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Planning Retirement Online

Exploring Medieval Towns

Elisabeth Jordan started researching her village and gained more from her hobby than she bargained for!  

I took early retirement from teaching some years ago and like many people took the opportunity to develop interests I had long neglected. Arthur, my husband, had also retired. He'd worked in the computers industry but had also been a part-time tutor in transport history for the Workers’ Educational Association and for the University of Leicester.

 My interest was to research the history of our village. Then we both started reading ‘New Towns of the Middle Ages’ by Maurice Beresford (publisher Alan Sutton, 1988), and our interest deepened. 

It was in the late 1980s. We took our caravan and toured England, Wales, Ireland and France visiting towns all based on his book. Exploring these places, we were pleasantly surprised at how many reminders of medieval times can still be found.  


Taking morning coffee on the terrace of the Bear Steps restaurant in Shrewsbury, for instance, a medieval timber building rescued in the '80s by the local civic society, guides from Tourist Information, we discovered medievalism was all around us.  Poring over the tourist information, we found that Bear Steps Hall next door dates from the fourteenth century.   It has a wonderful Crown Post roof   - few of them survive today or have public access - and an enthusiastic curator! The window looks out on St Alkmund’s churchyard where the local market was held from Saxon times until 1261.  

We spent hours exploring the town’s many ‘shuts’ and ‘passages’ including  ‘Seventy Steps Shut’ and ‘Grope Lane’ (naughty!).  Then we pursued a fictional link.  Shrewsbury, for us, is synonymous with Brother Cadfael, novelist Ellis Peters’ monk-sleuth character.  So we visited the remains of 'his' Abbey and followed in the footsteps of Brother Cadfael. 

‘Medieval Towns’ became a new subject for Arthur’s lecturing courses, illustrated by the thousands of slides we have made on our travels. As our knowledge and interest expanded, Arthur’s courses have widened to include ‘Life in Tudor Times’ and ‘Life in Victorian Times’. 

It was not long before his students (mostly of them early retired like ourselves) were wanting to go on day trips to see for themselves. And then, not satisfied with places within day trip distance they wanted week-end visits!  

Always eager to please, we managed to find suitable accommodation at an affordable price in Ludlow, one of our favourite medieval towns. Twenty people enjoyed two nights and days exploring the castle, the black and white buildings, the misericords - those tip-up seat in choir stall made so that monks could take surrepticious rests in the parish church, and the fortified walled moated look-out tower manor at Stokesay,          

We've done that trip several times now.  Once, in Ludlow, we were tape-measuring the frontage of The Bull, a 15th century public house while passers-by stared in wonderment and shopkeepers glared, thinking we were from the Council!    

In most medieval towns the burgage  - plots laid-out for building on - were set to standard dimensions based on a module of a perch (about 161/2 feet).  The Bull measures exactly 2 perches. 

In Canterbury we got talking to the owner of an antique shop, not about his goods for sale but about the medieval building it is housed in.  Now he welcomes us as old friends. He loves his building and is always pleased to share his joy in it with anyone interested.  

A lady in Ely lives with 14th century wall paintings of foliage, a peacock, heron and dove on the landing outside her bathroom door which she delights in showing to our groups.  

bwcant.jpg (15091 bytes)Timber frame buildings, better known as black and white buildings, always attract attention, particularly when various local styles of carpentry and decoration are on show, or when carpenters’ marks are visible. These buildings were normally prepared in kit form in the builders’ yard and then erected on site like something made from Meccano. The carpenters’ marks are there to help put the right pieces together.  

We now take groups to nine or ten different venues each summer, many of them for five days, and as word spreads so we attract people from all over the country. We do this because we enjoy meeting so many lovely people with whom we can share our enthusiasm. Obviously we have to cover all our costs but this is not a profit making business. 


 Our medieval heritage is on your doorstep wherever you live - enjoy it.


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Recommended books - 'New Towns of the Middle Ages' is by far the most comprehensive (it has an excellent gazetteer) and should be available in libraries. Two other quite good ones are 'The Making of English Towns' by David W Lloyd published by Victor Gollancz 1984, and 'Medieval Towns' by John Schofield and Alan Vince published by Leicester University Press 1994.


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