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Shrewsbury's Ghosts Live On

Neil Sowerby celebrates a much-visited old coaching inn and Ironbridge’s 25 years as a World Heritage site

Written by . Published on July 10th 2011.


Shrewsbury's Ghosts Live On

FOR me Shrewsbury always meant three things – Tanner’s, one of Britain’s finest wine merchants tucked away in half-timbered Wyle Cop; Gay Meadow, teasingly-named riverside home of Shrewsbury Town FC; and, of course, Charles Darwin (born 1809), most famous son of that mellow old market town.

Well, the Bicentenary has passed, and for those of us with short attention spans Evolution’s all a bit hazy again. I don’t know how ghosts and other spectral phenomena fit into theories of Survival of the Fittest, but I do know certain places have an aura time can’t erode. The Lion Hotel is one.

Img_0446Ian MatfinThe initial reason to visit Shrewsbury’s ancient coaching inn was to check out Ian Matfin, formerly head chef at Manchester’s Abode, hired to raise fine dining standards in the refurbished hotel’s Hayward restaurant.

The good news is he’s cooking up a storm, of which more later. But first the ghosts unleashed by the name Hayward – Sam, of that ilk.

He was a legendary stagecoach rider in the early 19th century, whose greatest claim to fame was the speed at which he would bring the Shrewsbury Wonder up Wyle Cop, turn full circle at the top to enter The Lion’s yard... without stopping and with only inches to spare on either side.

A writer at the time said of the spectacle:  “It never failed to draw an appreciative knot of spectators or to transfix with horror any strangers who might choose to be among the outside passengers on The Wonder.”

Legend has it that The Wonder (158 miles in under 16 hours) rushed the young Charles Darwin from the Lion to London when it was feared he might miss out on being appointed the naturalist on board HMS Beagle.The rest is history, as they say.

Img_0451The LionYou can still see indents where the wheel hubs grated against the 19th century stone archway. Widened since, it still seems a tight squeeze to get into the hotel car park.

That’s where we ran into local journalist and historian John Butterworth, whose history of the inn, is just published. We must have perplexed him with our first question.

A panoply of famous names have stayed at the inn from Charles Dickens (the quirky Dickens suite is the hotel’s most coveted guest accommodation) to Benjamin Disraeli, from Paganini to the Beatles, not to mention Pat Phoenix, Tony Hancock, Malcom Allison and his Manchester City squad in town for a cup-tie , Morecambe and Wise, Cliff Richard and King William IV. But we just wanted to know about ghosts!

Img_0441Dickens roomThe hotel, dating back to Elizabethan times and beyond has been reinvented many times, most recently since 2006 under the sympathetic custodianship of experienced hotel hand Howard Astbury. But it does ramble and its easy to get lost in...

Howard has never encountered a ghost in his hotel but John was happy to explain who we might run into according to eyewitness accounts:

The lady in blue: Leading from the rear of the hotel up to the Adams style ballroom is a curved staircase and several guests have seen a Victorian lady dressed in a powder blue dress standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for someone. 

Sealed up room: Above the curved staircase is a small room. This was blocked off many years ago, but since then moans have been heard coming from there and a lit candle has been spotted in the window

The basement ghosts: In the extensive basement, where there used to be a chapel, the ghosts of two ladies in prayer have been seen

Shock for chef: In the 1780s Mr Taur, a cook at The Lion, died and was buried in a grave at nearby St Julian’s church. That night nearby residents heard screams, groans and struggles coming from the grave. When Mr Taur was dug up the next day it was found the underneath of his coffin lid had been scratched and his fingers had been worn away. It turned out that the chef had only fallen into a coma and that he had woken up in his grave.

Img_0464IronbridgeShrewsbury is a wonderful, architecturally eclectic town to wander round. The River Seven loops around it, almost making it an island. Grab a pint and a bite at the Armoury pub, a warehouse conversion on Victoria Quay, handy for the Theatre Severn, then take the idyllic walk eastwards along the river to the English Bridge. Cross the bridge to see Shrewsbury Abbey, much restored by the Victorians but with much of interest or walk left up Wyle Cop to the Lion, stopping off to taste wine in Tanners.

We drove back over the bridge on our way out to Ironbridge, under half an hour away, I’ve always loved this lovingly preserved industrial landscape, which this year is celebrating 25 years as a World Heritage Site. There are a cluster of museums, celebrating tiles, china, iron and the whole legacy of the industrial revolution. Most recognisable, though – from numerous telly programmes – is the Blists Hill Working Victorian Town.

Img_0482Blists HillI expected it to  be a bit cheesy with actors between engagements driving pony and traps and shops dispensing coal tar and lard, but on a sunny afternoon it was all great fun.

The Tar Tunnel, along the Shropshire Canal, is a more bizarre attraction. Don a hard hat and say ta for tar. Over 200 years ago natural bitumen trickled like treacle into pools. It was turned into pitch, lamp black and rheumatics remedies. Now you can walk along this brick-lined tunnel where the bitumen still oozes through the walls.

As a claustrophobe, I recovered my equipoise by walking back along the valley to the Ironbridge itself. There are lots of activities planned to celebrate the anniversary, but for me just to stand in wonder on the graceful span across the gorge is enough. To celebrate the remarkable achievements of our ingenious race.

 

Factfile

Shrewsbury is 70 miles from Manchester and the simplest route is via then M56 then A49. On the train it is just under an hour and a quarter.

The Lion Hotel, Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury SY1 1UY.Standard doubles from £98. (www.thelionhotelshrewsbury.co.uk, 01743 352744).

Greta British Menu star Ian Matfin at The Hayward offers a set three-course dinner menu for £37.50, offering starters such as light chicken mousse with her buree, spinach, morel and white wine sauce and mains such as wild turbot and scallops with pea puree, smoked bacon and shallot veloute. Outstanding food matched by an equally strong wine list sourced from Tanners.

Four Centuries at The Lion Hotel by John Butterworth costs £6.99. Available in Shrewsbury area bookshops or contact the hotel.
Ghost tours around Shrewsbury, usually in October and November, can be booked through the Tourist Information Centre on 01743 281200 or visitorinfo@shropshire.gov.uk or privately with Town Crier Martin Wood on 07718951902.

For full details of Ironbridge, go to www.visitironbridge.co.uk.

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