Bishop's Castle and Clun, Shropshire
PUBLISHED: 11:26 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 02:11 06 February 2013
Bishops Castle and Clun are packed with personality and people who love to put on a show, says Sarah Hart.
PICTURES BY JOHN SNOWDON
Bishops Castle, with its cheery coloured houses and lively community, and the neighbouring chocolate box town of Clun rank among the most enchanting places in South Shropshire. Each has a huge dollop of personality, an ancient history and a pride in keeping local traditions alive. A mix of charm and fascination, they are a magnet for artists and craftspeople, writers and musicians, free-thinkers, eco-campaigners, real-ale drinkers.
Barely a month slips by, between May to December, without a festival or pageant hosted by one or the other of these historic market towns. The merry-making always begins on the first May bank holiday weekend at Cluns famous three-day Green Man Festival that includes lots of music, street performances, maypole dancing and a medieval spring fair. A major highlight is the ceremonial battle between an elaborately costumed Green Man and the Frost Queen signifying the banishment of winter and the ushering in of summer. The merriment is followed by the Bishops Castle May Fair on May 7 and 8.
The best things about this little oasis are its lovely old buildings, its buzzing social calendar, brewing tradition, creative shopkeepers and talented traditional craftsmen and women.
Bishops Castle has kept alive many of the old English festival traditions that would have once been common in most towns and villages. It celebrates one pageant each season, the most spectacular being the Michaelmas Fair (September 18-19) in which the centre of town becomes a stage for musicians, dancers, theatre, Morris men and acrobats. Stalls line the streets and a large vintage vehicle rally, from sleek classic sports cars to gleaming giant steam-rollers, ends in a procession through the town.
A tandem triathlon and a stone skimming championship are some of the more quirky events and midsummer rejoicing includes a traditional rushbearing procession led by folk dancers. Rock legends Eric Clapton and Robert Plant are among the most illustrious names to have played gigs in the drinking holes of Bishops Castle. Plant chose The Three Tuns Inn as the debut for his band Priory of Brion in 1999. The music tradition continues with regular live bands performing at The Crown and Anchor Vaults pub.
A real ale paradise
Dubbed the home of real ale Bishops Castle has two wonderful, award winning, independent breweries and every pub in town is a freehouse serving a wide selection of real ales. The Real Ale Festival, held every July, is a major event with both breweries producing special beers and holding brewery tours.
The Three Tuns Brewery, its iconic Victorian tower stretching up behind the old pub of the same name, dates back to 1642 and claims to be the oldest working brewery in Britain. Today its back in the hands of the Roberts family who first bought it in the 1880s and ran it until the 1970s.
The Six Bells Brewery at the other end of town was resurrected by Big Nev Richards, who also hails from a long line of brewers, in 1997 on the site of the original brewery that closed down in the 1900s. All his beers are on sale at his delightful pub The Six Bells, a 17th century coaching inn that has been licensed continuously since 1750.
The personality of Bishops Castle is an appealing blend of the traditional farming communities that surround the town and the arty types who have fled here, largely from the South of England, since the 1960s in search of a peaceful haven. Its not surprising then that the town is full of people doing interesting things.
Walk along the main street and youll find mostly independent shops. A family butcher, antique dealers and traditional outfitters, Gwythers one of the last places in Britain where you can get shoes traditionally mended. There are fabulous specialist shops too:
Sol Delicatessen and Cookware
Robin Fox, a farmers wife, opened Sol three years ago after a number of years as a market trader. Her shop, housed in one of Bishops Castles oldest and most stunning buildings, sells divine food and beautiful cookware. A must visit for any foodie. Robin makes all her own delicious bread, cakes, pies and quiches.
Art and Artisan Books
Across the road former garden designer Judith Bowen and her daughter Rachel Hawes, a freelance theatre wardrobe supervisor, have teamed up to create a heavenly art and design bookshop that attracts specialist customers from all over the country. When the old art book shop in Ludlow closed down we missed it. This property became vacant so we decided to start our own book shop, explains Rachel.
Theres a large artists community around here and so were well supported by the locals. We also get a lot of customers coming from much further afield from Manchester, Leeds, Brighton saying they havent got anything like this where they live.
The women sell mostly art and design books, including fashion and architecture, plus related subjected such as lifestyle, travel, cookery and gardening. Theres a great value discounted book section and the shop also stocks Persephone 20th century fiction classics, exquisite wrapping paper and cards. On the evening of June 4th the garden designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks, author of The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, will be holding a book signing for Art and Artisan Books at The Three Tuns Inn.
This is an excellent extensive second-hand book and record shop, opened by Jock and Carol Wright 29 years ago after they left their teaching jobs in London in search of a quieter life. It stocks 7,000 books, mainly non-fiction, and some 3,000 classical CDs and 3000 classical LPs. We have regular customers who travel 100 miles, some further afield, says Jock. Yarborough House also has a lovely coffee shop selling delicious cakes made by Robin Fox.
This radio control model, toy and hobby shop was opened by Mark Leavesley, a former member of the British paragliding team, and his wife Sian a year ago. For many years the couple worked in Marks family model business in the West Midlands the second largest retailer of its kind in the UK. When his parents retired he and Sian opened their own shop and online business. In 1999 Mark came second in the world model jet flying championships, and he has worked for film and television flying large model aircraft. Hes also a drummer, sometimes seen performing with his band The Mouths at The Crown and Anchor.
One of Bishops Castles oldest shops, Jim and Diane Gaffney sell handmade textiles and rugs that they have sourced directly from makers in Turkey and the Far East.
This health food shop, found just out of town at Lydham, is one of the biggest and best of its kind in the Midlands.
Bishops Castle has a market in the Town Hall every Friday and a farmers market on the third Saturday of the month.
Art and Craft
The town has a healthy sprinkling of lovely gift and gallery shops. Among them The Gallery selling beautiful ceramics, glass, textiles and artworks by local and national artists and craftspeople.
Old Time Chairs
Which also doubles as the Tourist Information Centre, sells traditionally crafted Bishops Castle and Clun chairs made on the premises by Stuart Carroll as well as work by other craftsmen and women.
Bishops Castle has changed very little in appearance for hundreds of years. It traces its roots to Norman times when its land were given to the Bishop of Hereford and its castle was built. The castle was maintained until the 1570s when its stones were reclaimed as building material for many of the current buildings in town. Theres a Town Trail, guided walks and two small museums. The Railway and Transport Museum, in High Street, tells the intriguing tale of the old Bishops Castle railway that, despite being a lifeline for the town, was in receivership for 69 of its 70 operating years.
An ancient settlement
Clun, too, still demonstrates its Norman street plan and has many charming old buildings. Although settlements here date back further. It still has the ruins of its striking Norman castle. Its parish church was built on a Celtic pagan site of worship and its 14th century packhorse bridge still spans the River Clun. A town trail weaves visitors around historic sites and a museum, housed in the Town Hall, exhibits items from as far back as Neolithic times (open Tuesdays, Saturdays and bank holiday Mondays until October 31).
Trinity Hospital Almshouses
Its worth a few minutes walk down Hospital Street to steal a look at this majestic building, built in 1614 by the Earl of Northampton, for the support of 12 elderly poor men. Now a charitable trust the rules have been changed to include women and couples. Members of the public are allowed through the wrought iron gates and into the quadrangle gardens that feature a bronze sculpture of two almsmen by the celebrated Clun portrait sculptor Jemma Pearson.
The tiny Trinity Chapel is also open to the public. The vicar of Clun, The Reverend Prebendary Richard Shaw, holds a service there every Tuesday at 10am. The entire grounds of the hospital will be open to the public as part of the Clun Gardens Open weekend on June 26-27.
A. E. Housman described Clun as one of the quietest places under the sun. Be sure to visit on a Friday, a weekend or a bank holiday to find most of the gallery, gift and antique shops open. Clun-based leatherworker Matt Fothergill, whose gorgeous Italian leather bags, gilets and jackets can be found in The Conran Shop and some of the best luxury department stores in Tokyo, has a little shop in The Square that opens on Saturdays and bank holidays.
* As a general rule the gallery and gift shops in Bishops Castle are open on Sundays and closed on Mondays with half-day closing on a Wednesday.
Clun and Bishops Castle FESTIVAL CALENDAR
May 1-3 Clun Green Man Festival
May 7-8 Bishops Castle May Fair
May 29-31 Clun Blues & Booze Festival
May 31 Arbor Day, Aston-on-Clun
June 8-10 Bishops Castle Walking Festival
June 19-20 Midsummer Rejoicing
June 26 Bishops Castle All EnglandStone Skimming championship, Bow House Country Park
July 3 Bishops Castle Tandem Triathlon
July 4 Bishops Castle Carnival
July 9-10 Bishops Castle Real Ale Festival
August 7 Clun Carnival
September 18-19 Bishops Castle Michaelmas Fair
October 1-3 Clun Valley Beer Festival
December 4 Bishops Castle Christmas Lights Festival