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Gorge yourself

Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire offers you nine museum sites and more, says Phil Revell.

Nine museums within six square miles, the first iron bridge in the world, a beautiful river valley with World Heritage Site status - it's no surprise that the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire is a popular destination for tourists from countries far and wide.

The Industrial Revolution was forged in Ironbridge where, 250 years ago, art and science developed side by side. Smelting techniques invented by Ironmaster Abraham Darby allowed iron to replace wood as the preferred material of the engineer. Meanwhile, at the other end of the valley in Coalport, a colony of artists was producing Coalport china and ceramics.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust celebrates these developments and brings the valley's momentous past to life. The nine museums vary from the interactive Blists Hill, which recreates a Victorian village, to the more reflective Rosehill House, home of the Darbys and furnished in early Victorian style.

About 70,000 children visited the museums last year and museum education officer Sue Spicer attempts to smooth the path for groups. A wealth of information is available for teachers, including resources specifically written for the various key stages. Children can have their picture taken in Victorian costume, take part in a Victorian school lesson and have hands-on experience in the ceramic workshops.

Sue Spicer will help teachers to plan their visit, whether it is a day trip or a residential stay. Some schools bring an entire year group and here the multi-site nature of the museum allows groups to split up and tour the sites in manageable numbers. Teachers can make a planning visit to the museum and work out the details with Sue Spicer.

Day visits tend to concentrate on Blists Hill, where staff in Victorian costume bring the exhibits alive. Blists Hill is a working museum and children can exchange modern money for pounds, shillings and pence and visit the Victorian shops to spend a ha'penny or two.

It takes several days to get the most out of the site and the museum works with the local youth hostel in planning residential visits.

Humanities teacher Sarah Rushton has been bringing school groups to Ironbridge for several years. She was leading a group from Rochester Grammar School for Girls in Kent and had chosen to visit the museum out of season "because we would have the sites to ourselves". The Year 9 group of 41 girls was following up aspects of geography and history national curriculum work. Sarah Rushton found the museum an ideal learning environment and was pleased with the YHA hostel accommodation. Most school groups visiting Ironbridge Gorge stay at the youth hostel in Coalbrookdale. The building is owned by the museum and was once an educational institute.

Its address is Paradise, a name which reflected its position above the smoke and bustle of the foundries in Coalbrookdale. It accommodates up to 97 visitors and has study facilities. This month a second youth hostel will open in Coalport, which will nearly double the YHA places available.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Ironbridge, Shropshire. Tel: 01952 433522. Museum entry fee covers access to all nine sites. Discounted rates can be negotiated and package deals covering museum access and accommodation are available. For most groups it would not be practical to visit all the sites on foot. Coach parking is free. Some museums are closed between November and April and Blists Hill has restricted opening in the winter.

Museum website is http:www.ftech.netirngorge * Iron Bridge Youth Hostel.

Contact Adrian Dyde, YHA Ironbridge Gorge, Paradise, Coalbrookdale, Telford. TF8 7NR. Tel: 01952 433281

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