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Rain can't dampen spirits as Blists Hill museum reopens

By Mark Andrews | Ironbridge | Attractions | Published:

The rain lashes down over Blists Hill, the brightly-coloured waterproofs and umbrellas of the visitors contrasting starkly with their 19th-century-style surroundings.

There is a certain irony that during the driest May on record, the Ironbridge Gorge Museums were forced to close. And now they've finally been able to reopen, the clouds are doing their worst.

"It's not the best," says team leader Ben Jones, working with volunteer Pete Hicks on a steam engine in the Victorian village's high street. Yet despite the battle with the elements, Ben, 33, is actually quite pleased with the number of people who have braved the rain to turn out.

"Considering the weather, we have had quite a lot, there seems to be a few new people here, as well as the regulars," he says.

And that is important. Because attracting new visitors will be vital to the long-term future of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust. The trust, which runs 10 museums across the Gorge, lost £2 million during the lockdown. When the forecast drop in future visitors numbers is factored in, it is expected to see a £4 million drop in revenue this year, with the floods which affected the area in February also taking their toll. Blists Hill, the trust's commercially most important site, reopened on Saturday and saw 500 visitors through its doors – not bad, given the circumstances, but down by around 50 per cent compared to what one would normally expect for this time of year.

Marketing director Roz Chandler says the museum should be able to weather a £4 million drop in income, but says that long-term viability will depend on visitors coming back in numbers.

"It costs £10,000 a day to keep our museums running, and we can only do that if we have visitors," she says.

Ironbridge is not alone. The Black Country Living Museum, a similar open-air heritage attraction, says it has lost more than £3.1 million during the lockdown. The Severn Valley Railway has been hit even harder, with a projected £6 million loss of income, while Dudley Zoo reported losses of £100,000 a week before being able to reopen.

On the positive side, spirits do seem to be bright among those braving the rain at Blists Hill.

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Celebrating her 42nd birthday is Tash Howells, who travelled from Nottingham to visit the site.

"I've been here once before, and it was raining then," she jokes. "I'm pleased to have come back, it's a good day out."

Miss Howells believes visitors will return, and does not think they will be put off by the risk of contracting the virus.

"People are being sensible, you can see them washing their hands and using the sanitisers."

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Katie Wilkinson, 42, from Trench, Telford, has brought her sons Noah, 13, and Seth, 11, for the day, while her friend Samantha Stanley, 37, from Muxton, also Telford is with son Jonas, nine, and Sofia, six. They have a season pass, and would normally visit about four times a year.

"It's really good to be able to come out and do something," says Mrs Wilkinson. "This is the first chance we have been able to do anything since the lockdown."

"It's good to be able to get outdoors," adds Mrs Stanley.

These sentiments are echoed by Jo Messinger, 47, from Quarry Bank, near Dudley, who is impressed with the social distancing measures that have been put in place.

"It makes you feel more confident when you are out and about," she says. "The posters have been done in a Victorian style, that looks in keeping with the surroundings."

Her friend, Lisa Bayliss, 48, from Rubery, near Bromsgrove, adds: "It's good to be able to come back and see the things here, we've been wandering about mainly."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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