The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust run ten museums along and around the Ironbridge Gorge. Each is individually priced, but you can also buy a £26.50 Annual Passport covering the lot. That's great value if you live nearby, but for a one-off visit it's important to tick off multiple locations to make optimum use. Alternatively if you have an Art Pass you can walk into all of them for free, and that's what I did.
Although the museums are quite spread out no museum is more than half an hour's walk from its neighbour, so I managed to chain together a decent walking route and visit six. All the Ironbridge collateral assumes you'll be driving, indeed the official leaflet doesn't bother with a map and simply lists ten postcodes for your satnav. On summer weekends and bank holidays a shuttle bus links all the sites together, but it's not hard to make do without.
The best map showing all the museums is here, but even this assumes you'll be driving. So I've put together a Google map of my own showing all the sites, how to walk between them and some idea of walking times. I realise now I held off visiting Ironbridge for years because I thought it'd be a pain to get around, so I'd like to reassure you today that it's definitely doable.
A first cluster of museums can be found at the top of Coalbrookdale, which is a short feeder valley running down to the top of the gorge. It was here in 1709 that Abraham Darby first successfully smelted iron ore using coke rather than charcoal, and what's amazing is that his furnace is still on view. Admittedly Abraham's grandson Abraham enlarged it considerably, so all that's left of the original is a small area of foundation walls, but the 1777 version helped forge the Iron Bridge so is iconic enough. These days it's housed inside a triangular structure for protection, but anyone can go inside and walk around and even climb up to the top and peer down the enormous mouth of the blast furnace. I found it wonderfully historically overwhelming.
Outside are numerous hangovers from when this was the CoalbrookdaleIron Works, including an old railway viaduct swinging round the rear of the furnace, and behind that a dammed pool once used for power. The last iron foundry in the valley closed as recently as 2017 and is where Agas were made. Its sprawling cluster of sheds are now slowly decaying behind a locked gate.
The actual Museum of Iron is housed in a former administrative building and is spread across three floors. It's the most educational of the ten museums, dipping into geology, industrial history and a fair bit of human geography. A few years ago it was given a major spruce-up and is all the better for it, with clear informative panels and engaging content (although the talking cauldron could give it a rest occasionally, thanks). Much is made of the economic wonders that rippled out from this very spot, and how the local iron industry adapted to changing tastes and needs over the years. I wondered whether climate change would get a mention and finally spotted three paragraphs right at the very end before the gift shop, the closest to an admission of guilt being that atmospheric impacts were "not anticipated in the nineteenth century". Blame Darby, but by golly also praise him.
Also up here in Coalbrookdale: Enginuity This is the hands-on one where children run around, push and turn things and (if they're lucky) learn about physics. I skipped it because I'm too old for an Archimedes Screw. Darby Houses This is the historic dwelling one and reflects entrepreneurial homelife. I skipped it because it didn't open until noon.
→ 15 minute walk down the valley to the banks of the Severn →
This is the smallest of the ten museums, housed in a riverside Victorian warehouse built in Gothic Revival style. Its purpose is to tell the story of the gorge itself, from how the landscape feature came to be created to how various industries chose to exploit it. The highlight is a 12m-long diorama portraying the gorge as it would have been in the late 18th century, with smoky chimneys amid the wooded slopes and boats transporting goods beneath the new-fangled Iron Bridge. The central cinema shows a looping overview video, and on its wall is an unnervingly high line marking the height of the 1795 flood. But you won't be spending long here.
→ 5 minute walk along the gorge beside the river →
The gorge didn't just support ironworks, it branched out during the 19th century into decorative tiling. Victorians did love an unnecessarily ornate ceramic, and Craven Dunnill & Co met their needs here in this very long brick building. They specialised in encaustic tiles, that's tiles whose patterns were formed from two or more colours of clay. Initially the museum looks like it might be quite dry, but then you head upstairs into galleries of assorted tiles in diverse styles and it's all quite wonderful. Some tiles look gorgeous in themselves, while others only spring to life when patterned together.
An ingenious central section depicts all sorts of uses to which Jackfield's tiles were put, so you get to walk past a terracotta pub bar, an intricate chapel, a set of splashbacks and a washroom. Most exciting for stereotypical readers of this blog they've recreated Covent Gardenstation's platform because its tiles were originally made here in Jackfield. A mirror halfway down completes the illusion. The company still operates from workshops downstairs - they did the tiles for the most recent upgrade of Regent's Park station - and has a little outlet shop where you can buy delightful (and delightfully cheap) keepsakes to take home.
At the far end of the building is the John Scott Gallery, the lifetime's collection of a man from Birkenhead with an eye for the aesthetic. He wanted to share his 1700+ tiles with the public so in 2014 Jackfield built an extension, and blimey there are treasures on every wall. Here are Pugins, Morrises and de Morgans, but also four examples retrieved from postwar WHSmiths promoting Guide Books, Sea Tales, Engineering Books and Ladies' Papers. Of John Piper's stylistic Four Seasons the information panel merely states "there is some debate as to which tile represents which season". It proved an excellent finale to my favourite of the ten museums.
→ 15 minute walk downstream and across a footbridge (between two pubs) →
Every Ironbridge museum tries to find another angle to present the history of the gorge, and Coalport gets to concentrate on china. That's because Coalport China was made here, initially in 1795, and numerous examples of the company's finest work can be found within. This means cabinets full of cups and saucers, and displays showcasing those difficult pink and blue dyes, and rather more porcelain than most people would normally want to scrutinise. If your children don't enjoy the first part they'll hopefully enjoy the workshop where they can sit down and decorate their own plate. Elsewhere professional craftspeople are at work in their own studios, plus you get to walk inside a couple of bottle kilns which are where everything would have been fired. Coalport lingers on as a brand name under the Wedgwood umbrella, but here is where it all began.
Also down here in Coalport: Tar Tunnel This is a tunnel workers stopped digging when they came across oozing deposits of tar. I skipped this one because it's only open on Wednesday afternoons in the summer. Hay Inclined PlaneThis one amazed me. The owners of the Shropshire Canal needed a way of getting goods from Coalport Wharf to a waterway 60m higher up, so laid two parallel tracks down the hillside and used the weight of a full barge going down to help raise an empty barge going up. This extraordinary operation ran for a hundred years, starting in 1793, although today all that remains are the two tracks linking two disjoint disused canals. You can see the bottom of the incline from the main road, you can cross the centre along a public footpath and you can stand at the top within the grounds of our next museum.
→ 25 minute walk uphill via Silkin Way (do not attempt to follow the main road) →
This is Ironbridge's big-hitter, a full-on historical recreation depicting West Midlands life in the year 1900. It's a bit like Beamish or the Black Country Living Museum in that staff dress up and act the part, so you might stop for a chat with the undertaker or swap pleasantries with the postmistress, indeed you won't get much out of the place if you don't. The site is enormous, encompassing a former brickworks and foundry, although a lot of the area at the far end is just woodland. All sorts of oddities have been shoehorned in, including an inclined lift (closed on my visit), a mine railway (closed on my visit) and a dripping-fried fish and chip shop. Many of the shops have vintage goods on the upper shelves but stuff you can actually buy on the lower ones, which seemed a bit cheeky.
The town definitely looks the part, indeed the big reveal as you step out of the opening cinema presentation is undeniably impressive. It was convincingly 19th century enough that Doctor Who filmed a not-especially-loved serial here at Blists Hill in the 1980s, and I recognised a few of the locations where Kate O'Mara placed Colin Baker in mortal danger. But I still wandered round quicker than I'd been expecting, perhaps because the Victorian era isn't as much of a revelation to me as it is to a ten year-old, or perhaps because a few of the characters looked like they were already winding down for the day. I would not have got my £18.50's worth, if only I'd paid that for it.
And the one I didn't go anywhere near: Broseley Pipeworks This is a former clay tobacco pipe factory, abandoned in the 1950s. I skipped this one because it's off the beaten track, and I probably wouldn't have arrived at the right time for the obligatory guided tour anyway.