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Visit to Shrewsbury

11th September 2000

For a map of Shrewsbury, you can click here.

For the Cadfael Walks (all in .PDF format) you can click on the following to download:

The Abbey Enclave
(.pfd size = 525kb)

Shrewsbury Town
(.pdf size = 1.02mb)


The Town Centre

I was staying on holiday at a place near Banbury, in Northamptonshire and I'd decided to take the 90 odd mile journey up to Shrewsbury to pay a visit to the 'home of Cadfael'.

After the journey, my wife and I, decided to take the town's 'park and ride' into the town. I think this proved a good decision since many of the roads in Shrewsbury are one-way which is always difficult to negotiate in a car, especially if it is in a place which is new to you. a busy Shrewsbury High Street

We arrived in Shrewsbury town centre in glorious sunshine, as a late summer sunny day really started to take hold. My first impressions were of just how busy the town centre was. Shrewsbury is a bustling retail town centre as well as a a place of historical (and fictional) interest. The main high road was thronging with shoppers, all busy on their purchases.

Old and New together
They seemed oblivious to the older architecture around them. This was where the older parts of the town began to show through, since above many a shop front sprouted a black and white 16th or 17th century house. These were complete with upper floors which jutted out over the pavement. You almost expected a window to open and someone to throw out a pot of dirty water over the people below!

One of the winding passagewaysThe other thing which struck me, as we walked down to the river, was the multitude of small passages which abound in Shrewsbury. Many of these you could not see until you were right on top of them. You'd look down them and the narrow passage between buildings would turn slightly, not allowing you to see just where they led. It was very enticing just to walk down them and see what was at the other end! You could certainly imagine rogues hiding out in these dimly lit areas in times gone by. They certainly added to the mysticism of the place. On a later visit to the Tourist Information Centre, I spotted a complete booklet about these passages, showing you plans of where they are in the town.

The Abbey from on the English BridgeMy main interest, however, lie over the river. The river Severn encompases almost all of Shrewsbury and at the south-eastern corner lies the English Bridge, which is described in the Cadfael books. On crossing it you could see the abbey of St Peter and Paul standing not far off down the main street. Before visiting the abbey, however, we decided to pay a visit to the 'Shrewsbury Experience' which is just opposite the abbey.




The Shrewsbury Experience

The Shrewsbury Experience is an attempt to recreate part of the Abbey lifestyle.Looking onto the herb garden Indeed, some of the walls inside are from the original abbey grounds which have survived the dissolution - more on that later.

The actual place makes good use of dim lighting, smell (the smell of old wood and herbs were all around) and even sound (the subtle sound of Gregorian Chant echoed through the rooms to great effect). The Monks workshop (complete with coracle)Once through the turnstiles (£4.50 for adults) you can wander through some of the rooms which have been recreated. These include the Abbey Gatehouse, Store room, Scriptorium, Guesthall, Cadfael's Workshop, a monks sleeping room, Cloistered walkway and a fantastic herb garden.Herb garden store room






Eating area

The main theme running through this set of scenes is that you, the visitor, have to solve the mystery of the death of a minstrel, Edwin, who was found stabbed on the Green Court. Who is to blame for the death??? Two recent visitors to the abbey Sir Ivo and his wife Elvira perhaps... well I won't spoil it for you ;o)

To solve the murder you are preseted with a series of clues in the form of Cadfael notebooksEach holds clues to the mystery which are strategically placed around the route, pointing you to where you need to look. Other clues are placed in obvious and not-so obvious places. Once you get around the whole route, you should have a good enough idea to know just who did the deed. You can then post your culprit's name into a draw to win prizes in a monthly prize draw. Don't worry if you have no idea who it is because you do get to find out who did the dirty deed later on, together with an explanation as to just why.

Other than the continuing mystery to solve, you also get to look around the experience itself. Built, as I said, aroung some of the existing walls from the original abbey you get to have a feel of what life was like all those years ago.

By far the best of these exibits, as far as I was concerned, was the Scriptorium. A large room with a multitude of things to look at and, more importantly, do. You are given a blank page at the start of the visit and it's here that you can turn your page into a masterpiece of medieval script. This was the first time I'd ever written with a feather quill! You used the large tilted boards to lean on to write your page and then use stamps of brass rubbings to complete your masterpiece. Although it was great fun, it was a little messey! (I still had ink on my thumb the following day - it just wouldn't come off!). My final piece if paper did not compare with some of the other efforts which were lying around. They had written a dozen lines or so of close, almost perfect script. It must have taken ages. I only managed a few lines before the mess was too much to bare!

Part of the Herb gardenA peaceful alternative to the creativity in the scriptorium, was a peaceful walk around the small gardens there - here you could find the herb gardens and the abbots garden, including fish pond. Cadfaels workshop is here too, Cadfaels Workshopand it certainly looks as you'd expect it to... jars of herbs and spices line the shelves and drying herbs hang from the roof supports.




Inside the workshopInside the workshop






One final bonus for Cadfael fans is a recreation of the study used by Ellis Peters herself, complete with extensive library and writing desk. It certainly rounded off a good visit.The writing desk










All in all an enjoyable hour or so was spent in the experience.

Inside the Abbey

The Abbey's main alterAs we left, the temperature was in the low eighties and it was very humid. We walked across the road and into the Abbey itself. My first impression as we walked in was one of delight, since it was sooo cool in there (I'm talking about temperature here folks!) there was a great temperature difference inside than out.

The abbey as it stands now, whilst impressive, is a shadow if it's former self. Prior to the dissolution, it was 120 feet longer than it is now. The high alter was another 80 feet further and it contained the the Lady Chapel behind the high alter. Both north and south transept (the cross part of the building) no longer exist now.

The Abbey was founded alond with the monastary in 1083 by Roger de Montgomery, kinsman to William the Conquerer and was build on the site of a Saxon wodden church. Indeed, Roger died here in 1094 after being cared for by the monks during his last illness. There is a carved tomb slab which is said to bare his likeness in the south aisle of the abbey. It dates from the 13th century. In 1283, a Parliament met in the Chapter house of the abbey. This was the first national assembly in which the Commons were involved.

For those who do not know the history behind the Dissolution, in 1540 King Henry VIII (8th) effectivly outlawed the Catholic church whilst he created the Church of England. At this time many of the large Catholic churches and abbeys, including this one, were either destroyed or dismantled for building stone. In this case, the Abbey was not destroyed, rather it was scaled down to a smaller church which the locals used for as their own parish church. 457 years of Benedictine life at the abbey came to an end.

The restoration of the Abbey to it's former glory was started in the 1800's but sadly it ran out of money. Now a day's it concentrates of restoration work of the more immediate kind, such as keeping up the current state of the Abbey.

A banner to the Guild of Saint WinefrideThe actual building itself certainly gives you the impression that this could have been where Cadfael worked and lived. Mentions of St Winifred are all over the place, including part of a stone statue said to belong to the shrine of St Winifred. It stands in the north aisle, close by the famous 'night stairs' would have allowed the monks to come down to the Abbey to perform Matins.

The Chior's pews and the organOther things reminded me of the TV show, there is the famous choir benches where you could have imagined Cadfael running up to join since he is late, yet again, for prayers!


We had to push on new, as time was running short and we still needed to get back through the town to the castle...

The Castle

Shrewsbury Castle stands on the narrowest point where the bends of the river almost meet. Thus in times gone by it commanded an inpressive point overlooking most land access to the town itself. Only the bridges allowed other access.

Entrance to the castleThe castle itself is much changed from the times of Brother Cadfael. In the 1780s the architect and engineer Thomas Telford changed the design of the castle. But what does remain is still impressive.

Stables once perhaps?The walkway up to the castle doors are surrounded by beautiful gardens together with old style buildings and, what looked to me, to be an area which was once used as a stables.

Sadly, however, that was about as far as we got, since our extended stay in the experience and abbey made us miss the closing time of the castle by only a few minutes :o(

The original castle goes back to 1074 when Rodger de Montgomery built a motte and bailey castle on the site of earlier fortifications. It is thought that by Brother Cadfaels time, the castle would have been rebuilt in stone. Following a rebellion by Rogers son Robert be Bellême in 1100 the castle became a royal fortress and was strengthened by Henry I.

Shrewsbury CastleEmpress Maude ran the castle for a while but was ousted by King Stephen after a short siege in 1138 (One Corpse Too Many).

Between 1272 and 1307 the great hall of the castle was built. Later, during the English Civil war, the castle was held by first King Charles I (1642) then later the Parliamentarians in 1645.

So alas, our visit ended here, locked outside the castle gates. We will return one day to finish our quest however!

Post note: if you are in Shrewsbury, following the Cadfael trail, pick up a booklet from the Shrewsbury Tourist information centre, called 'In the footsteps of Brother Cadfael' which outlines three short walks through the Abbey, the Abbey grounds and Foregate and the town itself. At each point of interest, a small snippet of one of the Cadfael stories which relates to the exact area you are in really shows you just how much background reading and investigation Ellis Peters must have gone to, to get the atmosphere just right. An excellent buy and really cheap. (I paid £0.99 for my copy).

Written by SteveC