With a population of just 2,600 people, you would be forgiven for not knowing the incredible connection between the small market town of Much Wenlock and the rejuvenation of the Olympic Games in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. William Penny Brookes, the local doctor, created the forerunner to the modern Olympics in the town and his games were the inspiration behind de Coubertin’s drive to reinstate the ancient Greek tradition just before the turn of the 20th century. You can read more about this story in the panel on page 28 and although it underpins the unique history of Much Wenlock, there is a deeper heritage that can also be uncovered on a visit.
For such a small town, amongst its highlights it has a thriving literary scene, an award-winning local butcher and retains the friendly village appeal that has been lost in many other corners of the UK.
Much Wenlock is one of the oldest settlements in Shropshire with a history dating back over 1,300 years. Its name is believed to have roots in the Middle English word ‘muchel’ or ‘mochel’ meaning ‘great’, the Welsh word ‘gwyn’ meaning ‘white’ and the Latin word ‘locus’ meaning ‘place’. So ‘Great White Place’, a possible reflection of its position sitting just below Wenlock Edge, the limestone escarpment that stretches 15 miles north-east to south-west across the county and dates back over 400 million years. Look out for the town’s symbol or rebus dotted around buildings, depicting the word WEN enclosed with a lock.
The town grew up around the Abbey of St Milburga, founded in the 7th century, and its street layout still reflects a traditional medieval T-shaped formation. Its houses provide wonderful examples of the county’s tradition of 16th century black and white timber-framed buildings and limestone cottages built with material from local quarries. These quarries provided much of the employment for the townspeople during the 19th century.
There are no chain stores or brand names amongst the town’s shops – save for a small Spar – just an eclectic collection of independent stores, galleries, inns, hotels and tearooms.
Although the town no longer has a direct train line thanks to the Beeching reforms of the 1960s, there are regular rail services from around the country into the nearby town of Shrewsbury, where a bus connection to the town is easily accessible. The road links are good too, with Much Wenlock around a 40-minute drive from Junction 4 of the M5 along the A458 and A491.
An ideal point to kick off a tour of Much Wenlock is the newly refurbished Much Wenlock Museum on the corner of Wilmore Street and High Street, which also acts as the town’s Visitor Information Centre. It re-opened in February after nearly a year and through newly redisplayed archive material, memorabilia and interactive exhibits, it tells the story of William Penny Brookes and his links with the Olympics, as well as the history of the town and its geology. There is also period cinema equipment and signage, which date from the time the museum was used as the town’s picture house up until the 1960s. Entry is free.
Walking up High Street from the museum brings you to the Corn Exchange building on your right, built in 1852 by William Penny Brookes as a Public Reading Room and Library, with a Librarian’s residence and a small museum. The building was enlarged in 1856 with the addition of a Working Men’s Reading Room (as the agricultural workers wanted their own space away from their employers) and a Corn Market Office. There is an open space beneath, which was used as the market and is still occupied by traders today. A library also remains there to this day.
Just next door is Raynald’s Mansion – now a high end antique shop accessible by appointment only. It dates from the 15th century and was once an inn.
Slightly further along on the right is a timber-framed and stone building, Ashfield Hall, which was the site of St John’s Hospital, founded in the 13th century for ‘lost and naked beggars’. In the 15th century, from which period the stone part of the building dates, it was occupied by local landowners the Ashfield family and Charles I is believed to have stayed here in 1642. It was owned at one point by William Penny Brookes so he could vote in elections, but he never lived here.
At the far end of High Street, on the corner of Smithfield Road stands the Gaskell Arms. This is one of several 17th century coaching inns that fed and housed travellers who were following the old road from Shrewsbury to London that passed through the town.
Walking back down the High Street you will pass another example of a 17th century coaching inn on your right opposite Ashfield Hall. This has since been a bank and is now a charity shop.
As you come to the end of High Street, you will see the 16th century black and white timber-framed Guildhall ahead of you. This was the administrative and judicial centre of the Borough of Wenlock until the mid 20th century, and the Council Chamber is where the Town Council still meets. Its interior was opulently transformed in 1848 by William Penny Brookes – a Justice of the Peace for over 40 years in the town – with oak panelling, carved chairs, a long wooden table and chimney piece. There is also an ancient courtroom within the building, which was an active court of law until 1985 and now features a number of displays that tell its story. The Guidhall can be visited during the peak season between Easter and the end of October for a small fee and, as is common in buildings of this period in the area, has space for a corn market below, which is still used today.
Turning right up Barrow Street brings you to the Raven Hotel, built around another 17th century coaching inn and forge where Baron de Coubertin and William Penny Brookes met in 1890. It still welcomes guests today in its 20 rooms and owner, Kirk Heywood, who has run the venue for over 20 years, has a wealth of knowledge on the local area. Within its public lounges and bar area are displays of letters, photographs and memorabilia connected with this historic meeting and its award-winning restaurant is set within what were once 15th century almshouses.
Moving back down Barrow Street, just behind the Guildhall, you can follow a path that brings you to Holy Trinity Church. Part of the former site of the Abbey of St Milburga (grandaughter of Penda, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia), it began life in the 7th century as the Nun’s Church, although it was largely reconstructed in the Norman period and restored in 1853. The present Nave dates from 1150 with the Tower, which masks the west front of the building, added in the 13th century. The mysterious initials AB and RI carved into its walls are possibly those of the stone masons that built the Tower. There is a memorial to William Penny Brookes on the west wall of the church as you enter through the Tower, which has been enhanced this year with the addition of a marble plaque marking his link to the 30th Olympiad in 2012. The restored graves of the Brookes family can be found in the churchyard adjacent to the Lady Chapel, and in 1994, His Excellency, Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, came to pay tribute to William Penny Brookes here and recognise his influence on founding the modern Olympic Games. The church is free to enter but a donation for its upkeep is appreciated, and you may even bump into its bare-footed vicar, just one of the many colourful characters that still abound in the town!
Walking through the churchyard, you will come to Priory Hall, which started life as the town’s first National School, another philanthropic gesture supported by William Penny Brookes.
As you pass the hall, look out for the sign, now hidden by trees, which dates from Victorian times and points the way to the adjacent Wenlock Priory, following the path of the Bull Ring. The priory is now in the care of English Heritage so groups are well catered for with discounted entry rates and free audio tours. Built on the site of the Abbey of St Milburga along with the Holy Trinity Church, the priory was shut down in 1540 during the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII. The ruins largely date from the 12th century, although little remains of the church of the first abbey built in around 680. Within the elaborately-carved Lavabo, where the monks washed, you will see two panels depicting Christ and the Apostles. These are replacements for the originals, which have been preserved and can be viewed in the Much Wenlock Museum. The bones of St Milburga, said to have been discovered on the site of Holy Trinity Church in 1101, led to the priory becoming a place of mythical pilgrimage during its existence.
As you come out of the priory down Bull Ring, there is a small footpath that eventually brings you out onto the Gaskell Recreation Ground or Linden Field, site of the Wenlock Olympian Games (see panel on page 28). Here you will find a modern iron sculpture depicting the Olympic torch, and if you take a walk across the field, you can make out the Coubertin Oak tree planted by Baron de Courbetin in 1890, and get closer to the remains of the 17th-century windmill.
Walking on with Linden Field on your right brings you out onto Station Road, at the end of which you will find the old Embankment that once carried the railway through Much Wenlock. William Penny Brookes played a major role in bringing the railway to the town and you can walk the path of the old tracks towards Farley.
Turning left at the end of Station Road into Sheinton Street and you will find the Wenlock Pottery & Craft Centre on your right. The building began as a Methodist Chapel in 1825 and continued as such until the 1960s, when it was then used by a local builder as his workshop. Since 1979, it has been run by the same owner, Mike Fletcher, as a pottery. He remains one of the few local potters still producing commercial hand-thrown stoneware goods and welcomes groups to tour his premises free of charge. As well as this, he offers workshops on various topics including kiln-making along with beer and skittle evenings in his ceramic cafe, which can also be used for plate and mug painting sessions.
As you pass the pottery, on the opposite side of the road, look out for a series of former almhouses, used to house the poor, originally founded in 1485 and now private residences. Further on into Wilmore Street, you will find the Birthplace of William Penny Brookes, opposite the Church Green, at number 4. When he returned to the town in 1831 to take over his late father’s medical practice, he lived here until his death in 1895 and it was where he welcomed Baron de Courbertin in 1890.