The Finest Town In England?

8th September 2007

Everyone will have their own opinion, of course. Geraint Jones states his.

I’ll come straight to the point. Bishop’s Castle is the finest town in England.

‘Bishop’s what?’ I hear you ask.

Bishop’s Castle. A small – actually very small – town in the wilds of south-west Shropshire. If you’ve heard of it, then I apologise for doubting you. If you’ve been there, then I’m preaching to the converted. But for those of you who haven’t, allow me to take you on a guided tour of what is an absolute jewel of a place.

I’ve always regarded the Welsh Marches – that strip of land between Wales and the Midlands – as something of an anachronism. An area of the country that has not kept up with the pace of change characteristic of most other parts. Travelling there is like going back in time.

Tucked away in the folds of the southern Shropshire hills, and just four miles from the Welsh border, Bishop’s Castle is one of the remoter places in this remote region and the sense of time warp is even more striking.

As soon as you turn off the A488 into the town it will hit you. I guarantee it. And it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely why.

Certainly the place is old and full of appealingly irregular buildings and windy streets, but plenty of other places around the country have all that in spades. It has a number of interesting-looking shops and places to eat. There is a quaint-looking town museum, an old town hall and the remains of a castle, but again, attractive though all these are, they can’t quite explain the atmosphere of the town.

The guidebooks describe Bishop’s Castle as ‘bohemian’. This rural market town, with its strong farming background, has attracted an influx of artistic and creative types. Again, there are other examples of this – but very few, I would suggest, where the fusion of the two cultures is so seamless and successful.

Happy to accommodate tourists, it nevertheless seems not over-dependent on them, and consequently there is none of the ‘tourist fatigue’ evident in more prominent resorts where there is a palpable tension between locals and visitors.

A town at ease with itself. It is small – with only slightly over 1,600 inhabitants – yet it possesses a range of facilities that would shame many a dormitory town.

Two banks and a range of independently-owned shops form the bedrock of commercial life. With one exception, there are no High Street chains here – everything you need is provided by stores you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The anomaly is the Co-op with a grocery store-cum-mini-supermarket.

Another thing which I’m sure contributes greatly to the quality of life here is the parking policy – or rather lack of it.

Coming from London, where the parking manoeuvre has to be correct to the exact millimetre and nanosecond to avoid instant fines of extortionate proportion, this is sheer bliss. I drive into the town and automatically scan for the best place to park. My mind takes a few seconds to register the lack of yellow lines – single or double – and assume there must be some other means of trapping the would-be parker. But there are no ‘parking restriction’ signs, no ‘resident permit only’ signs, or any other signs for that matter… apart from one with a big blue ‘P’ on it and the word ‘free’ underneath in equally big blue letters.

I park on the street and loiter for a little while by my car fearing that I have somehow missed what the parking rules really are. Then I see others cars parked by the kerb, their windscreens happily free of tickets or permits and decide it must be okay.

A town with no parking restrictions. That’s enough to give nightmares to urban planners the length and breadth of Britain. And guess what? It isn’t buried under a mountain of motors, nor are its streets blocked with cars parked indiscriminately. A town without parking restrictions works. It makes life that tiny bit sweeter.

With car happily berthed I set off to explore. The main street runs in a great sweep, from the church of St John the Baptist with its Norman tower at the bottom of the hill to the Castle Hotel at the top. The atmospheric old hotel stands on the site of the old Norman fortress built to keep the Welsh out, and of which only a few fragments of wall remain.

A little way along this road is the Museum on Crutches, so named because it is housed in a 16th century timber framed building held up by a set of large wooden legs. The museum offers a changing range of exhibitions on the history of Bishop's Castle, town trades, fairs and markets, farming life and the surrounding countryside, as well as costume displays and features on changing approaches to cooking and the kitchen.

The shops really are refreshingly diverse and idiosyncratic, yet at no time is there the feeling that your every need cannot be catered for. There are two extremely good value and high quality cafés, and lots of pubs, two of which brew their own beer. The Three Tuns has been operating almost continuously since at least 1642, when licences were first granted, while the Six Bells has only been brewing since 1997 but has already gained an enviable reputation for its beers and has won several awards. Having two micro-breweries in one town is surely beyond the wildest dreams of even the most demanding Real Ale buff.

One shop deserves particular mention. Yarborough House is a specialist classical music store offering for sale an enormous collection of vinyl as well as a reasonable stock of CD’s. It really is like walking into a record shop from the 1970s.

But it is not just the town itself that is impossibly attractive. Bishop’s Castle is nestled in the south Shropshire hills which offer some of the finest walking country in Britain. They are a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and there are lots of long distance trails nearby including the Offa’s Dyke Path and the Shropshire Way as well as numerous shorter routes.

The landscape around the town is characterised by friendly green hills and dramatic rock outcrops, and the area boasts some of the most beautiful river valleys in the country. The Clun and Teme are famous, thanks in part to the poet AE Housman, who loved this part of the world, and whose poetry is firmly rooted in the area.

Then there are the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones – spectacular ridges – and a few miles east the equally striking Wenlock Edge. All these offer wonderful routes for the keen walker or superb views to the Welsh mountains for the less energetic sightseer.

Ludlow, a beautiful town and the gastronomic capital of provincial England, is around 20 miles away, and there is a fascinating array of villages and small towns to visit, each with its own distinctive charm. Places like Clun and Montgomery top the list and further afield the small town of Leominster, with its black and white timber-framed buildings and tempting local ciders, is well worth the journey.

If you’re not inclined to travel out of town, take heart, for Bishop’s Castle, in its own modest way, can cater for all your needs. Spend a day wandering the hills and lanes, browsing its quirky collection of shops, eating in its hostelries and generally absorbing its peculiarly life-affirming atmosphere, and you will end it refreshed and more than a little in love with the place. I guarantee it.

By way of a postscript, I must tell you that Bishop’s Castle also has that quintessential feature of the English town – an Indian restaurant. Like the place itself, it is small and friendly and serves high quality food. Unfortunately it is not licensed, but that little problem has been solved by an arrangement with the Three Tuns across the street. You can nip over the road, order a jug of their finest real ale and enjoy it with your meal – as long as you promise to return the empty vessel at the end of the evening.

For more information about the town, visit www.bishops-castle.co.uk

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