24 September 2008


At the weekend I caught up with Former Flatmate Kath and Lauren in the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury, chosen for its prettiness and its convenient location, given that Lauren was coming from Wales, Kath from a friend's place in Oxford, and I was venturing out from London.

Shrewsbury is a market town encircled by the winding River Severn, and it boasts a wide range of Tudor architecture, an impressive abbey and beautiful parklands. It's also famous as the boyhood home of great Salopians (as the locals are apparently called) Charles Darwin and Clive of India... and Michael Palin went to school there too.

I arrived a little before nine o'clock on Friday night, having taken the train from Euston after work and waiting on the bleak Platform 1 at Wolverhampton station for half an hour for my connection. Our first destination was the local cinema: given the choice of two films, Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express, I requested the latter. This turned out to be a decision that paid rather mixed dividends. While I thought the film was passably amusing nonsense, at least until the saggy last reel in which the quality levels declined rapidly, the ladies were even less impressed. Turns out their laughter during the screening was along the lines of, 'I can't believe I'm laughing at a film this dumb!' Still, I have a soft spot for the movie's co-stars Seth Rogen and James Franco from their days in the superb-but-cancelled TV series Freaks And Geeks.

We stayed at the pleasant Sydney House B&B in a quiet area north of the train station, and enjoyed the breakfast on offer the next morning. Saturday was a consistently superb day, with bright sunshine, clear blue skies and balmy autumn weather, and we certainly made the most of it. We spent the morning exploring the town, with Kath & Lauren acting as tour guides because they had spent several hours in town on Friday afternoon before I arrived. Kath was able to confirm that Shrewsbury sadly lacked a sticky strawberry jam centre, but then I suppose you can't have everything. (Yeah... if you're not from New Zealand, that reference won't make any sense).

In the sun-dappled graveyard behind the clean lines of St Chad's church we noted a gravestone marked in honour of Ebeneezer Scrooge: a 1984 telemovie of A Christmas Carol starring George C Scott was filmed in Shrewsbury and the engraved headstone was left in situ in the graveyard as a memento (right, bottom of the picture). Here's a quick video of the yard to give you an idea:

After a quick look inside the church (see above) we ambled through the town's pretty riverside park, which is known as The Quarry for its industrial origins: aside from extracting rocks, the broad crescent of the eastern bank of the Severn was used for smelly tanneries until the early 19th century. Now it's a grand spot for a picnic, and horticulturalists can enjoy the elaborate gardens of the Dingle, which was built by famed TV gardener Percy Thrower. Readers of a certain age will recall that any plant-related joke in Buster comic or on The Two Ronnies that wasn't about David Bellamy tended to be about Percy. In the broad expanses of The Quarry we practiced our own version of yogic flying in an effort to bring about world peace or at the very least raise an appetite for lunch. This was sated in a small but funky cafe where we enjoyed hearty fare such as thick-breaded sandwiches and heaping salads; the proprietress was playing a Fat Freddys [sic] Drop CD too, which shows the all-conquering range of Wellington-based barbecue reggae.

After lunch we strolled across the English Bridge to visit Shrewsbury Abbey, parts of which date from early Norman times. In one corner of the nave lies an effigy of Roger de Montgomery, who was William the Conqueror's second-in-command at the Battle of Hastings.

Then we joined a walking tour of the town and learned a bit about its churches and famous inhabitants. One unfortunate chap is commemorated by a plaque on St Mary's Church - he attempted to 'fly' down a rope secured to the spire of the church. The enscribed poem reads:

Let this small Monument record the name
Of CADMAN, and to future times proclaim
How by'n attempt to fly from this high spire
Across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. 'Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell:
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Hurried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28.

According to the guide, Cadman's wife and children were present and witnessed the family breadwinner meet his sad end, but immediately following the dramatic demise they sprang into action and passed a hat around to collect for the funeral.

Pride of place in front of the former home of the Shrewsbury School is reserved for a statue of a thoughtful-looking Charles Darwin, who studied at the school as a youth. While he didn't return to Shrewsbury to live in his later life, preferring the leafy domains of Kent, the town is proud to claim its stake in his upbringing. And while it's nothing to do with Shrewsbury, New Zealand can claim its own role in the Great Evolutionist's life: witness the famous correspondence of Englishman Samuel Butler - sometime Canterbury runholder and author of Erewhon - with The Press of Christchurch in 1862, offering a favourable and erudite review of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. A clipping of Butler's New Zealand review made its way to Darwin, who was tickled that his thinking was understood and endorsed by a skilled writer in a faraway young colony. Darwin pointed this out in his correspondence:

This Dialogue, written by some [sic] quite unknown to Mr. Darwin, is remarkable from its spirit and from giving so clear and accurate a view of Mr. D. [sic] theory. It is also remarkable from being published in a colony exactly 12 years old, in which it might have [sic] thought only material interests would have been regarded.

Soon it was time for us to bid farewell to Shrewsbury and return to our various abodes. So, in summary, if you have a day to spare in the Welsh Marches, Shrewsbury comes highly recommended. Just make sure to bring your own jammy biscuits with you.

Tourism: Shropshire Tourism
Tourism: Visit Shrewsbury
History: Darwin Online
More photos: Facebook
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