Even when you’re full of fidget pie, Shropshire has so much more to give.Read more...
Shrewsbury Library used to be the Shrewsbury School from 1580 to 1882 and Darwin is still its most famous alumnus © Arena Photo UK, Shutterstock
Shrewsbury is at the physical heart of the county and, for many, is where Shropshire’s emotional heart beats, too.
High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.
A E Housman, from ‘The Welsh Marches’, A Shropshire Lad (1896)
With a few deft pen strokes, Housman painted Shrewsbury in a poem. Shropshire’s handsome county town is indeed almost islanded by the River Severn – a sweeping loop of water whose one-time virtue as a defence is often overshadowed now by its potential to invite floods. The ‘steepled crest’ comprises the spires of the churches of St Mary, St Alkmund and St Chad, while road, foot and rail bridges give us easier access to the water-encircled town.
To go beyond Housman’s poetic sketch, there is much more to love about Shrewsbury: black-and-white Tudor mansions; a noble riverside park; medieval ‘shuts’ (or short cuts) and passageways which enable us to disappear temporarily into a bygone time and reappear on a different street.
Shrewsbury is Shropshire’s genteel county town and Darwin’s birthplace © Arena Photo UK, Shutterstock
As with all old towns and cities, a closer inspection of Shrewsbury will reward the curious-minded. You’ll find street names describing what was once sold there (Butcher Row, Milk Street… and don’t think too hard about the dark and narrow Grope Lane).
In the half-timbered shopfronts on High Street you’ll see carvings recalling the Tudor tradition of depicting faces of controversial characters in wood. Mick Jagger, Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher are all here. And if you peep inside the Shrewsbury branch of sandwich chain Pret A Manger on Pride Hill, you’ll see a wall incorporating the 13th-century remains of Bennetts Hall, believed to have been a merchant’s house.
Despite this palpable sense of the past, Shrewsbury is alive with the here and now. A steady spring of smart new bars, independent restaurants and innovative shops makes me excited about every visit. In recent years I’ve especially loved seeing once-faded and flood-blighted Frankwell, Shrewsbury’s ‘little borough’ just northwest of the centre, get its swagger back. To read more about the district’s emerging identity, see funkyfrankwell.uk.
Getting there and away
It’s easy to reach Shrewsbury by train, with five main lines meeting here. Built in 1848 in imitation Tudor style, to serve the county’s first railway (the Shrewsbury to Chester line), Shrewsbury station looks to me like a squat castle. A plaque on Platform 3 is testament to the power of Slow travel: it commemorates Arwel Hughes OBE who, in 1938, composed the Welsh hymn ‘Tyddi a roddaist’ ‘(Thou Gavest’) while waiting for a connecting service.
Parking spaces are neither plentiful nor cheap in Shrewsbury (although you may get a Sunday bargain). If you have to drive, the longstay car park at Frankwell is a good bet (SY3 8HQ). You’ll need to cross Frankwell footbridge to reach the town centre. An even better bet might be one of the three park and ride sites, at Harlescott (SY1 4AB), Meole Brace (SY3 9NB) or Oxon (SY3 5AD), operating Monday to Saturday with cheap fares and the last bus leaving the town centre at 18.30. Cycle parking is available at the latter two.