So, as is often the case at social gatherings, when you’re meeting someone new for the first time, they’ll ask what you’re studying, how old you are, which college you’re at, and often, where you’re from. “I’m from Shrewsbury”, I’ll exclaim, to my bemused new acquaintance. And in 90% of cases, “where?” is the default response. Or just silence.
Shrewsbury, as I will often explain, is the county town of Shropshire. “What? Where?” Having panned out from a town of approx 80,000 people, to a county of over 350,000, people still, often, have never heard of or have no idea where, Shrewsbury or Shropshire are.
Well they’re missing out.
When I first visited Oxford, on the Open Day in 2013, my first thoughts were how superficially similar it was to Shrewsbury. The many towering spires, the ancient historical core, the old narrow alleyways through the backstreets, the beautiful parks and the meandering rivers. On this level it can be easy to mistake them for each other. Similar connections between the two places are that Magdalen Bridge and the Covered Market were both designed by Shrewsbury native John Gwynn in the 18th Century, and both Magdalen Bridge and the English and Welsh Bridges in Shrewsbury look nearly identical.
But beyond this things start to get a little different.
Shrewsbury, like Oxford, is an ancient settlement, with recorded settlements dating from Roman times. The initial settlement was ideal given its position within a loop of the River Severn, which almost completely surrounds the town centre. This was a valuable asset for the town given its proximity to Wales during historic hostilities. The only land entrance to the town was easily fortified, and to this day is guarded by the dominating Norman Shrewsbury Castle.
The history of the town is etched throughout its historic centre. The medieval market square at the very heart of the town is a truly picturesque throwback. Tudor buildings line many streets with Victorian stone and Gothic styles woven in between. The grandest example of Victorian decadence remains the externally impressive Shrewsbury Railway Station, at the foot of the 1000 year old castle.
As it was not a target of German bombing during the Second World War, much of Shrewsbury’s historic core remains almost completely intact. However, brutalist designs do still insidiously invade, and sometimes spoil, some aspects of the town.
Despite this I would still recommend you pay Shrewsbury a visit. Similarly to Oxford, tourism is a major sector of the town’s economy. In recent years the town has won Britain in Bloom, and the Guinness Book of Records “longest-running flower show”, the Shrewsbury Flower Show, is an annual two-day event held in August that often pulls massive crowds.
Places of interest around the town include Shrewsbury Library, formally the site of Shrewsbury School. When I first came to Oxford, and explained I was from Shrewsbury, someone asked if I went to Shrewsbury School. Whilst a perfectly logical question to ask, I laughed because the school I went to in Shrewsbury could not have been any further away from Shrewsbury School even if it was built on the moon.
And in a similar way to Oxford, inequality lies unspeaking throughout the town. Whilst the ancient town centre is beautiful and sanitised for tourists, in a similar way to Oxford, the further out one goes, the disparity between the rich and the rest becomes apparent. As a whole Shrewsbury is a very wealthy town, benefiting from being the trading capital of the county given its place on the river, and during the Industrial Revolution, its proximity to the ‘birthplace of industry’ in Coalbrookdale and its position as the ‘gateway to Wales’ via the railway network.
However, despite this there remains massive wealth inequality, which is something as a teenager attending a school that failed its Ofsted inspection and was taken into ‘special measures’ that I often struggled to come to terms with. The white population of the town is significantly higher than the West Midlands average, demographic change is meaning the town is becoming older and older, and my personal experience was that the town was repressively heterosexual.
But please, don’t let me make up your mind on what remains a beautiful town. Visit Shrewsbury if you get the chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.