Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The view from Shrewsbury Abbey

(DISCLAIMER: As an overall nice human being, I do not force entry, vandalize, steal, or disclose means of entry or location if it isn't obvious. I do this to protect locations and respect them. Trespass without forced entry is a civil offense rather than a criminal one, which isn't worth acting on unless one causes damage, steals, has ill intent, etc. I simply photograph and leave everything as I find it. I do not condone breaking and entering, and I do not condone what I do. I'm a danger to myself and a terrible role model )

I think a large part of my happiness is almost a gesture of defiance at nobody in particular. Life throws me lemons, and I eat the damn lemons, keep a straight face throughout, and then remark on how tasty they were, and ask for seconds.  It's very easy to find excuses for why happiness is just out of reach, but we weren't created miserable, the government didn't make us bored, and a lack of wealth never equated to a lack of spirit. We each build our own limitations, and I decided to turn the world immediately around me, wherever I happen to be, into a playground, and explore it in a way it seldom gets explored. And it's bloody awesome.
 Today I'm checking out the view from the top of Shrewsbury Abbey
Of course I'd get there eventually.

This is actually a pretty big deal for me, given that I've somehow managed to get to the top of most of Shrewsburys landmarks, except the one that predates almost all of them. The Abbey is almost a thousand years old and has always been on my to-do list. I was very excited to finally get up there, and if God didn't want it, he wouldn't have given me limbs.

On the site of the Abbey originally stood a small wooden Anglo-Saxon chapel, known as St Peters and St Pauls Chapel, built by a relative of Edward the Confessor, known unflatteringly as Siward the Fat.
In all likelihood, if this was an Anglo-Saxon worship site, then it was probably built on top of a Celtic one, but that's just my speculation and might be completely incorrect.
In 1083, the priest of St Peter and St Pauls Chapel went on a pilgrimage to Rome and came back with the genius idea of persuading the Earl of Shrewsbury, Roger de Montgomery, to turn the shed into something far more impressive. Montgomery sent for a couple of monks from Normandy to direct the construction, which is presumed to have finished in 1087, and as such, Shrewsbury now had an abbey.

And just to throw this out there, Roger de Montgomery had a hostel built for the construction workers, and this hostel became the famous Shrewsbury pub, the Dun Cow. In Tudor times, the pub was repaired with timber from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada of  1588, which can still be seen in the pub today, which is pretty cool, but slightly off topic.

Initially I got in touch with my old accomplice Tree Surgeon for this adventure, because after years of rooftopping together, I didn't want him to miss out. Restorative work has recently been done to the Abbey, and as such there was scaffolding on it. Even though the scaffolding would eventually make it all the way up the tower, we found that it was not required, due to a small door from the lower roof that led into the towers interior. Luckily it was unlocked. Climbing the tower internally was my preferred means of ascending. Climbing such an old building externally might damage it, and I don't want damaging one of my towns most famous historic landmarks on my conscience, although I'm sure the local newspaper would love it. But then that's just how the newspapers work. I'm sure they were disappointed when I explored Chaddeslode House and reported no confidential information had been left behind to make a scandal out of. (But I digress, and bitchilly so. I just loathe the local newspaper.)
So as I was saying, the scaffolding made partially up the Abbey, and once at the base of the tower, we were able to make it to the top through the interior.
I guess it makes sense that the door would be unlocked. The key holders have no reason to lock an exterior door that nobody can get to. And it made me positively giddy to get into this centuries-old tower. 

Humans don't come up here. They have no reason to. Even the Abbeys current staff have no need to come up this far. This absence of humanity was reflected by the presence of birds nests literally built on the towers staircase. 

Check it out! There's an egg and everything!

Also present was a door, which was locked, leading to the actual bell of the tower. I couldn't access the bell, but the door did have a small hole in it, big enough for a camera lens but too small to fit the flash through too, so I had to hold my camera at an odd angle to this hole while keeping it on a long exposure. As such my picture of the bell is blurry, but you can still see it.

I'm still pretty happy to have seen the bell, even if I couldn't access it.

Shrewsbury Abbey did pretty well for itself throughout history. Its abbots all became incredibly powerful people, drawn into politics, given the tasks of inspecting the local military and castle, and of imprisoning important hostages, and from the 13th Century they sat in Parliament. Back then, parliament moved around the country and settled wherever the King happened to be staying at the time. Consequentially parliament was held in Shrewsbury Abbey in 1283 to decide the fate of the last native Prince of Wales. He was killed, and because the medieval times were crazy, his death was a public event at the top of Pride Hill.

In spite of the Abbeys success, it was decided that they lacked anything of great religious significance to put Shrewsbury Abbey on everyones pilgrimage to-do list. A few of the monks did discuss it, and it was pointed out that a huge number of saints were buried just over the border in Wales. Around this time, one of the monks was conveniently "seized by a mental impairment" which was only cured when another monk had a dream in which the deceased St Winifred came to him and told him that she would cure the afflicted monk if they all celebrated mass at her well in Flintshire. They did so and the mentally impaired monk was miraculously cured. As a result, the people of Shrewsbury decided that St Winifred was their personal saint, and so the Cult of St Winifred was born. A chap called Robert Pennant went off into Wales in 1138 and procured the remains of St Winifred, and her uncle, which were then taken to Shrewsbury Abbey for worship.
And it worked! In the era of religious superstitions, a mental impairment, a dream from a saint, and a miraculous healing were all enough to win people over. Shrewsbury Abbeys popularity among pilgrims rose to new heights, and the Abbey prospered.

But in hindsight, and given the desire of the Abbey to obtain a religious relic, one would almost think based on the convenient timing that the monks faked the whole thing to have an excuse to rob some womans grave. Nowadays historians admit that there's not even conclusive evidence that the stolen bones were even St Winifreds or even that she existed at all given that legend tells that she was decapitated but got better simply by having her head reattached, but nevertheless, the Cult of St Winifred was a massive hit at the time.

For the people of Shrewsbury, the Abbey provided job opportunities, education, and hospitality. But in spite of this the relationship with the townsfolk was tenuous and often gave way to violence. In 1121 laws were passed that meant that the townsfolk working on mills would have to give all of their grain to the Abbeys mills, so that the Abbey could profit at the expense of the town. In 1220 this resulted in the construction of illegal mills, a crime that was still being practiced as late as 1422. Another notable clash was over a fair in 1401, which resulted in the Abbey having tollgates put in place that were a nuisance to people passing through town. This resulted in some toll staff getting beaten up by some of the Shrewsbury residents, including Shrewsburys MP.

 So anyway, Tree Surgeon and I made it up onto the top of the tower. It was raining, but the view was brilliant and totally worth the effort. Check it out! This shot looks over towards Shrewsbury town centre.

It's definitely worth noting that Shrewsbury Abbey was once far, far more immense than what we have today. While Thomas Telford is often blamed for the destruction of it, because he drove this big road through it in 1836, the dissolution of monastreys in 1540 also played a huge role in its destruction. A lot of the damage done to the Abbey also happened during the Civil War, when Shrewsbury was a Royalist stronghold and captured by the Parliamentarians. Following the fall of Shrewsbury in 1645, the then-derelict Abbey was used as a prison for captured Royalists for a short period of time.
The Abbey had numerous other buildings connected to it, such as an infirmary, water mills, and accomodation, and between 1540 and 1836 they all gradually slipped away. Many simply became derelict, and were raided for materials. So while Thomas Telford is typically regarded as a vandal for destroying a huge chunk of the Abbey to build a road, from his point of view, the Abbey at the time must have looked pretty shit. Plans were made to preserve the Abbey and its various buildings by reclassifying it as a cathedral, but those plans never came to be a reality. Had they succeeded, we'd perhaps have a lot more Abbey to look at today.

 Down there, next to the carpark, are a couple of exterior buildings that were once part of the Abbey, one of which is known as the Old Infirmary, although it's just a shadow of its former self. In spite of it being called the Old Infirmary, historians pretty much agree that it was never any such thing, and it is commonly believed that it was actually a waterfront store house, since the river would have come right up to it.
For ghost enthusiasts, it's been the site of a few ghostly monk sightings too!

 Over on the other side of those trees is Asda, and while it is just a big bleak carpark from here until there, this area once had the Guest Hall, named Abbey Mansion, and beyond that were large fishing pools, and an artificial mill stream designed to route the water through the mill. All of this was paved over and filled in when a small train station was constructed here in 1866, but the tracks have since been pulled up too and now it's just a big bleak carpark.

 But down here poking out of the trees is one of the more curious remnants of the Abbey, the Stone Pulpit. Before Thomas Telford built the road at the bottom of this picture, the Abbey would have extended over to that pulpit, which was actually indoors. In fact it was in the Abbeys refectory, and someone would have stood in it and preached to the monks as they ate.
That whole portion of the Abbey was torn down to make this road, but the pulpit has survived and today makes for an interesting garden ornament. It's survival is largely due to the Langley Family, who lived in the Abbey Mansion, which stood behind this garden. They converted the pulpit into a small gazebo, and that was how it remained until the mansion was demolished in 1865.

 Very faintly on the horizon, one can see Lord Hills Column protruding on the skyline.

 Over there is the railway signal box and Shrewsbury train station.

And right over there is the river, with the central Shrewsbury locations visible, such as the church spires, with the clocktower peeking out from behind one, and the Parade Shopping Centre sitting in front of another. Look closely and one can also see Shrewsbury Library, and Lauras Tower too!

Isn't this awesome?
So for those who might be unfamiliar, those photos basically did a counter-clockwise rotation from the Abbeys tower.

Whats left of the Abbey would quite possibly have been lost but in 1840 a local consortium raised the money to buy it, and preserve what was left until 1885 when sufficient money was gathered to aid in drastic restoration, turning the once-great Abbey into the church that stands today.

But that's a seriously abridged story of the Abbey. There's a lot that could be expanded on. Whole books have been written about it.

While I haven't got much else to show from the tower itself, I will include a closer look at the stone pulpit.

As mentioned, this thing only survived because it was temporarily turned into a gazebo. In fact, the windows were fitted with glass and there was even a door on it once. It was completely weatherproofed and made for a nice place to just sit and chill. It became disused when the Abbey Mansion was demolished.
 Nowadays this garden is off limits to the public, but if I blindly obeyed that rule, I wouldn't be able to get such a nice shot of it. And there's more! The ceiling has Jesus on it!

 It's a very odd depiction but it's unmistakably a cross with a dude on it.
I have always wondered why a religion allegedly looking forward to the second coming would greet the messiah with images of him dying in agony. Imagine greeting JFK with a gun, or Joan of Ark with a burning witch effigy at a bonfire. The crucifix seems more suitable as a symbol for the worship of Judas, since it's the outcome of his dirty work.

In fact why aren't there more churches for Judas? It makes sense for humans living under a corrupt government to worship someone who betrayed their master! Heck, why aim as high as the government? Hate your boss? Have a controlling partner? The Church of Judas is for you! It makes more sense than the Cult of St Winifred, thats for sure!

Anyway on another note, the Abbeys so-called Old Infirmary has a few notable features that the public walk past without noticing every single day, and that's the remnants of archways poking out from the ground.

 There's two ancient looking ones here, which apparently descend into the ground to a depth of nine feet, which is where the riverbank would have been back in the medieval times. These archways were allegedly used to unload cargo from barges that would have come up the river, delivering stock to the Abbey.
The majority of this building was demolished in 1836, with what remains turned into a malthouse, connected to a nearby mill. The mill burned down in 1906 and this building was gutted.

This third archway is a little more modern looking, being made out of brick. This building can be traced back to 1746, making it a relatively recent addition to the Abbey. At the time the Langley family owned the land, and were living in Abbey Mansion, so it's unknown why they had a second residential building constructed. Nevertheless that is still unmistakably an old archway in the road. Whatever its purpose was, I dont know for sure, but I do have a speculation.

The proximity of this building to where the Mill Stream was makes me wonder if this was an archway allowing for the passage of water, but I don't know for sure.

And that's one of the cool things about the Abbey. So much of it is just speculation and rumour. Rumours circulate about underground tunnels linking the abbey to just about every major landmark in Shrewsbury, and given the size and prosperity that the Abbey once had, it's certainly possible that there were tunnels leading away from it. But given the fact that vast chunks of the Abbey have been demolished, and paved over with roads, carparks, railways, and other buildings, it's likely that whatever tunnels were once underneath the Abbey will never be found.

The best supporting evidence I have ever found for tunnels connecting to the Abbey were actually in the cellar of a building across the street from it.

 Even though there is electricity in some parts of the cellar, it's going unused, and is more labyrinthian than a regular cellar, with various passageways leading out, under the street before getting blocked off.

 Theres a doorway down here, facing towards the Abbey. It's full of clutter and rocks, but towards the bottom of the doorway is actual brickwork. It looks as though the doorway was bricked up, bashed down again, and then refilled with whatever was handy later on. There's no getting down there now.

And another curiosity down here is that the floor is cobbled.

So given these tunnels, and their proximity to the Abbey, and the obvious history down here, and the curiosities, it's easy to see why some might speculate if it once led to the Abbey.
But it is all speculation and there are no conclusive answers. The Abbey is almost a thousand years old, and that's plenty of time to have millions of changes here and there.
In fact, given that the so-called Infirmary proves that the ground was once lower in some places by at least nine feet, I'm open to the idea of these passages once being above ground. But again, it's speculation.

However I'm thrilled to have made it to the top of the Abbey while I had the chance. Given that the general public are not allowed up, and the Abbey staff themselves rarely go up there, it's not just historically rare to have been at the top, but it could be years before anyone else does too, although I am aware through social media that other adventurers and rooftoppers made the same adventure that Tree Surgeon and I did. Even so, the number of people who have had the same view is still very low.

On a final note, I'll leave you with this artists impression of how the Abbey might have looked back in its glory days.

You'll notice that the familiar tower is still there, but the Abbey sprawls out beyond it. The bridge at the bottom left of the picture and the road at the top right are now connected  by a straight road by Thomas Telford, and literally everything caught in the middle was demolished. Where the carpark is today, there are two large fishing pools and a mill stream, and in the bottom of the picture, you'll see that the river severn came right up to the so-called Infirmary, where the archways are connected to a dock.
It's strange seeing this, recognising it, but at the same time seeing something completely different to what exists today.

Anyway that's all I got today. If you like the photos or if you like the adventure, or if you like history, share this blog post wherever you want. Don't forget to follow my Instagram, my Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Next blog post I'm checking out a nuclear bunker! It'll be awesome.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. The pics of the tunnel are fascinating - looks like C19 brick for the most part so probably post Thomas Telford