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  • Writer's pictureMichal Halasa

From saggar to biscuit - Ironbridge Gorge

"The Victorians Loved Tea! No wonder they made such exquisite china cups and pots!" claims a bold statement on the official Ironbridge Valley of Invention website, and after visiting the china museum, I defo agree.

This was the second day of our bank holiday trip to the beautiful Ironbridge Gorge. We were making the most of our Pass Plus (which paid for itself by the time we parked and entered the china museum), we decided to take a pottery and design tour to see what Coalbrookdale porcelain is all about.

Photo of an old pottery building.

Both my partner and I love good ceramics, but after giving the wheel and throwing a go whilst making some lovely (for amateurs) bowls at Wedgewood, my appreciation for the craft has gone through the roof. The fact that Staffordshire will always feel like home to me, and the assumption that the best of the pottery is made at Stoke, I find really interesting to discover other places in the UK with significant ceramic history, often predating the well-known names from Potteries.

So, the Coalport China Museum. Again, another incredible setting. The lovely old, original buildings are looked after and restored to their former glory by the charity, immediately transporting you back to the old glory days. Plus the Victorian genius solutions can be seen by following the canal path from the old factory to the Hay Inclined Plane. This canal-inclined plane, with a height of 207 feet (63 m), at the end of the Shropshire Canal, is a part of a network linking the industrial region of east Shropshire with the River Severn. It is marvellous!

Photos of canal and incline plane.

The museum itself is divided into sections. Once you pass the ticket point, you are taken on a journey through the history of Coalport china, from their earliest designs to the most famous patterns (willow and the blue dragon), the Great Exhibition piece, and the impeccable latticework.

Grab the porcelain cup at the entrance and use it in every single place. There is one that still haunts me to this day! (They have done this thing where the cup activates a speaker in the gallery that tells you the history of the piece. Great, right? Well, whoever they hired to voice it really went for it with the whole "oh oh oh, I am a teapot!" in a fake Victorian accent. Hear it for yourself and you will see why one of them still haunts me).

Luckily, you can escape the Victorian mad lady and enter the kiln. They are impressive from the outside, but the inside is on another level! Seeing the genius design and the layers of bricks going towards the light in the sky made me speechless (a rare thing!). There are plenty of information boards about how the kilns were used, who the firemen were, and how it all worked. This is where I learned what a saggar is! Just a heads-up: the second kiln has an audio-visual experience that replicates the noise and operation of the kiln on a typical day.

Photos of kiln and inside of it.

Now to the morbid part. From the first kiln, you are taken to the museum that tells you about the children who were "employed" to run with the freshly fired pottery and the injuries they suffered, as well as the dangers of working in the pottery with toxic fumes and dust that would inevitably kill you. I mean, we do have it good!

There are a few other buildings in the yard to explore before you get to the best part of the museum: the studio.

It is incredible as you can see the whole process of making porcelain, from making the slip, filling the forms, drying, and hand-decorating the pieces. You can learn a lot about the process and history (like the employees that were "stolen" by Wedgewood or the owner who bought out the competition and then knocked down their factory and the manager's house). You can also purchase "demo" items created by the ceramicists. At this point, having Pass Plus is a great idea as they offer drop-in air-dry clay sessions, and with Pass Plus, you only pay £1 to take home whatever you make! When we were there, it was a highland cow session (and as you can see, Dave was really going for it!).

Photos of the ceramicist studio.


Since we didn't have enough of design and ceramics, we decided to pop across the River Severn to the Craven Dunnill tile factory in Jackfield. After a few minutes of confusion about the entrance (the car park is next to the Fusion Gallery) and witnessing a weird fight between a Range Rover man and someone else in front of the main gate to the museum (we couldn't figure out what it was about, but based on the cars, clothes, language, and their fanny packs, it looked like a Coca-Cola deal gone wrong), we managed to get to the main entrance and were greeted with an array of beautifully designed tiles!

They still make tiles there in the original building that Henry Powell Dunnill built in 1872 as a tile factory, adding to the charm as you see bags of clay, lots of moulds, and samples around while exploring the museum.

Photos of floor tiles.

Once through the ticket point (where you can buy seconds of some designs for reasonable prices), you are taken through an exhibition about the history of ceramics with examples of early wares. You arrive at a wall showcasing some early designs created there and the factory's history. That's the educational bit.

And now is where the fun starts (if you like tiles and design—if not, you will just see a lot of tiles over the next hour or so) in the original entrance to the factory showroom and office building. They knew how to do it, as the entrance hall is decorated with tiles that were trendy back then (and still are). It is like a testament to the quality and craftsmanship, so you know you will be buying good stuff.

Photo of the stairs.

It starts on a high note and unsurprisingly continues to deliver upstairs! If you turn right at the top of the stairs, you will enter the original offices with huge ledger volumes and a boardroom with original minutes from early 1900s meetings. Of course, every fireplace surround or part of the wall that could be tiled has an intricate design. Preach what you do, Jackfield style.

It's worth mentioning that these museums have fewer staff and volunteers, so a lot of history is learned from the boards and interactive stations (like an old telephone where you can dial a number for a different story of working there). This was a bit of a concern for us after having an excellent experience at Blists Hill, but it still feels magical (probably because the museums are in the original buildings).

Photos of different tile designs.

So, you've learned about the factory's history, seen the great entrance hall, visited the offices, and now it's time to immerse yourself in design heaven: the original showroom. Throughout the rest of the building, you are taken on a journey through patterns, trends, and designs with dated examples and prototypes of tiles that look as good now as they did back in the 1900s. Seeing the visionary approach to design over the years and how it evolved with different influences (oriental, mythological, nature, Art Deco, geometric, and many more) is mesmerising.

Every display and collection provides enough information without being boring. This is important for me as I get bored quickly, so stopping to read three pages of text wouldn't work.

They have replicated some of their most famous and exquisite works within the rooms as well—from a pub counter to bathrooms to butchers (!) to a London Underground station!

Photo of the butchers wall design.

Realising how many iconic buildings across the UK have used their tiles is mind-blowing!

I don't have many photos or words to describe the whole experience there. The "competition" room where their tiles are displayed against Minton is just pure tile filth, and the best thing to do if you are intrigued is to visit.

Another amazing addition is the permanent room with exquisite tiles from the collection of the late John Scott, who donated it to the museum. You can easily spend a few hours here browsing through the catalogue of beautiful items collected from the likes of Augustus Pugin, Christopher Dresser, William Morris, William De Morgan, and illustrator Edward Bawden.

On your way out, have a quick look around the old kiln room and the yard, where you will see signs of this being a working factory. I recommend (at least for men) visiting the toilets as they are masterpieces themselves! (BTW, the toilets in the Coalport China Museum are equally excellent!)

Photos of old tile factory buildings.

It's really worth visiting the nearby Fusion, home to a few local artisans and the Footprint Gallery. For me, Nikki Williams' glass works were mind-blowing (you can see some on her website). It's a lively and lovely artistic hub where you can see artists creating their masterpieces while you leisurely browse and admire their creations. See here for more information about the Footprint Gallery and the Jackfield Tile Museum.

Even though there aren't as many things to explore as at the Victorian Town, we still managed to make a full day out of visiting both the Coalport and Jackfield museums!

For someone who appreciates design, craftsmanship, and keeping history alive, it was a joyful and happy day. If you are like me (us), treat yourself to a weekend away and explore the history and beauty of the magnificent Ironbridge Gorge.

M x

PS. Whilst looking for the official links I stumbled upon a Tile Decorating Workshop at the Jackfield Museum and booked it (as both mine and Dave's birthdays are coming up) and will properly debrief once we have attended!

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