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.
(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 illustrious 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, you’ll see Shrewsbury Castle up high on your left. 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 one of its most illustrious alumni, Charles Darwin.
(If you’re interested in more Darwin locations, you may want to follow The Darwin Trail.)
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. You will soon 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.
Back across the English Bridge and up the Wyle Cop you go. Continuing straight, you will find yourself on High Street, and a little further along 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, was born in nearby Leighton, and used to come to Shrewsbury once a week to sell produce at the market. At the centre of the square is The Old Market Hall, at the top of which is a very pleasant tea room. 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 cafe. 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 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. When you reach the top, you’ll find a round church to your left. This is St. Chad’s, designed by Thomas Telford, who, while better known for his engineering rather than his literary accomplishments, did scribble a poem or two in his lifetime. 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. Depending on your walking pace, and your tea requirements, the walk will take you between one to two hours.