Ironbridge and Blists Hill: legacies of Shropshire’s not-so-peaceful past

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 31 October 2018
Related property: Upper Norton
Ironbridge and Blists Hill: legacies of Shropshire’s not-so-peaceful past

To holiday at Upper Norton is not to step back in time, exactly – the place is firmly in the 21st Century in terms of comfort, furnishings and equipment – but to sojourn in a place that feels timeless. Unchanging. Ludlow, Sir John Betjeman’s “loveliest town in England”, is as quaint and welcoming now as when the late Poet Laureate first described it so. The rolling, unspoiled countryside surrounding the site has looked that way for aeons; and, you get the feeling, will continue to look that way for aeons to come. Upper Norton is a peaceful place, a haven where you can put your feet up and let the world carry on without you, just for a while.

Bucolic Britain at its best, then. But a century or two ago, not far to the north of Upper Norton, was a region in the grip of industrialisation.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries made Great Britain the “workshop of the world” – and by the mid-1800s the United Kingdom was the leading commercial nation on the planet: sourcing raw materials (many from its colonies); processing those materials in ever-improving ways as technology advanced at breakneck speed; and selling the finished products back to a waiting world.

Manufacture was regionalised. Lancashire, for example, became famous for its textiles. Staffordshire for its potteries. And mid to north Shropshire for its ironworks.

The heyday of Shropshire’s iron industry is long past; but it has left a visible, and in parts beautiful, legacy.

You cannot visit Upper Norton without making a trip – a pilgrimage, for lovers of industrial history – to Ironbridge: a beautiful (one-word) village that’s home to the (two words) Iron Bridge that spans the River Severn at the (one-word) Ironbridge Gorge. Opened in 1781, the Iron Bridge was the first major bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Its design, featuring a high single span to allow for tall ships to pass underneath, owed more to expediency than aesthetics. But the result (below) was, and remains, an absolute show-stopper.

About 2½ miles further on is Blists Hill, originally an industrial region consisting of a brick and tile works, blast furnaces and coal, iron and fired-clay foundries. Today Blists Hill is an open-air museum modelled on, and incorporating elements of, a Victorian town; and attempts to recreate the sights, sounds and atmosphere of a Shropshire settlement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. An amalgam, the museum’s buildings fall into one of three categories: buildings that were already part of the industrial site; buildings that represent a generic type; and original buildings that have been relocated to the museum.

When you arrive, head for the bank, where you’ll exchange your 21st-Century money for some good old-fashioned LSD. (That’s short for Librae, Solidi, Denarii, and was banking and book-keeping terminology for pounds, shillings and pence.) It’s sobering when you see just how few shiny coins a modern £20 note will buy you. But when you leave Blists Hill you can change it back. What’s left of it.

And then sally forth to enjoy what the town has to offer. No cars. No TV. But lots of shops, staffed by boys and girls in real period clothes, where you can actually buy things. A fantastic fish-&-chip shop:

a sweetshop:

an old-fashioned chemist:

a smithy:

a leather-workshop:

a tea-room:

and a proper pub:

No jukebox, obviously, but you can play shove-ha’penny and bar skittles, and a pint (from memory) costs about 3d.

And much more.

And in pride of place, a proper working ironworks (pictured at top), where you can watch the foundrymen pouring and shaping the molten metal, and get an inkling of the heat, noise and smells that were once a backdrop to everyday ife in this part of Shropshire.

Blists Hill is part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, a registered educational charity whose collection of 10 museums collectively tell the story of Ironbridge and the area around it. To find out more about Blists Hill, click here.

Blists Hill lies about 22 miles to the north-east of Upper Norton, via the B4368, the B4378, the B4376 and the B4373 (be sure to stop at Ironbridge on the way). At the time of writing, entrance to the museum is £17.95 for adults, £12.70 for over-60s and £10.90 for children aged five to 16. Under-fives are free.

Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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