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Blists Hill is great fun, an open air museum near Ironbridge, Shropshire. Travel back in time…not far, just a little over a century or so. Once you’ve worked through the modern visitor centre and negotiated your way past kids playfully chucking ice creams around outside the café, you’ll find yourself transported back to 1900 – well, a sanitised version of it, anyway. In front of you, there’s a railway siding; opposite that, the cycle repair shop, grocer, bank – and you may hear a snatch of someone singing “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” drifting down from the New Inn. Set in about 50 acres, including canal side and woodland walks, Blists Hill is a recreated Victorian town with shops, cottages, workshops and a whole lot more. There’s a print shop, forge, butchers (probably), bakers and candle-stick makers – even a small Victorian fairground, where my prowess with the pop-gun proudly won a sherbet dab for Mrs Britain. It was several years ago, but I believe she still has it… Staff dress in period costume and many of the old traditional trades are skilfully demonstrated for you. You can even exchange your modern money at the Bank for Victorian pre-decimal pounds, shillings and pence tokens to spend at the old sweetshop, New Inn – or perhaps on some nice wholesome fish ‘n’ chips. Other exhibits are static, but no less fascinating.
Blists Hill may be an artificial town, but its heritage is real enough. It is set in a genuine industrial area containing mines and blast furnaces, where the Madeley Wood Co produced pig iron until 1911. The buildings are a combination of those that are original to the site, ones that have been salvaged from elsewhere (like the pub – which sells real beer, by the way), and others that are faithful reproductions. There are heaps of authentic fittings, and other collectables, including signs, of which a particular favourite must be, “Wanted – young girls for pickling and bottling.” The remains of the blast furnaces – and they are massive – are still there. At the far end of the site is the Hay Inclined Plane – not an aircraft with a penchant for dried grass, but a railway track on a 1:4 slope over which canal barges were transported between the River Severn and the Shropshire Canal 207 feet (64 metres) above. It was built in 1792 and operated for more than 100 years, with team of four men and a small steam engine; empty barges up, loaded barges down, 6 barges an hour; amazing. It is, apparently, the best surviving example of a canal inclined plane in the land. So now you know.
Good friends Steve and Kate told us about Blists Hill, and we’re so glad they did. It’s a bit like an informative book with brilliant illustrations: you can just wander about, looking at the pictures as it were, or dip into a bit more detail if you feel like it. It would be easy to spend most of the day there, but you should certainly allow at least two hours.
Like many open air museums, there are occasionally special events – so check out before you go. Also, as it is outdoors, make sure you dress appropriately. Blists Hill is one of 10 museums run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and I must say they’ve done a jolly fine job. One tiny suggestion: I can’t help thinking that the canteens/cafés should be Victorian-themed too. As it is, they seem rather out of place and the main café at the entrance, frankly, had a little too much Formica for my liking. I picture neatly uniformed waitresses with starched aprons (as you do), stacks of cakes, period furniture, decor and so on…children that can be seen, but not heard… There you are, good people of Blists Hill; my contribution to your future wealth.