An archaeological tour of the River Severn.
It was the perfect place to build a settlement, in the middle of the loop of a river with its wonderful natural moat to act as a defence. Since it was founded in the 9th Century the town has built up layers and layers of rich history throughout the ages. Yet, very little research was done on the river itself, until archeologist Nigel Baker, one afternoon went for a paddle in his canoe. He was amazed at what he found and the evidence of a vibrant river culture.
Nigel has been doing his Paddle into the Past trips around the Severn in Shrewsbury for almost a decade, orgaisned by Drummond Outdoor. On his most recent trip I couldn’t resist taking notes and pictures. Here’s just some of what I learnt.
Starting off at Frankwell Quay by the cricket field you can see a post which was once part of a river ferry which would carry passengers from Coton Hill to Frankwell and vice versa.
After getting in we paddled across the river to the town wall by Lilly’s Tea Room. The wall is a medieval construction that once-upon-a-time stretched the whole length of the town centre from Lily’s, along the river, to the Castle. This marks the start of defensive Shrewsbury. The only land entrance to the town, at the north, stretches from Lily’s to the Castle, and it’s along this stretch, through where The Alb is now, where a deep ditch was dug as an extra defence.
You might think the Castle was built mostly as part of a defensive strategy, but not so! It was built for aggression! To crush rebellions and the Welsh enemy. The view of the town from the castle was such that if there were any gatherings, either within the walls or outside, the commanders in the castle would know about it and send out their scouts or forces.
Continuing the journey down stream we passed The River Thai which at one point in history was a mortuary (until at least 1946 and perhaps into the 50s).
This is what remains of a Victorian River Port. Essential for transporting goods to and from the Smithfield Cattlemarket which previously occupied the area until 1959 when the market was moved to Harlescott.
The current bridge was built in 1795 but its predecessor goes back many hundreds of years to the Norman times. Originally known as St George’s Bridge (recorded in 1154) it had six stone arches, a tower and a bridge but in its time it also supported other wooden structures. This stretched from where the current Quantum Leap sculpture is, to the Theatre Severn. During the construction of the theatre, evidence was found of the bridges previous constructions.
Depictions of the old bridge
So why was this beautiful old bridge demolished?
As you can see from the pictures it looked very worn down over the years. Centuries of damage had taken their toll. Temperatures were typically colder in the UK during the lifetime of the bridge, often illustrated by pictures of the river covered in ice. During the icy periods the ice would often break off further up stream in large pieces. These would float down the river and collide with the bridge.
Wood traders, further upstream, would also tie the logs they’d felled, together. The easiest and quickest way to transport them was to float them down stream. These would then crash into the bridge causing damage. Town authorities would try and find out who was responsible and fine them.
It was also very narrow, less that 10 feet wide making increasing amounts of traffic into the town slow – “They had traffic jams in medieval times too” said Nigel has he bobbed under the bridge.
As we got to the other side Nigel pointed up to the top of the bridge, to a single metal pole where you’d expect to see one of the pillars which line the rest of the bridge, separating the pedestrians on the footpath from a long drop into the water.
Many people who’ve seen this over years just assumed this was a poor repair job following an accident on the bridge – perhaps a truck or car had hit it and broken it. It is in fact where a pulley would have been. River boats transporting goods up stream, along that shallow and fast flowing stretch under the bridge, would send a man to feed the rope, which was attached to their vessel, through the pulley.
The end of the rope would then be thrown back to the boat and the men on board would be able to haul themselves underneath, also with much greater control.
Once passed the Welsh Bridge it was time to head on, to an area that was once the filthiest, most disgusting and stomach churning place in town!
Stayed tuned for part 2 of the Paddle into the Past special…
Dr Nigel Baker
Dr Nigel Baker is a freelance urban archaeologist. After a research degree at Nottingham he worked for Birmingham University, excavating in Shrewsbury and elsewhere; this was followed by a five year Leverhulme Research Fellowship investigating the role of church institutions in the growth of medieval towns. Subsequently, he undertook English Heritage’s urban archaeological databases (UADs) and assessments (UAAs) for Shrewsbury and Worcester. He was for eight years urban archaeologist for Herefordshire Council, in that time compiling the UAD/UAA for Hereford, together with a conservation plan for the city’s defences. More recently he has been editing the UAA volume for Bristol and another on the historic buildings of Hereford. He remains an Honorary Research Fellow of the School of Geography & Earth Sciences, University of Birmingham and a member of the Urban Morphology Research Group based there.
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