Stephanie and Graham have lived in the Headmaster’s House for five years. They gave up country living, a horse and ten acres to move into Shrewsbury’s town centre, foregoing even the luxury of a small garden. Not that their lives are devoid of luxury. They have the sort of bathroom you’d never want to leave if it were yours. Stephanie describes it as one of her favourite rooms in the house. She and Graham took down the ceiling when they moved in, exposing some interesting old beams, inserted a skylight and replaced a white tiled bathroom with a degree of opulence it’s never seen before.
Stephanie and Graham have worked hard these last five years, getting their house the way they want it. It’s a house with a history, and they’re proud of it. Opposite it is Shrewsbury Castle, and the street they look down upon is Castle Gates, where once two towered gates guarded the entrance to the town. Immediately next door to them is the fine stone building that now houses the Castle Gates Library, but until 1882 was home to Shrewsbury School. Indeed, it’s the headmasters of this school who gave their house its name, having lived in it alongside a number of boarders, including Charles Darwin.
Shrewsbury School has a long and distinguished history, established by charter in 1522 by Edward VI. By 1562 two hundred and sixty-six boys studied under the formidable Headmastership of Thomas Ashton, who achieved a national reputation for the school. In fact, by 1586 it was so successful that it was known as ‘the best filled school of all England’ and building work was deemed necessary to house masters and boys.
This building work took place throughout the latter part of the sixteenth century, the school completed in a form that would be recognizable today as the Castle Gates Library and associated buildings by 1630. However, despite his massive contribution to the reputation of the school, the initials on the gate to Stephanie and Graham’s house aren’t TA for Thomas Ashton, but SB for Samuel Butler, the Headmaster who turned around the school’s fortune after a long period of decline.
Butler wanted Shrewsbury to be a top public school again. One by one he acquired houses for boarders. A new chapel was built. The old Headmaster’s house was upgraded, its Jacobean façade upgraded [as Butler saw it] by being re-fronted in pseudo-Tudor style.
In Shrewsbury, history isn’t just something that happened in the past. It’s something that people live with today. Stephanie’s hall has oak panelling left over from the days when boys lived in the house. Her cellar has old passageways once leading underground to the school next door, now long-since blocked up. Between her hall and kitchen she has an arched tunnel in what has reliably been established as the old town wall. There’s a map of old Shrewsbury – the Burleigh Map of Tudor Shrewsbury, which shows the layout of the town in medieval times, including its walls – and including a building on the site of Stephanie’s house and what once was the school next door.
‘By the time we took on this house, many of the old features had been removed,’ Stephanie said. ‘It had changed hands so many times. It had even been used as offices before being turned back into a domestic residence.’
Once the houses opposite were school buildings, and the ones further along the lane were part of the old town gaol, but now they’re all domestic residences. Even though this is a town centre location, there’s a distinct sense of neighbourhood. There may be nothing to see through the arched and leaded windows of the Headmaster’s House that’s later than eighteenth century, but these fine old buildings are not exhibits in a museum – they’re people’s homes.
‘We love living here,’ Stephanie said. ‘We’re always out and about walking out dog and every day there’s something new and interesting to see. It might be a door, a window, a knocker even – but there’s always something that catches the eye. We eat out a lot too. The town’s full of great restaurants, all within short walking distance, so it seems crazy not to.
Graham came drifting in carrying a couple of prints of the Headmaster’s house as it was immediately after Butler’s renovation, and before he got his hands on it. He was tempted, he said, to attack those blocked-up tunnels in the basement with a six foot drill. His old life in the country had been all about cutting grass. But no grass grew here – which meant that he had time for other things.
The Headmaster’s House is five storeys tall, if you count the cellars and the roof terrace. Five thousand square feet of history, with a view of Shrewsbury from up among the chimney pots that hasn’t changed much [give or take a shopping centre and multi-storey car park] for the last few hundred years. ‘You’d think we’d have a few ghosts,’ Stephanie said. ‘But it seems not. We certainly haven’t seen anything, and our son, who picked things up in our old house, reckons there’s nothing here.’
That’s surprising, really. One particular story about the house merits a ghost. In 1608 the town Bailliffs attempted to remove one of the masters who was suspected of being a papist, upon which a ‘notorious riot’ took place outside the Headmaster’s House, extending over a period of four days and three nights. When one of the Bailliffs attempted to enter the building to remove the master by force, a timber beam was thrown down at him, which according to Stephanie and Graham killed him outright.
The roof terrace wouldn’t have been there back in the day, but even if the beam had been dropped from first floor level there would have been a horrible mess. I looked down. Beyond Stephanie and Graham’s house was the yard to the old Shrewsbury Gaol where the leader of the notorious Red & Green Gang escaped from his own hanging. Beyond that was all that remains of the picturesque black-and-white house once famous as the home of Pailin, maker of the Shrewsbury cake, which was medieval in origin. Then, crossing the top end of Castle Gates, was the cafe and well-being outlet, ‘Serenity’, housed in what Graham described as ‘that amazing French chateau-style church’ – in other words the ex-St Nicholas’s Presbyterian church. Beyond that stood the half-timbered magnificence built by Sir Frances Newport on Dogpole, moved to its present site outside the castle by his grandson, Lord Bradford, in 1696 [after Rowley’s House, arguably the finest half-timbered house in town]. Beyond that was Shrewsbury Castle and beyond that, crossing the road again, the Castle Gates Library, formerly Shrewsbury School. Then, as if that wasn’t enough to feast the eyes, looking the other way beyond rooftops and old chimney pots provided a view of trees, a hint of bus station, the River Severn and the surrounding Shropshire countryside extending into what the poet, Houseman, once described as ‘blue remembered hills’.
It was like another world up there – but I’d been enjoying it for far too long and the world of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose called me. Farewells were made down in the yard looking up at the crenellated facade added by Samuel Butler for effect – and a pretty successful effect it had been as well. ‘You should see it in the snow,’ Graham said. ‘You could easily believe you were living in Dickens’ day.’
At least, I think he said Dickens. Though, looking at the famous statue in the library garden beyond the Samuel Butler gate, he could have said Darwin. Whichever, though, I knew what he meant. I only live a stone’s throw away.