Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Shrewsbury Abbey - in Cadfael's footsteps

I hadn't been to Shrewsbury since 1996. I was last there with M---. It was a dull and rainy day. I remember parking opposite Shrewsbury Abbey, but we didn't go in. By and large, abbeys weren't M---'s thing. There was also some kind of nearby exhibition with a Cadfael theme, which we also skipped. The TV series about Brother Cadfael, the medieval sleuth, and starring a well-cast Derek Jacobi, was in full swing at the time and very popular. I'd been buying and reading the books by Ellis Peters (i.e. Edith Pargeter) since 1995. I'd also seen a couple of the TV episodes, but hadn't made them essential viewing. The screenwriters had messed about with the stories in the books just a little too much, and that was niggling, despite a fair degree of medieval authenticity in the production. I kept to the books. I re-read them all earlier this year. They are very good stories, true to the historical personalities, events and locations. Even Cadfael, though fictional, is absolutely believable.

Fast forward twenty years to 2016. A warm, sunny day, and I was on my own. Free to see whatever I wanted.

I parked in the same car park, although if anything it seemed larger than before. It occupied the site of the former Shrewsbury Abbey railway station (see and the modest station building was still intact, kept in decent repair for possible future tourist use:

I think Cadfael would have been very sad to learn not only about the fate of the Abbey in the Dissolution (it ceased to be in 1540) but that the Abbey garden, his especial domain, and particularly his beloved hut, where he made his herbal remedies for the sick of the abbey and town, were all now under the bland tarmac of the car park, and before that, a collection of industrial railway sidings. Still, such things as stations and car parks tend to preserve what lies beneath. So one day an archaeological dig may reveal some surprising things about the Abbey. There may be much to unearth. Enveloped by shrubbery, and nowadays oddly close to parked vans and cars in the car park, was a stone pulpit that had once been part of the cloister area. Amazing that it had survived the railway era: it was just the kind of fragile thing to get knocked out of the way in the name of progress!

There was also a third profanity, Thomas Telford's coach road, which was engineered to give horses a straight run at the English Bridge over the nearby River Severn. It did that; but the new road cut across where the cloisters had been, and came very close to what remained of the old Abbey. When motor traffic developed, the vibration must have harmed the Abbey. Nowadays it's not a major route in or out of town, and thankfully quieter than it used to be.

The Abbey was built of local red sandstone. This, like all sandstone, tends to weather badly where exposed to the elements - for example Whitby Abbey on the North Yorkshire Moors coast - but here it has lasted pretty well. What one sees now is the main west part of the original building (the nave), minus the short trancepts, and with a rebuilt east end containing the altar. It still functions as a major parish church, with ancient and historic associations. I walked around the building before entering.

It may have been mutilated and altered, but this was still essentially the Abbey of the Cadfael books. See Inside it was exactly as one would have wished, with plenty of original Norman stonework:

The east end was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. On the whole, the newer stonework blended in successfully, but of course it wasn't quite what Cadfael would have seen when attending the various daily offices. But it looked the part. And the view back to the original west end was very fine.

Cadfael used to sit half-concealed by a large pillar, partly to escape attention, partly so that he could doze off undetected. I fancied it was this very pillar:

At night - say at Matins, the office at midnight - the light given by the candles would have been quite feeble, and the scene might have resembled this:

I reckon Cadfael would have been safe enough.

The Abbey contained some interesting monuments and commemorative plaques.

This board listed the abbots. Herbert and Ralph correspond to Heribert and Radalfus in the books:

Interesting to see that Robert Pennant, the long-thwarted prior in the books, finally got to be abbot too.

A much more modern memorial listed the fallen of the First World War. My attention was drawn to the poppy against one name: it was Wilfred Owen, the renowned poet.

There were lots and lots of smaller boards, each dealing with some historical aspect. One was about St Winefride - St Winifred in the books - for whom Cadfael, being Welsh, had a special devotion.

The books go much deeper into the business of bringing her bones back from Wales - although there is a twist to that - and they recount the miracles this saintly girl subsequently performed. Just as miraculously, a section of the stone reredos behind her shrine inside the Abbey got buried in the ground, and was much later found again. It was worn, but there she was, between St John the Baptist (who also of course lost his head) and her uncle, St Beuno:

Also in the Abbey were two modern stained glass windows by the same artist, Jane Gray. One was dedicated to St Benedict, who founded the Benedictine Order, and celebrated the monastic life of the Abbey in Cadfael's time:

In the lower right corner was actually a reference to both Cadfael and Edith Pargeter. The other window was dedicated to St Winefride, or Winifred, with symbols galore - all referencing parts of her life:

Unfortunately nearly all Winifred's bones were thrown away in the Dissolution, except two sections of a finger. One of these was now in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Shrewsbury, inside a reliquary. I made a point of seeing it, later that day:

So she was still venerated. Cadfael would be glad.

The Abbey enclave had mostly disappeared. But the River Severn was still there. I crossed it by the English Bridge - a much wider version of the bridge Cadfael would use on his regular visits to the town and castle, officially in the course of his duties as herbalist and physician. It was still an impressive river, not really tamed:

Unfortunately, modern flats had been built on The Gaye, the orchard where the monks had grown fruit and vegetables:

You can see how easily the river, even now, could flood. Not living there, I could afford to be carefree. It was lovely, strolling along the bank in the sunshine.

I'd been advised to avoid the Wyle (the main route into the old part of town) and instead walk along the river bank to the Water Gate, then up the hill to the Castle. This I did.

The castle entrance was original to Cadfael's time. Through this gate he would have to go, if on some errand to to the Sheriff:

I dare say there were some other things scattered around Shrewsbury that were mentioned in the books, but most of the town was of much later date. That said, a lot of it looked very old. Just a short distance from the modern shops were side-streets with a very period look to them. One was curiously called Grope Lane:   

Oh, I thought: would I get lucky if I went down it? I took the risk. Well, it was certainly narrow. I suppose two very large persons might have to squeeze past each other, and could end up having a grope. Not a lane for ladies to use, then, only tarts and bawds. The upper rooms of the houses on this lane were jettied, and facing neighbours might well have been able to touch hands from their bedrooms, if they leaned out.

Sadly, these houses were built hundreds of years after Cadfael was around. Only the route of the lane itself, no doubt genuinely medieval, would have been as he knew it.

I took a lot of photos at Shrewsbury, but barely explored the place. So I'll be back. 


  1. Thank you, Lucy, for eloquently describing your latest Cadfael expedition. It's wonderful, is it not, how Ellis Peters can bring real places to life through her novels.

    Columbanus would surely be heartened to know that bits of him are still revered... but of course we're not supposed to know that.

    Angie x

  2. Shhhh! Don't give the naughty, secret bit of the story away!



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