Ironbridge Gorge: A family trip to check out the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

Three generations of the Sutton family paid a visit to the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire to check out the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and how it is faring today. Lindsay Sutton reports.

If you’re going to build the first iron bridge in the world, make sure it’s something special.That’s exactly what iron-master Abraham Darby achieved with his iconic 18th Century structure over the majestic River Severn in Shropshire.

It was so well engineered and perfectly proportioned that it has stood the test of time, ever since it was constructed in 1779. It also proves the point that simplicity of design is the key to creating a thing of beauty.

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It’s been pleasing on the eye to thousands of visitors to the Ironbridge Gorge for nearly 250 years now; it’s a joy to walk across it; and it’s easy to get to.

Abraham Derby’s Iron BridgeAbraham Derby’s Iron Bridge
Abraham Derby’s Iron Bridge

The steep-sided gorge is just 30 minutes from the M6, north of Wolverhampton, and despite the fact that its stunning collection of heritage sites is billed as ‘the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’, it’s surrounded by glorious countryside.

The gorge is a magnet for all those interested in our heritage, and the whole historical site also bridges the so-called generation gap: it’s the perfect three-generation place to visit, as my family discovered.

Ironbridge is one of the UK’s first UNESCO world heritage sites, covering no less than ten museums that are stretched out in the deep gorge, carved out by a swift-running overflow from a lake blocked off by glaciers. And that’s the key to its later industrial success, since the gorge exposed a sandwich of rich geological strata, giving access to coal, iron, limestone and clay. All the ingredients to make cast iron years on in the 18th Century.

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Today, it has a whole range of fascinating sites, with a fair offering of hands-on experiences. It certainly enthralled Grandma and Grandpa Sutton, daughter Amy and her husband Michael, and our 11-year-old grandson, Alexander the Great.

An early tar boiler on display near Blists Hill railway warehouseAn early tar boiler on display near Blists Hill railway warehouse
An early tar boiler on display near Blists Hill railway warehouse

Blists Hill Victorian Town is an absolute must, and a great starting-out point. It’s a replica of a late 19th and early 20th century town, and all the sights, sounds and smells of that time are there. In the old-style pharmacy, the candle-making business, the printing premises, and the photography studio.

Everyone in the working community is dressed in period costume, including the affable but firm bobby on the beat, ‘Constable Jarrett,’ who changes character at lunchtime to play the piano in the pub sing-song. Everyone joins in with this real-life character, who leads everyone in a medley of music hall favourites. You’d think it would just be people of a certain age who join in, but a surprising number of young folk know the words too. Classic stuff, and highly enjoyable.

Then, later in the afternoon, the copper-cum-pianist turns into the strict but highly amusing teacher Mr Plymley - based, no doubt, on the Shropshire vicar turned author of the same name. It’s all part of getting an insight into the world of yesteryear, and everyone laps it up. Of course, back then, the scene would be one of an industrial Hell on earth.

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Furnaces, like the aptly-named Bedlam Furnace, made coke from raw coal, an invention of Abraham Darby III that changed the world. Proper, hardened cast iron was able to be produced for the first time with coke rather than traditional charcoal. Hence, the Iron Bridge that was a wonder of the world, both then and now.

A four-wheeled 19th Century postal delivery bike on display in IronbridgeA four-wheeled 19th Century postal delivery bike on display in Ironbridge
A four-wheeled 19th Century postal delivery bike on display in Ironbridge

Many of the original buildings are intact, while others have been relocated to the open-air museum, where you are free to walk inside the shops and small factories.

The museum has distinct zones to savour. There’s the actual town area with Victorian-era shops such as a bakery, bicycle shop, post office and a bank. There’s the pub, and a proper fish and chip shop, which does a roaring trade, serving traditional fare to eat out of paper in the street.

The industrial district has a blast furnace and wrought iron works, as well as a huge Severn barge that would have transported goods down the river and out of the Bristol Channel on sea-going vessels. Not surprisingly, the museum has been used as a film and TV set, with productions including Doctor Who.

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The iron masters, and entrepreneurs in general, tended to be Quakers, running their businesses along the more morally-upright lines of the Rowntrees and Cadbury chocolate makers, and in the case of banking, Barclays, who were Quaker influenced.

An advert for soap on display in a shop window in Blists Hill living museumAn advert for soap on display in a shop window in Blists Hill living museum
An advert for soap on display in a shop window in Blists Hill living museum

The Ironbridge entrepreneurs tended to pay well, provide decent conditions, and encourage levels of sobriety that encouraged family life. That included Sabbath Day walks out in the countryside. The Darby family homes can still be visited, and it is significant that they are not show-off grandiose premises: they are substantial, but near the homes of their workforce.

At the top end of the site, away from Blists Hill, is Enginuity, a centre that highlights inventions, experiments and interactive design and technology. Children love it, as they try to channel water to generate electricity, or else test out wind-powered energy equipment.

Next door is the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, which exhibits impressive art as items that have decorated homes and buildings throughout the world. These include outdoor furniture, made of cast iron and wood, to tables, and impressive statues. There’s a pipe works, a tile museum, another highlighting chinaware made locally, and there’s a tar tunnel which supplied builders with their ‘black treacle.’

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Three nights with two days of visits is our recommendation, but get a Plus Pass which gives year-long access, entry to all the museums, and cash discounts at food and retail outlets, Pretty good value all round.

The Sutton’s stayed at Church Farm B&B at Kemberton, near Shifnal, ten minutes from Ironbridge.

They ate at Woodbridge Inn, Coalport, TF8 7JF - and Hundred House, Norton, TF11 9EE -

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