Blists Hill review – Ironbridge Gorge’s Victorian Town
The year is 1900. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 63 years, the Boer War is raging and candlemakers are still using arsenic to colour their creations green. On the plus side, sweets cost fourpence a quarter. As we stepped back in time at Blists Hill Victorian Town, I knew which carried most weight with my daughter.
Growing up in nearby Staffordshire, I used to visit Blists Hill open-air museum in Shropshire myself as a child – one of 10 Ironbridge Gorge museums, it’s the one I remember most vividly. And the best thing about a museum set in the past, of course, is that even if you go back 25 years later, so much has stayed the same.
I was just as excited to introduce my daughter to this wonderful replica town, set in one of England’s most important industrial sites, recreating life as it would have been from shops to homes to the ironworks, like the foundry creating the area’s famous iron bridge. Some were originally on this site, others moved here brick by brick.
Because there is nothing quite like an open-air museum to help kids (and adults!) learn about history – stepping inside the shops with their authentic looking products, chatting to shop-keepers about just what was on the shelves (and what wasn’t) or marvelling at how many people could cram into one small cottage.
It’s not true to say that nothing has changed – you’re greeted by a video setting the scene as you enter Blists Hill Victorian Town… my daughter scampered past at speed to the door marked ‘Victorian Town’, for once not ready to be distracted by a screen.
And stepping into the High Street does feel a little as if walking through the door has swept you through some kind of time portal.
First stop, as ever, is the bank. Although you can use normal, everyday money to purchase in the open air museum (and in some places such as the cafe, that’s the only thing accepted), you can change your cash into Blists Hill’s own version of old money – huge pennies, little sixpences and thruppeny bits, which is far more fun. Even if we did spend the day looking slightly baffled at the coins, as you do when you’re on holiday confronted with foreign currency.
There’s are helpful conversions dotted around, and it’s a lovely introduction to hear bank staff talking through the different coins and what they might have bought you.
Then off to the shops! To the grocer’s with jars and tins piled high – anything in a tin was a luxury, and more than a little impractical as the tin opener hadn’t been invented (a knife or bayonet did the trick, if you had one handy). My daughter amused herself with moving dried peas from one side of the scales to the other, until I spotted her. I bet Victorian children weren’t just gently encouraged to tidy up after themselves.
The apothecary nearby combines several different experiences, including a dentist and opticians, as well as a chemist to dispense medicines. The huge containers of coloured liquid, signalling the shop’s purpose for those who couldn’t read, were as decorative as the flower scented soaps – and all rather less concerning than some of the remedies.
You could linger for ages, discovering more from the knowledgeable staff, but we knew this was only the beginning – onwards to the draper and dressmaker, with its spools of bright ribbon and sewing machines which my own grandmother would have recognised, then the Post Office, with its collection of quills and place at the heart of everyday life.
But before long there was a scent of frying food on the air, courtesy of the chippie across the road. Who could possibly resist hot chips in dripping? Not me, certainly. Nor could we resist a pitstop at the confectioner next door with jars of sweets, some instantly recognisable, others so unfamiliar that would-be buyers were offered a taste first – we played it safe with chocolate raisins.
Settling down to enjoy our snack, we eyed up some of the old-fashioned signs decorating the walls and the replica of Trevithick’s 1802 Coalbrookdale locomotive before clouds of smoke from one of the chimneys drove us on – a reminder of something which would have been as normal for Victorians as horse dung across the streets.
Thankfully you don’t have to worry much about that either, despite the two gorgeous Shire horses trotting smartly around the streets, their brasses gleaming in the sun.
There’s the butcher, the baker and the candle-maker too: alas, no sign of the wonderful pasties I remembered from the first, but we did pick up some spiced fruit bread and biscuits from the second. Purely in the name of research. Then time for more tales at the chandler’s.
The green candles on display now are dyed with vegetable dye; originally coloured green to stop miners pinching any odds and ends to take home, the arsenic used in the dye also helped as pest control for any rats and mice which took a nibble. Huge racks still hold wicks at various stages of the dipping process (you can buy the finished product too), even if there’s a bit more technology used to keep the wax molten these days.
Every craftsman is well worth a visit, from the wood carver (whose store doubles as carpenter and undertaker) to plaster carver and more.
But my favourite has always been the print shop: as a child, I remember rolling the sticky black ink onto metal plates and making my own creations – I’m not sure if that’s still on the list of activities which take place at various times during the day, but I was having too much fun listening open-mouthed anyway.
As the printer was busy getting Minnie’s agreement to sign her up as an apprentice in six years, we also discovered that one press used a ton of pressure – the equivalent of about half a car pressing down on your paper – while another had a habit of chopping off tired printers’ fingers at the end of the day when they became tired and careless.
And did you know the phrase ‘to coin a phrase’ comes from the ‘coins’ which tightened to hold the metal letters together before they were inked up? Or that ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ letters really were once kept in an upper and a lower box or case?
Or that there’s an easy trick to winning a challenge of talking for a minute without repetition, hesitation or speaking nonsense, all without using the letter ‘a’ – simply count up to one hundred. In fact, if you say 1-0-1 rather than one hundred and one, you can keep going even longer.
Mind well and truly boggled, it was time to leave the shops behind, heading down the hill past the grand mine manager’s home-cum-doctor’s surgery (two houses for the price of one!). The old tileworks looms on one side, the iron foundry chimney dominates at the bottom, with some pigs and chickens in a small garden along the way, much to my daughter’s delight.
None of the molten metal of my memory being poured, nor a chance to pick up one of the densely solid lumps of iron that day – the foundry had charcoal drawing on during our visit – but Minnie had heard the unmistakeable sound of fairground music anyway, and made a beeline for the carousel.
Chair rides, swing boats and a coconut shy complete the attractions, as well as a pair of stilts which we utterly failed to walk on, amid much giggling.
Unlike many of her Victorian counterparts, she seemed just as fascinated by the school and the chance to write on one of the slates. You can even join in with occasional lessons throughout the day. I was just glad I wasn’t in full Victorian dress like the teacher, as the sun shone through the windows.
I was also rather glad I didn’t have to live with 10 others in the two-room Squatter’s cottage or do the laundry in an old-fashioned tub, scrubbing and pounding away in the garden. Minnie, on the other hand, had found a new hobby and had to be tempted away once she’d hung up her well-thumped shirt (mildly draped in the dirt on the way to the airer).
Her enthusiasm hadn’t waned by the time we found a traditional mangle in the garden of the nearby Toll House, chained up to save small fingers. Inside Victorian games lay on the table in the parlour, bedrooms and kitchen all decorated – like the other homes – as close to the originals as possible.
As we wandered back up the hill towards the present day, I realised around five hours had passed – and that we would have to abandon our plans to visit any of the other Ironbridge Gorge museums, including Enginuity, which had been second on my list.
Tempting though it was to stay longer in this timeless little world, there was at least the chance that I could delegate all the washing once we got home…
Need to know: Blists Hill review
Tickets cost from £17.90 for adults, £10.90 for children at Blists Hill. You can also buy annual passports which offer day time admission to all 10 museums for a year, from £25.15 for adults, £15.65 for children aged five-16, or from £47.50 for adult tickets. There’s a discount for buying online in advance.
The museum is open daily from March to September, 10am to 4.30pm. During the winter months, it closes at 4pm and is closed entirely on Mondays except during school holidays. There are cafes on site, as well as shops selling food at Blists Hill.
For more information on visiting Blists Hill, or the other Ironbridge Gorge museums, click here.
PIN FOR LATER: BLISTS HILL REVIEW
Disclosure: My tickets to Blists Hill Victorian Town were courtesy of Ironbridge Gorge museums – all opinions in my Blists Hill review and childhood memories of pasties/molten metal are my own.
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