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Steampunk. Steampunk Days out

Steampunk Days Out-The Rest of Ironbridge Gorge

Ironbridge-Over 200 years of iron in graceful flight over the Severn

I started off this series with a day out to Blists Hill Victorian Town. I mentioned that Blists Hill is just one of several museums and other attractions in the Valley of the Severn. With this post I’ll cover much of the rest of that area.

Coalbrookdale Villa-Note the amazing scenery and the large car park!

We spent three days in Ironbridge basing out of the Coalbrookdale Villa http://www.coalbrookdalevilla.co.uk/. This Victorian period guest house was one of the best bed and breakfasts we’ve ever stayed at. As we mentioned previously the food was great, the rooms comfortable and the hostess and host quite hospitable. The one thing that was lacking was internet access, but that was available in town, which was only a short walk downhill.
The first museum most visitors see is the Museum of the Gorge. This gives a general history of the region. There is a short video but the most the impressive exhibit is a huge diorama of the valley in its heyday. The scale looks to be about 1/300th and the model is around twenty feet long (at least). As a gamer I could only look on enviously at such amazing work. This would be the best wargame terrain ever!

Entrance to and exit from the museum is through a truly dangerous gift shop. There are books, local food, products from the various living historians in the area (including the foundry at Blists Hill). The china service with the image of the bridge upon it was sorely tempting. It was only the thoughts of the condition in which we would find the fragile objects upon our return home that prevented us from getting a set of four cups and saucers. The shop had a number of Brunel titles I had never seen before, and several very nice books about Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale and the ironmasters who built so much, including the Industrial Revolution.

Speaking of buildings and iron the Ironbridge is within sight of the Museum of the Gorge. It is a graceful structure that blends well with its landscape. The smooth sweep of the span is cleverly reflected in the water of the river. When we were there a lovely interwar limo was parked by the bridge and a bride and her groom were having their wedding photos taken. It was a stunning vista for such pictures and I can only applaud the choice. The bridge appears to be designed not only as a functional structure and as a stand -alone object of art but also as integrated feature of the landscape. The bridge dominates the views from many locations in the gorge. From down on the water the bridge soars like a metal rainbow across the slow moving waters of the Severn. From everywhere the bridge makes a powerful statement, which was certainly part of its reason for its construction.
Not only is the structure a supremely and lasting aesthetic statement it is one of enduring practical value. From its completion until the 1930s the bridge served road traffic, first animal drawn carts and carriages and then motor transport. It has been restored since then and was made a historic location in the 1950s. It anchors the entire historic region. The structure looks different in various phases of light. I recommend looking at the bridge both at dawn and dusk as well as several times during the day. Different features of the bridge are enhanced by various states of lighting. I also believe that the bridge will look very different in moonlight or at various times of the year. I can only imagine how lovely the bridge would look in the snow.

There are a number of restaurants with views of the bridge. There are a number of really good pubs including the Swan. The food there was great and they had WiFi. The beer selection was very nice and I had a great cider. During our stay we had a number of meals there, all of which were excellent http://www.theswanironbridge.co.uk/.

Inside of Truffles, good food and some interesting quotes

We also ate and used the internet at Truffles http://www.trufflescafe.piczo.com/?cr=7. Truffles has really great food and a direct view of the bridge. The staff at Truffles, particularly the owner, was extremely friendly. The Swan’s staff was pretty good as well, a cut above many pubs but often a bit harried since the Swan tended to attract a bit of a rowdy crowd at times. If you are in Ironbridge on Sunday make certain to eat dinner early if you want a Sunday roast. The kitchens tend to run out of food and close early on Sundays (we tried all four pubs close to the bridge and all four were out of food!). This forced us into a march up the hill to an Indian place named Aftab http://www.aftabbalti.co.uk/. We hadn’t eaten in several hours and had walked nearly 10 miles during that time, so we were a bit peckish. The staff was friendly and the food was really excellent. I can’t in all honesty say of the food was good or if we were so hungry that anything would have tasted great, but it certainly was enjoyable and filling!

So while we were zipping from eatery to eatery and imbibing the occasional pint while surfing the web and checking email what did we see?

Besides the Bridge itself Ironbridge has ten museums. I’ve already reviewed Blists Hill. Not only are the museums exciting but the industrial archaeological relics litter the area. You can’t got help but see the various blast furnaces built into the hillsides of the gorge. Backing up a car park for one of the pubs are some of the old furnaces. Further down the gorge are the famous Bedlam ones.

We did not see all the museums. Enguinity is a children’s museum and we ran out of time before we were able to see it. The time constraint also prevented us from touring the homes of the Darby family. The Broseley Pipeworks had not yet opened for the season, so we couldn’t go there as well.

The other seven museums showcase a number of Victorian technologies. OK, some of these sound just dull-how exciting could a museum of tile be? Pretty darned exciting, actually!

Let’s get the logistics out of the way. The full Passport is 22.50. All the museums have pay and display car parks and purchasing at one allows parking at all. The exception to this is the parking right by the bridge and the Museum of the Gorge. Those are municipal parking and do not allow the movement throughout the other museums. On weekends and Bank Holidays a shuttle bus is provided and goes to all the museums.

We’ll start down at the far eastern end of the area. Blists Hill is on the northeastern corner. We covered that site in the initial Steampunk Days Out blog. I’ll just take a moment and remind folks that Blists Hill takes at least half a day all by its self, and could easily be worth an entire day, especially if the foundry is operating.

From Blists Hill we took the shuttle down to the Coalport China Museum. This is located by the Shropshire Canal and the ruins of the inclined way that goes up into the eastern end of Blists Hill. The place where the inclined way comes down and meets the current roadway and canal is lovely. There are a vast number of hungry ducks in the canal and food can be purchased for them. Beware the ducks are wise to this activity and quickly clue in to who has food and will arrive by the legion, following anyone they feel might have food for considerable distances. For the most part they are friendly and well behaved.

Ducks on the canal

Tar Tunnel

The path from the bus stop leads past a youth hostel which has a nice café. The walnut toffee cake I got there was excellent. We followed the path to the Tar Tunnel http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/tar_tunnel/. This unassuming doorway leads to a passage cut deep into the hillside. In places tar still oozes from the brick walls. You get a hardhat and off you go into the tunnel. Beware, for if you are over five and a half feet tall the hard hat will be needed. The tunnel has some deceptive low spots! Interesting interpretive signs line the length of the passage. It took over a half hour to trek to the end of the tunnel. Creepy low ceilinged fun!

China production at Coalport

We went back to the Coalport China Museumhttp://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/coalport_china_museum/. I have no great interest in china, but was really impressed with how china is made. The museum has plenty of examples of the fine art objects produced by the factory. The amazing tea services and commemorative items are astounding, even for someone with just a marginal interest. For me the real treat was learning how these objects were manufactured. The giant beehive shaped kilns are now exhibit spaces. Like much of Ironbridge living historian craftspeople show how it was done. We picked up a number of cool china items including a cat shaped salt and pepper shakers and a blackbird shaped pie vent. The gift shop also had a goodly number of excellent books. It took well over an hour to explore the china museum.

The weather was nice so we decided to skip the bus and walk to the Jackfield Tile Museum http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/jackfield_tile_museum/. If china sounds dull how can something as utilitarian as ceramic tile be worth a whole museum? Go and spend a couple of hours at the Jackfield Museum. One thing that really struck me was the myriad of uses for tiles. With the amazing variety of patterns and artwork on period tiles all I could think was that with so much Victorian space travel I can see tiles being used for heat shields on Steampunk spacecraft. A Victorian Shuttle Orbiter would be a hell of a lot more colorful than NASAs STS.

One thing I learned while there was the tremendous versatility of ceramic tiles. In the Hive, Queen and Country universe they would be used as insulation for the aerolyth arrays, heat shields for reentry vehicles (and since the shields are external would be as colorful as the heat profiles would allow). I can see all sorts of other uses as well. In a VSF or Steampunk setting with alien contact (Like Hive, Queen and Country) or other advanced technology the improved ceramics will also have increased uses.

The views in the gorge are simply amazing

As we walked from these three sites we had a great time looking at all the period buildings. These include houses and industrial buildings, churches and shops. The historic district has fierce zoning regulations and even new buildings must make an effort to blend into the historical aesthetic. The walk around the valley was really wonderful. We fed the ducks in a couple of locations, after a while I think they were following us.
After the Jackfield we walked all the way to the Museum of Iron. This is up a huge hill in Coalbrookdale. The map is deceptive. The walk is longer than it looks and a steady upgrade. By the time we go there we were a bit footsore. We passed an interesting building that looked like a place HP Lovecraft would have been pleased to people with a family with “the Taint”. It had a room that was an obvious addition and was well equipped with a cross motif. We were quite certain that “something” had been kept in that room.

The hike up the hill was worth it. The Museum of Iron http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/coalbrookdale_museum_of_iron/ was nice, but the various dams and bridges for railways and other industrial structures were even better. The “Old Forge” is preserved under a pyramid shaped structure. Behind it is the high dam that provided water power for the area before steam was king. The area was just amazing. The hundreds of years that the structures have stood makes a mark contrast to the buildings we erect today that will be gone in less than half that time.

After the Museum of Iron we walked back to our hotel, the Coalbrookdale Villa. We took quick showers and headed into Ironbridge for dinner. This was when we learned that Sunday nights in Ironbridge are a poor place in which to find a meal. Aftab saved us! It was great, although again it might have been that we were just REALLY hungry.

Steampunk Days Out-USS OLYMPIA

The USS Olympia is arguably the second most historically significant preserved warship in the United States. She fought in the Spanish American War as Admiral Dewey’s flagship. Later she had the somber task of returning the body of the Unknown Soldier to the United States from the hell of Great War France. She was one of the United States Navy’s first modern warships and is the last of her breed. I went to visitor her last fall in what seemed to be her darkest hour. The Independence Seaport Museum was about to close this old lady down and was actively pursuing a course of action to have her sunk as a reef. That effort appears to have receded somewhat, but the ship still needs to find a museum that wishes to preserve her, noy submerged under the ocean, for future generations. Here is a site that will let you donate to help her find that new home http://www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/northeast-region/the-uss-olympia.html

Now, kicking my soapbox to the side let’s get on with exploring a glorious piece of steam and military technology!
USS Olympia is currently berthed in Philadelphia, PA at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing. To get there I took light rail in from New Jersey and walked through historic downtown Philly. Having recently watched National Treasure I was amused to look at the locations where the film, and far more importantly the amazing events that begat the United States of America took place. The walk took me past a very nice traditional hobby shop as well as the cradle of liberty. Independence hall was undergoing a renovation. The riverfront itself was preparing for an air race and an EPA research vessel was docked as well.

I entered the Museum and had made contact with the staff. I had called ahead but was a day early. I made arrangements to see the restricted areas of the ship the next day and headed out to see the public spaces. Tickets for the museum, the Olympia and the submarine Bacuna are 12 dollars, admission between 10 am and noon on Sundays is “pay what you wish”. The ships are not handicapped accessible. The museum’s page is located here http://www.phillyseaport.org/. The museum has a really excellent small boat shop, where craftspeople restore wooden boats. It was wonderful to watch them work using old techniques. There is a great collection of small boats. There are a number of other good displays as well. Some very nice models and dioramas complelment period artefacts and displays. The museum has a great gift shop. I dropped a bit of change on their selection of books and on a USS Olympia T shirt.

With that said I took the short walk through the museum and down the to the ships. As is usual I skipped the submarine (as I did at Chatham) and boarded Olympia. Even though the museum had been hard pressed to provide for her upkeep I learned that a number of dedicated volunteers were still hard at work aboard her. She might not have met the standards of an active Victorian Warship but she was still tidy and clean. The period woodwork is lovely as is the brass.

I love being aboard both HMS Warrior and SS Great Britain and the interior reconstructions on both ships are amazing. In those cases they are both heavily reconstructed as both vessels had been gutted and abandoned for decades before their restorations. Olympia was never so misused and many, if not most, of her interior fittings are original. All the various valve covers have their original markings and the various doors and compartments have metal identification plates. The vessel served until the 1920s and was extensively rebuilt during her active lifetime.

Certain areas have been restored to their Spanish American War appearance and function. The ship has a dental office and surgery. These are fully equipped and look ready for patients. The surgery has an autoclave and a mechanical suction system. The period medical equipment is something that you don’t see very often, especially set up for use. Take a lot of pictures here.

The machine shop is also worth looking at. A large number of machine tools are present and they run off an overhead system of belts off a main shaft. When a button is pressed the machines operate (the overhead shaft is powered by electricity) and the activity there is fun to watch.

The junior officers’ mess looks much as it did in the 1890s as does the wardroom. Original woodwork and in some cases original furniture enhance the historic value of the compartments. The Officer’s cabins are generally quite small, until the senior officers such as the Captain’s cabins are reached. This compartment is as elegant as one would expect. The woodwork and furniture are wonderful. The bed seems a bit small but all things considered it was good to be the Captain or the Admiral!

I was able to access the below deck spaces and it was like visiting a cathedral. One of the engines is nearly complete. The other has been partially disassembled over the years. Its amazing to get to see such a large power-plant in situ. The decks and walkways criss-cross all over the place in purposeful chaos surrounded and surrounding gauges, pipes, valves and hoses. Brass is everywhere! I was surprised by wooden steam drum which is part of the condenser system. The intact unit looks like it could get steam up fairly quickly if needed. The various holds and coal bunkers were visible through assess hatches. It is obvious that the ship needs substantial refurbishment. Hopefully she’ll find a good home and dedicated caretakers who will give her the love she needs.
One great thing about Olympia is her assortment of armament. When built she mounted a main battery of eight inch guns. These were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft. Her secondary battery was 5 inch/40. She had a number of light weapons including 6 pdr and 1 pdr rapid firing guns. The 8 inchers were removed before the Great War and the 5 inch guns replaced with more modern 5 inch/51 weapons. Currently the 8 inch guns and turrets are representations. They are the correct exterior shape but have no interiors at all. The secondary battery consists of an assortment of guns some five inch and at least one six inch weapon. There are also a number of lighter guns including 6 pdrs. The guns are in good condition with much of the brass polished. The guns and carriages are much more complete than most museum weapons. They are also mounted in the original battery positions. The casemate batteries seem odd to those more familiar with turret batteries on more modern ships.

Speaking of more modern ships Olympia is sandwiched between a pair of the most famous US ships of the twentieth century. The USS New Jersey is berthed as a museum and memorial in her namesake State right across from her older sister. The United States, the greatest ocean liner ever built and last holder of the Blue Riband awaits her still uncertain future just a few piers down from Olympia. New Jersey is open as a museum. United States is not open to the public but she is a stunning view from one of the bridges or from various locations along the water front. Please go to the conservancy linked below and check what they are doing to try and save this great ship.
Here are links to those vessels:


Within sight of each other are three of the most historic ships in the United States. Sadly two of them do not have the assured future they deserve and that the nations owes to them and that our generation owes to future generations (sorry the soap box came back out again, but its my blog and I can pontificate if I want to-but I promise to do so infrequently and only about really cool things like historic ship preservation)
A Ritz Carlton Hotel overlooks the ship and offers great views of the ship. I didn’t stay there on my visit but one of my coworkers did and shot some excellent pictures of Olympia from an angle not usually seen. And I’ll finish with comments on food. There is a restaurant just past the Spirit of Philadelphia, a nice looking ship and dinner spot. I chose a place who’s name escapes me at this time. The food was awesome as was the view of USS New Jersey. This was one of the most amazing meals a historian could ever hope food. Great taste and a view of one of the greatest warships ever built within the shadow of two of the most historic vessels in the US. Although the newer vessels are outside the VSF Steampunk period it still made for a wondeful Steampunk Day Out!