After some trial and error, Z and I have a policy that when we travel we spend at least two nights in any given place, though we believe three nights is better. With one night, the place you stop is really just a waiting room for the next leg of the journey. With two nights, you are either coming or going. With three, you can settle in a little, maybe unpack part of your suitcase, return to a favorite pub, feel familiar enough with a few places that if someone asks for directions you aren’t lying if you point them up a particular street. Shrewsbury was my first experience with a one-night stand that worked perfectly, despite rain that wouldn’t stop.
Sometimes it’s good when you break your own rules.
Train stations in England seem to be universally designed for discomfort so you’ll spend as little time there as possible. Euston is no exception. We like to arrive extra early when we are departing, so the lack of seats, general chaos, and giant digital board everyone stands gawping at, wasn’t exactly welcoming. Fortunately, we had splashed out an extra $18 for first class tickets which meant we had access to Virgin’s upstairs lounge.
As it turns out, one reason you should pack light when traveling in Europe (or possibly anywhere but North America) is the size and quality of the elevators. Our hotel’s elevator in London felt cramped if another couple got in with us, but the one shuttling us and our five bags of varying sizes up to the first class lounge where we are promised snacks and free wifi is basically the size of a phone box built for two. It is glass, so we watch an elderly couple ascend to the floor above us and then descend because they can’t figure out how to escape the pod. We laugh knowingly with the people in line behind us. Clearly this couple is a pair of boobs, unschooled in basic elevator mechanics. Eventually, the box returns empty and Z and I stuff ourselves in, press the button, and chug slowly upwards. I lean against the wall while we wait for the journey to end—clearly hamsters on a wheel somewhere are powering this thing. Suddenly, the lift stops. We can peer down at the people below us, and we have an idea of our destination above us, but there is no movement. There also isn’t room to dig for the Xanax I’ll need if we are going to be indefinitely stuck in this glass coffin. Then I see a sign about keeping clear of the walls, which aren’t moving with the lift, so I shift myself away from the wall and the elevator starts moving again. When we see the couple that had gotten stuck before us, I look at them and mentally retract my “boob” description. (After spending an hour in the lounge eating our lunch, we opt to descend via the staircase, with Z makes multiple trips to collect our bags and I make a mental list of all the ways we can and will pack lighter next time.)
The trip to Birmingham is delightful with views of bucolic fields and little hamlets, though I find it impossible to stay awake. As someone who often has insomnia, I would be the first in line to buy a bed that is created to simulate both the sound and movement of a train or ferry. I can’t keep my eyes open. At Birmingham, the peace of the first leg of the journey is shattered. The station is crowded and under construction. The platforms are labeled in an orderly fashion except our platform, which is as mysterious as Harry Potter’s platform 9 ¾. When we finally spot a set of escalators that looks like it might lead us to where we need to be, we discover the train is about to leave without us and have to run, rolling our luggage as fast as we can. In movies, running for a train always looks romantic and exciting. In reality, it’s awful. I’m huffing and puffing and my new four-wheeled suitcase doesn’t want to go the direction I’m going. The only car we can reach before the train pulls out is the last one where all the other late arrivers have poured themselves. We are sandwiched with all of our luggage in the little entryway amongst a group of similarly out-of-breath people, including a friendly young woman with a baby in a pram. Every time the baby threatens to whimper, she shoves a Cadbury Finger in his mouth and I worry that he’ll choke but am appreciative of his chocolaty agreeableness. Eventually, a seat opens up that the chivalrous Z directs me to though he has to stand for another half hour.
Fortunately, the minute we step out of the station and into Shrewsbury, all of our traveling angst disappears. It is exactly the town I’ve wanted to spend a day in even though two days ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever even heard of Shrewsbury. It is medieval with all the little twisty lanes and crooked buildings you could want, and there are flowers everywhere. Our hotel, The Prince Rupert, is on Butcher Row, right across from a a lingerie shop, where spinning mannequins display intimate apparel in the Tudor-era building. A small, picturesque church stands on the corner. Prince Rupert was the grandson of James I and our hotel was his home. It is slightly less luxurious than the website photos indicate, but it is quirky and charming and we aren’t unhappy with it, threadbare as it is.
Full disclosure: we booked the hotel when we read that it had an elevator. The excessive nature of our luggage situation makes an elevator a real boon. Then we see the elevator. My mother’s nearly useless, too-small coat closet is bigger than this lift. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise we aren’t both going to fit into it at once, so we take separate trips up and I refuse to ride it for the rest of our stay. (When we leave the next day, I help Z cram the luggage into the tiny thing, then cram Z into the tiny thing, kiss him goodbye just in case, and then race downstairs for the reunion.)
We spend very little time in the room because we have very little time in Shrewsbury. After a quick tea at Camellia’s next to the hotel (where I re-discover my love of crumpets), we head into the winding, medieval streets, snapping photos at every turn because the whole place looks like the set of some historical movie. Ultimately, our destination is the Quarry. Unlike it’s name and the quarry where Fred Flintstone earns his living there in Bedrock, this Quarry is a large, gorgeous park that butts up against the River Severn. Inside the Quarry is a gated off section called The Dingle, wherein there are some of the most gorgeous flowers I have ever seen. The brochure we read earlier boasted three million blooms. I don’t know who does the counting, but they may have underestimated.
There’s a formal garden, a beautiful pond with fountain, artfully arranged trees and shrubbery, and various memorials to England’s war dead. The school children must have recently done a unit on the animals who were in service and gave their lives (though perhaps didn’t volunteer to do this!) during the First World War, so in one section of the garden there staked to the ground are children’s drawings of various enlisted animals.
Once we leave the Dingle, we see a statue of Hercules that is quite stunning. He used to live in town but in order not to offend the ladies, he was situated so his nethers faced away from the center of town so the “fairer sex” need only see his bare bum. Now, he is living in the Quarry, happily displaying his fig leaf to all. We walk around the Severn, speculating about whether the building we see on the hill is where native son Charles Darwin and Michael Palin went to school (it wasn’t) and greeting passersby as we circle the town.
It is the perfect leisurely antidote to the hubbub of London. After dinner at an Italian restaurant with Darwin-themed wallpaper, we stop at Waitrose (a grocery chain) to get a few supplies like bottled water because we don’t know if they’ve replaced the pipes in the hotel since Prince Rupert’s era, and then we call it a night. I have a little trouble sleeping after I read in the hotel brochure that there have been some hauntings.
The next morning we get a late start, check out of the hotel but ask them to look after our luggage, and have a very un-picturesque brunch at Burger King. Surely this alone is proof that I am not a fabulist. A fabulist would have invented something much better, but we want cheap and we want quick because Shrewsbury Castle awaits.
A smallish and not-that-ornate red sandstone building, Shrewsbury Castle’s original parts date back to the 11th century, though there have been several additions to the present incarnation. My love of castles is largely based on fairy tales and the Fisher-Price castle I had as child that had turrets and a moat and a fire-breathing dragon kept in a dungeon behind a portcullis. This castle is a little less romantic in that it now houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum. It is an impressive collection of uniforms and other military artifacts from the 18th century to the present day (if you can be impressed by such things). Z looks over the displays contentedly, while I try to find more personal elements to distract me from the ceremony of regimental life: a description of life for the wives of the soldiers, letters penned at the front (whichever front it is), photos of individual soldiers. In a huge case full of swords and uniforms, I zero in on a wooden spoon, hoping for some domestic connection, only to discover it was the “prize” for worst bugler.
We make our way to a room where weddings are held where a photo album of past brides and grooms is displayed. It seems a dubious place to begin married life, surrounded by the accoutrement of war. The photos in the archway by the heavy, ancient-looking door are stunning though.
Very little of the castle’s history seems to be covered here other than in a small, stuffy room where there are panels with the castle’s early days recorded there. I’m fascinated to discover that the battles covered in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I are directly related to the battlefields near the castle.
Z and I walk the castle grounds, hike up to Laura’s Tower, where there are great views of Shrewsbury, and then find ourselves in a rainstorm, huddled under our cheap London umbrellas. Since we’ve checked out of the hotel, we’re homeless until our train leaves for Wales in the evening. We see the library across from the castle, housed in a beautiful old building—the former school of Charles Darwin—and so go there to write postcards and wait out the rain.
While it seems a silly place to spend our precious Shrewsbury time, I love being inside this space with people who aren’t tourists. It has been repurposed cleverly. Ancient-looking beams and other architectural elements have been kept intact. I’d happily spend the whole afternoon here, perusing books, but we have items on our list that we want to tick off: a visit to the chemist’s to get some antihistamine cream for some mosquito bites I’ve acquired, a stop at two stationery stores, a bookstore, and Neil’s Yard, a store I discovered in London in 1992 that sells a variety of potions in cobalt blue bottles. Also, there is the matter of me wanting to stop back by a shop where a gorgeous William Morris coverlet is on sale, though Z declares it “ugly” and I spend the rest of the day, in vain, explaining the merits of Morris designs.
Ultimately, we end up in a sleepy pub where we kill time happily for a couple of hours, eating lunch, having a drink, writing more postcards, watching local people interact with each other. It’s a perfect pub in that I think we are the only tourists in residence. It’s dark but cheerful, and one of the customers has his little dog with him. The rain buckets down but we don’t care—we are warm, cozy, and dry.
Because the rain won’t let up, we leave the pub and scurry back to yesterday’s tea room so I can have another round of crumpets, then we make our way to the hotel where we camp out in the lobby for 45 minutes while waiting for our taxi to take us to the train bound for Wales. No doubt there are more experiences to be had in Shrewsbury (certainly there were more stores and cafes to visit, and with another day or two, I might have won Z over on the issue of William Morris bedding), but I’ve enjoyed this lazy, rainy day, killing time in what is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been in. I’m glad we broke our own rules.