; you can buy their artwork, glass and prints here and occasionally attend courses.
Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron
Housed in the former Great Warehouse of the Coalbrookdale Company (look for the cast-iron clock tower, added in 1843), the Museum of Iron would be an ideal first stop. It tells the industrial story of the gorge: how Abraham Darby I came to the area from Bristol not to start a revolution but to find an easier, cheaper and less labour-intensive way of casting iron pots. It explains how subsequent generations of the Darby family – and others – built upon his success in mass-producing iron parts to secure Shropshire’s place at the heart of industrialisation.
I’ve always enjoyed reading about the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the iron pieces sent to represent Shropshire at the glittering Crystal Palace in London. John Bell’s Eagle Slayer sculpture in the foyer, newly returned to Coalbrookdale, is regarded as one of the UK’s earliest examples of cast iron used in a work of art.
On the expansive lawn outside you’ll find another of those exhibition castings: the Coalbrookdale Company’s Boy and Swan Fountain, which would have stood at the gates dividing Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, cascading perfume to mask the odours of the teeming crowds. Behind it, protected by a modern sloping-roofed building into which you can wander, is the Old Furnace, which began as a blast furnace and was later powered by coke.
New in 2019, the Furnace Eatery on the adjacent site is open for both lunch and dinner, promising locally sourced dishes designed by Shropshire’s celebrity chef Marcus Bean.