Is the Ironbridge Annual Passport Ticket Worth its Price?
There’s a small town in the far West Midlands of England, near the border with Wales, which was at the core of the Industrial Revolution for a while, and was also the breeding ground for numerous far-reaching innovations. Today, there are only several museums and one remarkable structure left to recall this glorious past. This structure gives the town its current name: Ironbridge.
Once Ironbridge was known for providing everything in one place: clay, water, iron ore, coal, and even tar. Nevertheless, the town served its purpose and, in the process, used up its rich resources. Nowadays the tourists have to bring in the money.
The abundance of resources spawned a number of different industries, all in the confinement of the narrow River Severn gorge. This made the town an excellent example of the Industrial Revolution and valuable as an inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List . Many of the old industrial sites are now turned into tourist facilities, namely museums. The town offers the Ironbridge Annual Passport Ticket to visit them all – we only picked three because our “old brains” can only take in so much…
The Ironbridge Tourist Information
A little upriver from the town centre, Ironbridge has its tourist information office in an old railway shed. Since it was a sunny day, we walked there from our overnight parking.
The centre is mostly a souvenir shop, with a small information counter tucked in the back. Nevertheless, we received answers to our questions and then proceeded into the attached small exhibition. You need a ticket to enter, but by then we had bought our Ironbridge Annual Passport.
Ironbridge has a weekend shuttle bus service included in your ticket, which runs past all major attractions. We had decided ahead of time to use this, instead of driving ourselves, giving up our already paid for central car park, and having to find parking, which is also paid, at each museum.
The Jackfield Tile Museum of Ironbridge
For us there wasn’t any preference as to which museum we visited first; the Jackfield Tile Museum was the first stop for the bus we took. Since I (Juergen) am always interested in architecture and building design, it was also high on my “must see list”.
It’s located in the former works of Craven Dunnill and Company, built in 1874. The manufacturing in Jackfield was closed down in the 1950s, and moved to Bridgnorth.
In this museum there isn’t much of the old machinery left to show the production process, but it is excellently explained in various graphics and videos throughout the museum. Take your time to watch some of the many informative video displays interspersed among the numerous boards with tile designs.
At the core of the museum is an outstanding display of how the designs of tiles, the fashion of tiles, and the techniques to produce patterns on tiles, changed throughout the last two or three centuries.
The boards with example tiles are well sorted, always showing a number of style variations, and explaining the historic timeline and what inspired new design patterns. Added to this is background information about the leading design trends and their forefront designers.
There’s a small manufacturer of tiles remaining in the back of the factory compound. They store thousands of old moulds and recreate replacement tiles for the restoration of historic buildings and prestigious objects (like the Australian Parliament House – a set of moulds I spotted through one dusty window).
We spent a good two hours at this museum and probably still missed a couple of displays. If you are interested in historic tile designs, or want to gain background knowledge about different styles you encounter when visiting England’s historic buildings, you will enjoy the Jackfield Tile Museum.
The Coalport China Museum of Ironbridge
That same day we went to visit the Porcelain Museum, which is situated at the same end of the valley. In its day, Coalport China was one of the leading porcelain manufacturers of England. The entire former factory complex is so big that one of the larger remaining buildings now houses the Youth Hostel of Ironbridge.
When you walk in through the shop, first you come past rows of show cases displaying porcelain pieces, from tiny to grandiose. Most are elaborately decorated with hand painted patterns; lots of flowers or landscape motifs. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite our taste, but any porcelain collector, or Arabic millionaire, would probably marvel for hours at the delicate displays.
Once you proceed downstairs, you come into a part of the old workshop rooms, where some of the production processes are explained and skilled workers give you an insight into their handicraft – much more interesting for us. During our visit we were lucky to talk with a woman at length, who hand-paints porcelain plates; mostly one-off-orders to celebrate special occasions, like births, anniversaries, or award plates.
Don’t miss walking to the end of the lower yard, into the bottom bottle kiln. It is cut open and partly stacked exactly as it would have been in the “old days”. In combination with the signs, which explain each production process, you gain a good impression of how labour intensive the old manufacturing process was.
In 1920, Coalport China was taken over by Cauldon Potteries Ltd. and soon moved production to Staffordshire. This was mostly to be closer to the transportation routes to their markets. Also, Staffordshire had developed into the centre for porcelain manufacturing and hence there was more skilled labour available. To this day, the famous Wedgewood Porcelain Manufacture is based there.
We spent maybe an hour-and-half at the Porcelain Museum and were done for the day. If we had had more energy left, we might have walked to another nearby attraction of Ironbridge:
The Tar Pit
Near the porcelain manufacture of Coalport, workers struck ‘black gold’ when digging a tunnel for the new Coalport Canal, one of the many British waterways . They found a spring of natural bitumen, a material used to weatherproof wooden boats and ropes.
The original tunnel is about a kilometre long, but you can only enter for 100 metres because the still present bitumen gases are considered unsafe.
The next morning we decided to take our Bertita and drive to the final museum we wanted to visit in Ironbridge. Since it was Monday the free shuttle buses weren’t operating. Anyhow, it was on the way out of town for us.
The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron
This former iron smelter and manufacturer was the most important factory in Ironbridge, and well known all over England. It was originally founded by Quakers, who came to Ironbridge as a better place to produce their range of cast iron cooking pots.
The initial success of the first Quakers, the Darby family, soon attracted more of their kind. Their hard working mentality, their honesty, and foremost their ingenuity and drive to look for new ways to manufacture iron products, found its place in history. Abraham Darby I developed the process of smelting iron with coke instead of charcoal, which paved the way for better quality and more durable products. His principles are still used in steel making to this day.
The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron was probably our least favourite of all three we visited in Ironbridge. The displays were centred around large and colourful graphics, where they tried to explain how iron products slowly became part of the “every day life”.
Unfortunately the large exhibition spaces on a very large rectangular former factory floor soon lost their logical timeline, so we wandered around and looked at some eye-catching displays – without a clear understanding where they would slot into their respective periods.
Why can’t people leave things alone. What used to be a very good destination is now little more than a few artefacts surrounded by wall graffiti. The whole thing could probably be fitted in one room with an accompanying leaflet.
[quoted from a visitor’s review on Tripadvisor ]
But since the real iron bridge is currently undergoing major structural renovation, all wrapped up in tarpaulin and scaffolding, we at least found a sizeable model of this famous bridge.
Much more interesting was the guided walk around the smelter of the former ironworks. This is to be credited to our volunteer guide, who was highly knowledgeable, and took his time to point out various unique features within the ruined structures. You are free to wander around the smelter – without having to pay an entrance fee.
The Darby Houses
On the hill above the former smelter, stand the two former residences of the owners, the Darby family. A visit to them is included in your Passport Ticket, or can be bought as an add-on with the entrance fee to the Museum of Iron.
For us these houses were much more interesting than the museum below. The two houses stand side-by-side: the Dale House and Rosehill.
Dale House was originally built in 1717 for Abraham Darby I , but underwent several renovations and extensions by subsequent generations of his family. In the mid 20th century it was unfortunately converted into a block of flats (with a hideous verandah and fire escape added to the upper floor). Now that it has been bought back by the trust, it’s slowly undergoing restoration.
Rosehill stands to the right of the Dale House. It was built in about 1738 for Richard Ford, who married Abraham Darby I’s eldest daughter, Mary, and later became manager of the Coalbrookdale Ironworks. The house remained in the Darby family for generations, and has been restored and furnished with period rooms, kept in a 1850s theme. Part of the servants quarters are being used to explain the history and daily life of the Darby family – guiding you through the various generational changes.
Also included in the passport ticket:
Blists Hill Victorian Town
This is a collection of historic houses and industrial compounds, which aims to recreate the sights, sounds, and smells of an old Victorian times Shropshire town around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This seems to be the pride of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and also carries the highest individual ticket price.
We weren’t that interested and skipped this place. We had read that the Blists Hill Victorian Town is a mix of original buildings, some reconstructions, and some old structures moved there from other places. A place where everybody walks around in Victorian period costumes – the one deciding reason for us not to go. It sounded too much like a themepark, and too little like a place where you can really learn interesting things about the past.
If you want to read what to expect, please look up the Wikipedia page about the Blists Hill Victorian Town .
A mix of modern science exhibition and museum for old engineering pieces, Enginuity is located right behind the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. It appeals more to youthful people, kids in particular. I went and had a brief peek, but there was too much noise and action for my liking – and too many screaming kids.
I’m more interested in learning about old historic machines in a quieter environment; I’m not a fan of interactive displays and hands-on experiences like “Wacky Wheels” (the name of one of the displays).
The Iron Bridge and Toll House
Proudly in the middle of town stands the structure, which lends the town its name: the Ironbridge. It connects one side of town with the other. Nowadays it’s only accessible for pedestrians, but in the past it served as a main road connection. Evidence of this is the historic toll house on the far side from the town.
As I mentioned, the bridge was unfortunately all wrapped up when we visited. The over 200 year old masterpiece is in urgent need of structural repairs – some of the cast iron parts holding it together, have cracked with age. Still, that it has lasted this long is a credit to its original builders.
The bridge was the idea of the local Abraham Darby III, owner of the iron casting factory. He paired with the architect Thomas Pritchard to design this revolutionary (for its day) structure. You can walk across the bridge for free (currently only on a small path left by scaffolding) and visit the tiny museum in the toll house, also free.
Overall we found quite a few interesting sights in Ironbridge. For us it was worth the price of the combined Ironbridge Annual Passport – just! But this is mostly due to the fact that prices to visit individual attractions are on a fairly high level, even for expensive England.
Certainly not all of the places included in the Ironbridge Annual Passport Ticket will appeal to all people. Hence, we recommend that you read up on them beforehand and do your calculations; which ones would you really want to see, will you have enough time to see more, and how much would you have to pay to see the ones on your list individually. Whatever your decision, a visit at Ironbridge isn’t really a budget proposition… We believe that the cost is reflected by the relatively low number of visitors in August – mid summer holidays!
For the current entry fees to individual museums, and the price of the combined Ironbridge Annual Passport Ticket, please visit the website of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums .
Information Specific to Overlanders
We parked on the far side of the bridge from the town. There’s a large, partly shaded long-term lot with parking charges. If you don’t arrive in the middle of the day you should be able to find space for larger rig too. We arrived on a Saturday during Summer holidays and had to wait until a little past 5pm before we were able to get a spot. This lot is reasonably quiet overnight, but traffic through town starts early and the narrow roads reflect traffic noise a bit across the gorge.