Much Wenlock

Much Wenlock, Shropshire © Jo Jones, Shutterstock© Jo Jones, Shutterstock

If you think the charm of the prettiest English towns lies in uniformity of architecture, please visit Much Wenlock where medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings loll shoulder to shoulder in sleepy companionship. Somnolent it is, although by design not dereliction. ‘Somewhere in the Middle Ages it had fallen asleep,’ said the early 20th-century Shropshire writer Mary Webb in her short story ‘Many Mansions’ – a quote that many towns would shy away from celebrating but which often appears in Much Wenlock’s tourism literature.

One sunny June when I was in town, a minor road accident occurred on Sheinton Street (notice, by the way, how this road turns into Shineton Street by the other end); more of a nudge than a crash, causing nothing worse than a twisted wheel and perhaps dented pride. The one person involved, I’m happy to report, popped into a tea room to await breakdown rescue. As I shopped for picnic goods I followed the breaking news as it spread breathlessly from the convenience store to the butcher’s to the deli. It was clearly the biggest thing to happen all week and, for that reason (as well as many others), I adore Much Wenlock and its friendly residents.

The town grew up around Wenlock Priory, founded by the 7th-century King Merewalh of Mercia and flourishing in the hands of his daughter Milburga. Retaining a medieval street pattern and passageways called ‘shuts’, the town was extended during the early 19th century to accommodate a growing population of railway and quarry workers.

On the subject of quarrying: the rough pale grey stone found in abundance here is Wenlock limestone, extracted from Wenlock Edge. Peer at coarser specimens (such as the stone used for Jubilee Fountain in the town square) and you’ll see crystals, fossil corals and crinoids: minuscule messengers from 400 million years ago reminding us that this region was once a coral reef in a tropical sea.

What to see and do

The historic centre

To imagine Much Wenlock’s importance in the 16th century we need only look to Wilmore Street and the Guildhall, the grand magpie building with open market space beneath (called the Buttermarket – where you’ll find food and drink stalls most days). From 1540 the Guildhall was the judicial and administrative heart of the borough, updated regularly in the centuries that followed, including in 1624 with ‘Lattinge and plastering the Comon gaol overhead To Keep the Smoake and Nesty Smell’ out of the council chamber. By the gates you can see hand irons, the remains of the town whipping posts.

Upstairs is a small museum (Apr–Oct Fri–Mon; free admission) set among 17th-century and Victorian wood panelling, documenting life in the courtroom. It contains displays on A E Housman and Dr William Penny Brookes (who made substantial contributions to updating the Guildhall during his lifetime).

Also remembered in the museum is Mary Webb, a memorial to whom nestles in flowerbeds behind the Guildhall, facing the churchyard. Discovering her work – ablaze with sumptuous nature writing and wry human observations – has been one of my greatest joys in researching this book. In 1949 Much Wenlock was abuzz with the filming of Gone To Earth (a movie adaptation of Mary Webb’s most famous novel), starring Jennifer Jones as the half-gipsy heroine Hazel Woodus. Over 300 local people had parts as extras: the film company paid 30s per day and more for those who came on horseback. Mary Palmer, a Much Wenlock resident and member of the Mary Webb Society, was in a maypole dancing scene. ‘I was only five years old, but I do remember we were taken up in a bus to the village hall at Minsterley where we were so excited to be fitted out with dresses,’ she told me. ‘Mine was a longish red spotted dress and my pigtails were taken loose and brushed. I also remember a group of us singing to Jennifer Jones outside her caravan.’

The nave of the gracefully aged Holy Trinity parish church dates to the 12th century, although St Milburga founded a nuns’ church here as early as AD680. On the rear wall are memorials to Dr William Penny Brookes: a Victorian plaque with a relief of his likeness, and a poignant 2012 addition. Look to the Jacobean pulpit to see curious two-tailed mer-men.

Wenlock Priory

Wenlonck Priory, Shropshire © DJTaylor, Shutterstock © DJTaylor, Shutterstock

Before power was given over to the Guildhall, life in medieval Much Wenlock revolved around the Cluniac Priory. Here stand their imagination-inspiring ruins on the site of a Saxon predecessor. St Milburga’s relics turned up conveniently in 1101, bringing pilgrims and prosperity to the area. (You’ll also find Milburga’s Well just off Barrow Street in Much Wenlock; the water was thought to be a cure for eye diseases.)

Visit today for tranquillity and topiary: Wenlock Priory is a fine place to picnic on a summer’s day, with hedges shaped like animals in the cloister garden. There’s an interesting monks’ washing fountain (lavabo) with 12th-century carvings, and the humbling ruins of an extravagant chapter house, dating from c1140. Modern visitors have the added bonus of a small gift shop and toilets with baby changing facilities.

Wenlock Pottery

As well as housing a popular B&B, this former Methodist chapel is the place in Shropshire to try your hand at raku – a spectacular pottery glazing art form that originated centuries ago in Japan. Day and residential courses may be booked in advance. You can also pop in for handmade stoneware from the shop – although do call ahead if you’re coming from any great distance as the owners get busy with commissions and occasionally have to close.

Eating and drinking

You can’t go far wrong when eating out in Much Wenlock, with tea rooms, pubs and hotels to suit all budgets and occasions, and almost every establishment paying due attention to seasonality and locality. A special mention goes to The Raven, a restaurant with rooms on Barrow St which played a significant role in Much Wenlock’s Olympic history. In 1890 it hosted a pivotal dinner meeting between Dr William Penny Brookes and Baron Pierre de Coubertin following the Wenlock Olympian Games. (Look for a copy of the menu from that night in the Brookes Bar which is housed in the original 17th-century coaching inn.)

Of course history alone is not enough to recommend a place: thankfully now The Raven has understated elegance and two AA-rosette fine dining. One enchanted evening I was lucky enough to try the vegetarian version of the tasting menu and can confirm that every course was exquisite.

Getting there and away

Getting here by public transport is easy, six days a week anyway. Arriva bus service number 18 runs to Much Wenlock from Telford bus station (via Ironbridge and Broseley) about every two hours (Monday to Saturday only), taking just under an hour. Also Arriva bus service 436 from Shrewsbury (Raven Meadows bus station; just over half an hour) or Bridgnorth (by the Falcon Hotel in Low Town; just under half an hour). Buses don’t run on Sundays.

If you’re driving, you’ll find the main car parks are off St Marys Road (TF13 6HD will take you to the vicinity). There are usually spaces in the pay and display car park by Wenlock Priory too and the proceeds go to English Heritage. If you need inspiration for nearby walks, the post office sells OS maps and locally produced walking guides.

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