A Shorpshire town: MW

PUBLISHED: 17:13 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Dave Hancock visits a golden English town That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went and cannot come again. - Alfred Edward Housman

Dave Hancock visits a golden English town

That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.
A Shropshire Lad - Alfred Edward Housman.

There's a queue for the butcher's. The tea shop is busy. So is the bookshop. There's a nursery in the former abbey garden. You can buy a painting for 7,500. The Olympic committee meet at the hotel. I met a member of the Shropshire Building Preservation Trust. Alan Henn invited me into his garden. There's a 16th Century Guildhall and what's left of a 12th- and 13th-Century priory. Black and white buildings abound. It has shuts, cobbles and whipping posts. There's a regular market.
This place is so very nice; I'm reluctant to tell you where it is. It might be the last bastion of Englishness in England. Here's a clue: Mh W_k. I'll call it MW.
The whole world will know about MW soon. It's the Olympics connection, you see. In 2012 while London hosts, visitors will go in search of Olympian history and they'll find it in MW. Expect 40 coaches a day, the manager of the Raven Hotel has been told. She laughed - the last coach that came got stuck in the High Street. Take my advice, start visiting MW frequently to soak up that Englishness. Queue for the butcher's while you can.
Wouldn't you know it, the Romans got to MW first. Then came the Mercians followed shortly by an 'abomination' of monks. Skip a bit of history and after the Norman Conquest the Abbey was refounded. Another Olympian jump in history and in 1850, local GP, Doctor William Penny Brookes, establishes an athletic event which inspires the modern Olympics.
All the historical activity has left MW with a name it's hard to trace the derivation of (start with Magna Wenlak and deduce from there), narrow streets, old buildings, annual Games, great shops and lovely people.
Here's a bit about some of those things. In 2006, Anna Dreda was Independent Bookseller of the Year. She runs Wenlock Books - one of two bookshops in High Street. The shelves heave under the weight of new and secondhand books in sympathy with the building. While I was there, seemingly the whole population of MW visited. Some come in groups for a chat around the table upstairs and Anna serves them coffee and biscuits. I met Dorothy Leiper in Wenlock Books and discovered she was a member of the Shropshire Building Preservation Trust. Intrigued? So was I and, thanks to Dorothy, I'll find out more and tell you in a future issue.
Across the narrow High Street is The Copper Kettle run by Clive and Lesley Ingram. The doorway was almost blocked by the queue for the butcher's next door. "Why are you queuing?" I asked. "This is the best butcher for miles around," was a typical reply.
Residents of MW not buying books or waiting to purchase meat were in The Copper Kettle. A group of women described themselves as 'church people'. They were sharing photographs of a christening and exchanging banter with Lesley Ingram. Evidently, they were the hellraisers of MW. I photographed them and took their names - in case of trouble later (I suspect the one in the white collar was the ringleader).
Crossing the narrow High Street again, I entered Twenty Twenty - a gallery owned by Mary Elliott. She has contemporary arts and crafts - ceramics, jewellery, painting and prints, sculptures, textiles and wood - by about 50 British artists. Some, such as Dennis Farrell, Sue Campion, Marion Watson and Norman Lamputt, are local. I should warn you, acquisitiveness is a real possibility. Everything is to a high standard and eminently collectable. Why, I even wanted Mary's Apple Mac monitor. It's affordable too - ask Mary about the Arts Council England's interest-free loan scheme.
MW's museum co-habits with the Visitor Information Centre in The Square. It's a good place to explore the history of the Wenlock Olympian Games and to begin The Olympian Trail around the town. You don't have to run it and it's only 2,100 metres. At the Raven Hotel, William Penny Brookes met Baron Pierre de Coubertin - who was instrumental in reviving the modern Olympic games. You dine well in the hotel surrounded by Olympian memorabilia.
Across the road, a lane leads to the Abbey Nursery, owned for the past three years by Rod and Viv Hall. Formerly the monks' garden, the Abbey Nursery offers plants, vegetables and fruit - many of which you can pick yourself in the summer. If you're lucky, as I was, Mr Henn will be in his adjoining garden and invite you to look around. It was formally open to visitors during the MW Festival in June.
On my way to the priory, I called in at Croft's Ecclesiastical Outfitters in Wilmore Street. Owned by Julie and Brendon Quinn for 12 years, it supplies everything from crosses to vestments. There's a lot of hand embroidery involved - Julie's skill, for which she also employs four embroiderers.
I turned into Bull Ring (yes, bulls were baited here) and swopped MW's narrow streets for the open spaces of the Priory Ruins. These remnants of the church and cloistral buildings of the Cluniac Priory are owned by English Heritage - apposite for a town devoted to English heritage.

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