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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Ironbridge Gorge is a beautiful tourist destination

THE Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site and its neighbouring town of Telford are peacefully set in the heart of beautiful Shropshire surrounded by glorious countryside, quiet villages, stately homes and leisure attractions.

At the centre is the iconic Iron Bridge, which spans the River Severn and remains an enduring symbol of the Industrial Revolution that took place here around three hundred years ago.

Heavy industry has long disappeared from the valley, the mines are closed and the ironworks silent but many of the historic buildings remain as a testimony to the area’s industrial past. Today the Gorge is a place of beauty with the restored buildings set either side of the River Severn’s wooded valley.

More about the region’s fascinating past can be discovered at the new landmark Visitor Centre in Blists Hill Victorian Town, one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums. The Severn Valley Railway will also be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, while a new Bar & Grill will open in the spring at Weston Park sizzling up lunch and dinner all year round, and senior citizens will be able to join Silver Safaris being introduced at Hawkstone Historic Park and Follies from Easter.

The World Heritage Sites’ only brewery has just opened its first pub, the Old Fighting Cocks at Oakengates, which they have recently restored to its Victorian splendour. Also open to visitors, the Ironbridge Brewery visitor centre is offering mini tours and has a shop and bar serving real ales brewed on the premises.

Gateway to Blists Hill
Part of a massive redevelopment at Blists Hill, the Visitor Centre now acts as a dramatic gateway to the open air Victorian town and World Heritage Site. The main exhibition hall greets visitors with a stunning cacophony of sight and sound as massive images are projected on nine metre high walls telling the harsh reality of life during the evolution of mining and hot metal industries.

Also new is Canal Street, a wonderful parade of shops authentically copied from the period originals where local townsfolk go about their daily lives and an artisans’ corner with the work of plumbers, tinsmiths and decorative plasterers on display. Other developments at Blists Hill include an Incline Lift, which is reminiscent of the historic lifts that once hauled goods up and down the sides of the Severn Gorge, and the narrow gauge Clay Mine Railway. This takes visitors on a short journey into a blacked out ‘clay-mine’, where a fantastic audio-visual show depicts the ‘explosive’ story of a father and son team of clay miners.

Severn Valley Railway’s first public passenger train steamed out of Bridgnorth on 23rd May 1970 on the short four-mile run to Hampton Loade. In four decades the SVR has grown from its original concept of a handful of enthusiastic amateurs organising Sunday steam-ups in the overgrown, abandoned BR sidings at Bridgnorth, to become one of the UK’s most polished ‘heritage’ tourist attractions, hosting more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, and with a turnover in excess of £6 million.

Steam locomotives now pull vintage trains taking visitors on a sentimental journey through 16 miles of glorious countryside from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster and return. The Engine House Visitor Centre at Highley tells the history of the railway and includes a replica of the pub where the first planning meeting for the formation of the railway society took place.

May 22nd and 23rd will see a special 40th Birthday Party while a ‘reunion’ theme is expected to be a feature of the SVR’s big ‘Autumn Steam Gala’ in September, when several ex-resident locomotives, which came to the Severn Valley line in its early days, will make celebrity appearances on the Kidderminster-Bridgnorth line.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums and Severn Valley Railway along with Weston Park, the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford and Hawkstone Historic Park and Follies are known as Shropshire’s star attractions.

Weston Park, the 17th century ancestral home of the Earls of Bradford with around 1,000 acres of gardens and parklands, restored its former Granary last year, which opened as an art gallery and farm shop selling locally sourced produce. From spring 2010 a new 60-seater restaurant, the Granary Bar & Grill, will also be opening in the old malting house with an open plan kitchen and split-level seating area with views over Church Pool and the estate cottages.

The menu will feature freshly prepared dishes using the region's finest produce with emphasis on 'easy eating' in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

Combining history with adventure in a unique setting Hawkstone Historic Park and Follies is an 18th century ‘theme park’ with a fantasy landscape of rugged rocks, caves and grottos plus wonderful views and walks. Every Thursday Hawkstone will be providing a complimentary Land Rover ‘Silver Safari’ service to key high points in the park allowing access for anyone unable to walk up the steep climbs.

Ironbridge and Telford has a wide choice of accommodation for visitors ranging from four star hotels with dining awards to traditional country inns, farmhouses and comfy B&Bs; there are also quality camping and caravan sites and cosy cottages for those who prefer to self-cater. For further information, or to obtain a copy of the Ironbridge and Telford visitor and accommodation guide, Tel: 01952 567562 or log onto www.visitironbridge.co.uk.

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