Flashback to October 2000 and admiring open-air sculptures in Ironbridge

The new exhibits had just arrived in the Ironbridge Gorge – modern, angular, abstract, and arty.

Pam Brown admires "Orchestration" by Pete Blunsden.
Pam Brown admires "Orchestration" by Pete Blunsden.

This cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the home of a world-renowned and award-winning museum showcasing its heritage, was for years also the home of a very different museum which put the steel into the Ironbridge Gorge.

It was called the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture and was at Cherry Tree Hill, Coalbrookdale. Passing motorists could get a tantalising free glimpse of some of the exhibits.

In October 2000 this unusual museum, set in rich woodland and open parkland and a bit off the beaten track for the tourists flocking to the area, was celebrating some new arrivals to boost its ever-growing collection of steel and iron sculptures.

It received the five sculptures from some of the UK’s best-known artists.

The works, which added to the museum’s 60 sculptures by 11 other artists, came from a group of sculptors based at Hardingham Steel Sculptures Workshops at Hardingham in Norfolk.

Included in the new display were Orchestration by Pete Blunsden, Night Tower by Peter Hide, After Balzac by John Foster, Angel Iron by Andy Sloan and Memories of JHT by Tim Threllfall, which was quite a coup as these were names all well known in the world of sculpture.

Alas this museum, the brainchild of sculptors Pam Brown and Roy Kitchin, is no more, and its artworks have been lost to Telford.

'After Balzac' by John Foster

It wasn't expensive to visit. Admission in October 2000 was £2 for adults, £1.50 for children, and £6 for a family pass, although obviously if the kids didn't have an interest in steel sculpture that would be a disadvantage. Nevertheless, it was described as a family favourite and an expert's delight.

The sculpture museum had opened in June 1991, and was thought to be the only museum of its kind in the world. The opening to the public realised a long-held dream for Roy and his partner Pam, who had lived in a shed while it was being created.

The couple had met in Wolverhampton when Pam left her Sunderland home for the Midlands in the 1960s and Roy was already teaching in the sculpting department at Wolverhampton School of Art.

Roy had started looking for a permanent site for his sculptures in the early 1980s, and in 1983 left Newcastle-upon-Tyne – at the time he and Pam were in the Fine Arts Department at the city's university – to concentrate the search in the Ironbridge Gorge area, with all its historical and industrial links.

They found the perfect location at Coalbrookdale in 1984, the culmination of a four-year search. Previously it had been home to the Cherry Tree Hill Brick and Tile Works.

Development of the site was somewhat delayed by the building of the Ironbridge bypass just to the north, but that did give time for all the necessary permissions to be obtained and groundwork to be done, and in the meantime the Gorge was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

On its opening the museum displayed 43 sculptures in a 10-acre setting, including by Pam, Rob Ward, Sarah Neville, Michael Lyons, Charles Hewlings, Harry Seager, Brian Thompson, Owen Cunningham, and Brian Fell.

Co founder the late Roy Kitchin

Roy died in 1997 but Pam continued the work, nurturing a link with American as well as UK sculptors and other artists, and kept the museum a thriving entity.

There were though to follow several hard blows. Pam contracted cancer of the eye and her left eye had to be removed, and afterwards she faced other health problems.

The museum was burgled while Pam was in hospital and one of the things taken from her special medical tray was the replacement eye.

So what happened to the sculpture museum in the end? It seems to have closed around 2013, as we reported in December that year that the sculptures, some of which looked like heading for America, would remain in Shropshire after all.

"The collection from the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture is being painstakingly dismantled and will be rebuilt in the grounds of the British Ironwork Centre on the outskirts of Oswestry," our report went.

Clive Knowles, managing director of the centre, told our reporter that he was setting up his own Shropshire Sculpture Park at the site.

And indeed, the centre's website says it is proud to be the new home of the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture, boasting "an extensive, established iron art collection featuring the work of the late Roy Kitchin."

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