From its formation in the last ice age until the early- 18th century, Ironbridge Gorge was an idyllic place. So it is today, two banks of ancient Shropshire woodland spilling down in steep symmetry to an upper stretch of the River Severn. Thus, the temporal bookends to a time when this place was anything but bucolic. In fact, it was Bedlam. That’s the name of the furnace built following the moment when, in 1709, Abraham Darby smelted iron with coke instead of charcoal and so changed the course of history in unprecedented fashion; now that mass production of cast iron was economically viable, the Industrial Revolution could begin and the planet would never be the same again. The bridge for which the place is named might be the most famous element of what became, in 1986, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s far from the only emblem of a transformative age…
AM: Only one place to start; opened on New Year’s Day 1781, the first iron bridge in history is a graceful parabola formed from 378 tons of metal, the result of inspired thinking by Shrewsbury architect, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, and engineering knowhow from the smelting pioneer’s grandson, Abraham Darby III (english- heritage.org.uk). Talk of dismantling it for scrap in the 1960s mercifully dissipated and, last year, English Heritage completed its restoration, including returning the structure to its original red. In its shadow, check out Eustace Rogers’ old coracle shed – the last maker of these charming boats in the family, his death in 2003 signalled the end of 250 years of familial coracle making (coracleshed.org).
The handsome Darby Houses, former homes of the well-to-do Darby family.
Aim for the 10am opening of the Museum of the Gorge (ironbridge.org.uk), 1.5 miles upstream, for an overview of the day to come. Once a gothic warehouse storing Empire-bound ironware, today it contains a vast scale model of the valley. A mile away, up a leafy single-track lane, enjoy panoramic views, period furnishings and personal artefacts in Darby Houses, the family homes of the men who revolutionised the area. Nearby, Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron offers the chance to peer into the furnace where Darby I perfected his smelting. Among the ironware collection is the fountain cast by the Coalbrookdale Company for the Great Exhibition of 1851, while younger folk will appreciate hands-on engineering fun at Enginuity. For lunch, try the museum’s Furnace Kitchen, helmed by celebrity chef, Marcus Bean.
Tar still oozes through the brickwork of the Tar Tunnel – a curious attraction that is open to peer down on Wednesdays from March to September.
PM: On Waterloo St, Bedlam Furnaces (ironbridge.org.uk) were among the first specifically built to smelt iron using coke – including that used on the bridge itself – and the last remaining largely intact. Cross the river over the striking Jackfield Free Bridge for a swift drive to Jackfield Tile Museum, where a ceramic tradition dating back to the 16th century is exemplified in magnificent adornment of a recreated church, pub and tube station. Back over the Severn and a mile downstream, Coalport China Museum blends old and new. Be sure to peer into the Tar Tunnel, an 18th-century construction wherein treacly black bitumen seeps from the walls. Half a mile away, Blists Hill Victorian Town hosts period- costumed shopkeepers, a schoolhouse in which to sample lessons, factories, workshops and, most spectacularly, the pouring of molten iron.
AM: West of Ironbridge, on the southerly riverbank, lies Buildwas Abbey (english-heritage.org.uk), replete with fine Cistercian church – although incomplete, what remains is unaltered since the 12th century. Behold the beautiful stonework and unusually intact tiled floor of the chapter house, too. Take the A4169 for a five-minute drive to the spot where, c680 AD, Mercian King Merewalh founded an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The Normans re-founded the site as Wenlock Priory (english-heritage.org.uk), where Cluniac monks’ penchant for elaborate decoration is enduringly evident; not least on the rare freestanding lavabo, embellished with carvings of Christ and apostles. The cloister garden remains a well-kept delight, while the library is floored with locally made medieval tiles. since the 12th century. Behold the beautiful stonework and unusually intact tiled floor of the chapter house, too. Take the A4169 for a five-minute drive to the spot where, c680 AD, Mercian King Merewalh founded an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The Normans re-founded the site as Wenlock Priory (english-heritage.org.uk), where Cluniac monks’ penchant for elaborate decoration is enduringly evident; not least on the rare freestanding lavabo, embellished with carvings of Christ and apostles. The cloister garden remains a well-kept delight, while the library is floored with locally made medieval tiles.
Buildwas Abbey in nearby Telford is looked after by English Heritage. Wander around impressive ruins of a Cistercian abbey including its unaltered 12th-century church.
PM: Head to Much Wenlock and The Wenlock Delicatessen (facebook.com/thewenlockdelicatessen) for a delicious lunch. Choose to eat in, or appraise picnic treats – charcuterie, bread, Shropshire fidget pie (a warming dish of apples, bacon or gammon and potatoes), and more than 40 cheeses – for the afternoon’s walk. It’s a 20-minute drive north to Ercall Wood Nature Reserve car park, your start-finish point for a wonderful eight-mile recce of impressive landmark The Wrekin (shropshirehills aonb.co.uk), which is said to be the most diverse lump of geology on Earth. The peak is hardly towering, but topography means that, on a clear day, an incredible 17 counties are in sight. Aptly, the summit is an Iron Age hillfort, while you’ll also stride along grassland, oak woodland, heathland, as well as a Roman road.
Travel back to the 19th century at Blists Hill Victorian Town.
Where to stay
From a restored old railway carriage to apartments overlooking the Iron Bridge, you’ll be sleeping in style…
Closed by Dr Beeching in 1963, the former Coalport railway station hosts a brace of handsome, luxuriously appointed carriages – we’re talking whirlpool baths and walk-in showers – amid three acres of wooded grounds, replete with woodland walk. Carriage One sleeps six while Carriage Two sleeps four.
Prices from £280 per night. coalportstation.com
Iron Bridge House
The top two floors above a former grocer – now the Ironbridge Gorge Museum – house this graciously restored residence, each room offering splendid views of the bridge and gorge. As you might expect, the living room has a fine iron fireplace cast locally in Coalbrookdale. The house sleeps four and costs from £323 for four nights. landmarktrust.org.uk
Photo: Jill Tate
Flat on the Square
Directly overlooking the landmark that gave Ironbridge its name – and freshly repainted to match the bridge’s smart new colour – this lovely flat sits above an elegant terrace of shops, and also boasts woodland views across the private enclosed garden at the rear. The flat sleeps two and costs from
£89 per night. airbnb.co.uk/rooms/19749401
Where to shop
It’s always fun to pick up a souvenir or two to remember your trip – here are three places we’d recommend you take a detour for…
Maws Craft Centre
Artists and designers inhabit the independently run studios in this, the former Victorian tile factory of Maw & Co, the Jackfield company that was once the largest manufacturer of tiles in the world. You’ll find foodie treats, jewellery, candles and more. mawscraftcentre.co.uk
Ironbridge Antiques, Arts & Crafts Centre
Beautifully positioned next to Dale End Park in Coalbrookdale, on the leafy banks of the Severn. Come for the treasure trove of more than 60 individual antiques sellers and craft makers, stay for the view from the tea room serving specialist teas and freshly baked cakes. You’ll also find a good variety of pictures and paintings available from local artists for sale. ironbridge-aac.co.uk
Coalport China Museum and Gift Shop
Highly skilled craftsfolk still turn their hands to ceramics making and painting in the old workshops of Coalport China Museum, meaning you get the chance to make like the queens and tsars of yesteryear and avail yourself of some of the exquisite wares made on-site. ironbridge.org.uk