Discovering the Industrial Revolution at Ironbridge, Shropshire

The picturesque escarpment of Wenlock Edge, inspiration of poetry and music, offers no hint that it was once an industrial cauldron. My wife, a friend, and I were traveling to discover the clangorous bustling past of a region that some call the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We crossed the River Severn and passed a power station that dated from the 1960s, but even here, the cooling towers hung back behind the trees and seemed unobtrusive. We continued into the heavily wooded gorge and pulled in to a car park beside the Ironbridge Museum.

The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution is a matter of partisan argument, depending on where the advocates live. In truth, the innovations that led to the conception of this unruly child appeared in several places. In a few of them, geological accident brought together the natural resources of coal, iron ore, limestone and clay to form the cradles in which the infant was nurtured. One such place is Shropshire’s Ironbridge Gorge.

Elsewhere in England, the surviving relics tend to be spread out. At Ironbridge, they are concentrated into a tiny area, within walking distance of each other. The result is that, as a compact symbol of the beginnings of Industry, the gorge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • In a small area, all the elements that led to the birth of the Industrial Revolution have come together.
  • Despite its history of heavy industry, Ironbridge Gorge is scenically very beautiful.
  • A visit here is highly educational and provides a great day out, or even two, for a family.

Museum of the Gorge

The first thing to grab our attention as we entered the brick-built former warehouse was a 12-metre-long scale model of the gorge as it would have appeared in 1796. This depicts an approximately three-kilometre stretch of the river, showing the quarries, clay pits, mines, boat yards, waggonways, furnaces, brickworks, and the bridge that gives the town its name. The riverbank settlements are also there, both industrial and agricultural, for farming still had a toehold in the gorge. A window in the east wall looked down past the sharp grooves of waggon rails to the riverbank and gave us our first glimpse of the bridge, peering around the trees a few hundred metres downstream. Carrying on through the museum, other relics, such as tables, benches, statues etc. were on display, and the history was illustrated by a short film.

From the Bronze Age until the 18th century, metals were obtained by smelting ores with charcoal, a process that devastated huge areas of native forest. Then in 1709, Abraham Darby, of the tributary valley of Coalbrookdale, developed a process that replaced charcoal with coke. His large furnaces enabled him to produce iron on a vastly greater scale, and considerably more cheaply, than in the small foundries hitherto. By 1779, the techniques had evolved to the extent that Darby’s grandson, also named Abraham, was able to build, across the gorge, the world’s first bridge made of cast iron.

Coalport Canal and China Museum

Coalport Canal and China Museum

Iron Bridge and Tollhouse

Leaving the museum, we strolled through the town, detouring into side streets along which doors of old but modernised houses opened onto thoroughfares too narrow ever to have carried anything broader than a horse-drawn carriage. A recess between shops was occupied by the ruins of a limekiln, while the main residences and a substantial church were scattered up the hillside behind, and projected through a forest of greenery.

The bridge itself looked pristine, despite its age. It curved over the river to give us a view of the gorge and town that, in its tranquillity must have been in vast contrast to the noise and smokiness of its industrial prime. At its southern side stood the tollhouse where payment of a fee permitted traffic to cross the bridge. This was now also a museum, detailing the history of the bridge.

Blists Hill Victorian Town

Returning to the car, we drove through the town, pausing to look at the Bedlam Furnaces. Built in 1757, these were among the earliest blast furnaces to use coke to reduce iron ore. Continuing for a mile, we ascended to Blists Hill Victorian Town.

Pharmacist's Shop, Blists Hill Victorian Town

Pharmacist’s Shop, Blists Hill Victorian Town

Opened in 1973, this open air museum was created around existing blast furnaces, brick and tile works, and a coal mine. Many of the shops were adapted from ones already present, with others being transported from elsewhere. A bank allows visitors to buy old pounds, shillings, and pence that can be used to purchase goods at Victorian prices in the town’s bakery, sweet shops, pharmacy and fish-and-chip shop. (They also have a separate pricing for those who don’t make the exchange!) Transport through the town can be arranged by horse and cart, while the skills of the printer, chandler and leather belt maker are demonstrated by experts. The town is bordered to the north by the Shropshire Canal.

We could easily have spent the whole afternoon here, but there was more to see at Coalport at the China Museum, which now occupies factory buildings that originally operated here from 1796 until 1926. Along with demonstrations of traditional china making, the museum contains displays of flower-patterned Coalbrookdale and Caughley porcelain.

The Tar Tunnel

We walked a short distance along the Coalport Canal to the Tar Tunnel. Originally built in 1787 to transport materials from Blists Hill, the tunnel was abandoned after a kilometre when miners found bitumen seeping through the walls. We were only able to enter 100 metres into the tunnel; beyond that, and in side passages, the floor was covered in pools of bitumen that had trickled down the brickwork. On its abandonment, the tunnel was superseded by the Hay Inclined Plane, the rails of which still led uphill from the tunnel entrance to join the Shropshire Canal at Blists Hill. Boats were transported up and down the plane between the canals, the weight of the descending load lifting its ascending counterpart.

The Tar Tunnel

The Tar Tunnel

Our visit to Ironbridge Gorge had lasted six hours, yet we had seen only about half of what it had to offer. Still left were the Jackfield Tile Museum (on the south bank of the Severn) and the Museum of Iron and the Darby Houses (in the adjoining valley of Coalbrookdale), which would easily take up another day. This is not a place to visit in a hurry. Yet for those willing to spend the time, there is no better place to explore, within a tiny compass, the innovations that led to the building of the modern world.

Practicalities

  • Ironbridge Gorge lies at the southern edge of Telford, approximately 20 kilometres east of Shrewsbury and is easily reached from the M54 motorway.
  • There are a total of ten museums within a distance of 5.5 kilometres.
  • An Annual Passport Ticket can be purchased, which allows admission to all ten museums over a period of a year.

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