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 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
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.
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.
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!
The 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
My 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. 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). 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.
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 notebooks 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
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!
A 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, and 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.
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
All in all an enjoyable hour or so was spent in the
Inside the Abbey
As 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
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
Other 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...
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.
The 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.
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.
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
|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).