Woman's Weekly - May 07

Shropshire seasons

If you're looking to take a break but don't want to go to far, why not visit the stunning county of Shropshire? Chris Parker reports on its beauty.

Shropshire is one of England's largest yet least populated counties, stretching from the rural beauty of the Welsh borders to the edge of the industrial heartlands of the West Midlands. It has to be one of my favourite parts of Britain to visit in all seasons.

I have to admit to some slight p'ejudice due to a variety of family connections in the area. But anywhere that has a football ground called The Gay Meadow, and boasts some of the finest unspoilt hostelries and diverse scenery around, yet still has time to be voted one of the politest places in Britain, has to be worth further investigation.

Perhaps these qualities and an appreciation of a gentler pace of life were instrumental in persuading the Hollywood superstar couple of Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart to opt for a waterways holiday in Shropshire two years ago.

Some 50 tranquil miles of canal cut gently through the Shropshire countryside, and narrow-boat cruising during springtime offers a great way to explore this scenic network. It's less crowded, and everywhere along The Shropshire Canal — or “The Shroppie”, as it's popularly known — looks fresh and inviting. Canal-boating is the fastest way to slow down from the stress of modern living and a great way to embrace some of the simpler pleasures of life. You meander to your top speed of four miles an hour and there's no shortage of help and advice should you require it, as there's great camaraderie between fellow boaters.

Modern-day canal-boats are handsomely equipped with all modern creature comforts and usually your pets are welcome, too. I would recommend taking bicycles to get around off the boat, particularly if you are taking children.

It's great fun for all ages to take turns in skippering the boat, and the grown-ups can enjoy the plentiful canal-side pubs. I would recommend the unspoilt boatman's pub, The Anchor Inn, and the pretty, white-washed Boat Inn. There's an abundance of wonderful wildlife along the canal for nature lovers. Don't forget your binoculars, so you've a chance of spotting herons, kingfishers and otters.

Off the water, a must-see attraction in Shropshire is The Ironbridge Gorge with its collection of ten museums. It's a step back in time to the birthplace of industry. Around 200 years ago, the hills and valleys around Ironbridge were alive with the sounds, sights and smells of huge furnaces and steam hammers. Although the manufacturing has all but disappeared, the surviving monuments provide a suitable testament to the cutting-edge technology of that century.

Children will love the Blists Hill Victorian Town. It's an open-air museum where life in the late 1800s is re-enacted by townsfolk wearing the attire of the day and going about their daily lives in the shops and workplaces of Victorian Britain. Modern money can be exchanged for “Victorian” tokens which — surprise, surprise — mostly find their way to the tills at the sweet shop and Victorian funfair!

You can link the past with the future in the colourful, interactive Enginuity museum, where you can have fun with an incredible collection of gadgets, games and gizmos. It's packed with an amazing variety of machinery including robots, an X-ray machine, and a “river” to generate electricity.

The county town of Shrewsbury is a great place to start your exploration with its array of independent shops and boutiques set among cobbled streets known as “shuts and passages”. With more than 660 listed buildings, including a Norman Abbey and a medieval castle, you're never short of interesting architecture.

Spend a few hours browsing the lovely traditional shops — bookshops, decorative antiques and ironmongers — as well as the ancient buildings in the small, historic town of Bishop's Castle where time seems to have stood still. Every Thursday (11am and 2.3Opm from May to September), you can join a guided walk to discover some of the town's history and anecdotes. For more information, you can also visit the House on Crutches Museum where local history and rural life are depicted.

In a beautiful valley, five miles south of Bishop's Castle, stands the charming small town of Cl un, which boasts one of the oldest and most picturesque Crown Green bowling-grounds in the country, situated in the shadow of the imposing medieval castle.

Shropshire's gastronomic capital and major tourist magnet is the quintessential English market town of Ludlow, which was once described by Sir John Betjeman as “the loveliest in England”.

Best appreciated out of season, when there are fewer tourists, you can enjoy a peaceful stroll along the gridiron of streets — originally laid out in Norman times — and enjoy some of the 500 listed buildings, or pick up locally-produced food at the daily market or regular farmers' market.

Try to find the time to take a gentle walk over Whitcliffe Common, where you'll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the immense castle and the town.