Town crier's tall tales

Historic Shrewsbury Helen Werin visits a town where the past is still alive.

We're getting stiff necks from wandering around Shrewsbury – and it's not just because our guide, Martin, is 7ft 2in. Shoppers gaze at ground-floor window displays, but we've got our sights set higher. We're studying the ostentatious exhibition of 15th and 16th century wealth on the beautiful black and white timbered buildings which make up the Tudor heart of this town.

One minute we're craning to look at 400-year-old wooden statues on the roof of the Edinburgh Wooden Mill. This is Owen's Mansion where statues depict the wife, sons and nephew of a man so loaded that he "captured" them for everyone to see from the Market Square opposite. The next, we're in the square, being amazed by what Martin describes as "a very early loft conversion". What's different about this building, now accommodating the Fat Face store, is its finely decorated top storey, with its original windows still intact. It came from a nearby property says Martin, the town crier, the tallest in the world. "It was dead simple to do that in those days – all the timbers were pegged and numbered. If you moved in Tudor times you literally moved house. You took it with you."

In Wyle Cop, one of the two ancient entrances into the town, is a plaque on yet another magnificent building, this time above a chocolate shop. This is Henry Tudor House where Henry VII stayed before the Battle of Bosworth.

We duck inside the Prince Rupert Hotel in Butcher Row. In just a few, very crooked, steps we are transported back 600 years. Part of the hotel was once the mansion of Thomas Jones, first Mayor of Shrewsbury. I'm clinging on to banisters and door jambs, completely disoriented by the perspective.I'd always assumed that buildings like these sagged with the centuries. Not so. They looked pretty much like this almost from the start, having been built with freshly-cut "green" timber. As the wood dried out, it would twist and lock into place, giving the building tremendous strength as well as its wonky character.

Later I peek into McDonald's, having been told that a stretch of the original 11th-century town walls can be seen in the basement. Half expecting to see just a few bricks, I am surprised by the scale of it.

Our hotel, The Lion, is another curious place one where it's easy to get lost in a myriad of passageways. Shrewsbury's most famous son, Charles Darwin, stayed here before he left for the five-year survey on HMS Beagle. Charles Dickens, another guest said in 1858 the view "looks all down the hill and slantwise to the crookedest old black and yellow houses". Shrewsbury's Shuts and Passages – a maze of narrow alleys have Dickensian names like Dogpole, Mardol and Gullet Passage. We trace the Severn's horseshoe shape around Shrewsbury along tree-lined paths through peaceful parkland known as The Quarr. On the river, dozens of boys from Shrewsbury School, where Darwin was a pupil, row gracefully. Every August The Quarry throngs with thousands of visitors to the world's longest-running flower show. At its centre, gates lead us into The Dingle, a delightful sunken garden with alpine borders and tinkling water features. It's the creation of TV's first celebrity gardener, the late Percy Thrower, during his time here as parks superintendent.

Back in town, it's the famed stained glass in the Church of St Mary the Virgin which mesmerises us.

The most beautiful is the huge 14th century Tree of Jesse window. But it's the colourful panels depicting the life and work of the 12th century St Bernard which spark our imaginations. They form a sort of medieval strip cartoon, with ribbons of words, showing him riding a mule, curing the sick and getting rid of flies from an abbey.

On the wall outside is a plaque in memory of Robert Cadman who died in 1739. His trick was to slide down a rope tied to the spire – one of the highest in England – on a grooved board, all the while blowing a hunting horn.

The restaurant in The Lion is named after Sam Hayward, an 18th century coachman of the Shrewsbury Wonder, who could do the 156 miles from London to Shrewsbury in under 16 hours. He'd change horses every eight miles, doing so in 55 seconds. "Almost as fast as a Formula One pit stop," says Martin.

The tourist spiel describes Shrewsbury as "almost an island in the loop of the Severn, tucked away from the rest of the world." But with its huge range of unusual, independent shops, delis and eating places, it's not stuck in the past.

What else to see and do

Wroxeter (AD58-88) was the fourth largest city in Roman Britain. Initially it was a fortress occupied by a legion of 6,000 men. Five miles east of Shrewsbury on the B4380. www.english-heritage.org.uk (01743 761330).

Attingham Park; the National Trust is running a project to restore this charming mansion, once owned by the Berwicks. Four miles south east of Shrewsbury, on B4380, at Atcham. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/attinghampark (01743 708162).

The Battle of Shrewsbury site; in 1403 about 75,000 were killed during a 2.5 hour battle. Visitors can walk the Hotspur and Royal Trails and see the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, built in the 1400s to commemorate the battle. There is also Battlefield 1403, with exhibition, caf, farm shop and butchery. Three miles north of Shrewsbury on the A49 Whitchurch road. www.battlefield1403.com (01939 210 905).

Shrewsbury Castle; houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum. www.shrewsburymuseums.com/castle (01743 281205).

Shrewsbury Abbey, founded 1083, is the fictional home of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael. www.shrewsburyabbey.com (01743 232723).

Fact File

The Lion Hotel, Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, Grade 1 listed 16th century coaching inn. www.thelionhotelshrewsbury.co.uk (01743 353107).

The Golden Cross, Princess Street, an inn since 1428. Now a restaurant with good fish choices, and daily seasonal specials. It also has rooms. www.goldencrosshotel.co.uk (01743 362507).

www.visitshrewsbury.com

Martin Wood tours; www.towncriershrewsbury.co.uk

Guided walking tours are available from Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre in Barker Street: visitorinfo@shropshire.gov.uk (01743 281200).

YP MAG 18/12/10