Dateline September 15th 2001; Jenni and I left Hinckley rather later than originally intended and forged our way along the Midlands motorway network with almost unseemly haste. The urgency? Well, apart from our keenness to meet new Forum Friends and renew acquaintance with others, there was also the thought of Fil, standing forlornly at Telford station, awaiting his lift to Much Wenlock! Fortunately (for Fil, who remained unforlorn) we arrived at the station some ten minutes in advance of his train and were thus able to greet him with convincing calmness.
Looping the loop around a Telford roundabout, and performing a U-turn on a dual carriageway (and yes, ye of little faith, there was a gap through which to execute this manoeuvre) we navigated our way to Much Wenlock, the nominated meeting place, and embarked on a short game of Hunt-the-carpark, Having successfully identified the Parking sign, cunningly obscured by foliage, we were then able to make our way on foot to the Carol Anne's Tea Shop, in the window of which Keith S had thoughtfully arranged for a TimeTeam sign to be displayed. This was such an excellent establishment that we felt obliged to sample their refreshments before commencing our tour. Jenni reminds me that the décor was indubitably pink, but it was warm and friendly, and the colours worked well.
A flurry of introductions ensued, with, as usual, no-one looking in the flesh like one's mental image of them from their Forum contributions. Since none of us escaped Chris' camera though, the evidence will no doubt appear adjacent to this report [The group picture taken by Fil will appear here shortly!]. I would like to list everyone's names, but I fear my memory will fail at this hurdle. So for those people whose names are omitted or mis-spelled, I offer my apologies in advance ...
Keith S, Bilbo, Dougal and his nephew, Stephen, Tim and Bindy, Helen, Chris "Awkward", Sol, Anne B and Bob B, Nicholas and Yvonne, Cally, Jenni, Fil and me, Jan. Co (a stalwart of TTFF outings) was stuck in traffic and would find us in about half an hour. Our guides arrived and we made our way across the road to our first port of call: Gerry Bowden's back garden, the scene of an early Time Team dig. This addition to the usual guided tours of Much Wenlock's heritage had been specially arranged for us, and we weren't disappointed. Apparently unflustered by the invasion of his garden by 18 Forum Friends and two guides, he was generous enough to spend time to describe his experience of the dig, and also of a repeat, untelevised return to the site by the Team. He showed us photos and mementoes of the occasion, including his copy of a Victor Ambrus impression of the site. It was fascinating to learn that the repeat visit showed evidence that the Great Hall, which had been believed to occupy the length of the garden, was subsequently found to have been on a lateral orientation, and crossed the boundary line into his neighbour's property. It was a real privilege to have this included on our tour.
Splitting into two groups, we then went off with our respective guides to take our tour of the town, its history and some of its people. People like Dr. William Penny Brookes, the architect of the modern Olympic movement, and a local benefactor who endowed the town with its library. He was the inaugurator of the "Much Wenlock Olympic Games" which are still held now, and met de Coubertin in Much Wenlock's Gaskell Arms to discuss international games. Author Mary Webb ("Precious Bane"), broadly contemporary with George Eliot, who is renowned as "Shropshire's greatest author" hails from Much Wenlock too. The town is rich in historical building: we saw evidence of the effects of Window Tax in the bricked in windows of a town-house, the effect of window panes having been recreated in paint. A fine example of a cruck cottage stands just behind the main street with its wooden structure still firm, and the nearby, timber-framed Brook House Farm still accommodates an ancient well. Next to Dr. Penny Brookes' library is a building (now a pub) featuring triangular windows which are thought to have been fashioned for rope-making.
We walked to the end of Back Lane, and arrived at the High Street, and viewed the exterior of Ashfield House, which is believed to be on the site of a 13th Century beggars' hospital. The house became the home of the Lawley family, who built the older portion of the structure in the 16th Century. The family had previously occupied Rindleford Hall, on which the Georgian building now known as the Gaskell Arms now stands. Ashfield House became an Inn during the 17th Century, known as 'The Blew Bridg' (sic) and local tradition holds that Charles I stayed there on his way to Edgehill in 1642. The house is once more in private ownership now. Almost spoiled by the amount of history before us, we rounded the corner into King Street and saw an original 17th Century "Squatter's Cottage". This was built under the prevailing rule that if the chimney stack could be built between dusk, and dawn on the following day, then the builder had right of occupancy. It's a very small building, with its chimney forming the centre of the house. Incidentally, an example of a similar cottage is on show at nearby Blist's Hill museum, where visitors can walk in and marvel at how a large number of people (2 adults and up to six or seven children) could live in such a tiny, two-roomed shelter.
We walked back along High Street towards the modern shopping area, where our guide showed us yet more buildings worthy of attention. Prominent amongst these is Raynauld's Mansion, a 17th Century façade (itself intricate and engaging) behind which a mediaeval hall still exists. This building, although appearing residential, is, in fact an antiques shop, and has housed a commercial enterprise for much of its existence. Further down the High Street is the 14th Century Talbot Inn, but the historic buildings jostle for attention.
The tour then turned onto Barrow Street where we viewed the Victorian restoration of St. Milburga's Well. Its water was believed to provide a cure for eye complaints, and more recently, Victorian young ladies threw crooked pins into the water in the hope that they would be granted a suitor. Jenni, unaccountably, refused to climb down the well to check whether the well was dry, although the greenery suggests at least some moisture survives. Across the road from the well, a house stands apparently not distinguishable from the others in the row, until they eye finds its chimney, which is constructed from similar stone to the Priory. It is thought likely that this was, originally, the site of a monastic guest house, and that the chimney represents the original structure.
Our indefatigable guide then turned us towards the Guildhall and the Holy Trinity Church, the central portion of which is Norman, with the later additions of the tower, and the 13th Century Porch. Time only permitted an external view of the church, however, so its interior remains a treat to be savoured on a future visit. Our tour ended after the church, and we were then free to explore on our own for the hour before we were due to convene in the George and Dragon, where they were expecting the entire party for lunch.
Fil, Helen, Jenni and I decided to use our hour to visit the Priory, although the Church and Museum were also tempting. We ambled towards the Priory, going through the English Heritage Shop in order to purchase our tickets. In an amazing departure from tradition, Jenni emerged from the shop without a book! (Other than her Priory Guide, that is!).
The 12th / 13th Cluniac Priory was built on the site of a monastery established in the 7th Century by St. Milburga. After the Norman invasion, the lands were granted to Roger de Montgomery, a major benefactor of the continental Abbey of Cluny and he seems to have extended his benefice to Much Wenlock, rebuilding the religious establishment and bringing monks across from France to run it. Although now in ruins, the Priory was clearly an imposing set of buildings and its scale is evident from the ruined pillars which run along the length of the site. Sitting in a hollow in the Shropshire hills, it is well presented for modern visitors, the stone rising from trimmed grass and softened by topiary bushes featuring birds and animals, making the whole a very photogenic and attractive image.
The route from the English Heritage shop leads the visitor into the Nave, and we lingered there for a few minutes, taking in the overall scene. Then Jenni made a beeline for the Lavatorium (no, really!), located in the centre of the Cloister, and its remains still showed clearly the facilities available for the Priory's residents. It would have been helpful for Steff to have been there as our previous Silurian visit to Caerleon and Caerwent indicated that he had an affinity for ancient latrines! Meanwhile, Helen's and my attention was caught by a purposeful squirrel who was busying himself burying his nuts under one of the topiary hedges.
Having imagined a wash-and-brush-up at the Lavatorium, we ambled across the grass to the Chapter House, the remains of which showed ornate arched stonework on the walls. Over a doorway at the east end of the Chapter house is a stone carving of a two-headed serpent, its awful visage still warning the chance visitor of the consequences of transgression. Emerging from the east end into the south transept, we saw Helen's squirrel again, this time tucking into a meal. Fil leapt into action at this point and changed the lens on his camera to capture the image of our new furry friend licking his nuts. Er ... beech nuts, that is. Fil would have taken another shot, but the squirrel tired of being stalked by the 'paparazzi' and scarpered. We explored the Choir and the Nave, but time was rushing by and our tummies were starting to complain. By common consent, we made our way back through the shop, where a couple of minor purchases were made (including a helmeted pewter knight by yours' truly) and then found our way to The George and Dragon to meet up with the rest of our Forum Friends and order our lunches.
Of course, this couldn't be achieved without a short stop at the market situated under the Guildhall, where traders had an intriguing range of bric-a-brac and antiques for sale, including jewellery, china and scales. It was a close run thing, but we all managed to escape this shopping opportunity with our wallets unscathed and found our way into the pub.
Following an excellent lunch, we had to decide whether to visit Blist's Hill museum (a Victorian living history museum in Ironbridge Gorge) or Buildwas Abbey. Jenni and I opted for Blist's Hill, but other Forum Friends will take over the reporting detail at this point. For anyone who didn't go, you missed a great day out!
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