Best of British

By Sophie Campbell

Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, named last month as one of the greatest Unesco properties, has big plans for 2013. So do other British attractions, reports Sophie Campbell

The Roman architecture in Bath. Photo / Getty Images
The Roman architecture in Bath. Photo / Getty Images

It's pretty illustrious company. Second after the Potala Palace, the sprawling mountaintop complex in Lhasa that once housed the Dalai Lama, and just above the Palace and Park of Fontainebleau, in France, comes little Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire.

All three figure on a list of the top 10 Unesco World Heritage Sites as chosen by the users of the website TripAdvisor last month. The two organisations have been co-operating for four years and claim to have received more than a million survey forms from site users, so let's for a moment forget some startling omissions - the Pyramids of Egypt, say, or Machu Picchu, or the Great Wall of China, or anything at all from Africa - and bask in some gritty industrial glory (Ironbridge also topped the list of favourite British sites).

The gorge contains a four-mile stretch of the River Severn, flowing south from the Welsh mountains to the Bristol Channel. There has been iron-making there for centuries: what put it on the map and - arguably - fuelled the industrial revolution was mass production.

In 1709 a Bristol Quaker, Abraham Darby, began smelting with coke from the Shropshire coalfield instead of woodland charcoal. His Coalbrookdale Ironworks churned out the raw material that would underpin everything from railways to steam power. The gorge glowed with industry 24 hours a day. Darby's grandson built the elegant, single-span, cast-iron bridge itself in 1779.

When industry declined, however, Ironbridge declined with it. Its rescue and transformation into a complex of 10 industrial museums, spreading from the Iron Museum at Coalbrookdale to a Victorian village at Blists Hill, was visionary for the Seventies, when the whole thing could have disappeared under the new town of Telford.

Blists Hill, which has evolved into a living- history site set in the year 1900, celebrates its 40th birthday in April. We thought we'd see what all the top 10 sites on the British list are up to in 2013.

Ironbridge Gorge
Near Telford, Shropshire

Industrial museums, in everything from tile-making to engineering, set in a 2-hectare site along the Severn gorge, with plenty of places nearby to eat, sleep and visit.

What's new? In July, Blists Hill commemorates World War II by turning into "Blitz Hill". An evening event in the old ironworks recreates Workers' Playtime.

Don't miss: the Old Furnace that started it all at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

Details: Ironbridge Gorge Museums, open daily.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden
Ripon, North Yorkshire

The remains of a 12th-century abbey founded by Benedictine monks, the largest monastic ruin in the country, set in an 300-hectare estate with a deer park and Georgian water garden built by the Aislabie family.

What's new? New conservation projects include the 18th-century icehouses and a dig to uncover a bathing house in the water garden.

Don't miss: the 250-year-old route through the estate replotted by Mark Reid, a guidebook writer, as the Aislabie Walk (aislabiewalk.org.uk), with circular trails of 7-28 kilometres. You can also borrow a GPS and go "geocaching" Georgian-style.

Details: National Trust (01765 608888).

Castles and town walls of King Edward
Gwynedd, North Wales

Four mighty fortresses - the castles of Beaumaris and Harlech and the fortified complexes of Caernarvon and Conwy - built by the architect James of St George for King Edward I of England in his campaign against the Welsh princes.

What's new? Conwy has new displays, with contemporary artworks and a children's activity trail, and the other three properties will follow in the next few years.

Don't miss: the Wall Walks: Conwy has 1.2 kilometres of them, with 21 turrets and three gates. A shorter section of the Caernarvon town walls is open for walking. Free.

Details: See separate sites on the Cadw website. There is also an explorer pass (three or seven days) to get into all sites.

City of Bath
Somerset

A bowl of hills with hot springs that gave rise to a Roman town and, almost 2000 years later, one of Europe's most elegant cities.

What's new? The wonderful Fashion Museum celebrates its half-century with "50 Fabulous Frocks" (until December 2013) - from Georgian court dress to Vivienne Westwood. Admission, including Assembly Rooms, from $17 for adults.

Don't miss: a combined visit to the Roman Baths and the modern Thermae Bath Spa ($117 per person), including a three-course lunch in the Pump Room. Details: Book on 0844 847 5256. Download the free app.

Durham Castle and Cathedral
County Durham

A thumping pair of buildings on a rocky promontory high above a loop of the River Wear, forming one of Britain's finest examples of Norman architecture.

What's new? From July 1 to September 30 the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham exhibition, in the University of Durham's Palace Green Library, will display the great gospel written by St Cuthbert's community on Holy Island, along with other books and artefacts of the period; prices to be confirmed.

Don't miss: the Shrine of St Cuthbert and the Tomb of St Bede in the cathedral - or the Cathedral Tower, open all year, with 325 steps leading to wonderful city views: adults $9.20, under-16s $4.60.

Details: Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre, Palace Green (0191 334 3805). thisisdurham.com.

Old and New Towns of Edinburgh
Scotland

The medieval city of Edinburgh, with its cobbled streets and gabled houses, faces the Georgian New Town across Princes Street.

Don't miss: Free one-hour tours of the Scottish Parliament building, including the Debating Chamber, the Garden Lobby and a Committee Room. Book in advance (0131 348 5200, Freephone 0800 092 7600).

Details: Edinburgh and the Lothians (0845 859 1006).

Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Orkney Islands, Scotland

A cluster of 5000-year-old Neolithic sites on mainland Orkney, including the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar and, six miles to the north-west, the settlement of Skara Brae.

What's new? A 3D fly-through video of Maeshowe.

Don't miss: a free one-hour walk with a ranger - to Stenness (Wednesdays) and Brodgar (Thursdays), September to May. Call 01856 841732 for information.

Details: Historic Scotland offers three- and seven-day Explorer Passes with admission to all sites. Maeshowe (01856 761606), adult $10.10, child $6, concession $8.10. Skara Brae (01856 841815), adult $10.80, child $6.40, concession $8.70. Both open year round.

Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey and St Martin's Church
Kent

St Augustine arrived in Canterbury in AD 597 and worshipped at St Martin's with the Christian queen of Kent. He built a monastery outside the walls and the first Canterbury Cathedral and began the slow process of conversion.

What's new? The Cathedral Archives have just reopened: the Canterbury Accord, signed by William the Conqueror, gave primacy to the Archbishopric of Canterbury over York.

Don't miss: The Shine of the Sword's Point in the northern aisle of the cathedral, site of the murder of Thomas Becket by the knights of Henry II in 1170.

Details: See Visit Canterbury (01227 378100) for general tourist information and the cathedral's own website for more specific details.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal
North East Wales

The site includes the 39 metre-high aqueduct (pronounced "Pont-ker-suthly"), the Chirk Aqueduct, 17.7 kilometres of canal and the Horseshoe Falls, completed in 1805 by Thomas Telford and William Jessop to connect with the Midlands.

What's new? A new touch-screen digital information kiosk at Pontcysyllte, with tools and information downloadable to smartphones.

Don't miss: The two-mile walk between the aqueducts via two spectacular tunnels. Otherwise, Llangollen Wharf Boat Trips (01978 860702) does 45-minute and two-hour horse-drawn boat jaunts.

Details: Wrexham Tourist Information Centre (01978 292015), entry free.

Westminster Palace Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's Church
London

The power base established by Edward the Confessor in the 1050s, now the Houses of Parliament, our royal church and the parish church next door.

What's new? The Coronation Chair - used by monarchs since 1308 - has emerged from lengthy restoration in time for the 60th anniversary of the Queen's coronation in June.

Don't miss: St Margaret's Church, consecrated in 1523 and often overlooked as people tour the abbey. It contains a rare window showing the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and is the burial place of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Details: Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's (020 7222 5152). Tours of the Palace of Westminster.

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