Ironbridge, Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 20:22 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

Courtesy of English Heritage

Courtesy of English Heritage

Sarah Hart finds history, beauty and great fish and chips as she goes walkabout in Ironbridge

Sarah Hart finds history, beauty and great fish and chips as she goes walkabout in Ironbridge.

As she tucks into a paper cone of freshly fried chips social historian Tracie Dix-Williams makes some approving noises. They're the first batch from the bubbling deep fat fryer of what must be the most genteel sounding fish and chip takeaway in Shropshire.

The 'Fried Fish and Chipped Potato' shop is one of the latest authentic new editions to Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge. Yes they had local chippies back in Victorian times. Tracie, who is manager of the popular visitor attraction, recants the distasteful origins of Britain's favourite dish. Dodgy fish dealers bought up fish that were 'on the turn', battered them to hide any discolouration, fried them and then sold them to unsuspecting Britons at a massive mark up.

"By 1890 fish and chips was the favourite working man's supper on a Friday night," Tracie explains.

Standing on a cobbled street, passed by people dressed in bonnets and cloth caps, we could have been transported over 100 years back in time. It is Blists Hill's brand new Canal Street, its first double-sided street, so it really does feel like an authentic Victorian town. Even the pavement cobbles are higgledy-piggledy because Victorian shopkeepers were responsible for the patch of walkway outside their own establishments. The cobbles changed outside each shop, and some shopkeepers couldn't be bothered to pave a path at all.

Such is the meticulous detail of the Canal Street recreation that, on entering the new Post Office, I half expect to find post mistress Dorcas Lane (from the BBC costume drama Lark Rise to Candleford) beaming behind the counter.

But this is not any old Victorian street. The Blists Hill history boffins have created a taste of what local Victorian towns would have looked like. The new Drapers and Outfitters is a replica of a building that opened as a general store in St Georges in the late 1870s. The new sweet shop and fish and chip shop are modelled on a row of cottages that still exist in Ironbridge.

Blists Hill, of course, is among the 10 museums of the Ironbridge Gorge that vividly bring alive the industrial and social history of the area; a place that, due to climate change of the past and rich geology, occupies a unique place in the roll call of human ingenuity and achievement.

It all started at the end of the last Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago. A vast lake somewhere east of the Welsh mountains overflowed and spewed a huge wall of water in the direction of Shropshire.

It gouged a deep chasm through the layers of coal, iron-ore, clay and limestone of the Ironbridge Gorge. And it was the abundance of such natural resources that made the little towns and villages, which eventually sprang up along the riverbank, famous names the world over. Names like Coalport, a byword for exquisite china, Coalbrookdale, the engine room that fired the Industrial Revolution.

Today the Gorge is a celebrated World Heritage Site. Few Shropshire folk could have escaped the fact that 2009 marks the 300th anniversary since industrial pioneer Abraham Darby perfected the key to smelting iron with coke, instead of charcoal, thus giving birth to the mass production of iron and the Industrial Revolution.

In its heyday The Gorge must have been a sight to behold - belching chimneys, smoking furnaces, the River Severn heaving with tub-boats transporting iron goods, pottery, bricks, and tiles on the first leg of their journeys to customers all over Britain and, indeed, the British Empire.

The Gorge museums give a flavour. They include the breath-taking Coalport China Museum housed in the old Coalport China factory, the fascinating Jackfield Tile Museum where the Craven Dunnill company still produces traditional hand-made tiles, the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron telling the birth of the industrial revolution, the restored Darby houses where the Darby family once lived and more. However, look around and there are remnants of this great past everywhere.

At Coalport the vertical rails of the ingenious Hay Inclined Plane can still be seen. What a contraption this was. Built in the early 1790s its two vertical rails stretched 63 metres uphill to transport five-ton tub-boats between higher and lower canals. What would have otherwise required 27 laborious canal locks to navigate took just four men four minutes to achieve. The boats docked in cradles and the weight of one coming down, supplemented by steam power, pulled another coming up.

Just below the Plane is a stark reminder of the Gorge's natural resources, the curious Tar Tunnel, a place where young children and anyone with a fear of confined spaces might have to pluck up courage to enter.

It was in 1965 that the Shropshire Mining Club persuaded the local village shopkeeper to let them explore the black hole that lay beyond a door in his cellar. They found a brick tunnel, stretching possibly for miles, with what looked like black treacle seeping through the walls. The natural bitumen is still eerily oozing today. At the end of the 18th century it made ironmaster William Reynolds a lot of money.

He began digging with the aim of building an underground canal to link the Blists Hill coal shafts with the River Severn, but 300 metres in workmen hit a spring of bitumen, and Reynolds realised its potential.

On the other side of the river is Jackfield, once a bustling settlement that was the centre of the world tile industry. In 1883 Maw & Co boasted the largest decorative tile factory on the planet.

A visit to the tile museum is fascinating. Visitors walk through fully-tiled settings, including a slice of Covent Garden Tube Station, and the story of the devastating 1952 Jackfield landslide is told, complete with dramatic film footage from the time.

Of course, no visit to Ironbridge would be complete without a trip to that iconic symbol, the Iron Bridge itself. Designed not by Thomas Telford, as is the common misconception, but by Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchards, it was built by Abraham Darby III in 1781.

In recent times the heritage of Ironbridge and the beauty of its famous iron structure was the magnet that drew two sculptors to the area in pursuit of a dream. In 1989, after scouring the country for an ideal place, Pam Brown and her late husband Roy Kitchin were handed the former Cherry Tree Hill Brick and Tileworks site, in Coalbrookdale, on which to create an outdoor sculpture park.

"We lived in a cabin on site while we cleared the site. It was full of holes and was like a rubbish dump with bits of tile and brick everywhere," she recalls.

The result is the Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture, a 10-acre ramble through woodland where the weaving pathways take you through a landscape of trees and sculpture. It had been Roy's long-held aspiration to create a permanent outdoor exhibition space where landscape and sculpture could 'understand' each other. It features over 70 works, including towering structures by the internationally-acclaimed sculptor Phillip King. Each summer the museum stages sculpture workshops that attract artists from all over the world.

From modern to ancient, at the foot of The Gorge lies the mesmerising 12th century ruins of Buildwas Abbey. Shooting from the ground, like a vast stone sculpture itself, it is a reminder of gentler times before iron, steel and fire changed the course of human history forever.

A passport to all 10 museums valid for 12 months and multiple return visits costs 19.95 for adults, 15.95 for the 60-plus, 12.95 for children (up to 18 years in full time education) and 54.95 for families. For those on a shorter time scale, individual admission is available into any of the sites.

The museums are open seven days a week from 10am until 5pm; activities and workshops vary day-to-day and some carry an extra charge in addition to the museum admission fee, for further information, contact the Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre, tel: 01952 884391 or

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