Phil Gillam: Shrewsbury is streets ahead for history

It didn't matter if I was an eight-year-old choosing a comic in WH Smith or an 18-year-old flapping through the newly-released LPs in the record department of John Menzies (remember them?).

Pride Hill, Shrewsbury
Pride Hill, Shrewsbury

The fact is, I’ve always been powerfully aware of the rich history that surrounds us when we go into Shrewsbury town centre; its diversity of architecture from different periods, its lovely churches, the timber-framed shopfronts, its quirky street plan and mysterious alleyways.

Yes, of course, as a little lad I was far more interested in the adventures of Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan in Thunderbirds (as depicted in my favourite comic, TV21) than in Shrewsbury's medieval buildings.

And 10 years later I would have been far more keen to get the latest Roxy Music album than find out more about the structural foundations of Pride Hill.

Nevertheless, that sense of history has always been with me, informing and enriching my love of my home-town.

And so I didn’t want to miss the chance to listen to a leading expert on the town’s history – Dr Nigel Baker, an urban archaeologist since the late 1970s – when he came to the Bear Steps Hall last week.

Dr Baker shone a searchlight into some of the normally undisturbed recesses of our past when he gave his superb talk,

entitled "Pride Hill – Shrewsbury’s Real High Street”, presented to members and guests of Shrewsbury Civic Society.

It was called Shrewsbury’s Real High Street because (a) Pride Hill today is clearly the town’s principal shopping street with all the national chain stores like WHSmith, Boots the Chemists, Marks & Spencer, the Body Shop and so on (and, not so long ago Woolworth’s and Littlewoods), and (b) Pride Hill historically has always been the town’s main street, as opposed to the confusingly named “High Street” running between Pride Hill and Wyle Cop.

Dr Baker explained that indeed Pride Hill was first called Altus Vicus (literally high street) along with the near end of Castle Street before 1300.

At that time the street we now call High Street was still known either as Gumble-stool Street (Ducking-stool Street) or Baker’s Row, only becoming High Street later in the Middle Ages.

We discovered though Dr Baker’s talk that Pride Hill has the remains of Shrewsbury’s earliest known house, Bennett’s Hall, built c.1250, with architectural features of “cathedral-like quality”.

The centuries fall away as you dig a little deeper, and some amazing photographs taken during excavations before the big new shopping centres were built in the 1980s revealed extraordinary glimpses of the original Town Wall and long-hidden structures.

We heard that along much of the north side of Pride Hill, the familiar shops in their Georgian and Victorian buildings, conceal the remains of a series of stone undercrofts, commercial basements and taverns from the 13th and 14th centuries, trapped deep in the cellars.

Of course, these are very rarely visited, except in the case of the ancient setting downstairs in the (recently closed) McDonalds restaurant where you could enjoy centuries-old architecture while eating your burger and chips.

Right across the street, Thornton’s chocolate cabin (one of the prettiest frontages in town) can lay claim to being the town’s most primitive design of shop, a type being built more than 800 years ago.

So a very big thank you to Dr Baker for some wonderful insights.

And if you would like to know more about Shrewsbury Civic Society, telephone 01743 344994 or email info@shrewsburycivicsociety.co.uk

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Comments for: "Phil Gillam: Shrewsbury is streets ahead for history"

'Owd Monner

It's surprising how many of the towns older stone buildings are wrapped around much older oak frames. And yes, I love my town too! Good article Phil