The Pulpit, Shrewsbury Abbey, Shropshire

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The Independent Online
Some places reach out and give the visitor a warm greeting, and the market town of Shrewsbury is certainly one of them. Tucked into a loop of the River Severn, its combination of Tudor intimacy in the centre (don't even think about parking) with the green spaces to the south is immensely satisfying.

The smallness of the tuck on which Shrewsbury stands meant that modern development - not modern as in 20th-century, but modern as in Victorian - spared the black-and-white timbered buildings, warrened as they are with alleys or "shuts" displaying a bare minimum of straight lines.

If you cross over to hillside Shrewsbury School and look down over The Quarry park towards the town, you could almost be admiring a medieval town, dominated as it is by the spires of St Mary's and St Alkmund. Monks and Geoffrey Chaucer lookalikes seem to scurry along the deliciously named Wyle Cope. Past and present form a seamless web.

Certainly Shropshire's most famous writer, Ellis Peters, thought so. She set her Brother Cadfael series, starring the medieval monk and gardener-cum-sleuth, in and around Shrewsbury. After a slow start, the novels now sell in their tens of thousands, and a second television series with Derek Jacobi is on the way. The recent death of Edith Pargeter, Ellis Peters's real name, will not diminish interest in the work of an author who has introduced many more people to medieval England than any number of professors.

Although I personally find some of the plots a little thin, Peters captured brilliantly the medieval mix of the pious and the vulgar. On one hand, the striving after perfection represented by the great English cathedrals; on the other, the disease, plague and cruelty which punctuated everyday life.

Brother Cadfael was a monk attached to Shrewsbury Abbey, which is best reached today by wandering over the elegant English Bridge. On the other side of the railway bridge is a red sandstone church, almost the sole survivor of the Benedectine Abbey founded in 1083. What happened to the rest of the Abbey? In 1836, the great engineer Thomas Telford cut the London-Holyhead road (our A5) through here and destroyed most of the monastic buildings.

The church still contains several Norman columns and the fine 19th-century restoration by J L Pearson almost adds to the atmosphere. But the best ancient fragment is outside in Abbey Foregate. Here is a Refectory Pulpit of c1300. It is a minor architectural masterpiece, and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner went into raptures describing its ogee arches, crockets and lancet arches.

I suspect that most people will ask themselves whether an elderly Brother Cadfael might not have stood here, giving the novices a lesson on the importance of observation.

The pulpit is beside Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

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