For a spot renowned as the birthplace of England's Industrial Revolution – where, three centuries ago, blast furnaces smoked, factories clanked and the white heat of innovation burned brightest – Ironbridge Gorge is a remarkably pretty destination.
Yet the steep-sided, tree-lined valley carved by the Severn through Coalbrookdale isn't just aesthetically appealing: the availability of wood along its banks, along with rich seams of iron and coal, created the ideal environment for innovative metallurgists to perfect their new smelting techniques. It was here, in 1709, that Abraham Darby I developed the coke-fuelled blast furnace, revolutionising the production of pig iron and transforming industry – and society.
Today, the biggest reminder of that era is the iconic Iron Bridge – the world's first, constructed in 1779 – that still spans the Gorge. But dotted around the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site are 10 museums telling the region's story with tactile, immersive exhibits.
The Gorge is the centrepiece of a wider region melding the urban energy of the Midlands with the rural delights of Shropshire, with outdoor attractions and unique places to stay for a great-value family break that also inspires a fascination with England's industrial heritage.
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The Industrial Revolution redefined our economy and culture – and at Blists Hill Victorian Town you can step into the shoes of 19th-century locals to experience everyday life in that new era. Watch demonstrations at the Candle Factory or Tinsmiths, tuck into fish and chips at the Fried Fish Dealer or a pint of ale at the New Inn, or spend your shillings and pennies on sugary treats from jars in the sweet shop. With regular family events throughout spring and summer, youngsters absorb Key Stage 1 and 2 themes by happy osmosis. Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (01952 433424; www.ironbridge.org.uk; Annual Passport Tickets adult £27.50, child £16.50, family £50-£68; individual tickets also available; museums open daily)
There's more hands-on action at Enginuity, another part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, where children join school holiday design and build workshops to create buggies, pneumatic rockets or wind turbines – an involving introduction to science, design and technology. At nearby Jackfield Tile Museum, youngsters can decorate tiles using traditional tube-lining techniques on certain days. Meanwhile, the Gorge itself charms walkers with its Walkers are Welcome status, riverside and woodland trails.
More than 70 aircraft are exhibited at Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, a vast site covering the history of the RAF and all aspects of aviation, from early prop-powered planes to modern jump-jets and experimental aircraft.
There are more opportunities to get airborne at Telford Town Park, where the High Ropes Course takes children into the treetops through vertiginous traverses and zipwires. The park also has play areas, adventure golf, fishing ponds and cycling trails; the Silkin Way passes through on its route to Blists Hill and the Iron Bridge.
Ironbridge Gorge is 30 minutes' drive from the M6 via the M54, and 3 hours from London. Rail connections are available from Birmingham, 40-45 minutes away.
Coalport Station Holidays (01952 885674; coalportstation.com) Four-night rental from £350. Sleeps 4-6. More self-catering options available from Eleys of Ironbridge (0845-268 0763; ironbridgeholidaycottage.co.uk) and Ironbridge Holiday Cottages (0800-633 5181; ironbridgeholidaycottages.co.uk). The Calcutts House (01952 882631; calcuttshouse.co.uk) Doubles start at £55. Best Western Valley Hotel (01952 432247; thevalleyhotel.co.uk) Doubles start at £89.