The traders of Bridgnorth
PUBLISHED: 17:01 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:47 20 February 2013
Sarah Hart uncovers a fascinating story behind every shop window in Bridgnorth
It will never be known why Adolf Hitler took such a keen interest in the gentle, scenic market town of Bridgnorth when planning his invasion of Britain.
Perhaps he really did have strategic reasons to make it the unlikely headquarters of Nazi Britain. Or maybe the Fuhrer harboured more sentimental motives.
It doesnt take much imagination to see that Bridgnorth, on the banks of The Severn and with its historic townscape spanning towering sandstone cliffs topped by the remains of a castle, is reminiscent of old German towns along The Rhine.
Thank goodness Hitler never made it to Bridgnorth. These days, each year, hundreds of thousands of welcome visitors do make the worthwhile trip, many steaming in along the lush green corridor of the Severn Valley Railway.
To get the best out of Bridgnorth, to discover its real charm and character, its essential to explore its warren of higgledy piggledy back streets and medieval alleyways.
There are plenty of historic attractions: its fine old buildings, a stunning cathedral-like close, charming little museums, nostalgic steam engines puffing into the towns old railway station, a century-old working cliff railway, dramatic castle ruins and breathtaking views across a slice of the Shropshire countryside. And beyond these are independent shops, from antique sellers and interior design shops to real foodies and the quirky and unusual.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Situated at one end of a new private and very reasonably priced car park, off Old Smithfield, is probably the most bizarre retail destination in Shropshire, The Old Curiosity Shop a cross between a hardware store, a junk shop and a museum.
A sprawl of items outside gives a hint of the hoard of oddities within. On the one hand there are useful spades and brushes, handy walking sticks, second-hand bikes and golf clubs, old wooden sledges. Then things begin to turn a little more unusual a large archery board, a pair of clogs, a pair of old jet skis.
Once inside, disbelief descends. Wartime gas masks and helmets mingle with guitars, fur coats and cuddly toys. Theres Army surplus stock, Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hats, well-worn national flags (Canadian, French, The Union flag), mens suits, lifejackets, CD players, camping equipment, sweetie jars stuffed with brass buttons and, eerily, a couple of body bags.
Theres a London policemans uniform from the early 1900s, old military jackets, a large selection of Victorian top hats.
The hats arent old, theyre new! The Morris dancers come in for them, says the shopkeeper before he disappears into one of the crammed aisles.
The shop is the size of a small warehouse with row after row of 15feet-high shelving displaying all manner of surprises. A giant yellow polystyrene wasp dangles from the ceiling. A 1940s pram, unused and still wrapped in some of its original packaging, perches aloft one of the shelving units.
Have you seen the cannons? pipes up a young shop assistant. As he points, sure enough there they are, two small black cannons strapped onto a shelf, their history unknown.
For any collector of old blowlamps this place is heaven. It has amassed some 800 of them. It also has the largest collection of nails and screws Ive ever seen.
A Canadian tourist who walked through the door after scouring almost the entire globe looking for a rare blowlamp for a vintage tractor was astonished when the shopkeeper announced he actually had two in stock and also knew where to get two more! It was a done deal.
The Looking Glass
If The Old Curiosity Shop is an attraction for the boys, then The Looking Glass, squeezed down a cobbled alleyway known as Bank Street, on the other side of town, is one for the girls. Twenty-six years ago Liz Pollard set up her clothing shop after falling in love with vintage fashion as a college student. Rails are stuffed with pretty 1950s dresses, fur-lined coats and shimmering eveningwear. Theres an impressive range of old and new hats.
People come from all over to shop here, even London, enthuses Liz.
Over the years she added quality handmade designer jewellery and a large range of Radley bags, even before the now sought-after brand became famous.
The vintage clothing includes pieces from the 1970s to the 1920s. It changes with the seasons, and downstairs is a selection for men.
For the past 17 years the shop has been managed by Emma Peeler, and Liz also now sells via the internet.
When French and Spanish teacher Kim Neale and her husband, Phil, went out for a drink to celebrate New Years Eve in 2008 they returned with a business proposition.
They didnt normally go out to pubs, but came back saying wouldnt it be a good idea to run one ourselves, recalls their 22-year-old Chris, whod worked in pubs since the age of 17 and had just completed a management degree at university.
The family quickly found the ideal place, The Bear, in Northgate Street, which had been rundown and empty for two years. Out went the blood red and custard walls and dingy carpets and in stepped Kim with her eye for contemporary design, leather sofas and buffed wooden flooring. She also decided to convert upstairs into pretty bed and breakfast accommodation.
Local real ales, live bands and good food are not the only attractions of the new-look Bear. In spring and summer Kim, who still teaches at a school in Shrewsbury, offers drinkers lessons in French and Spanish. Chris manages the pub and come March his dad, who is retiring from the police force, will become another face behind the bar.
While traditional butchers have been dwindling in numbers in recent years, its good to see a new one open. Mike and Sarah Pearce are making a name for themselves after launching their shop Mike and Sarahs High Class Family Butchers in Whitburn Street, three years ago. In 2008 they were voted one of the top three butchers in Shropshire by local radio listeners.
Before starting the business Mike was working in a Yorkshire mansion for one of Britains richest families and Sarah was a nurse. Her father had run a butchers stall in Bridgnorth indoor market for many years and on retiring Mike, moving back to Shropshire, bought it from him.
Thats when he met Sarah, they married and she joined him in the business. Eighteen months ago they moved to the shop and later this year, due to demand, they will be refurbishing the premises to expand the counter space.
Mike and Sarahs meat couldnt be sourced more locally. Their beef and lamb come from Kytes Nest Farm, at nearby Monkhopton. They live on the farm.
We can pick our own animals before they go to slaughter, says Mike.
Their pork is free-range and also sourced locally from semi-rare breeds with their free-range poultry coming from Bromyard.
Sarah has recently started to make ready meals, such as cottage pies and faggots, which are flying out the door at a rate of 200 a week.
The couple, who employ six other people, produce their own black puddings, scotch eggs, haggis, sausages and cold meats and cure their own bacon. They also supply outside catering for barbecues, pig roasts and weddings.
Other butchers in town include Beaman & Sons, whose wonderful shop display on the High Street looks as traditional as they come.
Bridgnorth Delicatessen, also in High Street, is among a number of excellent delis. Passionate foodies Simon and Siobhan Lucas ran a pub before opening the deli nine years ago. Simon was also a technical flight director for an airship company.
They sell more than 90 cheeses, including Bridgnorth cave-aged cheddar and Gorwydd Caerphilly which won gold at the British Cheese Awards. The couple smoke their own cheese, cure their own air-dried hams and make their own salami.
Four-and-a-half years ago brothers Chris and Nick Walsh decided to pool their talents and took on the lease of The Kings Head, in Whitburn Street, turning it into one of the most reputable eating and drinking venues in South Shropshire.
Nick, a trained chef, had returned to Shropshire after working aboard private yachts and the most exclusive cruise liner in the world, Silver Cloud, alongside world-famous chefs, while Chris had been managing bar restaurants in the south of England.
The Kings Head is probably the most beautiful timber-framed building in town and inside it has been tastefully refurbished. Oak tables, stone floors, flickering open fires, soft lighting, plump scatter cushions and contemporary artworks create a warm inviting atmosphere.
Two years ago The Stable Bar, a contemporary conversion of an old stable block in the courtyard, added another appealing venue. Nick insists on high quality, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and offers different menus in each venue. The Kings Head is also listed in CAMRAs real ale guide.
Other great eating places include Casa Ruiz tapas restaurant, in High Steet, and the newly-opened The Habit, in East Castle Street. Among the tearooms Cinnamon, in Waterloo Terrace, is one of the best, offering homemade food, great views over the river and healthy childrens sandwich boxes that come with a small toy to keep young children amused.
Ye Old Terrace Sweet Shop
In summer the queue for Ye Olde Terrace Sweet Shop stretches along the road. For older generations the little shop, in Waterloo Terrace, is a nostalgic reminder of the sweet shops of their youth. For the young the sight of wall-to-wall sweet jars is magical.
It stocks 200 varieties of sweets, including sugar-free diabetic friendly ones and old favourites like bon-bons, sweet peanuts, cola pips, cherry lips and gobstoppers.
Liquorice is always popular. Its surprising how many children like it, observes shop manager Janet Wall. The shop was opened two years ago by sweet-toothed businessman Dave Cole.
Tucked up the tiny side road of Church Street is Sue Horsfelds little boutique. She ran Baileys Wine Bar, just around the corner, with husband Ian for 21 years until two years ago when she decided to have a change.
My children were off to university and I thought I could do something different. Id always loved clothes so a boutique seemed the obvious choice, she says.
She took over a rundown old cottage and printing room that had been empty for two years, refurbished the place and sought planning permission for a shop window.
Its a lovely little shop, spread over two-storeys, stocking middle range affordable German, French, Danish and Dutch fashion labels such as Steilmann, Pause caf, Passport and Fransa. She also sells fabulous, reasonably priced, chunky necklaces produced by Envy.
I try to sell things that you cannot find in other places, adds Sue.
Two women from Stourbridge were in here yesterday. They stayed for two hours trying on almost the entire stock and said theyd be back for more.