Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston
Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.
Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:
The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest: . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”
When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)
We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:
The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.
Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:
The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled streets of the town:
Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:
In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.
Here is the St. Winefride Window:
Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series.
During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:
Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.
Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.
(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )
Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.
(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)
Upon our return from Hereford, we were invited to take a walking tour of Ross on Wye, the pretty market town that was to be our headquarters while we explored the Wye Valley region. You cannot be in Ross for long without hearing about John Kyrle (1637-1724).. Called “the Man of Ross” by Alexander Pope, Kyrle was a wealthy and selfless benefactor whose philanthropy improved immensely the lives of Ross’s inhabitants. His legacy can be found throughout the town.
Kyrle was instrumental in establishing The Prospect, a lovely park overlooking the Wye River:
The Church of St. Mary the Virgin dates from the early 1300’s. Built on one of the highest points in town, its spire can be seen for miles around:
Ross has a beautifully preserved Market House. It was built between 1650 and 1654 and replaced an older structure, probably made of wood.
This trip was very much about books, and little Ross on Wye, population just over 10,000 according to 2001 census figures, boasts two independent bookstores, one new and one used.
In Ross Old Books I found Make Death Love Me, the first novel I ever read by Ruth Rendell. Lately I’ve been wanting to revisit it, but this wish has been frustrated by the fact that the local library no longer owns it and it’s out of print to boot. Along with others on the tour, I enjoyed browsing in Rossiter’s. Phil Rickman had told us that he’d dropped several copies of his titles off there recently, so we took full advantage of that fact! Here’s a short piece on the shop that appeared last month in The Telegraph.
Wyenotccom is a very rich source for information on the Wye Valley. The site features plenty of visuals, including these videos of the May Day celebrations that take place each year on May Hill, a prominent landmark between Gloucester and Ross on Wye:
This map shows the location of Ross on Wye, as well as Hereford, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Monmouth, and Bristol, all of which were visited by us on this trip. (Click to enlarge.)
If you’re confused as to where the border between Wales and England is, so were we for much of the trip. But as we wove our way through the Welsh border country, we did see signs such as this from time to time:
The first sighting caused me to cry out and clap my hands: a first, and a beautiful new country for us!
“Ancient oaks, the ‘weeds of Herefordshire,’ cover hillsides, their tangled, wild canopies contrasting with regimented apple orchards where farmers ferret away making traditional ciders. Thick hedgerows and verdant river meadows buzz with wildlife. Traffic lights, on the other hand, are an endangered species. Travel, Herefordshire-style, is characterised by hush, not rush….
It’s England’s equivalent of La France Profonde, that deep, undiscovered swathe of France that isn’t Provence, Paris, or the Cote d’Azur. Many say it’s the real France; by the same token, Herefordshire is the real England.
[Roger Thomas in the Herefordshire and Wye Valley Visitor Guide for 2011]
Our first excursion took us through breathtakingly beautiful countryside to the cathedral city of Hereford, where the main attraction is the cathedral.
Not only is this edifice in and of itself spectacular, but housed within it are two priceless artifacts of the Middle Ages: the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library. These are both housed within the cathedral as special and permanent exhibits. Some excellent preliminary displays help visitors to understand what they’ll be seeing.
I was immediately put in mind of these lines from Shakespeare’s Othello:
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
From my researches on Wikipedia, I found that they’re called Blemmyes.)
The Folio Society has recently published a painstaking reproduction of the Mappa Mundi:
“There has been a bishop of Hereford for well over twelve centuries,” intones the guidebook. Ron found inscribed on one section of the cathedrals’ wall a list of bishops beginning in the 600’s. It would be inaccurate to say that the cathedral itself is that ancient. In its current incarnation, the building dates from 1079.
The cathedral’s lovely Chapter House Garden was located near the cafe. I liked this life size sculpture in wood. Entitled The Pilgrim, it was made by Ken Smith and placed in the garden in 1996:
On the way to Hereford, Pam told us the story of a young woman who believed that her lover was unfaithful to her. She killed him, only to find out later that he had been true to her all along. Her ghost supposedly haunts a certain well in the Herefordshire countryside. This is one of many such stories we heard. Often they were told as we traveled from one place to the next and were hard to remember precisely.
We had some time to roam the busy streets of Hereford.As with so many places in England, the past and the present co-exist with ease:
Having read that there was a statue of Elgar somewhere near the cathedral, we stopped at a tourist office and were directed to it. It turned out to be close to the cathedral’s entrance, in the close. We’d been very close to it already.
He is depicted with the Royal Sunbeam bicycle that he called “Mr. Phoebus:”
Sir Edward Elgar lived on the outskirts of Hereford from 1904 to 1911. This was one of his most creative periods, and the city is naturally proud of its association with one of England’s greatest composers.
In The Remains of an Altar, Phil Rickman evokes a ghostly of Elgar bicycling through the Malvern Hills.
The cathedral itself is one of the three venues that alternately plays host to the renowned Three Choirs Festival. The festival will be taking place in Hereford in 2012.
This trip to Great Britain bestowed so many riches, it is hard to know where to begin. Our journey had three parts. The first consisted of a five day exploration of the Welsh border country; the second centered on Crimefest in Bristol. The third was all about Agatha Christie.
More on all of this, when the images settle and compose themselves into some sort of coherent order.
Appropriately, upon our return we were given joyful greeting (or, at least the feline version of same) by…