(Last Updated On: 04/07/2020)
Shrewsbury is a little historic English market town set in the beautiful countryside between Birmingham and mid-Wales. It is just 9 miles (14 km) from the Welsh border and about halfway along a north-south line running from the Wirral peninsula to the Bristol Channel. It is the County Town of Shropshire. It’s as well Nick’s home town, where we happily lived for a few months.
My home town is Lodz, Poland. We spent a few years living in Muscat (Oman), Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
Walk Around the Old Town Centre
At 220 miles (354km) the River Severn is the longest river in the UK. It rises in the mountains of mid-Wales and by the time it gets to Shrewsbury, about a third of the way from its source to the inlet, it is already a mature meandering river. The old town of Shrewsbury is almost entirely enclosed within one loop of the Severn’s winding trajectory. A stone castle stands on the natural defensive point on the neck of land less than 300m wide where the river almost meets itself before and after forming a natural defensive moat encircling the old town in an area of a quarter of a square mile (two-thirds of a square kilometer or 66 hectares).
Within this river loop, the town seems much as it has always been with buildings of every age jostling against each other as the streets climb or fall to and from the literal high point of the High Street and Market Square, down to the two main bridges. The English Bridge carries what used to be the A5 (once known as Watling Street) leading to London and the Welsh Bridge faces out towards the border.
The streets don’t form any kind of a gridiron, their directions tare determined by ancient land plots and topography rather than any conscious planning. It means that you can wander at random, and get a little lost quite safely because unless you cross the river, you are never more than a few hundred metres from the centre.
The town has three ancient churches with spires to adorn its skyline, and plenty of the old half-timbered houses with their jettied-out upper stories characteristic of medieval England to line its streets. Some of these houses are as old as 800 years or so and some not nearly so old, but built to match. Many of the oldest buildings were Georgianised in the eighteenth century with new rendered and painted facades and sash windows.
The development has carried on to the present day, and there are both sensitive and ghastly examples of late twentieth-century architecture in the town, however, what has been preserved everywhere is the ancient topography and geometry of the streets. Even the newest buildings still respect the urban grain which gives the town such character.
The old town offers plenty of hotels, pubs, restaurants, and coffee houses as well as both local and chain shops, both on the street frontages and within two relatively modern enclosed malls, both accessible from the pedestrianised Pride Hill. There are some pretty and quirky establishments, especially along the smallest streets and lanes, but Shrewsbury is very much a living working place and all the more lively and colourful for that.
Visit the Quarry Park and the River Banks
Walking and Cycling by the River
Also within the river loop and sharing that tiny quarter square mile with the town is “the Quarry” It comprises expansive lawns of gently sloping parkland forming a half-moon shape bounded by great mature trees along the river. Several small bridges span the Severn here, and roads and/or footpaths connect them to the other side. So it’s quite easy to spend a couple of hours wandering along the river, crossing over at any of the three bridges located between the English Bridge and the Welsh Bridge and looping back on the other bank.
Much of the land on the far side of the river belongs to Shrewsbury School where old breed cattle graze rough pastures overshadowed by enormous trees. There are a couple of rowing clubs here and also two pubs with beer gardens overlooking the river, one each fairly near two of the footbridges. So often there is life and activity to populate this semi-rural idyll, but the walks on this far bankare never crowded so it is a great place for relaxing walks.
Back in the Quarry, and next to a small Victorian iron bandstand is a fenced area which from a distance appears to be nothing more than a clump of trees, however this little gem is worth half an hour in its own right. Known as The DIngle, this little garden is a beautifully manicured garden of rockeries, lawns, perfect flower beds and a small lake complete with fountains and a grotto containing a statue of Sabrina, spirit of the river Severn.
The Dingle is a tribute to Percy Thrower who was Shrewsbury’s Superintendent of Parks for almost three decades until the mid-seventies. Thrower was a household name in the sixties and seventies as the first radio and TV gardening celebrity. He hosted both TV and radio programmes and appeared as a guest celebrity on others. There is a plaque in memory of his service to the town on the picturesque little park keepers cottage at the highpoint of the Quarry in the shadow of the magnificent dome of new St Chad’s Church.
Go for a Boat Trip along the Severn River
If cruising on a slow boat to watch other people wandering along the banks with their ice creams is more your thing, you can book your places on the 60 seat pleasure boat Sabrina for a cruise running from a jetty outside the front door of the Armoury wine bar near the Welsh Bridge. It’s a 45 minute to and fro trip to the English Bridge, and you can book online. It’s one of the memorable things to do in Shrewsbury. The same company does evening river cruises, and they also have a smaller boat available for private hire parties.
Try Canoeing with the Family.
As we have described, the River Severn is already a mature river by the time it reaches Shrewsbury, so don’t expect fearsome rapids. Still, nonetheless a day’s paddling in two seater canoes down the river to Bridgnorth is one of the loveliest ways to enjoy the beautiful Shropshire landscape away from the roads. Bridgnorth is a dramatically sited old market town located on a vast outcrop of rock about 40 minutes by road from Shrewsbury, but you are going by river it will take half a day, at the end of which the canoe hire company will bring you and the boat back by minibus and trailer.
There are three companies operating from Shrewsbury and apart from going downstream to Bridgnorth you can explore up and down the river in the town or upstream from it. All of the companies are very highly rated in reviews and it’s a great day of family fun in the fresh air.
Visit Shrewsbury Castle
Originally founded in the eleventh century, Shrewsbury Castle is now a red sandstone building largely refurbished during Elizabethan times (Sixteenth Century) as a residence, and later fortified and briefly used defensively and unsuccessfully during the civil war. It overlooks the railway station with which it shares the tiny neck of land that separates the river Severn from itself as it meanders around the old town.
Currently, the Castle houses a Regimental Museum with an entry fee £4, but entrance to the Castle Grounds is free of charge.
Across the road, opposite the Castle is Shrewsbury Public Library, once Shrewsbury School House and tastefully restored by the County Council from near dereliction in the 1970’s. A statue of Charles Darwin stands proudly in front of its door. Darwin was born in Shrewsbury and lived near the river a little way outside the town beyond Frankwell.
Visit Shrewsbury Museum
Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery was established in 1835. Only as recently as 2014, the Museum moved to its current home in the Old Music Hall. It has exhibitions describing Shrewsbury in Roman, Mediaeval, Tudor, and Stuart ages.
Entry to the Museum is £4.50 per adult and £2 per child (5-17 years old). We enjoyed the Roman Gallery most and this is free of charge. The Museum has a great coffee shop which is worth visiting for its own sake.
Visit the Old Market Hall
The Old Market Hall doesn’t operate as a market these days, though sometimes farmers fairs, special markets and local events are held on the square in front. The Old Market Hall is now attractively restored as a small and very classy arts cinema (only with one screen) owned by the local Council. There is a nice little bar and coffee shop in the foyer too where you can enjoy a drink before or after performances. Book early because films are often sold out.
Visit Shrewsbury’s Churches
Shrewsbury’s skyline is dominated by no fewer than three towered and spired churches in a tiny triangle of just a couple of hundred metres at the top of the hill, and there are a number of other churches too of different denominations in the tiny old town. Most of them are now redundant as far as their function for worship goes, but they remain both as landmarks and in some cases repurposed for modern life.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church is the only surviving fully mediaeval church in the old town and includes much earlier Norman work too. It was founded even earlier than that, by the Anglo Saxon King Edgar in the tenth century. Declared redundant for worship in 1987, you can still visit it to see the ancient fabric including a carved oak coffered ceiling over the nave, and beautiful stained glass from several eras in the church’s history.
We were amused to see a little plaque on the outside of the church depicted to one Cadman who attempted to “fly” from St Mary’s Spire across the river in 1728 (a distance of almost 250 metres at the nearest point) but died in the attempt. The plaque attributes his fall to “a faulty cord being drawn too tight”
St Chad’s Church (es)
There are two St Chad’s Churches in Shrewsbury. New St Chad’s stands next to the top of the Quarry and is an impressive Neo-Classical building dating from the late eighteen century, with a magnificent dome above its circular nave. It is the former record holder for the largest circular nave in the UK. This is the church in which Charles Darwin was baptised.
New St Chads is still used for worship. It is well worth a visit, partly because it is surrounded by such pretty small streets. Its graveyard contains the tombstone of one Ebeneezer Scrooge the fictional character by Charles Dickens. How? Well the 1984 TV movie of “A Christmas Carol” used Shrewsbury market square as a location. The production team found a blank gravestone here and gained permission to have the name carved on it as a prop for the movie and so it remains.
Of Old St Chads the only remaining part which is left standing is a small portion of the nave in a picturesque old garden near the high street. The building is closed now but my husband recalls the following story from a plaque on an internal wall which he read when the building was opened for an art exhibition some years back. I have looked for this story on the internet and can’t find anything so you will just have to trust his memory. The story goes like this:
The Victorian engineer Thomas Telford was another famous resident of Shropshire, and while still in his twenties he was appointed inspecting surveyor for the fabric of Old St Chad’s. On his first inspection he noticed that the bell tower was unstable and warned the parish not to ring the bells on the next Sunday. Ignoring the rantings of such an upstart youngster, the service went ahead, the bells were rung, and the tower duly collapsed, bringing almost the whole of the church with it. Telford went on to become the engineer responsible for the design and construction of the A5 road which was to go through Shrewsbury on its way from London to Holyhead linking the British capital with the Dublin Ferry. Perhaps in retribution to the town which had scorned him in his youth, Telford routed the road through Shrewsbury Abbey cloister, demolishing a large part of the medieval structure to do so. Whether or not the story is true, you can visit the Abbey to see for yourself that the main road separates the nave from a pulpit – the only remaining part of its former refectory.
Other Town Centre Churches
The two other medieval churches located here are St Alkmunds and St Julians. St Alkmunds stands at the highest point of the town with a spire and interesting if incongruous metal windows – a legacy from Shropshire’s heritage as the location of some the world’s first industrial iron foundries. St Julians is another landmark of the town and almost touches St Alkmunds. It is redundant for worship and no longer open to the public. It was used as a popular crafts market a few decades back but its gates seem to be permanently locked now.
Visit Shrewsbury Abbey and the Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre
The Abbey was formerly a Benedictine Monastery founded in the eleventh century and stands just outside the river loop across the English Bridge next to the old A5 (now Abbey Foregate) as described above. It is now a parish church and sometimes used for evening concerts, and contains Norman arches as well as gothic windows. It also has a memorial plaque dedicated to Wilfred Owen, the First World War poet who lived nearby.
However, probably the most famous of Shrewsbury Abbey’s historical associations is with another fictional character. Brother Cadfael was a fictional Benedictine sleuth and the subject of bestselling books by local author Ellis Peters and even a British TV series which ran for four years in the 1990’s with Derek Jacoby in the lead role. Cadfael’s footprints can still be seen on several paving stones nearby – themselves now a quaint reminder of a past tourism initiative.
While here, visit the Shropshire Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre just across the road. It is a tiny place but interesting and with a lovely wildlife garden. My girls have spent several happy half hours in the Mud Kitchen here
Visit the Dana Prison
Have you ever been in jail? If not, you have the opportunity in Shrewsbury where for the 220 years until 2013 HM Prison Shrewsbury was located in a fearsome building called the Dana, just across the railway lines from the Castle. (I wonder what they did with all the inmates).
If you want to visit, book the trip with Jailhouse Tours and try the ghost tour, as apparently, Shrewsbury prison is one of the most haunted prisons in the world. Other prison attractions Axe throwing or you can play Prison Break
See a Play in Theatre Severn
Opened in 2009, the Theatre Severn, located on Frankwell Quay, across the Welsh Bridge is one of the most modern buildings in historic Shrewsbury. The theatre offers a great programme of concerts, musicals and shows including West End hits.
If you are not feeling like seeing a show, you can check The Foundry. The theatre restaurant serves food the whole day in contemporary interiors or on the terrace with panoramic views of the Severn, the town skyline and of course the Wesh Bridge. There is also, of course, a theatre bar, open from one hour before shows.
Visit the New Market Hall
Everyone would probably agree that the New Market Hall in Shrewsbury is one of the less lovely modern landmarks of the town. However a landmark it certainly is with its 200ft high clock tower of plain brickwork(apparently 48,000 bricks no less) surmounted by a striking metal finial.
But, go inside and the Market Hall to find a bustling, vibrant place with the main floor offering (vegetables, meats and other fresh produce) overlooked by a gallery sporting crafts, bookstores, record shops, various repair shops and bric-a-brac.
This Market Hall was voted Britain’s favourite market in 2018 and has since been shortlisted for awards on several of its specialities including its delicatessens and foodhall. You can always come here for fresh produce or last-minute flowers.
Look for a Bargain in Local Charity Shops
Running down to the river from the Market Hall is the Mardol, an ancient street where you will find around eight charity shops with an amazing selection of cheap books and clothes. Call me shallow but running from one charity shop to another to buy books is one of my favourite things to do in Shrewsbury – shopping wise. You can read all about these paces in my post about charity shops in Shrewsbury.
Best Things to Do In Shropshire
Shropshire is a beautiful county of rolling hills formed of the local red and white sandstones with landscapes comprising hills, forests, parkland and mixed farming. It was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution with potteries and Iron foundries and there are numerous pretty villages and places where you can enjoy a lazy lunch with a glass of wine in the fresh air or nestled by a cosy fireside.
We will just feature here a couple of specific places close to Shrewsbury, but there are many more.
Operated by the National Trust, Attingham Park is the neoclassical residence of Noel Hill, a politician prominent in the founding of the East India Company (famed for being the bad guys in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – though why is unclear since East India is on the opposite side of the globe from the Carribean and the West Indies) and associate of William Pitt the Younger. The 4,000 acre estate (that’s 16 sq km or 24 times the area of Shrewsbury old town) was designed by Humprey Repton and includes a deer park, a walled garden and enough space to walk in for a day. The house itself has all the wonderful interiors that you might expect from a National Trust property of this age and size.
Best things to do in Shrewsbury, UK – Pin it for later
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