Had the stars been aligned, then we would have been welcoming in 2022 in New York City. I’d been rather looking forward to ticking the famous ‘Time Square Ball Drop’ off my bucket list, but with the latest Omicron variant throwing foreign travel into further uncertainty, with a heavy heart, we cancelled our trip. Cheers Covid….AGAIN.
On the same day that we cancelled our Big Apple break, we booked something else (a little nearer to home) to help lessen the blow of another trip abroad being ruined! A relatively quick search on ‘Old Google’ soon found us an impressive 16th Century Tudor house in the heart of Shrewsbury that looked perfect for a cosy staycation, complete with low hanging beams and squeaky flooring.
And so, it was from Shropshire – not the States – that we saw in the New Year.
For those of you who are sat there wondering ‘where the bloomin’ heck is Shrewsbury?’….
Shrewsbury is a town located in the pretty county of Shropshire within the West Midlands area of England. It’s also just a mere 9 miles east of the Welsh border. It’s really easy to get to, whether travelling in by car or by arriving into its Grade II listed railway station.
Quite why Shrewsbury is ‘only a town’ baffles me; it seems to have everything a city has, including a Cathedral – which is usually the requirement of ‘city status’ – but who am I to say?
Come to Shrewsbury and you will be greeted by Roman roads, Britain’s longest river and super-friendly locals. I love coming here, it’s not too big, it’s not too small and it’s a place where you instantly feel welcome.
With its rows of black and white Tudor houses (most of them crooked) and cobbled streets full of character, Shrewsbury is akin to the likes of the more recognisable York and Chester (both of which DO have city status). Call me controversial if you like, but I prefer Shrewsbury to them both.
The narrow alleyways that dot the town date back to the 14th Century and are known as ‘shuts’ to the locals. Look out for the quirky names they have too, such as Grope Lane and Gullet Passage!
Shrewsbury’s Most Famous Resident
Shrewsbury’s ‘claim to fame’ is that it was home to Charles Darwin, an English naturalist, geologist and biologist who contributed to the science of evolution. Darwin was born at Mount House (a 5 minute walk from our holiday home) and spent the first 27 years of his life in the town.
There’s a ‘Darwin Town Trail’ that you can walk to see places that influenced his life and work, including where he used to fish for newts in the ‘Dingle’ (a stretch of the river). There’s a rather grand statue of Darwin located outside the Public Library too.
If you go to Shrewsbury in February (Darwin’s birthday), you can even join in an annual Darwin inspired race and bag yourself a medal for your efforts.
The Big River
The River Severn wraps around Shrewsbury, with an impressive stone Castle and Abbey standing at the gateway. As I just mentioned, it’s the largest in Britain too. There’s plenty of history to keep historians happy, with more than 600 listed buildings within the river loop itself.
The English Bridge (to the east) and the Welsh Bridge (to the west) sit on opposite sides of the town, with both having been residents since the 18th Century. The English bridge has seven arches and the Welsh, just five. You may ask why? There’s an arch for each letter in their name – simple as that.
If the fancy takes you, why not hop aboard the ‘Sabrina’ (Goddess of the River) at Victoria Quay for a boat trip, complete with live commentary and refreshments. What could be nicer on a Summers day than taking in the sights of the Severn from the water, wine in hand?
Alternatively, you can venture down the tow paths on foot. It’s also easy to follow the river around ‘The Quarry’, a former stone quarry that is now a pretty tree-lined park, home to runners, cyclists and dog walkers. There’s a number of little coffee huts in the park, an indoor swimming pool and an inviting pub-restaurant on the waters edge called The Boathouse (who says you need to travel to New York to have a bite and a beer in The Boathouse?).
Shop ‘til you flop!
Interestingly, Shrewsbury is one of the only places in the UK where small, independent shops outweigh the big high street chains. In fact the rather lovely ‘Wyle Cop’ bears￼ the title of longest row of uninterrupted independents in the UK.
If one-off boutiques, quirky craft shops and handmade furniture float your boat, you will love wiling away hours and splashing the cash on something unique here. Many of the shops have been run by the same families for generations – one example being Tanners Wines, which apparently looks much the same today as it did in 1842.
One thing I really do love about shopping at Christmas time is the festive window displays – of which Shrewsbury had many.
If you’re in need of a cobbler, an art dealer or a jeweller, you will find these all in the Grade II listed Parade building, alongside Fairtrade products and vintage delights in the Old Market Hall (described by some as Shropshires answer to Camden Market).
Alternatively, if Waterstones, JD Sports and M&S are on the list, you’ll find these too, over on Pride Hill. Whatever your preference, whatever your budget, Shrewsbury caters for all shopaholics.
Dining and Wine-ing
If eating, drinking and dancing are big drivers for your choice of destination, you can’t go far wrong with Shrewsbury.
The streets are brimming with many wonderful restaurants, cute cafes, old boozers and trendy bars (obviously the perfect excuse for me starting the New Year diet late).
We didn’t have a bad meal in the entire week, but some favourites included The Alb (Spanish tapas), La Lanterna (Italian), Cafe Saffron (Indian) and Istanbul House (Turkish). Peaberry also did a fantastic artisan brunch!
Whether you want a pint of bitter in an olde-worldly pub, a G&T in a trendy bar, a bucket of Brooklyn Lager in Hickories Smokehouse or a cappuccino in a cat cafe, Shrewsbury caters.
As we were in Shrewsbury for New Year, we also enjoyed a tasty three course meal at The Peach Tree, ending the evening/ morning in the adjoining Havana Republic Club with some cheeky cocktails and cheesy tunes.
Shrewsbury On The Big Screen
Here’s one for the film buffs and/ or Charles Dickens fans….
‘A Christmas Carol’ (the 1984 version) was actually filmed on location in little old Shrewsbury! Who’d have thought? – although, quite honestly, spend any time here and you can easily envisage the streets in Dickensian times. Yep, I can just picture Kermit the Frog walking down the cobbles….sorry, wrong version.
Each December the town plays host to guided walks exploring the streets and buildings that were used in the film – and even our holiday home had a starring part too! The cellars at Tanners Wines, (that I mentioned earlier) doubled as Fezziwig’s warehouse.
If you visit the graveyard at St Chads Church (in the Quarry park), look hard enough and you will spot the gravestone of none other than Ebenezer Scrooge himself – a ‘left over prop’ apparently!
The distinctive St Chads Church itself is worth a look, boasting the largest circular knave in England. It’s a well-known landmark in the town and has been since 1792. A civic war memorial and a statue of Hercules are also nearby.
Shrewsbury Behind Bars
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be banged up in jail, now is your opportunity to find out!
HMP Shrewsbury Prison was originally built in 1793 and became known locally as ‘The Dana’. It was a Cat B men’s prison until it was decommissioned in 2013.
It’s now open to the public for guided tours with ex-prison guards or self guided tours. It’s also a favourite with television productions too and has featured in numerous tv programmes, such as Sean Bean’s ‘Time’, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Brassic’.
We opted for the self-guided tour, because I like to explore places on my own without being a captive audience (what can I say, I have a short attention span!). As it just so happened, we were lucky to have the whole prison to ourselves….aside from a couple of workers and a ghost or two!
Yes indeed – HMP Shrewsbury has a grisly past and is said to be haunted – so much so that there are regular ‘escape room’ events and paranormal evenings that take place here. I have to say, I did get an eerie feeling in the prison on a few occasions.
Those braver than I can also choose to stay the night in a cell. No thanks, I’ll stick with AirBNB.
If you do a self-guided tour like us, you can still learn all about the prison history and grim goings on from the numerous information boards around the building (keep an eye out for the BOSS Chair, I’ll say no more) – so you won’t feel like you miss out too much.
The tour will take you on ‘A Wing’ which has 4 landings each with 43 cells, the smaller ‘C Wing’ with the haunted cell, the chapel, the showers, the canteen, the medical centre, the visiting room, the exercise yard, the governors office and the execution room…to name a few.
For years, HMP Shrewsbury carried out regular executions. The last public hanging at the prison was in 1863, but the very last was in 1961. After each death, those hanged would be buried within the prison walls, as was customary with all executions in the UK at the time. In 1972, however, the remains of those buried at the prison were retrieved and either cremated or handed to relatives.
Shrewsbury Prison is a real highlight in my opinion and costs just £15 for a self-guided tour (£10 if you book online) *2022 prices*
Other Things To Do
A visit to Shrewsbury has loads on offer, depending on what you like and how much time you have to spend doing it. In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned, it has a Battlefield, a Falconry Centre, Skydiving, Hot Air Ballooning and museums a plenty! There’s also a large theatre that has seen many a famous face take to the stage, as well as playing home to the obligatory annual pantomime!
There’s no doubting that Shrewsbury is a great base to explore the Shropshire countryside and the two world heritage sites in the region too – these being Ironbridge Gorge and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
We took a drive out to Ironbridge, which was just a mere half hour journey. This is home to the Industrial Revolution and the Worlds first iron bridge that was first erected in 1779. As well as plenty of walking, you’ll also find numerous cafes, the famous Merrythought Teddy Bear shop and a vintage village museum (which sadly wasn’t open when we visited).
If you’re a National Trust Member (or even if you’re not), Attingham Park is only 4 miles outside of Shrewsbury. Here you will find a deer park, an 18th Century regency mansion and 200 acres of parkland to walk. We were lucky to catch the Christmas decorations in the mansion during our visit – very festive.
Shrewsbury’s location is really convenient for exploring further afield too, whether that’s the North West or West Midlands or even into North Wales.
So, there we have it – Shrewsbury. It may be a modest English town as opposed a big ‘n’ bold US city, but it didn’t matter in the end because we had a fantastic break and we can’t wait to return!
Happy New Year to everyone reading this blog! May 2022 be the year of health, wealth and freedom of travel for you all!