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Steampunk Days Out-BLISTS HILL

This is the first of a new series of posts. In these I hope to showcase a number of locations that offer people interested in Steampunk or Victorian Science Fiction a great way to spend a day.

I’ll start with one of the most fascinating places in the world for VSF fans to visit; Blists Hill Victorian Town. Blists Hill’s physical location is near Ironbridge Gorge, in the World Heritage Site. Their web site is http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/blists_hill_victorian_town/

Ironbridge has ten museums scattered up and down the Severn river valley, (http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/plan_your_visit/) all within a few miles of each other (I will describe most of the other museums in due course). Ironbridge is a few miles south of Telford. Telford is on the main rail lines and bus service runs into the Ironbridge gorge. Telford also has a car rental agency. We stayed at the truly wonderful Coalbrookdale Villa, which is situated fairly centrally. It is a short walk from the Museum of Iron and Engenuity, and from the Bridge itself. The bedroom was very nice, the breakfast (with locally made jams and jellies, including our introduction to gooseberries) was far more than just serviceable. The availability of a car park is always a bonus, as was the lovely view and water garden behind the home. Watching the sheep crop grass while enjoying a high quality “Full English” each morning added to the joy of the visit

Let us get the mundane details out of the way first. It costs 14.95 pounds for an adult ticket. Unless this is the only site you intend upon visiting I suggest purchase of the all access “Passport” ticket, which for 22.50 gives adult admission to all ten area museums for a one year period. There is a fairly large pay and display parking lot adjacent to the entrance. Additionally on weekends and bank holidays a shuttle bus connects all the sites in the area, which means parking is even less of an issue.

Now with the basics out of the way what is Blists Hill and why would you want to visit it?

Rather than a static museum, Blists Hill is a living history site. For several decades careful management has allowed an increasing number of period industrial and commercial buildings to be relocated and preserved on the site. These include working examples of an iron foundry, a blacksmith’s shop, a carriage maker, plumbers, candy makers and many more. Additionally there is an inclined way which represents the much more extensive derelict line on the far end of the site. Sprinkled throughout the site are numerous living historians, from bicycle mounted police officers to craftsmen and women and shop keepers. The smell of coal smoke pervades the site and period adverts cover the walls. The sounds of steam engines mix with the noise of the visitors to present a very period feel across the entire restored town. The various food shops add their aromas as well. It is very easy to mentally move back 100 plus years, to immerse yourself in the period.

From a Hive, Queen and Country standpoint one of the most interesting was the assessor’s office. The living historian at that location had many fascinating facts about the history of surveying. One of the stunning pieces of information this gentleman presented was that the surveying instrument on display was the exact item that was used to survey the Ironbridge itself, at the close of the 18th century. The idea that these instruments were already so advanced by 1779 was a surprise to me. The device looked nearly identical to the ones I used in the 1980s as an archaeologist, except the device from the 1770s was far more lovely, being as were most things from that period an object of beauty that transcended mere functionality. With the need for accurate surveying on Venus this was a great place to fill in my knowledge of period land surveying. The gentleman was a volunteer, as are most of the living historians, and very knowledgeable. He was obviously passionate about his role and the site overall. It was a pleasure to learn from this gentleman and the time I spent there was well worth it.

I was able to interact with several of the other living historians as well. While I learned about the mine winding engine from its operator, the local constable stopped by. Outside of his strange interest in moose the police officer was very interesting as well.

The period shops are also well worth visiting. One of the most amazing is the chemist’s shop. The casework is lovely. The joinery present are some wonderful examples of period woodwork.

Speaking of period woodworking the gentleman that makes rocking horses and carousel animals was not only talented but also very informative about his trade. I did not know that British merry-go-rounds rotated in the opposite direction from those in the United States. A small thing, but a detail I had never heard before.

Another craftsman that was worth visiting was in the Brick and Tile works. Here was a gentleman producing replacements for tiles stolen from a historical site. This facility is one of the only, if not the sole one, capable of producing replacements for some of the unique period tiles if they are damaged or stolen.

The museum shop is very nice and offers not only the common items found in most museums but also a wide selection of the fruits of the industrial revolution, as made by the workers at Blists Hill. The foundry makes many wonderful cast iron items (which sadly use up a huge proportion of a baggage weight limit while flying). Products from the blacksmith’s shop are also available.

Although the fish and chips particularly smelled inviting we just got a light snack near the Victorian faire ground. Previous we had eaten at the pub. Food was uniformly good on both visits.

We spent the better part of a day each time we have visited. I recommend getting there right at opening. Move rapidly into the town and get ahead of the other guests. This will allow photography without the intrusion of the other visitors and their modern dress. Since I generally don’t like crowds this is one way to avoid them. One of the good things about the museum is that there are parts that probably see far fewer visitors than the core area. The path that follows the upper canal and ends at the ruins of the incline was lovely in the early morning and we were quite alone.

If you find yourself near Telford in the Severn Valley Ironbridge Gorge in general and Blists Hill in particular are must see attractions. Plan on at least two days for the area; taking most of one for Blists Hill Victorian Town.