A Parish Portrait
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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