At Ironbridge, Britain became workshop for the world. Museums chart historic beginnings of iron, china, and tile works

It is difficult to imagine this pleasant wooded gorge, a green and rolling buffer in Shropshire between the hills and mountains of Wales and the urban Midlands, to have been the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. But such is the case, for the Ironbridge Gorge was the scene of the remarkable breakthrough that led Britain to become the first industrial nation and workshop of the world. It was here that Quaker ironmaster Abraham Darby first smelted iron, using coke instead of charcoal as a fuel, thus paving the way for the first iron wheels, rails, aqueducts, iron-framed buildings, and the first high-pressure steam loco-motive.

Today the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust presides over what must be one of the world's most extensive museum areas, extending to six square miles and containing many sites of importance to industrial history. UNESCO has designated the complex a World Heritage Site, Britain's first.

The centerpiece of the complex is the elegant Iron Bridge over the Severn River, the first iron bridge in the world, built by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1779, using iron smelted at its own works a short distance away. Artists and writers came from all over the world to see it.

The reconstructed Blists Hill Wrought Ironworks, inaugurated by Prince Charles, has been the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken by a museum in Britain.

Throughout the year the Ironworks has held a series of experimental working days, open to the public.

Farther downstream from the Iron Bridge is the Coalport China Works Museum, situated in the old kilns where Coalport china was produced until the works moved to Stoke-on-Trent early in this century.

The old works have been restored as a museum of china, showing the techniques of manufacturing and the products of Coalport. The shop carries an extensive range of modern Coalport.

Not far from the China Museum is the fascinating Jackfield Tile Museum. In Jackfield in the 1880s, two of the world's largest decorative tile works were to be found - Maws and Craven Dunhill. The original Dunhill works has been converted to a conservation workshop and a tile museum, showing the kaleidoscope variety of decorative wall and floor tiles produced in the area from the 1850s to the 1960s.

To visit the Blists Hill Open Air Museum is, in effect, to step back a century in time to a re-creation of the late Victorian way of life. One can wander along gas-lit streets, pass old-time butcher and chemist shops, hear the hiss of steam and the clank of machinery, and see absorbing practical displays of such skills as candlemaking and printing, plus cobblers and blacksmiths at work.

In the 18th century, the gorge was the most important ironmaking center in the world, and in the Museum of Iron you can see the furnace where Darby pioneered the smelting of iron in 1709. This museum also illustrates the history of ironmaking and the story of the Coalbrookdale Company.

Ironbridge is very much a living museum and is growing all the time. A recent addition is Rosehill House, the restored early 18th-century Ironmaster's house owned by the Darbys. It gives an interesting insight into their life style and the Quaker religion.

Practical information

The various sites can be visited in any order, but a good starting point is the Museum Visitor Center, a short distance from the Iron Bridge. There are camping and picnic sites. The museum is open daily.

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