Visitors thought Shrewsbury was like Middle Earth for years – but now it’s a different story
A dark-skies morning in Shrewsbury and I’m admiring a bust with a £16.99 price tag and an inscription: “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” Both bust and quote belong to Charles Darwin, the naturalist who was born in the Shropshire town in 1809, but the plastic effigy of the local lad done good turns out to be a best-selling item at a most unlikely location.
Christmas Perks, the year-round yuletide shop, does a roaring trade in festive Darwin accessories – even in mid-summer. For owner, Simon Perks, every day is Christmas Day.
“Visitors thought Shrewsbury was like Middle Earth for years. They couldn’t even place it on the map,” laughs Simon. “But, today, it is booming with quirky, independent businesses. Like a rubber band, it keeps bouncing back.”
The historic market town, set within a loop of the River Severn, first made its money from the wool industry in Tudor times. The half-timbered shopfronts of Wyle Cop, said to be the street with the longest uninterrupted row of independent shops in the country, are again alive with home-grown businesses from fashion boutique Oberon to wine merchants Tanners, established 1842 and still run by the same local family.
The Left for Dead vinyl and bookshop has an eclectic window display, combining a Kate Bush biography with a book entitled Satanic Feminism. What’s more, while York, Oxford and Chester (one hour north across the Cheshire border) are already on most people’s radars, Shrewsbury is playing its rising-star trump card as a better-value staycation.
The town will soon embrace its annual DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival, which celebrates the February 12 birthday of its most famous son. His 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution and festival events include talks, walks and a first visit to refurbished rooms at The Mount aka Darwin House. The former family home and garden is due to re-open as a visitor attraction in the next few years.
“Darwin says in his autobiography, ‘I was born a naturalist.’ But I disagree,” says the author Jon King, showing me around an exhibition about Darwin’s early life at the town’s Museum and Art Gallery. “We often think of historic figures as fully formed but Shrewsbury was where that enquiring mind was opened. He left Shrewsbury for London at 27 by which time the transformation from curious youth to fully-fledged naturalist was complete.” Darwin set sail on the expedition ship, The Beagle, in 1831, his unpaid role as the resident naturalist on the five-year voyage changing the course of science.
Some of the exhibits are unique to Shrewsbury School, where Darwin’s old headmaster described him as “an ordinary boy”. That’s why Darwin’s statue turns his back to the former school entrance outside what is now Shrewsbury Library. A revealing caricature from a September 1871 edition of Punch magazine shows him in a smoking jacket with a cheeky grin, contrasting with the familiar image of the stern-faced scientist. “He was a human being with human failings, but he simply couldn’t stop himself asking questions all his life,” says Jon.
Away from the Darwin trail, there are fine Georgian squares, expansive green spaces at The Quarry, and higgledy-piggledy medieval passageways (known as “shuts”), featuring unusual names like Gullet Passage and Grope Lane, home to cafes, galleries and restaurants. The town also boasts plenty of dark history — from weekly ghost tours to Pride Hill, where the Welsh prince, Llewelyn the Last, was hung, drawn and quartered for treason after a trial at Shrewsbury’s Norman Castle.
Meanwhile, Shrewsbury Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery, sparked a 14th-century visitor boom when the monks built a shrine for the relics of St Winifred and pilgrims flocked to worship.
Tucked behind the train station, Shrewsbury’s decommissioned prison hosts a series of tours, prison-breakout and paranormal experiences. I feel an eerie frisson beside the noose and trapdoor in the former Execution Room where Harry Allen, the last man to be hanged in Shrewsbury in 1961, would have dangled for one hour before being declared dead.
Later, in need of something fortifying, I head to Shrewsbury Indoor Market, which was recently named Britain’s best by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA). It’s positively bustling on a January morning with its 60-odd stallholders flogging everything from street food to old Ordnance Survey maps of the nearby Shropshire Hills AONB. “The market is part of the town’s history and has become an incubator for our fiercely independent local traders,” says Facilities Manager Kate Gittins over a flat white at Tom’s Table café. “People discovered their local independents over lockdown and have stayed loyal.”
Back at Christmas Perks on Wyle Cop, meanwhile, Simon is showing me his collection of hand-made, Darwin-themed Christmas decorations. “He’s an important local story but there’s more to Shrewsbury these days than Darwin,” he smiles. “The town has a year-round sense of festive cheer.” Shrewsbury is, it seems, for life – not just for Christmas.