The pearl of the Marches region, Shrewsbury (pop. 60,000, with suburbs 100,000) is one of the best preserved and most beautiful historical town in England, noted for its Tudor and Jacobean architecture.
Shrewsbury is the county town of Shropshire, and is often referred to as the "Gate to Wales", which starts just 20km to the West. The town occupies a horseshoe-shaped loop of the River Severn, which forms an inland peninsula connected to the surrounding country only by a 300m wide strip of land.
Shrewsbury's exceptional geographic situation brought the interest of the Saxons, who built the first fortifications there in the 5th century, then of the Normans, who built the castle on a hill to the north of town, effectively shutting the peninsula from outsiders.
From the late Middle Ages onwards, Shrewsbury prospered, like many other English towns, as a wool trading centre. Rich merchants constructed the town's famous black-and-white timber houses in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Two residents of Shrewsbury were to have a major impact on British and World history. The first one was Robert Clive (1725-1774), 1st Baron Clive, also known as "Clive of India", the man behind the establishment of the empire of British India. Clive was not born in Shrewsbury itself, (his family estate lied near Market Drayton, some 30km north-east), but he later became Mayor and Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury.
The second local celebrity is Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who revolutionized our understanding of the world with his theory of evolution. Darwin was born at the family home (The Mount House) in Shrewsbury, and attended the famous Shrewsbury Boarding School, before moving to the University of Edimburgh and Cambridge .
Both Clive and Darwin have their statue in town.
The old town retains a quaint atmosphere, with its slant facades and crooked timber-framed houses and streets bearing names such as Bellstone, Dogpole, Frankwell, Grope Lane, Gullet Passage, Mardol, Roushill, Shoplatch or Gay Meadow.
The best historical houses can be found around Butcher Row, Fish Street, Bear Steps, Grope Lane, High Street and St Alkmund's Place.
Notable buildings include the 14th-century Bear Steps Hall, the 15th-century St Mary's Church (with its soaring spire) and the 16th-century Ireland's Mansion.
The Square has been used as a market since the 13th century. The main sights here are the the Old Market Hall (1596), Clive's statue and the neo-classical Music Hall (1840). Not far from there is the late-16th century Rowley's House, now housing the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery (open Tue-Sat 10am to 5pm, and Sun-Mon 10am to 4pm from June to Sept.; admission free).
In the south-west corner of the horseshoe lays the pretty, flower-filled Quarry Park and the neo-classical St Chad's Church (1792).
The red-sandstone Shresbury Castle was first built by Roger de Montgomery in 1074, but was remodelled by Edward I, then again by architect Thomas Telford in the 18th century. The castle houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum, which is a must for those who like military costumes and weapons.
Just south of the castle are the half-timbered Coucil House Gatehouse (1620) and the Old Council House (1502). West of the castle, the beautiful Library used to belong to the reputed Shrewsbury School, where Charles Darwin, and more recently Michael Palin of the Monty Python, were educated. Darwin's statue stands opposite the Library.
Crossing the English Bridge to the east of town, you'll reach the cathedral-like, red-sandstone Shrewsbury Abbey (open 9:30am to 5:30pm, Nov-Mar 10:30am to 3pm). Originally founded by Roger de Montgomery in 1083, it was partly destroyed in the 16th century, and restored in 1886.
How to get there
Trains from London Euston (£38.80) to Shrewsbury take 2h30 to 3h, with a change in Wolverhampton, Birmingham (1h, £9.40) or Crewe. There are also direct trains from Hereford 50min, £12.20), Ludlow (30min, £7.40), Chester (55min, £6.20) and Manchester (1h10min, £12.30).
National Express has buses from London (4h30min, £18.50) and Birmingham (1h30min, £4.75).
By car, Shrewsbury is at the end of the M54 from Birmingham, A5/A483 from Chester or A49/A40 from Hereford/Gloucester.