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Over the centuries the lives and landscape of Shrewsbury have been forged by the River Severn. Her mother-like tendencies have made it possible for our town to thrive, providing an abundance of food and water to power industry. When the floods came, she fertilised the land, sweeping nutrients from the Welsh mountain soil and replenishing the earth from which farmers work. And with the same stroke, the very lifeblood of the town has caused destruction as she carves away through stone and dirt to shape the Shrewsbury maps we see today.
Original Shrewsbury. Map of Shrewsbury [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Original Shrewsbury - Map of Shrewsbury
Originating near the town of Llanidloes, mid-Wales the River Severn dramatically loops through Shrewsbury before passing through Worcester and Gloucester, eventually discharging into the Bristol Channel. Sabrina, as she’s known, is the longest river in the UK with a total length of 354km (220 miles). Some contest her length but even so she definitely has the greatest water flow in the UK at 107 m3/s (3,800 cu ft/s).
While today many people enjoy the River Severn for recreational activities, back in the age of the Celts, Sabrina was something magical, a goddess even. It’s not difficult to understand why, just take a look at the Shrewsbury map. To early settlers the River Severn was the protector, offering 300 degrees of fortification, an ideal place to build a castle.
Original Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury Castle [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://originalshrewsbury.co.uk/visit/shrewsbury-castle-shropshire-regimental-museum
If you look at the map of Shrewsbury you’ll find the Shrewsbury Castle almost sandwiched between the Severn. This was an ideal place for the refugees from Wroxeter who first settled here between the 5 and 6 century to defend themselves. The name ‘Scrobbesbyrig’ literally means 'fortified place in the scrubland', giving those who live there a strong vantage point against invaders.
As the town grew so did the need for greater protection especially against the Welsh who were being targeted by Rodger de Montgomery’s forces in a bid to gain more land. By 1086 the doomsday book recorded that space was needed to improve fortifications. In total, they demolished 51 houses and abandoned 50 more. This made way for a motte and bailey fortress.
None of the early defences are visible anymore bar the earthworks, what you see today are later developments from around 1642 built during the English civil war. At this time it was decided that the river Severn was no longer a suitable defensive barrier, leading to fortifications at the Welsh Bridge and the North (Burgess) Gate. Even so, the defences were not sufficient and on the 11th March 1645, Royalists made a successful advance on the Watergate and quickly overran the town.
If you take a look at the Shrewsbury map you’ll see the Welsh bridge, which is situated next to the Victoria Quay, harbour to our river cruise boat, Sabrina. The current bridge was designed and built between 1793 and 1795, but there has been a river crossing near this as far back as 1160. The old bridge, formerly known as St. Georges Bridge eventually changed its moniker to Walshemanne’s Brigge and later, the Welsh Bridge. It was originally positioned upstream at the foot of Mardol. Alongside the bridge on the Shrewsbury side stood a twin turreted gatehouse, with a second gatehouse on the bridge itself closer to the Frankwell side.
On the other side of Shrewsbury lays the English Bridge. The original bridge was Norman construction with five arches and built from timber then revised in 1768. The new English bridge was constructed with a steeper incline allowing more headroom for watercraft, reflecting the importance of the town, connecting London to Ireland. On the East side of the bridge situated a large tower, gate and drawbridge but this wasn’t just a passing place, it was also home. The Northside of the bridge (that which faces the railway bridge) contained so many homes it became difficult to pass, leaving only 12 feet of room for people and vehicles to pass.
Eventually, a new English bridge was proposed to reflect the decline in the use of waterways, leading the lowering of the arch by five foot. The bridge was completed in 1927 and made mostly from the original stone. The key feature of the new English bridge was the increased width; at 50 foot (15 meters) it was more than double the size of the original.
On the Shrewsbury map, you'll see St. Chads overlooking the Quarry. St. Chads is unique because it’s round and it seats around 1200 people, making it the largest seated venue in Shrewsbury. But look closely and you’ll see the relics of the original church. Built just after the death of St. Chad, Bishop of Mercia in the 8th century, the old St. Chads building came to an abrupt end at 4am on July 9th 1788. This wasn’t unexpected; Thomas Telford had already recommended demolishing then to rebuild, by then it was too late.
George Steuart, a prominent English architect completed the current St. Chads in August 1792. Steuart had recently built Lord Berwick’s house in Attingham and was the ideal candidate for the job. However, the church rejected his idea of a circular building until the public began to question why the original building had collapsed; asking 'was it gods favour?' Lucky for us that history worked out the way it did and St. Chads opened its doors on 19th August 1792.
The Quarry dominates Shrewsbury’s landscape, covering an area of 29 acres, encircled by the River Severn. At the heart of The Quarry lies the dingle, once a wet quarry site from which stone and clay were extracted to build many important features in Shrewsbury town. These days it’s a revered floral garden with water feature, designed by Percy Thrower.
The Quarry is home to many events in Shrewsbury such as the two-day Shrewsbury Flower Show, the longest-running flower show in the world. Music events also feature in The Quarry such as the Fake Festival and Let’s Rock Shrewsbury amongst others. In May, the River Severn hosts the Shrewsbury Regatta and in June, it’s the Dragon Boat Race. All of which turn the banks of the longest river in the UK into a huge party area, drawing crowds from around the world.
The use of The Quarry as a recreational area is not a new one. Since the 16th century, it’s been a place to relax and enjoy simple things in life. Before then it was common ground, used by the common folk as arable land to graze their cattle, dry textiles and to acquire stone. In the 18th century living by The Quarry became a fashionable thing to do, and so the upper classes began to sculpt the park into what we see now. The cooperation even planted over 500 lime trees down the riverbank and along the town walls.
Even though public walks were celebrated, and the many saw The Quarry as an ideal leisure facility issues arose. Common folk still used the land for traditional uses, which led the Corporation to buy up The Quarry in 1875. The area was landscaped, benches were added along the paths, and the Dingle was converted into something akin to what we see now.
On your voyage of along the Shrewsbury map of the River Severn, you’ll also see Percy Thrower's house.
Percy wasn’t native to Shrewsbury, but neither the less he is a prominent person in our town's history. A gardener, horticulturist, broadcaster and writer, Percy Thrower was a national celebrity. He gained fame through the BBC TV show ‘Gardening Club’ which started in 1956, and later ‘Gardeners World’ (1969-76). He even used his home garden at ‘The Magnolias’ in Shrewsbury as the site where they filmed Gardeners World.
Before a TV celebrity, Percy Thrower was actively involved in the Dig for Victory campaign; this led to him becoming a person of national fame. His appointment on the BBC came just a few years after the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The coronation is widely regarded as the catalyst for a vast increase in TV sales so it’s no wonder that he gained the moniker of the Godfather of Gardening.
While living in Shrewsbury, Percy Thrower took on the role of parks superintendent at the age of 32 years old he was managing a team of 35. The Dingle is regarded as one of his greatest achievements.
Shrewsbury Cathedral. Shrewsbury Cathedral [Digital Image]. Retrieved from www.shrewsburycathedral.org
Shrewsbury Cathedral has an interesting history, and you might be wondering why the building is not such a dominant feature on the Shrewsbury map. Commissioned in 1852 but once building work had begun the design was reworked due to the discovery of sand close to the foundations. This meant the spire was abandoned and the design scaled down. Shrewsbury Cathedral was completed in 1856. You’ll see it next to the town wall within the meander of the Severn.
The name Pengwern comes from an old name for the county of Shropshire, which was originally a Brythonic settlement of sub-Roman Britain. It is most likely the early seat of the kings of Powys before they were pushed West. So why it’s not called the Shrewsbury Boat Club? That’s a good question.
Before Pengwern Boat Club was established, an elitist boat club existed, and you guessed right, it was the Shrewsbury Boat Club. As money began to transcend down to the middle and lower classes Pengwern Boat Club was born. So powerful was the lust to join this new club that by the turn of the 20th century the old club was supplanted. You’ll see the Pengwern Boat Club on the Shrewsbury map where it shares the same stretch of water with the Royal Shrewsbury School Boat Club.
Content by Jamie Smith at StoryThreads