Crosses, bones and bridges

Moving to the country two years ago after decades of living in Cardiff brought all sorts of challenges, as you’d expect. One of the first came the week after we’d arrived in woolly-back Wales when we needed decorating stuff and Mr B suddenly said: “Do you realise that the nearest Homebase is in Brecon? That’s twelve miles away! And it’s snowing!”

We soon cottoned on to the fact that people living in rural areas think nothing of driving ten or fifteen miles to get to a supermarket or swimming pool, and so what we’ve begun to do is think not of how far away places are in terms of distance, but in terms of time. It helps that we don’t have to get into the car everyday, so the occasional more lengthy trip isn’t so bad. And let’s face it, we’ve never flown anywhere together – all of our holidays have been by car until the last few years when we’ve used trains, and we’ve driven over much of Europe. So if we fancy a day out, the rule is that anywhere within a two hour drive is fair game. To date this has included Three Cliffs Bay (an hour and a half from the garden gate, closer than when we lived in Cardiff); Cardigan Bay (just under two hours); and the red kite feeding station near Myddfai (under an hour). Not to mention Worcester, Gloucester and Bath in the other direction. Hereford is now our preferred alternative to Cardiff when it comes to shopping, either by train or car – it’s closer and cheaper to get to. The Two Hour Rule doesn’t ban trips anywhere further – just that we’ll need to persuade ourselves a bit more.

Which is what happened this week. Shrewsbury is 2 hours 10 minutes according to Google Maps (or at least it was the day we went, with reasonable traffic). Neither of us had ever been there and as we suddenly had the prospect of a day with no rain, we decided to go. As ever Google Maps was spot on and we were parking the car across the road from the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul exactly on time, just over the river from the town itself.shrewsbury4 2016The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, Shrewsbury

A word here on Shrewsbury’s geography: it’s almost completely surrounded by the River Severn, just a narrow piece of land at its northern boundary stopping it from being an island. On a map it looks like a ripe fig hanging from a tree (I liked my other analogy but Mr B thought maybe I shouldn’t say it looked like a polyp).

Our first stop was the Abbey itself. It’s not as pretty as some of the other cathedrals and churches we’ve seen – sorry, Shrewsbury. It’s constructed from red stone, and is as bulky and in-your-face as only a Norman church can be; no pretty decorations and graceful arches for the boys who bludgeoned their way across England. It was founded by Roger de Montgomery in 1083 on the site of a Saxon church, ten years or so after he built the town’s castle. Roger was one of William the Conqueror’s staunchest supporters and was well rewarded, being made Earl of Shrewsbury for his efforts. He’d also been granted extensive lands elsewhere in England and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country.

The Abbey came to twentieth century fame due to the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters. The fictional Brother Cadfael was a monk at the Abbey who was a skilled herbalist and amateur (but very successful) sleuth; a sort of medieval Miss Marple in a habit. I’ve never read the books but I vaguely recall seeing one of the stories on TV years ago in an episode that had something to do with the bones of St Winifred (Gwenffrewi), a Welsh saint from the 7th century. As often happens with stories of saints, this one is deliciously gruesome and improbable. The innocent Winifred was attacked by a young noble called Caradoc, who cut off her head in anger when she refused his advances. Her head rolled down a hill and where it landed a spring burst forth from the ground. Fortunately for Winifred, her uncle Bueno (who also became a saint) happened by and restored her head to her body and she revived. People still visit the shrine outside the town of Holywell in North Wales, even though she’s not there – her bones were nicked by a travelling monk whose illness was cured when he bathed in the waters of Winifred’s Well, and taken to Shrewsbury. According to the display in the Abbey, once St Winifred was interred there ‘miracles began at once’. 

Unfortunately her tomb didn’t survive the Reformation and her remains were lost, until one of her finger bones turned up in Rome, usefully recorded in the register of sacred relics. The bone was brought back to Shrewsbury and cut in half (?). One share went to Holywell and one to Shrewsbury. Sad to say we didn’t see it though, because it’s in the Roman Catholic Cathedral and we didn’t go there. If only I’d known! I read an article today about a similar finding of a finger bone of St Valentine in Rome. This particular body part was sent to Coventry (!) where it is now displayed in St John’s church…although you can’t actually see it because it’s safely inside a silver casket. I feel positively privileged to have seen a thumb bone and couple of teeth of King John at last summer’s Magna Carta display at the British Library!shrewsbury2 2016

The Abbey Church is the only remaining building of  the monastery complex, and it’s not as big as your average cathedral.  It was also never rebuilt or revised in any way, which is why there are huge, fat 11th century pillars supporting the roof and the style of the place is so blunt. There are plenty of stained glass windows and a dozen or so effigies but my favourite thing was this very colourful tomb chest of local boy Richard Onslow and his wife Catherine.shrewsbury11 2016Richard Onslow, resident of Shrewsbury, was speaker of the House of Commons from 1566-1571.

Disappointed not to have seen any skeletal parts, we left the stout architecture and lovely people of St Peter and St Paul’s and set off to explore the town, which meant crossing the River Severn. In common with plenty of other places this winter, a lot of water has fallen  from the sky here and the river had clearly over-reached its banks. I don’t think the town was flooded though- almost as soon as you’re over the bridge the streets climb quite steeply.20160211_121538View of the Severn from the English Bridge, looking east

Not counting the railway, there are seven bridges over the Severn (ha ha) into Shrewsbury, and four of them are footbridges. The toll road crossing (20p, apparently) at the southern end of town, the Kingsland, is Victorian. The two others are replacements of medieval bridges. The one on the eastern side of town is called the English Bridge and that on the west, logically enough, the Welsh Bridge (though it was originally named St George’s Bridge). Both the English and Welsh Bridges were fortified when first built, forming part of the defences of the town. The castle blocked the route in from the north.

We crossed via the English Bridge, because that’s where we’d parked the car. This was the route taken by Llywelyn Fawr in 1215 when he briefly captured Shrewsbury as part of a campaign by Welsh and English nobles to put pressure on King John. The protectors of Shrewsbury were no doubt expecting an attack but they were also expecting Llywelyn to come the way he was supposed to – over the Welsh Bridge. Unhappily for them he was expecting them to expect that and he slyly came the wrong way. They hadn’t guarded the English Bridge and must have felt pretty daft when the Welsh easily took the town. The combined Anglo-Welsh military power of the rebels was successful and John was forced to Runnymede and Magna Carta.

Shrewsbury is small, contained as it is by the river, and full of old buildings and streets with hilarious names – such as the well-known ‘Grope Lane’, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you had been the street of brothels. The buildings there now have a different use, as does the Old Market Hall – it now houses a cinema, of all things!

shrewsbury5 2016The Old Market Hall, built in 1596 on the site of an even older market hall

Bang in the centre of the town, at the meeting of three main roads, is a tall stone cross. This is roughly on the same spot as the medieval High Cross, which is where public executions took place, including that of Dafydd ap Gruffudd in October 1283. Dafydd was the grandson of the aforementioned Llywelyn Fawr and the brother of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (who’d been killed by Edward I’s mercenaries the previous December – see my previous post, A Diversion). Edward’s relentless war against the Welsh Princes reached its climax in Shrewsbury when he held a parliament in the Chapter House of the Abbey, condemned Dafydd to death and then had him dragged behind a horse to the High Cross from the castle before being hung, drawn and quartered. Thankfully there’s no evidence of this left today!

On the way back across the English Bridge we saw this sign, which made us laugh.shrewsbury15 2016

View from the English Bridge, looking west

We went home the same way that we’d come, passing the Long Mynd and places with fantastic names: Hook-a-Gate; Hope under Dinmore; Moreton on Lugg and Wormbridge, to name a few. We also passed Stokesay Castle and Ludlow, both places I’ve marked down for future visits, hopefully before too much longer. And they are both within two hours!

Time to leave you now though, and give my attention to the rugby. I’ve got one eye on the TV and it looks as though France are laying waste to the Irish team – there are bodies strewn across the pitch. I think the poor boys need the services of a saint…

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