Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Kings Head Shrewsbury, Part 1

Sunday 22nd February

So, yesterday we went to Shrewsbury. Me, my son Clint, his wife Sue and their two lovely children Joseph and Chloe squeezed into Clint's Subaru and headed for the A5. It's been around 15 years since I  travelled that way and, bloody hell, ain't the roads changed? Didn't recognise much at Cannock, but we eventually made it onto the M54. All plain sailing now, I thought. Wrong! Around Telford there was about 7 miles of roadworks, down to 40 miles an hour all the way and average speed cameras to make sure you don't disobey!! But eventually we were approaching Shrewsbury and I started the GPS on my phone to direct us the best way to our hotel. 

       I thought there was something wrong with it because it said 7 miles to go, estimated time 16 minutes. Surely that couldn't be right? Then, when we got into town my phone said 1 mile to go, estimated time 7 minutes. That had got to be wrong. And it was. It took nearly FIFTEEN minutes to travel that last mile. Shrewsbury's a nightmare to get into, but it's worth it. It's a lovely town with narrow winding streets and fantastic old buildings including 11 (I think) churches within the confines of the river loop which can't be much more than a square mile.

      At last we pulled into the multistorey car park right behind our hotel. It wasn't even 12 o'clock yet and we couldn't check in til 2 so we just poked our noses in and had a quick butchers at the place (It was a Premier Inn and I know they all look the same but it was a first for me). I asked the receptionist about the town, where the oldest part was etc., and she started telling me where all the churches were! I quickly explained that I do most of my worshiping at the altar of Marston, Thompson and Evershed and which was the quickest way to the pub?

      So after consulting a free map, courtesy of Premier Inns, we headed out the door. Then we walked about 200 yards and there we were!! 
Me and Clint outside The Kings Head

       Mind you, for any one who suffers from vertigo, be warned....

      It looks like it's falling into the street!!

Dad's right, Shrewsbury is very picturesque, everywhere you turn there's a photo op. I'd done a bit of research about Shrewsbury and found out it was the birthplace and residence of Charles Darwin (for those who don't know, he was the author of The Origin of Species, which details the theory of evolution). Dunno why, as I'm not very clever, but I was chuffed to bits about this, (I do love watching The Big Bang Theory, if that counts) and I found out there is a honking great statue of him in the town centre, so was looking forward to getting a photo there. Unfortunately, when I got there some insurance company had a massive garish red marquee in front of the statue, with an Aston Martin DB5 parked there too. Loads of folk were taking pictures of the car, but ignoring one of the greatest contributors to modern science......makes me sad....

   The Olde Worlde buildings are ace, owing much of their existence to the adjacent buildings, cos without them, they'd fall over. Everything is on a mad angle, and it really makes you wonder how they are still standing...

     After an hour or so in the pub the kids were getting bored so I went for a quick walk around the town centre with my missus and kids, and its a genuinely nice place to be. I recommend a visit. After a while we went back to the hotel and settled the kids in the room.

  So, after the obligatory photo outside, in we went. It wasn't quite what I expected inside, not as olde worlde as outside, but still nice. I went to the bar to get drinks while Clint settled Sue and the kids. I started chatting to the barman and asked if the licensee was in. He was and would be down shortly so I started "grilling" the bar staff. Unfortunately, I didn't write any of the bar staffs names down and now I can't bloody remember them (apologies to the bar staff, maybe I'm going senile, or maybe you shouldn't have served me so much falling down water).

      Dave, the licensee, made an appearance and we had a little chat but he was obviously very busy and didn't say much more than to read the stuff on the walls, but we did have another chat later that night. 

      Anyway,  I knew that the pub had moved but I didn't know it had moved twice. The original pub had been a guard house on the Welsh Bridge but at some point was moved onto the street where it is now, called Mardol, but further up the street on the opposite side of the road. On the site where the pub is now used to be a chapel or a house belonging to a deeply religious family, but this building was destroyed by fire in the late 1300s. The present pub was built in 1404 on the site of the old chapel/home as a single storey building with two more storeys being added at a later date and was originally called the Last as it was the last pub in the town before you crossed the bridge and headed for Wales. 

      In 1987 the pub was completely refurbished and workmen were removing an old chimney breast when, behind it they found an even older chimney breast with this on it, 

      This wall painting appears to show The Last Supper and The Annunciation and is thought to date from the late 14th to early 15th centuries.

        I was so engrossed in stuff I was being told, I hadn't noticed that an hour had passed and the kids were getting restless. Clint decided they were going for a walk and to get some food and just as they were leaving Pete Brown arrived. Pete is a Facebook friend who we've never met but follows our blog and had decided to come and meet us as he had family in the area and was visiting.

      Having only ever spoke on facebook we made our proper introductions, then I got Pete a drink and replenished my own. Then we parked ourselves at a table in the corner and Pete had a look through the famed set of cigarette cards. Having worked all over the country over the years, he knew quite a lot of the pubs and had drank in several of them.

       After half an hour or so another guest arrived. Dave Brown (no relation to Pete), a member of Shrewsbury civic society, had agreed to meet us to give us a bit more of the history of the pub and here he was with his wife. Introductions all round and I got the pair of them a drink (and replenished my own, again), then they joined us at our table.

      Dave's passion is the history of pubs and in particular the pub's signs and any like minded people in the area would be most welcome to contact the Civic Society in Shrewsbury to join with Dave in helping to preserve this important part of our heritage.

      Dave was a mine of information and had a lot of old books regarding the hostelries of Shrewsbury (for some strange reason he didn't want to let me have them. Said he wanted to keep them???) and he told me some interesting stuff about The Kings Head (for instance, it was Dave that told me about the pub moving twice). 

       The best stories for me though were the two concerning the naming of the pub and the alley that runs down the side of it, known as The Kings Head Passage.

      In 1485 Harri Tudur arrived at the Welsh bridge with an army 5000 strong, wishing to enter Shrewsbury. The Sheriff of Shropshire, Thomas Mytton, stood on the bridge and refused him entry saying that "only over my body will you enter". By morning, persuaded by either the townsfolk or the size of Harri Tudurs' army, Mr Mytton had changed his mind but did not want to appear weak, so he lay on the bridge, face up, and Harri Tudur stepped over him. This way neither man would lose face.

       Harri Tudur later proceeded to Bosworth field in Leicestershire where he defeated Richard III and he became better known as Henry VII and so his picture adorns the Kings Head sign to this day.

       The other story is a little more involved.

       The crusades were over for most and the city of Jerusalem was won. People flocked to Jerusalem on pilgrimage but the Moslems still controlled Palestine and the roads were dangerous for the pilgrims. A few of the crusaders saw what was happening and banded together to form a group of warrior monks to protect the travellers. They were given quarters on Mount Moriah, thought to once be the stables of the Temple of Solomon. And so they called themselves the Knights Templar.

      The order grew and became more powerful and influential outside their quarters....... but inside they were working too, digging down beneath the Holy Temple searching the catacombs below. There had been rumours about holy relics buried beneath for years and they, indeed, found six sacred treasures there including the head of King Solomon, so holy that it was perfectly preserved, the skin still soft and the hair silky.

      But Jerusalem was still a dangerous place and a meeting of the Knights was held to arrange safe passage of the relics to Christian lands,.... but where? They discussed and argued all day but could not reach an agreement. Eventually they retired for the night and would carry on their deliberations the next day.

      That night one of the Knights dreamed that he woke to find his room bathed in light and a silvery figure standing by his bed.

      "Bring them to me" the ghostly figure cried and the Knight woke up.

      The next day he told the rest of the order about his dream. " Of course" cried one. "St Alkmund, the temple protector! He has six churches back in England. We will take one relic to each of his churches and he will guard them".

      Six of the best, handpicked, Knights travelled for many days until they reached the shores of England when they travelled into the heart of the country. One by one the nights peeled off to their destinations until there was just one left, heading for Shrewsbury. This night was carrying King Solomon's Head.

      The night entered the town a couple of hours after dark. He was tired, hungry and dirty so went to an inn for sleep, food and a bath. He would go to St Alkmunds in the morning, clean and refreshed. However, during his meal he heard many disturbing things and called the innkeeper for more information. He was told of many strange happenings, a black bull rampaging through the town, bowling over people on their way to church, bricks and roof tiles falling on people for no apparent reason, strange, inhuman laughter at night. " It's as if the Devil himself were walking the streets" said the innkeeper.

       What was the Knight going to do? Shrewsbury didn't sound much like a place suitable for the safekeeping of  a holy relic. But if he didn't leave it at the church, what would he do with it? After much tossing and turning that night, he finally fell asleep. But he didn't have the good nights sleep he was hoping for.

       In the middle of the night he woke to find his room bathed in a soft silver glow. It appeared to be coming from the bag containing King Solomon's head. The Knight cautiously climbed out of bed and crept over to the bag. He pulled out the head and the eyes snapped open and focused on the knight.

     The knight almost dropped the head! His eyes widened and he gulped a deep breath. Then the mouth of the head opened and began to speak.

       "This is where I am destined to be. What better place could I be than here to protect the town from the Devil? For I believe the Devil himself is loose in Shrewsbury, but he is not difficult to beat. He's as vain as a peacock, as greedy as an alchemist and stupid enough to believe that he's clever. You must challenge him to a competition tomorrow...............a riddle competition!

      "B..b..but I'm no good at riddles" stuttered the knight.

      "Ah, but I am" said the head.

      And so they made their plans. The knight spent the next day wandering the streets of Shrewsbury, dreading the coming of night. Eventually the sun began to sink in the west. The knight plucked up his courage and found a dark, deserted alleyway. He took a deep breath and addressed the darkness.

      "Lord Lucifer, I challenge you to a battle of wits!"

      "Oh really? said a voice. The knight turned to find himself face to face with a tall elegant man twirling the end of his moustache between thumb and forefinger and looking him over with coal-black soul-less eyes.

     "Er..yes. I challenge you to a riddle dual. If I win, you will have to leave Shrewsbury forever, but if you win, you can have soul."

      The Devil's eyes gleamed at the mention of the knight's soul. The Devil never could resist a gamble.

     "Very well, I will go first", said the Devil and his eyes glittered.

"What man loves more than life,
Fears more than death or mortal strife.
The poor possess, the rich require.
A contented man desires
The miser spends, the spendthrift saves
And all men carry to their graves."

      The knight fell to the ground, his head in his hands and the Devil smiled. But the knight pulled the bag containing King Solomon's head close to him and whispered into it.

      "Tell me the answer."

      "Don't you know it?"

      "No, tell me the answer."

      "But it's easy."


      The head relented. The knight stood up, faced the Devil and said,

      "The answer is nothing."

    "Very well", said the Devil, "it looks as though we have a competition on our hands!"

      It was the knight's turn to ask a riddle:

"He'll speak to you from beyond the grave
Innocent souls of Shrewsbury to save
Saintly and wise, but not canonised
He will guard the river gate
Drawing the Devil into stalemate"

     The Devil thought about it. He thought a bit longer. His complexion slowly grew even redder than usual. Steam began to escape in wisps from his ears and his eyes began to bulge until he at last turned to the knight.

       "There Is No Such Person!"

    "Oh, but there is", smiled the knight as he brought King Solomon's head out of the bag.

      Solomon's eyes snapped open and bored into those of the Devil's.

    The Devil began to howl as a wind sprang into life, swirling around the Devil, matching his howls and bearing him up, up into the air until at last his howls disappeared into the distance. The knight and King Solomon watched as the Devil was borne over the river, into Wales and at last faded out of view between the Welsh mountains - and that's where some say that he remained. The knight dug down into the ground near the river, facing towards the Welsh Bridge. He gently lifted the head into the hole, facing towards the river and Wales and packed the soil over the top.

Since that time the passage overhead has been called the King's Head Passage and the Inn followed suit. The road that led into town from the Welsh bridge was named Mardol, which means the Devil's Limit, for as long as Solomon's head rests in Shrewsbury, keeping his watch and guarding the gate, the Devil will never again be able to cross the bridge or enter into Shrewsbury.

      Now that's what you call a story. Again my thanks to Dave Brown and to Mythstories Museum who enlarged on what Dave told me. Their Shut Stories web page is well worth a look (a shut being an alley or passage in the town).

      Well, sadly Dave and his wife had to leave as they had other commitments and, also sadly, just as Clint got back having settled his wife and children in the hotel. So Clint, Pete Brown and myself decided to take a short tour of the town of Shrewsbury, no doubt we would try other establishments on the way. Ho Hum!!

     Sorry if it seems like I'm hogging the blog, but unfortunately Clint missed most of this. However he will be putting in his sixpenn'orth.

  After booking in, I went back to me Dad, who I found in full swing with a bunch of folk. One bloke was the member of the local civic society, accompanied by his partner. Also, Pete Brown, a Facebook friend who had been true to his word and showed up to join us for a beer. My deodorant must've been off that day, 'cos as I walked in, the civic society people left -_-.

    Turns out, Shrewsbury is Pete's old stomping ground, and he took us for our own personal (and free) tour of Shrewsbury. And we got to see the sights, hear some tales, and drink at some of Shrewsbury's finest. More on the sights later on....Cheers!!