SHREWSBURY, the county town of Shropshire, sits in a tight and narrow loop of the River Severn. It would be difficult to design a better defensive site and predictably the Normans built a stone castle here, one which Edward I decided to strengthen and expand in the thirteenth century, though by then the local economy owed as much to the Welsh wool trade as it did to the town’s military importance. In Georgian times, Shrewsbury became a fashionable staging post on the busy London to Holyhead route and has since evolved into a laidback, middling market town. It’s the overall feel of the place that is its main appeal, rather than any specific sight, though to celebrate its associations with Charles Darwin, the town is now the possessor of a 40ft-high sculpture entitled Quantum Leap: it cost nigh-on half a million pounds, so most locals are ruing the cost rather than celebrating the artistic vision.
The logical place to start an exploration of Shrewsbury is the train station, built in a fetching combination of styles, neo-Baronial meets country house, in the 1840s. Poking up above the train station are the battered ramparts of the castle, a pale reminder of the mighty medieval fortress that once dominated the town – the illustrious Thomas Telford turned the castle into the private home of a local bigwig in the 1780s. Castle Gates and its continuation Castle Street/Pride Hill cuts up from the station into the heart of the river loop where the medieval town took root. Turn left off Castle Street onto St Mary’s Street and you soon reach Shrewsbury’s most interesting church, St Mary’s, whose architecturally jumbled interior is redeemed by a magnificent east window. From St Mary’s, it’s a couple of minutes walk to St Alkmund’s Church, from where there’s a charming view of the fine old buildings of Fish Street, which weaves its way down to the High Street. Turn right here to get to The Square which is at the very heart of the city; its narrow confines are inhabited by the Old Market Hall, a heavy-duty stone structure dating from 1596.