Travel review: Dawn Collinson finds hands-on costume drama at Ironbridge
Ironbridge is hands-on history at its least stuffy as Dawn Collinson finds out
NOSTALGIA, so they say, is one of the few things which fares reliably well in a recession.
Fed up of the financial squeeze and endless talk of enforced austerity, we apparently long for days gone by, even if those days are actually beyond our real recollection and potentially no easier than the current ones.
The past is big business – just ask the makers of Downton Abbey and all the other period dramas currently successfully inhabiting primetime slots.
Which could go some way to explaining the enduring and, in fact, thriving appeal of Ironbridge in Shropshire.
A World Heritage Site, Ironbridge Gorge – which can not unreasonably claim the title ‘the valley that changed the world’ thanks to its rich industrial tradition – is a history buff’s dream.
Sadly, I am far from that. At school, history was the one subject I loathed, but then there’s history in a musty old text book and there’s history living and breathing right in front of you. And thankfully, since I was spending the day there, Ironbridge is very much a prime example of the latter.
Although it’s only around an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Liverpool to Telford, the nearest major town, we had decided to make a stay of it not least because of the proximity of the Hadley Park House Hotel.
The red brick country house hotel is only 15 minutes from Ironbridge, so a nice leisurely hop after breakfast.
We arrived early evening, in time to settle in and unpack before heading down to the award-winning Dorrells restaurant for dinner. Our room, in the original building rather than its modern addition, was large and tastefully furnished with a four-poster. The bathroom was huge, as big as most hotel bedrooms; plenty of space to accommodate a raised free-standing bath and separate shower.
Down in the restaurant, things were equally impressive; a small intimate dining room avoiding the usual bright impersonal feel of a hotel eaterie and first class modern British dishes courtesy of head chef Mark Harris whose CV includes the Lowry Hotel’s Marco Pierre White River Room.
After a peaceful night’s sleep – the only sound drifting into our room at all, even with sash windows opened, was the crunch of gravel on the driveway in the morning – we enjoyed a hearty breakfast before setting off back in time.
Armed with a guide, we discovered around a dozen museums and attractions to see along the gorge. Spread along four miles adjoining the river Severn, you need a car to span them all comfortably, but since there are car parks dotted liberally en route that isn’t a problem.
We started at the one for which Ironbridge is probably best known: Blists Hill Victorian Town.
As the name suggests, this is a faithful recreation of life as it was a century ago, complete with working factories, shops and houses.
You can change your money at the Lloyds bank into old-style coins (10p will get you a farthing, 40p an old penny, or £2.40 a sixpence) to spend at various stores, from a freshly frying fish and chip shop or candle factory to the Victorian fairground with carousel and coconut shy.
Shopkeepers in period costume wander around chatting to visitors, as does the town bobby on his bike, keeping to script with the local postmistress about an upcoming suffragette meeting.
You’re even invited to sit and experience what it was like to be in class in the early 1900s, if you’re brave enough to be in the verbal firing line of a rather strict school ma’am that is.
A good tip is to check the times of lessons as they’re not all that frequent and so very busy. If you want a seat (at the back, and out of risk!) get there early.
Having spent our pennies, we moved on to the other museums which Ironbridge has to offer. There are too many to mention all, but our highlights were the Museum of Iron & Old Furnace, the oddly fascinating Jackfield Tile Museum and Enginuity, an interactive science centre which is great for hands-on children who like to get wet and fly things (which is pretty much every one).
Ironbridge isn’t just about history, though, and there are lots of contemporary artists and craftspeople who choose to base themselves here too. Many are at the Maws Craft Centre which handily has a very nice café, selling lovely homemade soups, sandwiches and cakes.
To fully appreciate everything Ironbridge has to offer, you really need to allow a full day, which we did.
It might take a little selling to non-adults who, like me, aren’t immediately lured by the word history, but it’s worth it. The past really can be an interesting refuge from the present.
Dawn and family stayed at Hadley Park House Hotel in Telford, Shropshire. Call 01952 677269 or visit www.hadleypark.co.uk.
For details of Ironbridge Gorge attractions, visit www.ironbridge.org.uk. Family tickets cover admission to museums, and there is an annual passport ticket available.
Most museums are open Monday to Sunday, 10am-5pm.