CESMA field trip to Shrewsbury

I should apologise for the blip in posts subscribers must just have experienced; I put one post together in the depths of sleep deprivation before I realised that this one should have come first. If it’s any comfort, this one has more photos in… So, the set-up. My backlog of reporting is now into June 2015, at which point my time in Birmingham was beginning to wind down. While working at the Barber Institute there four days a week I was also working as a Teaching Associate for the School of History. It was never entirely clear whether I was a member of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages because of the Barber post or the teaching post or simply because the more the merrier, but nonetheless I was enough of a member that when a field trip came around and basically no other staff but me and the organiser were free, I thought I’d better step up, and so on 11th June off I went to Shrewsbury, a city I’ve never visited before. I say I: ‘we’ would be more accurate…

CESMA postgraduates waiting to go on the Shrewsbury field trip

A tightly-knit group of dedicated postgraduates in the august surroundings of the eternal construction project that is Birmingham New Street

Now Shrewsbury is a very medieval city, something that is very evident in its ground-plan.

Map of Shrewsbury

Map of Shrewsbury at the website of Shrewsbury Abbey, linked through

In fact, much of what you can see in the streets is not that old, but still quite close. Views such as this were not uncommon and I think we finished up drinking in a pub with Tudor beams as well.

Early modern housing on the way up to Shrewsbury city centre from the station

Early modern housing on the way up to the city centre from the station

But medieval is also heavily present! Most obviously, there is a castle!

Shrewsbury Castle seen from below

The castle looking above us on the same street

But on this day, sadly, it was closed, so this is as close as we got.

Pedestrian route to Shrewsbury Castle

Access to the castle from the same street

So, our first destination was instead the church of St Mary, which has had a rather complicated history leading from the Anglo-Norman period through Gothic to the present day via some rather odd routes. The entrance is kind of where it starts, still.

The Norman tower and portal of St Mary's Shrewsbury

The Norman tower and portal of St Mary’s

Inner portal of St Mary's Shrewsbury

Inner portal, a step beyond the doorway just shown

And once you’re able to look closely, you can see that there is a really old church here, in places, but in other places it’s just a good deal less clear what is going on.

Anglo-Norman archway to an exterior door of St Mary's Shrewsbury

Anglo-Norman archway to one of the many closed-off exterior doors

Multiple fabrics visible in the north-east corner of St Mary's Shrewsburu

The north-east corner seen from outside. Many stages of building are evident here, but not all of them seem to have been evident to the builders…

Let’s try and make sense of this by getting closer…

Exterior doorway to the chapel of St Anne at St Mary's Shrewsbury

I’m not sure this helps as much as I’d hoped

So that arch just had to be fouled by the porch because otherwise the porch would foul a window? Why is the porch attached to both aisle and side-chapel anyway? How come the chapel looks newer than the porch, also? And mainly, what is that on the door?

Modern tap in the door of St Anne's Chapel, St Mary's Shrewsbury

I can’t believe this is where they attach the garden hose

OK, I give up. Explain this if you can, I can’t. Nor is this the only oddity lying around, in some cases all too literally.

Fallen roof ornamentation at St Mary's Shrewsbury

I swear it was like this when we got there

Anyone seen Hot Fuzz? I’m sorry… Here is a much more sensible and historical explanation for how such a thing might have occurred.

The Cadman stone at St Mary's Shrewsbury

The sad sad story of a man called Cadman and his attempt on the air

But don’t get me wrong, though it bewildered and frustrated my archæological instincts, this is still a gorgeous building in many places.

Exterior view of the east end window of St Mary's Shrewsbury

The sunlight was really too bright for this photo to work out

Interior view of the stained glass in the east end of St Mary's Shrewsbury

… but that’s OK because it did marvels for the interior view

Roof of St Mary's Shrewsbury seen from inside

The roof is amazing, and I was annoyed that this was the best shot I could get of it

View down the nave from the presbitery of St Mary's Shrewsbury

View down the nave from the presbitery

View into the south transept of St Mary's Shrewsbury

View into the south transept

And there are also remains of some things even earlier, as befits a town with so thoroughly Anglo-Saxon a name as Scrobesbyrig.

Older memorial stones re-erected inside St Mary's Shrewsbury

Older memorial stones re-erected inside

But even inside, some hints of the alterations that have made earlier structures ridiculous remain.

Priest's seat foreshortened by an early modern raising of the floor level at St Mary's Shrewsbury

If you read the caption posted in the middle of this niche, you discover that this was actually a seat in the presbitery for one of the clergy during long services. But then in the sixteenth century or so they raised the floor to above the seat level so now all you have is the chest- and headroom. And thus it remains!

Anyway, from here the party split up. One group, under the capable and experienced guidance of Dr Philippa Semper, headed for the Abbey of the Holy Cross, at the other end of town, and another, more secular-minded and led by the complete stranger to the town, me, decided to try and get there by walking the circuit of the medieval walls, going via the cathedral (because St Mary’s is not in fact the cathedral). Unfortunately, the cathedral turns out to be nineteenth-century neo-medieval, albeit quite pretty, and the amount of the walls that you can actually see or transit is also very short. There’s this on it, though.

Attingham Town Walls Tower, on Shrewsbury town walls

What turns out to be Attingham Town Walls Tower, a National Trust property

Now, if I’m remembering rightly, there is a plaque on this tower commemorating the lady of the city who in the nineteenth century gave it to the town fathers, which for me just raised the question: why were the city’s fortifications by then in private hands? But this, sadly, like many of the other questions of the trip, could not be answered.

Gatehouse of the Abbey of the Holy Cross, Shrewsbury

Gatehouse of the Abbey of the Holy Cross

Thankfully, one that could was: “well, in that case, where’s the abbey?” So we brought the two groups back together again with just about time for a quick look round Holy Cross, during the course of which my camera battery gave up the ghost. So, you can hopefully see from these that it was worth the candle…

View down the nave of Holy Cross Abbey, Shrewsbury

View down the nave

Knight's effigy and early modern monuments to various donors to Holy Cross Abbey, Shrewsbury

Knight’s effigy and early modern monuments to various donors

… but a spare battery would have been more use than that candle, if candle I’d had.

Tomb of St Winifrid in Holy Cross Abbey, Shrewsbury

Tomb of St Winifrid, who was moved here in 1138 and presumably liked it enough not to kick up a fuss

In any case, there was little more time after that, just about enough to slip into the ancient and medieval display at the City Museum. That turned out to be more fun than expected because a third staff member was present, in as much as there was a video playing about the interpretation of the nearby archæological site at Wroxeter. If you know Wroxeter by reputation you may know that it has become a type site for urban survival through the collapse of Roman rule in Britain when it was dug in the 1980s by a team alert to the remains of wooden buildings, then very unusual, and found that for a while the old forum had been full of them.1

Reconstruction drawing of the post-Roman phase of Wroxeter forum

Reconstruction drawing of the post-Roman phase of Wroxeter forum, from Simon T. Loseby, “Power and towns in late Roman Britain and early Anglo-Saxon England” in J. M. Gurt & Gisela Ripoll (edd.), Sedes Regiae ann. 400–800, Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona 25 (Barcelona 2000), pp. 319-370, online here, fig. 2 (p. 333)

This has subsequently raised a debate about whether this constitutes decay and collapse or adaptation and evolution, and it was exactly this debate that presenter Neil Faulkner was having in the video, with a second party who suddenly made various members of the party start with recognition, it being Dr Roger White of the Ironbridge Institute in Birmingham whom they all knew from he and I having tried to teach them coins. So that was pretty good advertising for Birmingham as a contributor to scholarship on the Middle Ages, and completely unplanned too, but I thought it was also a model of how to do archæology TV where interpretation is tricky: we argue about, after all, argument makes good television, I don’t know why TV people are so determined to put a single expert answer before the public. This was much better. Before very long the museum staff were ready to see us gone, however, so we gathered up the troops and headed either for home, or for a pub then home depending on inclination, and I believe that I still owe Ryder Patzuk-Russell a pint. But it was a good trip, with many unexpected delights of architecture, nook, cranny or crazy treet name, and I recommend it for a summer’s day out. I hope you can get to the castle, though!

I was, I ought to confess, supposed to blog this trip for CESMA on their own blog here. As I demitted my rôle as Teaching Associate, however, I was still waiting for them to put up my previous post there, and indeed though the blog is back active I’m not sure that ever happened. And once I’d made the move to Leeds it dropped off my priority list. But now it is done, and I hope that at least they can link to it however dreadfully backlogged it may be…

1. For further information you could want no better guide than Peter Ellis and Roger White, “Wroxeter archaeology: excavation and research on the defences and in the town, 1968-1992” in Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Vol. 78 (Shrewsbury 2003), pp. 1-184.

One response to “CESMA field trip to Shrewsbury

  1. Waxing lyrical! Clearly a fun day.

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