Bridgnorth through the Ages

A Parish Portrait


Ever since I can remember I have loved Bridgnorth. I don't know how old I was when I first went there, but I do remember rediscovering this Shropshire hill town when I got my first motorbike and roared up from Low Town to High Town to a magnificent feeling of deja vu when I arrived in the High Street. Years later, when I was in the army and stationed in the south of England, I used to deliberately drive through Bridgnorth on my way home at weekends and always experienced that same feeling of home-coming when I entered the town, even though, in reality, my home was another thirty miles on.

Perhaps, through the ages, many have felt as I do because, perched on a rock as it is. Bridgnorth has a solid familiarity and must have been a welcome sight to travellers seeking food and shelter. Perhaps, in those days, it was even better because today I invariably have trouble finding a parking space in the High Street and usually have to find my way to one of the Public Car Parks and part with a few modest pence.

It is not just the hill that the High Town stands on which makes Bridgnorth the spectacular town it is. Some credit must go to the River Severn, perhaps at its most magnificent as it passes through Low Town. I seem to remember from my school days that Roman survivors from the sacking of Viriconium fled down river to Bridgnorth and lived for a while in the caves in the cliffs only to be killed off by the English winter. But that was a long time ago (my school days as well as the sacking of Viriconium) so perhaps my facts are wrong.

Ethelfleda, daughter of King Alfred, and possibly Shropshire's first heroine, is believed to have been the first to realise the importance of Bridgnorth. There is some speculation as to where her encampment was. Some say it was on the site of the present castle, others that it was a mile or so downstream at Quatford, and others that it was on the site of Panpudding Hill close to the town. But whichever it was I prefer to give her the credit for the founding of Bridgnorth than give it to Robert de Belesme, the earl of Shrewsbury, a man who appears to have epitomised the worst of Norman nobles. He is said to have been 'little better than a monster. Able, active and singularly cruel". In fact, the only point in his favour was that he is believed to have been a brilliant engineer, and it was he who was responsible for the building of Bridgnorth Castle.

Its history is long and complex. It withstood siege and fire innumerable times in its 550 year history and a quote from John Corbet Anderson's 'Shropshire - Its Early History and Antiquities', dated 1864, sums it up. - "its ruins, could they speak, might tell of pageantries and banquets, as of many a secret tragedy enacted in the damp, dark dungeon; or these stones, had they a tongue, might boastfully recall the stirring time when the iron storm of war rattled ineffectually upon the surface of the grey and massive walls of Bridgnorth. Its revels are over, the miserable captive, too, has had his release; and a hoary fragment is all that remains of the once famous stronghold."

Bridgnorth is a lovely town to explore and many visitors find fresh things to discover on second or even third visits. The Castle Hill affords fine views, and in 1642 Charles I said that the Castle Walk was 'the finest view in his domains'. That may have been a bit of a diplomatic exaggeration by the King for the benefit of the town's residents, but the views across and along the valley are certainly impressive. The castle was blown up by Parliamentary forces in 1646, and, subsequently, the residents of Bridgnorth demolished the remainder, presumably as it provided a convenient supply of building materials. The resulting ruin leaves a tower lying at an alarming angle, and Brian Bailey in his excellent book 'Portrait of Shropshire' describes it best of all. "..practically every writer on Shropshire is tempted into pointing out that the tilt is considerably greater than that of Pisa's Leaning Tower, but this is at best a cute angle on an obtuse comparison...."

Adjoining the castle site is the church of St. Mary Magdalene which was begun towards the end of the 18th century to the design of Thomas Telford, a man more used to the design of bridges and canals than places of worship. It is a fine building but not necessarily a design that meets with everybody's approval. But viewed from the opposite end of East Castle Street it can be seen at its best, and from that angle it fits into the surrounding architecture in a way that I think Telford wanted. Perhaps he was one of the first architects, and perhaps the last as well, who designed a building to specifically blend with its surroundings.

Because most of High Town was destroyed during the Civil War, the High Street lacks some of the older features that towns with half the history of Bridgnorth have. Nevertheless, it is still one of my favourite town centres in the county and the focal point has to be the Town Hall which straddles the street. It is, in fact, a converted barn, bought or begged from its previous owner in Much Wenlock and rebuilt in its present position with the aid of a nationwide appeal (without the help of Terry Wogan or Bob Geldorf!)

Despite the obvious modernisation of shop fronts in the town there are some interesting buildings in a variety of styles and it is worth walking the length of the High Street looking at the first and second floors instead of the shop fronts. At the far end of the High Street stands Northgate, an 18th-century building standing on the site of earlier structures dating back to the 13th century.

Between Northgate and the Town Hall, Church Street leads to St. Leonard's church. The original pre-13th-century church suffered in the Civil War when it was used as a Royalist magazine and was hit by Parliamentary fire. Since the Civil War, it has been rebuilt and restored on a number of occasions, and what is now visible is essentially 19th century and in the hands of the Redundant Churches Fund. In this part of the town there are a number of attractive houses and it is a pleasant and peaceful area away from the bustle of the main street.

My favourite part of High Town, however, is around the Cartway which was the original road between High and Low Town. So steep is it that extra horses were needed to help the stagecoaches up into High Town. One can easily imagine the clatter of hooves and wheels on stone as the stage negotiated the tight bends and excited children ran, ignoring their mothers' admonishments, after the coach. Near the bottom stands a fine timbered house built in 1580. It is commonly referred to as Bishop Percy's House, which leads me to think that one way of being remembered is to be born in an attractive house. Of course he is remembered by poetry lovers as the author of "The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry' but to many he remains unknown, or at best a vaguely remembered name. To non-poetry-loving Philistines such as I, a far better-known former native of Bridgnorth is Francis Moore who has passed into time to be remembered as 'Old Moore' whose annual almanac can still be found in newsagents across the land. Perhaps if he had had the foresight to be born in a house equally as fine as Bishop Percy's he would be better remembered by the people of Bridgnorth today.

Another method of getting from High to Low Town is down the Stoneway steps which lead from Bank Street at the top to Underhill Street at the bottom. But the most novel method of transiting from High to Low, or more importantly, from Low to High, is by the Cliff Railway. The gradient is a breathtaking one in one and a half, but the descent is sedate and, for me at least, the journey is always over too soon. Low Town tends to live in the shadow of its lofty neighbour in more than a physical sense. Many writers tend to have little to say, having run out of their allotted space before crossing the river. The very terms 'High' and 'Low' perhaps imply a class or station in life and obviously "them up there" cannot help but look down on "those down there". In reality Low Town could be a small town in itself. It has a feel of its own and Mill Street even has the look of a small town centre. Certainly, recent developments on the east side of the river, with new housing and industrial developments, have brought new importance to Bridgnorth and some of this must help to make Low Town less dependent on its neighbour.

Both upstream and downstream of the bridge the scene has changed in recent years. The demise of the river as a transport system meant the adoption of warehouses and the like for fresh uses, and then, in the main, the demolition for more modern buildings. But a little upstream from Low Town on the east side of Fort Pendlestone, a strange-looking building with walls grimy from passing traffic and the variety of small industries they contain. It looks like nothing else but a mock stately home which has been converted for industrial use. In reality it is a mock-stately home built specifically for industrial use. It is a site which has been used since the beginning of the 13th century for a variety of purposes, including grinding corn, smelting iron and a spinning mill. Then after a fire it was rebuilt around the mid-19th century in its present form, but it was not until 1939, when being used as a milk collection point by a cooperative that it was renamed Fort Pendlestone.

Bridgnorth is not just the town, however, On the west side of the river there is Oldbury, an attractive, mature village, apart from a new housing estate, now separated from the town by a bypass. Some claim that this is the site of the original village which supported Ethelfleda's castle on Panpudding Hill. It is a pleasant and rewarding walk from the town, as the church contains a wealth of fine woodwork carved by the villagers.

Further downstream and on the other bank is Quatford, another place which on occasion is said to have been the site of Ethelfleda's castle. The church of St. Mary Magdalene is Norman but with much rebuilding over the years. It was here that Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, met his wife, who had endured a terrible storm at sea and had vowed that should she live she would found a church on the spot where she met her husband. The church stands high on a rock above the little village. Close to the church is a small embattled folly and a little further from the village, back towards Bridgnorth Town, stands Quatford Castle which was built by a builder for himself. It dates from the mid-19th century and has delightful views from its sham fortifications.

The Shropshire Rambler