Ramblings in Shropshire – Part 4

9 04 2007

5-9 April 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4

Shrewsbury

Shrewsbury claims to be a beautiful town with an interesting history. The little research I did yielded nothing much. There is a castle which is today a museum. There is the Abbey which interested me. There is the Battle of Shrewsbury of 1403, a battle which features in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shrewsbury is also the birthplace of Charles Darwin. It is also where the war poet Wilfred Owen grew up. However, none of these things could contribute to beauty. Guidebooks describe places to see and things to do, but when they make a statement about beauty they do so without conviction. So the visitor is left to find out for himself what is so beautiful about Shrewsbury.

I spotted the Abbey as my train from Church Stretton pulled into Shrewsbury. From the station I turned right, crossed the overhead railway tracks and walked in an unguided manner. All the buildings had a rough and squalid look. There was nothing uplifting or interesting in any of them. The streets were deserted as is normal in most towns outside the town centre. The first public building I came across bore the sign “H.M.Prison”, which spoke volumes about Shrewsbury. I walked along the River Severn along a pleasant path. Soon I was approach by a girl of about sixteen. She was well-dressed, decent and stylish. She briefly interrupted a conversation on her mobile phone to ask me for a fiver. Prisoners and shameless beggars. What’s next I wondered?

Shrewsbury Abbey is situated by a busy road on one side. On the other side are a string of pubs, bars and restaurants. There was some peace in the graveyard but there was none as I stood before the West Window with the noise of traffic. There was an information board that attempted to explain the Abbey’s history but there was graffiti written all over it. One said “Billy is gay”. Another agreed differently: “Billy is a twat”. Next to this board was a wooden bench on which lay open pizza boxes. The ground around was littered with half-eaten pizzas and burgers. This is the beauty of Shrewsbury. Perhaps, there is some beauty in the town centre but I was not even tempted to discover it.

Shrewsbury Abbey, on the other hand, has many interesting architectural features which would not have come about if not for the Dissolution of the sixteenth century. Before the Dissolution it had been a Benedictine Abbey, much renowned for the shrine of St Winefride and the miracles attributed to her. Only the nave from the original Abbey was spared to make what is today a parish church. In this aspect of history it is similar to the fortunes of Waltham Abbey in Essex. The Norman crossing that we see today is a modern addition. It is not a crossing at all in the proper sense because there are no transepts and there is no tower above. But it was designed to be a crossing with the expectation that some day transepts and a tower would be created. This has not happened and the architect’s half fulfilled aims remain with us. As a result, this crossing is today used as a choir beyond which is the chancel, the high altar and the reredos. Likewise, what was once a part of the south aisle is today used as the Lady Chapel. The West Window from about 1380, is supreme. Its beautiful Perpendicular arches are embellished by an ogee arch with delicate finials.

The best of the interior is in the nave with Norman arcading. The triforium is Norman but in the 19th century each bay was inset with a bulky pillar from which two Perpendicular arches take their shapes. This in itself is an interesting detail: a newer style of arches inset within an older style. There is no vaulting in the aisles, the ceiling being the underside of gables added from a more recent period. Despite this mix of incongruous styles and features, the Norman arches in their splendid forms bring them together with great success. It is also mentioned that the lead on the roof was laid in 1646. It is claimed to be the oldest lead roofing still in use in the country. There is good reason why this lead covering has not been changed all these years. The danger of flooding here is not from rain but from the River Severn which has a habit of bursting its banks. Shrewsbury got flooded in 1998, 2000 and if I recall correctly, as recent as last year.

Easter in Bloom

On Saturday, at the Holy Trinity Church in Much Wenlock, I noticed that the entire place had been decorated beautifully with flowers. It had taken a few volunteers a good two hours of that morning to decorate the church. Today at Shrewsbury Abbey I noticed a similar decoration. I learned from one of the church volunteers what it meant. For the entire period of Lent, the church is left undecorated. The reredos are closed or covered. Flowers are not displayed anywhere within the church. I also recall that the service I had attended at Patterdale last Sunday had been a quiet one with a little sermon followed by time for reflection and healing. The church itself had no interior decoration whatsoever.

At Easter, things change drastically. Flowers in baskets fill the spaces below windows, catching the brilliant light that falls on them through colourful stained-glass. Flowers on stands burst in all glory and they line the nave and the aisles. Flowers proclaim the resurrection of Christ from the pulpit while little ivy stems and leaves on supple tendrils dangle along the sides of the pulpit. Everywhere you look or walk there is a flower arrangement in sight accompanied by a mix of gentle fragrances that follow you at each step.

There were no bright colours in the arrangement I saw at Shrewsbury Abbey. This contributed to a superb harmony. Flowers were in only two colours: yellow or white. There was the brilliant yellow of a chrysanthemum, its little petals curled up individually but collectively bursting out with joy. There was the white lily, often found in paintings of the Annunciation. Some of these lilies were in full bloom with the stamen powdering their petals with a delicate yellow. Others were still in bud waiting for their turn to live and love. There were carnations in both yellow and white. Again, these were in full bloom but they have a certain order and elegance rarely found in most flowers. They are reserved not brash. They are quiet not boisterous. There were also white or yellow roses, always a favourite for their beauty, their fragrance and the exuberance of their blooms. There were white anthuriums, so common in tropical countries from where they had been imported specially for this occasion.

Flowers on their own can do little for an arrangement. They have to be complemented by a background that is just as artistic in a natural way. The only colour in the background is green in its various shades. Green ferns and leaves created the basic form for the flowers to display their beauty by striking contrast. Thick green stems made their in curls amongst the ferns. Stems with unopened catkins of pussy willow rose straight. Fern leaves burst out from the central arrangement and nicely framed the based with their outward fan that dangled elegantly towards the floor. All such brought a great deal of movement and dynamism to the arrangements. The plants and flowers were full of life. They said a lot more that what appeared to the eye.

Attingham Park

It has been perhaps a blessing in disguise that I have not visited any of the National Trust properties for quite some time. The reason is simple. Most of these properties are closed for winter and most tend to open on Easter weekend. While I had previously studied the architecture, appreciated the art collections and walked the manicured gardens, today I began to look at Attingham Park in a completely different way.

What prompts people to build a house on such a grand scale? Why would anyone need so many rooms? What use is it to have such a large estate land under private ownership? Can a single man and his family need so much of earth’s resources? What is with these decorated rooms uncomfortably crowded with too much and too many lavish furniture? What is with this art collection accumulated from a Grand Tour of Europe? What is with all these paintings hung in permanent display when nothing material is permanent? All these matter little without an education of the mind and an enlightenment of the spirit. Attingham Park has indeed been a good visit for me. It has prompted me to ask all these questions and more. It has enabled me to look at my own life, the little I have and how precious that little is to me.

Part of the reason of asking these questions came from the severe formality of design. The front facade towers with four classical columns with decorated Ionic capitals that support a tympanum. From this centre, the building spans out symmetrically on either side. The wings that stretch out on either side contain the same formality. Inside, there is a lot of furniture from the Regency period but in most rooms these are arranged in uncomfortable ways. The furniture is once more seen to be items of display rather than being of any real use. Rooms are furnished beyond their means. One could thus say “Such large rooms but so little space!” Then there are wooden bookcases with leather-bound books whose spines bear exquisite ornamentation in gold. The books are neatly arranged and make a great display; but no one reads them. Once in a while NT volunteers would open these cases and dust them; but the books remain unopened and unread. Finally there is the renowned Picture Gallery designed only to display the art collection. Even here, the lighting is not at its best to admire many of them hung high on the wall. For example, it was impossible to look at “The Death of Archimedes” by Luca Giordano without staring blankly at a glare that fell on it from the partly glass-covered ceiling.

Why would anyone have a room just for paintings, or just for books for that matter? I suppose looking at a painting is very much like reading a book. There are many parallels between the two. Every colour is like a word carefully chosen by context and purpose. Every shade that links one colour to the next is like a simple preposition that does more by its simplicity than elaborate words. Every line of detail is like a phrase of meaning. Every form or object is like a paragraph that stands on its own. The picture as a whole is a collection of these forms, objects, images, lines and details; which is like a collection of paragraphs that make a story. Then there is the personal response of the viewer or the reader as he delves into these details to grasp their meaning and mood. In this process he may, if he is a worthy student with an open mind, discover something useful for himself. He may carry with him not a photograph or a guidebook, but an experience that will help him in his long journeys through life.

There was one more point of interest in the Picture Gallery. I found out that the iron frame that supports a glazed roof was cast in a foundry in Coalbrookdale, a place about which I had some familiarity after my visit to Ironbridge. This is one of the common joys of travelling: to be able to make links and associations among the different places one visits. One begins to see and understand better these places, people, culture and history. My journeys show things not mentioned in guidebooks. My journeys may be slower and may cover limited ground, but they have a depth that is difficult to attain in the style of Vernes’ “Around the World in Eighty Days”.

Once I had reflected on these lines in the Picture Gallery, it occurred to me that this room had a purpose after all. Nonetheless it makes sense to have all such collections in the public domain. Keeping a painting private is like keeping Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in an unpublished form for private reading. We have to be therefore thankful to the National Trust for making all such things enjoyable for the general public. When I left this room, some of my earlier impressions of Attingham Park had been tamed.

The house is linked to a large walled courtyard at the back. From here we see the walls but also a mass of trees, their canopies taking shape with the coming of these warmer months and longer days. It is a lovely view: to be in a large courtyard open to the sky which is also enclosed by these walls and the trees beyond. It is a balance of both openness and closed privacy. It is both inward and outward. It gives us a sense of security but also makes us aware of the wider world outside. The balance is also of elements created by nature as well as by man. In the courtyard we are close to the building, walk on levelled gravel and appreciate the well-cut lawn; but we also take note of the sky, the trees and the way the leaves catch the sunlight, dance in an afternoon breeze while the walls below stand unmoved on the firmament.

I did not have enough time to walk the landscaped park. My walk along the Severn Way from Shrewsbury took longer than expected. I walked a little distance from the front of the house only to come to a four feet ditch that separated the house from the wider park area. This is the ha-ha which is a key feature of many landscape gardens, normally employed to keep the livestock away from the house. This can be seen in many such gardens including the celebrated gardens at Stowe. The ha-ha is an ingenious way to separate areas in an inconspicuous manner. No fences or visible barriers are used. From a distance it is even impossible to tell that a ditch exists. The aesthetic look of the park is enhanced. The landscape in the distance becomes a natural extension what we see in the foreground.

At the reception I got an NT staff to call a taxi for me. I was running short of time to catch my train from Shrewsbury to Birmingham. As I waited on a bench, I got curious glances from everyone who passed me by. My visit to Attingham Park and indeed my ramblings in Shropshire had come to an end in a characteristic way. I had not shaved for five days. I looked very much a tramp plodding along with a backpack and a tent. It is also rare to see Indians at any of these places. In my own experience, I have probably seen Indians only on two or three occasions in all my visits to NT properties.
Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4

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