This is a self-guided tour for literary travellers that begins and ends at Shrewsbury railway station. Depending on your walking pace, and your tea requirements, the walk will take you between one to two hours.
As your train approaches the station, or else over the wall opposite platform 7, you can glimpse the top of Shrewsbury Jail, with its bust of prison reformer John Howard. A.E. Housman memorably wrote of the jail in A Shropshire Lad, despite never having visited Shropshire.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.
Tom Stoppard’s play, The Invention of Love, is a portrayal of Housman’s life.
Chamberlain: Alfred Housman? – I know him!
Harris: I think he stayed with the wrong people in Shropshire. I never read such a book for telling you you’re better off dead.
Chamberlain: That’s him!
Harris: No one gets off; if you’re not shot, hanged or stabbed, you kill yourself. Life’s a curse, love’s a blight, God’s a blaggard, cherry blossom is quite nice.
(Looking left up the tracks from platform 4, you will see Shrewsbury Abbey, on which more later.)
It was also in Shrewsbury Station that the painter Marianne North, having missed her train, sowed the germ of her Gallery at Kew. While she is known as an artist, the two volumes of her Recollections are some of the most engaging autobiographical writing I’ve come across…
Among the criticisms of my paintings in Conduit Street was one in the Pall Mall Gazette, which suggested that the collection of botanical subjects should find their ultimate home in Kew. I kept this idea some time in my head before acting on it; but having missed a train at Shrewsbury one day and having some hours to spare, I wrote off to Sir Joseph Hooker and asked him if he would like me to give them to Kew Gardens, and to build a gallery to put them in, with a guardian’s house. I wished to combine this gallery with a rest-house and a place where refreshments could be had – tea, coffee, etc. – Recollections of a Happy Life, vol. 2, Marianne North.
Once you’ve made your way outside, high up on your left, you’ll see Shrewsbury Castle, which is now a regimental museum. Thomas Telford was commissioned by Sir William Pulteney, his patron, to oversee restorations to the Castle in 1790. Telford, though best remembered for his work in engineering, was known to scribble a line or two. He sent one of his poems to Robert Burns, describing the “ancient mount” on which he built Laura’s Tower.
No distant Swiss with warmer glow,
E’er heard his native music flow,
Nor could his wishes stronger grow,
Than still have mine,
When up this ancient mount I go,
With songs of thine.
Pulteney was a wealthy patron, and MP for Shrewsbury from 1775-1805. Laura Tower was built as a summer house for his daughter, Laura Henrietta Pulteney. The Tower is rarely open, except for weddings, but if you have some extra time on your return, you can ascend the slope next to the railway station to reach the Castle grounds and enjoy the view of the Severn. Sir William Pulteney inherited land in Bath from his wife, and Pulteney Bridge, Great Pulteney Street, Henrietta Street and Laura Place are named after the family.
Stroll past the car park and walk up Castle Street. In summer, there are certain to be lovely flower displays, Shrewsbury being the host of the annual Shrewsbury Flower Show, and a several-times gold medal winner of Britain in Bloom. If you stay on the right-hand pavement, you’ll walk past Shrewsbury Library, formerly Shrewsbury School, in front of which is a statue of its most famous alumni, Charles Darwin.
(If you’re interested in more Darwin locations, you may want to follow The Darwin Trail.)
To the left of Darwin’s statue is a bust of Mary Webb, who lived in nearby Leighton and wrote of the countryside around Shrewsbury and Wales. Her best-known novel is Gone to Earth, which was made into a film in 1950.
Another literary student of Shrewsbury School was Stanley Weyman, who wrote Shrewsbury: a Romance, a historical fiction novel centred around Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury, though not actually set in Shrewsbury.
Samuel Butler was another student. He was best known for his novel, Erewhon, which was critical of his schoolmate, Charles Darwin, but which influenced Aldous Huxley and Gilles Deleuze. His grandfather (also Samuel Butler) was headmaster of the school during Darwin’s time, and beat Coleridge to a scholarship.
As you continue walking up Castle Street, in an alley on the left side of the street, you can glimpse the Tudor-style council house gateway. Some researchers suggest that the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatre troupe) performed in the courtyard of the council house while touring the country in 1603-5, when the playhouses in London were closed due to the plague; and that furthermore, Shakespeare visited the town at least once before writing Henry IV, which describes the Battle of Shrewsbury. For more Shakespeare, you might be interested in following my literary tour around Stratford-Upon-Avon.
A little way past the bus stops, on the right-hand side of the street was once the Raven Hotel (here photographed by Frances Frith). The playwright, George Farquhar, stayed here in 1705 while writing The Recruiting Officer:
If any gentlemen soldiers or others, have a mind to serve his majesty, and pull down the French king; if any ‘prentices have severe masters, any children have undutiful parents; if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife, let them repair to the noble Serjeant Kite, at the sign of the Raven, in this good town of Shrewsbury, and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.
As Castle Street levels out, you’ll find yourself at the top of a pedestrian street called, ‘Pride Hill’. You can walk down it to enjoy the shops, or continue down the street which snakes to the left. You’ll pass a pretty church (St. Mary’s) on your left, and may catch a glimpse of St. Alkmond’s through Church Street on your right. Continue until you reach the strangely-named, and eponymously steep, Wyle Cop. You will see The Lion Hotel almost directly opposite you. This venerable building was several times graced by the patronage of Charles Dickens, and the Hotel website claims that he wrote part of The Pickwick Papers here.
Walking up the Wyle Cop is not for the faint of heart, so if you have no interest in viewing Shrewsbury Abbey up close, turn right. Else, take a left and descend The Cop.
Thomas Ingoldsby (whose real name was Richard Barham), wrote a poem about the legend of serial murderer, Bloody Jack of Shrewsbury, in the popular Ingoldsby Legends (1837). He describes Jack’s head being put on a pike on Wyle Cop in a disgustingly cheerful stanza:
Your trunk, thus dismember’d and torn,
They hew, and they hack, and they chop;
And to finish the whole, They stick up a pole
In the place that’s still call’d the Wylde Coppe,
and they pop
Your grim, gory head on the top!
If that appeals to you, you can also look up a ghost tour of Shrewsbury.
Once you descend Wyle Cop (‘wyle’ meaning ‘hill’, and ‘cop’, ‘top’), you will find yourself on the very pretty English Bridge, enjoying a view of the River Severn. Another five minutes walk will bring you to the Abbey. This is where Ellis Peters‘ fictional monk-sleuth Brother Cadfael had his home.
He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged.
– from A Morbid Taste for Bones (The Cadfael Chronicles #1)
Back across the English Bridge and up the Wyle Cop you go. Continuing straight, you will find yourself on High Street. On the left-hand side you can see The Unitarian Church where Samuel Coleridge preached in January 1798, and the young William Hazlitt walked ten miles from Wem to hear him.
During his stay in Shrewsbury, when he was still writing The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth that…
The country round Shrewsbury is rather tame. My imagination has clothed it with all its summer attributes; but I still can see in it no possibility beyond that of beauty.
Coleridge turned down the position of minister when Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood offered him an annuity of £150. Thomas Wedgwood was the famous potter, his son, Josiah, was Charles Darwin’s grandfather and grandfather-in-law. Charles Darwin also attended the Unitarian Church until his mother’s death.
Hazlitt wrote in an essay of his meeting with Coleridge that he “felt very little gratitude for the bounty of Mr. Wedgwood”, because it would take the poet away from Shrewsbury. He was quickly mollified, however, when Coleridge handed him his address, and the young essayist was invited to accompany him on a long walk.
If I had the quaint Muse of Sir Philip Sidney to assist me, I would write a Sonnet to the Road between W—m and Shrewsbury and immortalise every step of it by some fond enigmatical conceit.
Continuing further along High Street you will come across a statue of Clive of India, at the top of the Market Square. Mary Webb, the darling novelist of my teenage years, used to come to Shrewsbury once a week to sell produce at the market.
In her poem, The Elf, she describes the gentle magic of the town.
A Fair town in Shrewsbury —
The world over
You’ll hardly find a fairer,
In its fields of clover
And rest-harrow, ringed
By hills where curlews call,
And, drunken from the heather,
Black bees fall.
Poplars, by Severn,
Lean hand in hand,
Like golden girls dancing
Early there come travelling
On market day
Old men and young men
From far away,
With red fruits of the orchard
And dark fruits of the hill,
Dew-fresh garden stuff,
And mushrooms chill,
Honey from the brown skep,
Brown eggs, and posies
Of gillyflowers and Lent lilies
And blush roses.
And sometimes, in a branch of blossom,
Or a lily deep,
An elf comes, plucked with the flower
In her sleep;
Lifts a languid wing, slow and weary,
Veined like a shell;
Listens, with eyes dark and eerie,
To the church bell;
Creeps further within her shelter
Of lilac or lily,
Neither bells in the steeple
Nor books, old and brown,
Can disenchant the people
In the slumbering town.
– from The Spring of Joy
At the centre of the square is The Old Market Hall, with a very pleasant tea room on the top floor. One of the stained glass windows at the far end of the tea room commemorates Sir Philip Sidney (author of the sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella), who also attended Shrewsbury School.
At the far end of the square, behind the Market Hall, is The Music Hall, which houses the tourist information centre, a very interesting museum, and a café. If the weather is fine, however, I recommend you try walking either right or left from The Music Hall and lunching at one of the sweet cafés on Princess Street, Market Street or Shoplatch. Also on Princess Street, you will find Candlelane Books, one of those lovely bookish nooks spread out over several rickety storeys and housing many treasures.
Once refreshed, make your way down Market Street and turn left onto Shoplatch. Walk down to Barker Street, turn right, cross Barker Street and step into the gated courtyard marked with a hanging sign for ‘Morris Hall’. In the far right-hand corner of the courtyard you’ll find ‘The Bellstone’, a large granite boulder which fascinated the young Charles Darwin. He wrote:
…an old Mr Cotton in Shropshire who knew a good deal about rocks, had pointed out to me, two or three years previously a well-known large erratic boulder in the town of Shrewsbury, called the bell-stone; he told me that there was no rock of the same kind nearer than Cumberland or Scotland, and he solemnly assured me that the world would come to an end before anyone would be able to explain how this stone came where it now lay. This produced a deep impression on me and I meditated over this wonderful stone. So that I felt the keenest delight when I first read of the action of icebergs in transporting boulders, and I gloried in the progress of Geology.
Emerging from the courtyard, turn left and walk until you reach Claremont Hill on your left. This is a sweet little cobbled street that leads to The Quarry. No.13 on the left-hand side was where little Charles Darwin first went to school.
When you reach the top of Claremont Hill, you’ll see a round church to your left. This is St. Chad’s, designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1792. If you walk around to the front of the Church and enter the adjoining churchyard, you may be able to spot the aged tombstone of Ebenezer Scrooge, left here after the filming of the 1984 A Christmas Carol.
Hint: it’s about halfway down the path and on your left.
Cross the road, and enter the beautiful Quarry Park, with lime avenues leading down to the River Severn, and a pretty little secluded garden set in its midst, called The Dingle. If the weather is fine, this is a perfect spot for lunch and some quiet reading. Reclining in a pool at one end of the Dingle is Sabrina, goddess of the Severn, and for a little more mythology, you can follow the main avenue down to the River, where you’ll find a fig-leaf’d, 18th-century Hercules. Wilfred Owen, who lived with his parents on Monkmoor Road, wrote a rondel about this statue.
In Shrewsbury Town e’en Hercules wox tired,
Tired of the streets that end not up nor down;
Tired of the Quarry, though seats may be hired
Of Shrewsbury Town.
Tired of the tongues that knew not his renown;
Tired of the Quarry Bye-Laws, so admired
By the Salopian, the somnambulant clown.
Weak as a babe, and in like wise attired,
He leaned upon his club; frowned a last frown,
And of ineffable boredom, so expired
In Shrewsbury Town.
Although he had lived in Shrewsbury, Owen wrote this poem in France in 1914 or 1917, which rather complicates its playful, quibbling tone.
To the left of Hercules is a good view of the new Shrewsbury School, situated on a high bank on the opposite shore. The River Severn forms a loop around most of Shrewsbury, so that it is almost an island. To quote Housman once more:
High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.
If you keep the River to your left, you can follow it all the way back to the railway station, or else you can retrace your steps.