Travel: King of the castles

Ludlow's large fortress is the ideal starting point for a family weekend in Shropshire.
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The Independent Culture
There are better places to begin a weekend than in the toilet. A little boy rushed out in excitement and said: "There's a toilet in there. It goes down on top of the heads of the people coming in." Such is one of Ludlow Castle's attractions for children, but it is by no means the only one. With a tall, flag-waving turret that you climb via a vertigo- inducing spiral staircase - much better for small feet than adult ones - a dungeon and some spooky switchback passageways, the castle is a paradise for curious kids and great for games of hide and seek. The day I visited, the old walls reverberated to shrieks and giggles.

A huge, double-bailey castle begun by the Normans in the late 11th century, it is one of many castles along the Welsh Marches that were built to keep out the Welsh. From several breathless vantage points you get an excellent idea of how it all fits together, and a glorious view of the countryside around it, the River Teme winding away below the ramparts with bright flotillas of canoes practising against the strong current.

Ludlow is the perfect place to kick off a family weekend in Shropshire. The antiques shops, pubs and markets offer diversions for adults, as well as the timber-framed Feathers Hotel and the superb three-storey, glass- fronted arts centre and cafe, the Ludlow Assembly Rooms.

If you prefer the outdoors, the grounds of the castle are spacious and grassy, Linney Riverside Park provides a children's play area, and the steeply sloping streets of little cottages and the old market square are picture-box pretty.

And, if you tire of Ludlow, Ironbridge Gorge is 20 miles and a couple of hundred years away.

The world's first iron bridge was cast in 1779 by Abraham Darby III in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, now designated a World Heritage Site. Despite this weighty achievement, the bridge is a beautiful piece of work, straddling what is now a calm, wooded river in a valley so tranquil that it is almost impossible to imagine the town of ironworking, pig- iron furnaces, smelting, coal-mining, and pollution and filthy effluent being pumped into the river.

If you cross the bridge to the north bank of the Teme, the toll house is now a free museum displaying the history of the bridge.

The price of construction far exceeded the budget - the equivalent of pounds 1m in today's terms - and Darby, who bore half the cost, never quite recovered from his debts. After the bridge was opened on New Year's Day, 1781, all users, even the royal family, had to pay a toll of half a penny, as declared by an Act of Parliament.

Don't spend too long here, though. In all, there are nine museums in the area and, although you can visit just one or two and pay individually, you can try to take in all of them (or even just Blists Hill Victorian Town - the most expensive) by buying the "passport" that grants you access to all the sites, once. The best thing about the passport is that it's valid for a year, so you don't have to try and race round them all in one day.

Blists Hill is definitely worth a visit. A working Victorian community has been recreated around the surviving industrial remains, including the spooky Hay Inclined Plane, which was built to raise and lower coal and canal boats between the canal here and the River Severn, 207ft below. Every detail is Victorian, including the "residents" who go about their business, shopping for bread or a new hat, operating the mine machinery, peddling carbolic soap and Matron Milly's Infallible Female Mixture in the chemist's or teaching in the tiny school.

Children on educational trips can dress up in Victorian costume and experience a lesson, take a ride at the funfair and buy gobstoppers from huge jars at the Sweet Shop. Change some money for Victorian coins at the bank and buy yourself a pint at the New Inn for a few farthings. Some of the "staff" are permanent, but many are local volunteers with a good knowledge of local history.

Julian Coope, driving the machinery at the pithead, was one such local. He operates a smooth, steam-driven device for lifting miners up and down the 60ft shaft in a cage. The engine is not a copy: it worked at nearby Jackfield and, after the colliery there closed, was rescued by the Blists Hill society from the government, which planned to scrap it. Showing how the cage was raised and lowered, Coope says: "I have to concentrate all the way down. If I stop talking, it's because I'm concentrating. I'm a man, I can't do both at once."

The Tourist Information Centre recommends you spend a minimum of three hours at Blists Hill. You'd have to practically sprint round the site to complete the course in that time. Better to allow a full day, and come back to Shropshire another time to see all the things you've missed: Stokesay Castle, Boscobel House, Wenlock Priory, the Severn Valley steam railway and Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom...

Opening hours vary at Ludlow Castle. Details: 01584 873355. The castle hosts an arts festival from 26 June to 11 July (01584 872150 for tickets). More information: Ludlow Tourist Information Centre (01584 875053). Ironbridge Gorge museums are open seven days a week, year round, from 10am to 5pm in the summer. Winter opening varies. For information call 01952 432166