Today’s Treasures – Shrewsbury

Today’s Treasures – SHREWSBURY

Autumn’s golden glow bathes the ancient buildings and paints pavements and flagstones in the stillness of a September morning. Benches beckon a few moments to sit awhile to savour the serenity and enjoy the tranquillity of a city at peace with the world.

Churches watch over the market Square, all the saints of these precious buildings competing for recognition, St Chad, St Mary, St. Peter, St. Giles, and the ghosts of the medieval pubs are sleeping.

The castle slumbers, its gardens adorned with autumn colours and Charles Darwin surveys his childhood town from atop his pillar outside the library.

The Severn glides slowly through the town from past to present, past crumbling sandstone walls and Roman relics and on to its namesake the modern Theatre Severn nestling on its banks.  Under bridges, Welsh and English, swirling eddies caressing the banks, the Himalayan balsam’s plum pink blossoms, rippling reflections in the water. Swans circling, beaks dipping, dripping water droplets, ducks dabbling, past Darwin’s garden where his theory of evolution had its first stirrings of consciousness.

The river snakes past the park and ripples along the quarry gardens; the Dingle still revels in the glorious garden displays perfected for August’s flower show, begonias and dahlias vying for the brightest blooms.

Sitting dreaming in the sunshine, we can imagine all the past lives that have made Shrewsbury what it is, living on, they are in the very essence of the ancient walls, the medieval black and white buildings, the saints who gave their names to the churches, the engineers and ironmasters, merchants and craftsmen who changed the world and how we see it today – Thomas Telford, Abraham Darby, William Hazledine, Charles Darwin …

Shrewsbury’s history lives on, in its sandstone walls, cobbled streets and beautiful buildings, all sleeping in the September sunshine.

Published in the October edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

 

Today’s treasures – The Flax Mill Maltings

Today’s Treasures – The Flax Mill Maltings in Shrewsbury

Or perhaps this article should be entitled ‘Yesterday’s Treasures’.  This is the story of the Ditherington Flaxmill – an icon of revolution, innovation and evolution.

When the Flaxmill was built in 1797, it was the world’s first iron-framed building, and also the world’s first skyscraper as its design later developed into the modern steel frame that made skyscrapers possible. ‘The grandfather of skyscrapers’, it became a Grade 1 listed building in the 1950’s and is one of the most important buildings of the industrial revolution.

Following a devastating fire at one of their mills in Leeds on 13 February 1796, John Marshall, and brothers Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, looked for a more fire-proof construction.  Charles Bage presented a design based on the work of William Strutt, a cotton spinner who later became a civil engineer and architect, using iron frames in buildings to make them fire-resistant.

William Hazledine was commissioned to make the columns and cross-beams at his foundry in Shrewsbury.  He was a pioneer in casting structural ironwork and worked with Thomas Telford on several projects including the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – Telford nicknamed him ‘Merlin Hazledine – the arch conjuror’

When first completed, it was a state-of-the-art steam-powered flax mill spinning linen thread from flax and its fireproof cast iron columns and beams overcame much of the fire risk from the flammable fibres.

The Flaxmill closed in 1886 suffering competition from the more modern northern cotton mills – and in 1897 the site was bought by William Jones of Shrewsbury and adapted for use as a maltings (picture courtesy of Historic England), and many windows were blocked up.

In 1987, with competition from more modern productions methods, the maltings closed and the site was left derelict until its purchase in 2005 by English Heritage with support from the local council and Advantage West Midlands.  Now the site is owned by Historic England with a local charity managing visitor attractions.

 

Visit www.flaxmill-maltings.co.uk for details of Heritage open days when you can visit this ancient building and see for yourself its historic importance, wonder at the great cast iron beams and columns and imagine the deafening noise of the steam-powered machines, the dust and dirt and terrible conditions for textile workers in the 1800’s and praise the brave people who set up the CWA (Cardroom Workers’ Amalgamation) in 1886 and changed many poor men, women and children’s lives for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in the September edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Today’s Treasures – Shrewsbury

Today’s Treasures – SHREWSBURY

Everyone loves a good ghost story.  In January, I gave a talk on folklore – myths, legends – and tales of witches, wizards, Druids, saints, fairies – and of course ghosts.

Did you know that Shropshire is one the most haunted counties?   And with its timbered buildings and cobblestone alleys it is hardly surprising that Shrewsbury is believed to be one of the oldest and most haunted towns in the UK and that the dead are often seen walking among the living along its cobbled streets.

There’s that macabre painting in a room in the Nags Head that is said to be cursed – and allegedly caused the suicides of three people who slept in that room.  No-one knows who painted it in such a strange place – or why – but their ghosts still haunt this 17th century coaching inn.

The Dun Cow is one of the oldest public houses in the UK – built by Roger de Montgomery, First Earl of Shrewsbury, around 1085 – it was a hostelry with its own brewery.  A Dutch army officer was hung on the scaffold in the stables – but he is just one of the ghosts said to haunt this pub.

Shrewsbury castle is haunted by serial killer, Bloody Jack who was finally hung, drawn and quartered on Pride Hill; and the station has the ghost of a local councillor who was crushed when the roof collapsed over platform 3 in 1887.

Perhaps that’s why Shrewsbury also has a lot of saints, immortalised in its churches:   St. Nicholas, St Chad, St. Alkmund, St. Mary, St. George, St. Peter and St. John.

St. Alkmund’s church is haunted by the spirit of a drunken 15th-century steeple jack who fell to his death after attempting to climb the church tower on a wager.

In 911, Aethelfleda, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, believed that St. Alkmund, prince of Northumbria, was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – providing protection from marauding Danes.

The spire of the medieval church of St Mary’s – one of the tallest in England – has dominated the skyline of Shrewsbury’s old town for over 500 years. In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door.

Published in the february edition of the Whitchurch gossip

Why do we have churches In Shropshire called St. Alkmund?

St. Alkmund’s Church in Whitchurch

St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria, – so why do we have churches in Shropshire named after him?  In 889, Aethelfleda, governed Mercia (which was a massive area across the whole of central England).  She was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.  She believed that St. Alkmund was her ancestor, and she named the churches built at that time after him – at Aymestrey, Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – which were most likely all fortified towns on the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester – so the churches would therefore have had some protection from marauding Danes.

I always feel very fortunate to have been born in Britain – where women have mostly been respected and we have had some great female leaders – like Aethelfleda – and Boadicea, who was queen of the Iceni and led her people into battle against the Romans.

 

Today’s Treasure – Croft Ambrey Hillfort

TODAY’S TREASURE:  CROFT AMBREY HILLFORT

Croft Ambrey, comprises a hillfort, a Romano-Celtic temple and a medieval warren; it was excavated between 1960 and 1966 and found to have been in use from the 6th century BC up to AD 48 by a population of 500-900 people.  Finds included weapons, bone and antler artifacts, hammer stones and Iron Age pottery.

As well as the rampart banks and ditches there is a series of mounds which are the remains of a medieval rabbit warren constructed for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares which provided fresh meat and skins.

The Romano-Celtic temple was built over two phases and excavation found the remains of fire pits and stake holes.  Its purpose was to house treasures to revere the gods and serve the spiritual needs of the community.  Communal gatherings took place outside.

From the top there are extensive views over the Herefordshire countryside and it’s easy to see why it was an excellent place for a settlement.  There are many ancient trees – oak, beech and yew – that could tell amazing stories of the ancient communities that lived there.

Standing under these primeval branches it’s easy to imagine Druidic priests collecting magical mistletoe with a golden sickle, catching it before it touched the tainted earth ready to use in spiritual rituals.

These hillfort trees could have watched prehistoric communities gathering around fires, wearing animal skins, heating food in cooking pots, gathering bracken for bedding and blackberries and hazelnuts for food – and defending the ramparts from invading Romans with bows and arrows.

Many generations of animals and birds have nested in their branches and hollows and their decaying boughs still provide a haven for invertebrates and reptiles – including common lizards and slow worms.

It is thought that Aymestrey (at the foot of the hill) was once a fortified town, along with Shrewsbury and Whitchurch – along the route through Mercia from Gloucester to Chester.   In 889, Aethelfleda governed Mercia (which was then a massive area across the whole of central England) and St. Alkmund was a prince of the Christian Kingdom of Northumbria.  Aethelfleda was a very powerful woman and was known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.  She built churches in fortified towns so they would have some protection from marauding Danes and, as she believed that St. Aklmund was her ancester, she named the churches after him.

The Croft family still live at Croft Castle but the estate is managed by the National Trust.

This article is published in the January 2019 edition of the Whitchurch Gossip.

Evolution Explored, Shrewsbury

Evolution Explored, honours Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12th February, 1809 – if he visited his childhood town today I wonder what he would remember from his boyhood in Shrewsbury.  The river still meanders under English Bridge to the East and Welsh Bridge to the West and The Market Hall still stands in the Square, but he might be quaintly surprised that the Darwin Centre is a shopping centre and the museum is in the Music Hall – very confusing to any visitors to the town.

He might also be very interested in a unique outdoor photographic exhibition that has just arrived in Shrewsbury honouring his birthday and International Darwin Day and also commemorating the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos – a co-operative of photographers formed in 1947. Noted for its diverse work chronicling world events and personalities, Magnum provides a living archive of people, places and discoveries reflecting our built environment, society and history that have shaped the world we live in today.

The exhibition was opened by Mike Matthews, Chairman of Shrewsbury BID with a very eloquent speech describing the range of photographs depicting a complex world of beauty, conflict, sadness, wonder, exploration, compassion and discovery and the emotions invoked by gazing at the images.

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David Hurn, one of Magnums most celebrated photographers, also spoke at the opening ceremony in St. Mary’s Church, saying how important photography is – in whatever format – and how much he hoped that the exhibition would reach out to young people and encourage their creative talents.

The photographs are displayed in two locations in the town – outside St. Mary’s Church and in The Square and are brought to Shrewsbury thanks to The Shrewsbury BID and The Hive.  Shrewsbury Business Improvement District represents over 500 businesses in the town and has been tasked with destination marketing – putting Shrewsbury on the tourist map. The Hive is a creative hub celebrating arts culture and creativity and providing funded creative projects for young people.

This exhibition is certainly unique – and definitely worth a visit – have a day out in Shrewsbury – you can get the train from Whitchurch or Wem, visit the exhibition, have lunch at one of the amazing cafes in the town, enjoy a stroll along the river and pause on Welsh bridge for a moment to think about how life has changed – and how much we have learned – since Darwin was a boy.

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