Darwin drives evolution of English borders town

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The 2009 bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury’s most famous son, completed the evolution of this handsome border outpost within an almost circular loop of the River Severn into one of England’s most attractive day trip and short break destinations. And the “new” Roman villa at nearby Wroxeter (it featured in Channel 4‘s 'Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day') is now open to the public. Gareth Huw Davies goes green and takes the train to one ''England's finest Tudor towns.'' Picture of Shrewsbury Abbey, over the Severn - the writer, September 2009.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

The “new” Roman villa at nearby Wroxeter (it featured in Channel 4‘s ''Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day'') is now open to the public.

A team of seven builders with no experience of traditional techniques mastered traditional Roman methods to construct the villa, largely by hand. It The facsimile high status Roman town house was based on an actual building excavated at what was the Roman city of Viroconium in Roman times. People who watched ''Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day'', which followed the men through the project, will have seen for themselves the huge amount of non-mechanised toil they put into the project, mixing by hand huge amounts of lime mortar and plaster.
Building blocks had been hewn from the raw sandstone, and carried on site by hand Interior decorations included frescoes and mosaics, designed and executed by the workmen themselves. They also followed Roman tradition by working lucky phallic symbols Into the brickwork. The completed Villa, painted bright yellow and red, is now a conspicuous landmark over the flat Shropshire fields. In the care of English Heritage, it can be visited from March to October (10am - 5pm).

Lion Sleeps

Did the Lion, Shrewsbury’s 16th century coaching inn, alter the course of
science? A certain harassed young man in a frantic hurry was grateful for the
stratospheric speed of the “Shrewsbury Wonder” coach to London - 158 miles
in under 16 hours. The Lion’s owners started the service a few years earlier.
Would Darwin have caught the Beagle, for the voyage that led to his theory of
evolution, without it? After the railways finished off the Wonder, management
concentrated on running a hotel of distinction for guests such as Disraeli,
Paganini (who performed here) and Dickens, who worked on Pickwick Papers
here. Many fine old features survive - the mazy corridors, creaking wooden
floors, big old beds and the magnificent Tudor fireplace.

Mini-break, including train travel, from £99, including return train with
Wrexham & Shropshire.

Wroxeter rocks

Dickens was one of the first to gape in wonder in 1859 at the great wall of a
Roman bath house recently unearthed at Wroxeter. This garrison, where
Roman Watling Street. met the River Severn, 5 miles from today’s Shrewsbury,
was a thriving city for retired (evidently fitness-obsessed) soldiers. After 1400
years of underground slumber, this huge site, the fourth largest Roman town in
Britain, became one of the first archaeological visitor attractions.
The excellent museum explains the health and beauty practices of 5000
citizens. Take the headphones tour, for an account of how Romans kept fit in
chilly Britain. Very impressive are the 2nd-century municipal baths, and a big
chunk of the huge wall dividing it from the exercise hall. Then see the Roman vineyard next door.

Shop small

Think of Shrewsbury as a retail equivalent of a wagon train in the American
West. Within this town of 400 year old black and white timber-framed
properties in the big protective loop in the River Severn, hundreds of
independent shops huddle together for economic security. They line the
town’s suddenly sloping streets, its ancient passages and crooked ways,
selling top notch chocolate, old books, hand rolled cigars, Japanese groceries
and much more. The specialist shops opted for online salvation, and grouped
together under the banner All The Little Shops of Shrewsbury – a marketing
ploy since taken up nationally. And there are distinctive restaurants to
match – I liked the Cornhouse restaurant, using local produce
( And the Bellstone ( for

River roam

Just over the English Bridge is Shrewsbury Abbey, where the fictional Caedfel
solved crime. First World War poet Wilfred Owen is buried in the grounds,
under a shrine representing his poignant paean to brotherly love “A Strange
Meeting.” Then I followed the curling path along the banks of the Severn, with
a motley company of walkers and joggers and a cycling cox urging on skullers
on the river, to the park BBC Gardener Percy Thrower tended when he worked
here. Over the river is Shrewsbury School, site of cricketing poetry. The great
cricket writer Neville Cardus worked there around 1912: he would “gather the
stumps from a dozen pitches and carry them in sheaves, a solitary reaper in
the evening sunshine.” I ended my walk at the Welsh Bridge, at the Armoury
pub (great use for an old industrial building, opposite the brand new Theatre
Severn) for a pint of Shropshire Lad.

Time line

The Bellstone (in the courtyard of Morris Hall, centre of town), smoothed by
countless finers, is one of the most conspicuous pieces of evidence that led
Darwin to his great theory. The young Charles saw that extremely ancient
geological forces must have moved the stone here, many miles from the
Scottish Borders, where it is usually found. So the world had to be much older
than people thought. The stone is one of the stops on the Darwin Trail. They
include the elegant round St Chad’s Church where he was baptized, his old
school, where he didn’t wash his feet - “I confess it is nasty, but we have
nothing to do it with”. And his statue outside. There are some striking
monuments to the man – the Darwin Gate with its clever alignments, and the
remarkable new 40 feet Quantum Leap, marking the 200th anniversary of his

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