Nature has reclaimed Ironbridge so gracefully that it is drawing more visitors than ever. Sophie Campbell on nuts and bolts tourism in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution
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Standing on the world's most significant industrial landmark is a strange sensation. Below you, a single metal arch - the first iron bridge on Earth, cast a mile away at Shropshire's Coalbrookdale Ironworks - curves with perfect economy between two stone buttresses. Below that, the River Severn slides cool and green towards Bristol. Smoke putters from a chimney on one side of the river. A cock crows on the other. It could be another, more picturesque age.

This is a late 20th century fantasy, of course. The Ironbridge Gorge as it was 200 years ago would have shocked us with its blast furnaces roaring day and night and belching kilns. Its woods were blackened and its riverbanks sluttish with refuse. At night the sky glowed orange on black; the regimental colours of industry.

Small wonder that contemporary writers frequently compared it to Hades. "Coalbrookdale wants nothing but Cerberus to give you an idea of the heathen hell," wrote Charles Dibdin in 1787. "The Severn may pass for the Styx." Others commented on its unhealthy atmosphere, but the gorge still attracted enough industrialists, spies and tourists for the local inns to do brisk trade.

Modern Ironbridge, a few miles south of Telford, still pulls in the tourists - nearly 300,000 of them a year - who come to see its six museums. You can buy one ticket (valid until you've seen them all) for the ironworks, the tile museum, the pottery, the tar tunnel, the pipeworks, the ironmasters' houses and the open-air museum at Blists Hill. Two centuries after its heyday, the town labelled "the cradle of the Industrial Revolution" can claim to be the cradle of industrial heritage tourism.

The Ironbridge story began in 1709, when a Quaker pot-and-pan manufacturer called Abraham Darby perfected a technique of smelting iron ore using coke instead of charcoal, making mass-production of iron possible and unwittingly setting off the Industrial Revolution.

Ironbridge was its epicentre. You can see the original blast furnace, now enshrined in a vast A-frame of glass and brick. Back in the 18th century the furnace swallowed lime and coke by the ton and was tapped twice daily. The pig iron fed the foundries and forges, whose workers needed housing, spawning brick and tile factories. There were decorative tileworks at Jackfield and the Coalport Pottery across the river. A canal was built to transport coal, and later there would be iron rails, the perfect partner for the steam engine.

The bridge which came to symbolise all these achievements was built quite late, in 1779, by Darby's grandson and a local architect. It is still the focal point of the little town (it became a World Heritage Site in 1986) and the first place people visit when they arrive. But as a triumphal arch it had a short life. The Napoleonic Wars ended and with them the demand for cannon. The railways opened up other areas to industry. Shropshire, said one industrialist, was "somewhat in the position of a man who while [aware] that his own best days were past, regarded with pride that race of giant sons which had grown up around him".

The "giant sons" were shortly to run into a few PR problems of their own. Terrible working conditions, child labour and the greed of proprietors changed public attitudes towards the "mines and manufactories". No longer was industry a mighty Colossus striding into the future; people began to see it as exploitative and inhuman.

But things have started to turn around. According to Sir Neil Cossons, the director of London's Science Museum and formerly of Ironbridge Gorge: "In the late Sixties, perhaps because of the wholesale destruction that was going on, industrial heritage began to enter the popular consciousness - not as a tourist asset, but as a realisation that there were monuments surviving in Britain which were a valuable part of our history."

The gorge caught the attention of planners working on Telford New Town. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was set up and the first museum at Blists Hill opened in 1973. Its director today, Katie Foster, sees this as the town's second lucky break: "It failed first time round, that's why it survived. If it hadn't flagged in the 19th century, it would have been redeveloped."

According to Sir Neil, there is a real interest among people whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers worked in Ironbridge industries. "It's the responsibility of places like Ironbridge to interpret that history as well as possible," he says.

It hasn't always been easy. At Blists Hill, a "living museum" stalled in time at the year 1900, curator Mick Ward ruefully points out some anachronistic winding gear and tarmac roads. In summer the site is peopled by costumed staff, who do not roleplay but who can tell visitors all they want to know. Even so, there have been accusations of "sanitising" history, which have rankled. "Our people don't have rickets, they don't have consumption and they're not starving," says Ms Foster. "We've got Health & Safety rules and regulations to adhere to."

The Darbys would have appreciated the secondary use of Ironbridge's industrial sites for tourism as an effective use of resources. The public certainly approves, and there are new industrial heritage developments popping up all over Britain. Industrial Heritage Year in 1994 sparked more interest in the remnants of an age that, as one industrial historian puts it, is to Britain what the Classical Age was to Greece or the Renaissance was to Italy. Ironbridge Gorge has two stories to tell: the story of the Industrial Revolution; and the story of how we fell in love with industry again.

A passport ticket to all museums costs pounds 9 for an adult, pounds 5.30 for a child and pounds 28 for a family of two adults and up to five children. For information call the Visitor Information Service on 01952 432166.


Mines, Mills and Potteries

Corsham Underground Quarry, Wiltshire (01249 716288); Geevor Tin Mine, Penzance (01736 788662); Poldark Mine & Heritage Complex, Helston (01326 573173); National Coal Mining Museum for England, Wakefield (01924 848806); Yorkshire Mining Heritage Trail (01226 206757); Big Pit, Blaenafon (01495 790311); Museum of Scottish Lead Mining, Wanlockhead (01659 74387); Welsh Gold Mines at Dolaucothi (01558 650359) and Dolgellau (01341 423332).

Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum, Cullompton, Devon (01884 840960); Burcott Mill, Wells, Somerset (01749 673118); Museum of Welsh Woollen Industry (01559 370929).

Stoke-on-Trent Potteries (01782 284600) - a bus tour to Wedgwood and Royal Doulton; Wheal Martyn China Clay Heritage Centre, Cornwall (01726 850362).

Bridges and Canals

Clifton Suspension Bridge (0117 9732122). You can walk over the Birkenhead Bascule Bridge, Menai Bridge and Tyne Bridge but there are no guided tours.

The British Waterways Board (0171-586 2510) publishes a booklet on London's canals. Shropshire Union Canal (01785 284292); Basingstoke Canal Centre (01252 370073).

Steam and Railways

Newcomen Engine House, Dartmouth (01803 834224); Crofton Beam Engines & Pumping Station (01672 870300); British Engineerium, Hove (01273 559583). Heritage Railways (01707 643568).

Industrial Heritage Museums

Science Museum, London (0171-938 8123); Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester (0161-832 2244); Bath Industrial Heritage Centre (01225 318348); Bristol Industrial Museum (0117-9251470); Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (01232 428428); Hull Streetlife Transport Museum (01482 223559); Amberley Museum (01798 831370); South East England heritage trail (01892 540766); Welsh Industrial & Maritime Museum, Cardiff (01222 481919).