Shrewsbury, Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 20:12 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013

Shrewsbury's Norman Castle, home of the Shropshire Regimental Museum

Shrewsbury's Norman Castle, home of the Shropshire Regimental Museum

From science to jazz, 80s' pop to ancient and modern day history Shrewsbury is a town filled with fun things to see and do. Sarah Hart went in search of entertainment and enlightenment

July is fun time in Shrewsbury, when the town comes alive with amazing art exhibits, cutting edge theatre and fabulous music.

And there's none more amazing than Umerus, the mechanical wind powered beastie made from plastic electrical tubing and water bottles by Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen, which will be winging its way to the county town this month. It moves, it breathes. It looks like a cross between a dragon, a crane and a Blue Peter experiment and this giant - all 13 metres of it - will be giving a public demonstration of its powers in the town park, The Quarry, between July 4 and 12 as part of the Shift Time Festival of Ideas, two weekends of inspiring ideas incorporating theatre, art, opera, street science, film, lectures and hands-on activities which form part of the town's Darwin bicentennial celebrations.

The next in the series of Darwin Days from Shrewsbury Heritage Celebrations is on July 4 (more on August 8th and September 12th). On these days you can watch four scenes at four different locations in the town centre, morning and afternoon, illustrating aspects of the early life of Charles Darwin.

The four locations are (all timings are approximate):

ST CHAD'S CHURCH, where Charles Darwin was christened. 10.45am and1.45pm.

The UNITARIAN CHURCH, which Charles attended with his mother, until she died, when he was eight years old. 11.20am and 2.20pm.

The BELLSTONE, outside the Morris Hall, which Charles found an intriguing puzzle. 11am and 2pm.

The LIBRARY, previously Shrewsbury School, which Charles attended from 1818, when he was nine, until 1825. 11.50am and 2.50pm.

The scenes can be viewed as part of a guided tour of Darwin's Shrewsbury - cost 4, booking essential, at the Visitor Information Centre, Rowley's House - tel: 01743 281200.

Darwin themed events continue at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery where the exhibition Charles Darwin: Beginnings of a Continuing Journey resumes, after a brief outing in February, with some new twists including cheeky robotic bugs. Even if you've heard enough about Darwin this year there are still eyebrow raising facts to be gleaned about his early life in Shrewsbury.

His father, for instance, was a medical doctor and a money-lender who towards the end of his life gained notoriety as a mountain of a man. He was said to have been so heavy (he weighed over 24 stone) that he had to walk downstairs backwards. Frontwards and his belly would have toppled him over.

Museums assistant Adrian Perks, who is showing me around, points to a silhouette drawing of Dr Robert Darwin, described by his son as "the wisest man I ever knew". It's a walrus of a body topped by a tiny egg-shaped head with stumpy legs sticking out the bottom.

Back in those days it was deemed perfectly acceptable to marry one's first cousin. Darwin senior married his first cousin Susannah Wedgwood (of the pottery side of the family) and Charles, too, married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

"He realised towards the end of his life that that might not have been a wise thing to do," muses Adrian.

"He suffered an illness which was passed onto his children, a sickness that caused stomach cramps. But it's also thought he could have picked up the disease from an insect bite in South America. It's called Chagas Disease."

In a corner stands an odd looking stuffed bird, a Great Auk, an extinct flightless seabird that resembled a large penguin with a puffin-shaped beak. It used to inhabit north Atlantic coasts, including Scotland, and this specimen is one of only a handful in the world. The last few living creatures were slaughtered by collectors in 1844.

There are ghosts at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, and if one bumps into Charles Darwin, as long as he's in 21st century attire then he's probably museum collections manager Peter Boyd who bears a striking resemblance to the great naturalist. But if one is marvelling the exquisitely carved Moreton Corbett bed, on long-term loan from the V&A, and a woman is lying on it then it's perhaps wise to make a sharp exit.

"She's believed to be one of the Corbett family who died in childbirth. She came with the bed," enthuses cheery visitor information assistant Robert Elliot whose other job is to lead ghost tours around the town while dressed as a Victorian funeral director. He's full of ghostly tales. Monks crossing the road, a lady who disappears into a wall at The Lion Hotel and the blood-curdling screams of a man who was buried alive in one of the churchyards.

"The expression 'saved by the bell' comes from the Victorians who were terrified of being buried alive," Robert illuminates.

"As a precaution they put a bell outside the grave which was linked to a cord that could be pulled inside the coffin."
The museum contains some mind-boggling exhibits. A well-preserved ancient log boat, a Bronze Age stone mould for making axe heads - the first mass production - and the Neolithic bones of Alberbury man.

The Roman artefacts are stunning, lifted from Wroxeter, the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, just a few miles down the road. The stone Forum Inscription, the Roman equivalent of a town charter dating from 130AD, is so pristine it could have been carved yesterday. Glass cases heave with swords, statuettes of Roman gods and fine, red, Samian pottery. If you look hard enough you can spot the saucy images of human procreation used as decoration on the Roman tableware!

Breathtakingly beautiful is an unblemished, ornate, silver hand mirror - the only one of its type found in northern Europe.

"Ironically for a medieval town we don't have many medieval objects because they're still being lived on, but what we do have is really good!" Adrian reassures.
Among them the earliest piece of hallmarked silver in the world, a Benedictine refectory pulpit from the town's Abbey which is one of just three surviving examples in Britain and the skull of a man who died from a gaping head wound, possibly one of the 6,000 victims of the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury.

Jump 350 years and the story of battle resumes inside the sturdy walls of Shrewsbury's Norman castle with the Shropshire Regimental Museum covering the history of the four Shropshire regiments.

Amid the glinting medals, the smart uniforms and the polished weaponry there are many surprising finds, not least a lock of Napoleon's hair which has been tested and found to contain traces of arsenic.

A First World War army ration biscuit has survived in amazing good nick and the museum even boasts the original Sandown Gold Cup. The story is that, under old rules of the famous Sandown Park Racecourse, if a jockey won the cup three times in succession then he could get to keep it.

Of course the race officials didn't really expect someone to manage it, and when an officer of the Shropshire Regiment did win three times in a row they refused to hand the cup over. It took a long legal battle before the trophy was finally surrendered in 1870.

Many exhibits have been donated by local people. Among the most recent are medals belongings to one of Shropshire's most eminent military sons, General Sir Geoffrey Musson who died last year, aged 97. They include his Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, the highest honour in the land for distinguished service to the state.

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