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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 93

I stop at a village called Chirbury to celebrate having cycled from  England all the way back to England via four other countries and two ferry rides. The two women in the general store are cheerful and kind enough to put on a  pretence of being impressed that I had pedalled from Wales. Wales is only a couple of miles away. When I say I set off from Aberystwyth, a cocked eyebrow joins the friendly smile.

“All the way from the coast. Is it for charity?”

“To give my family some peace and quiet.”

“Don’t they miss you?”

“I hope so. I miss them.”

“How long before you get home?”

“If I keep going like today, I should be there the day after tomorrow.”

They serve me coffee and biscuits and let me sit on the bench outside. I’m only a couple of miles from the border but I couldn’t be more in England.

Chirbury is delightful and everyone who passes has a smile and something pleasant to say. It has a church I would very much like to draw, a post office and shop, a pub named after one of my favourite poets (well, The Herbert Arms is probably named more after the family the poet belonged to, who were big landowners in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches in Elizabethan and Jacobean times), and working farmhouses in the village itself. The remains of ancient orchards. Barns and cottages and gardens where delphiniums and hollyhocks grow. If I were looking to re-locate I think I’d cast my eye over Chirbury. Could they cope with me? I’d live quietly and keep my garden neat.

On most days I’d settled for the night by now. Had found a hotel and was soaking in a bath tub and reflecting on the day. I’d plenty already to reflect upon today but the ten hours of good sleep had left me strong. The road ahead is clear and quiet. Who wouldn’t want to ride these particular lanes in the early evening of a day that had saved its best for last?

I’m practically on Offa’s Dyke. The road wends happily northwards and slightly eastwards. I pass through Marton and then Worthen yet I’m still within singing distance of Wales. I pedal on with the sun now warming my back to the village of Westbury. All the churches hereabouts are fabulous. I like to draw churches. Partly because I feel in touch with the past, partly because they tend to be in quiet and lovely places and it’s an excuse to sit there for an hour or two and partly because they are not difficult for the artist of limited skills. (At least to capture the shape and structure and some of the character.) I’ll return with a sketch pad.

The evening rush hour is dying out as I reach the outskirts of Shrewsbury. It’s the biggest town I’ve visited since I left West Yorkshire and I’m glad I don’t have to cycle it at its busiest. There are a lot of cyclists about but they are all of the commuter on a mission type. I try following one fellow but he’s a ducker and weaver and likes to give off exasperated expressions and gestures to motorists from his saddle. Because he is physically higher up than the drivers, he feels on the moral high ground. Not all motorists like cyclists and this fellow is one of the reasons why.

Everything tells me to find a place to stop and explore Shrewsbury fully. It is a remarkable town. It’s a most attractive town. It has a history of education, ecclesiastical endeavour, battles and transport that make it a place worthy of anyone’s study. The architecture is of the first order. It boasts the world’s largest Doric column, a grade two listed railway station and a public school whose list of former students reads like a who’s who of the great and the good.

I’m also driven by not only wanting to get nearer home but also by the simple desire to make today the longest distance I have travelled. I managed 87 miles through the Sperrin Mountains and made myself poorly. That was earlier in the journey and the weather was cold and wet. Today I’ve got a most glorious evening stretching out patiently. It’s warm, I’ve got huge momentum and a boyish desire to see the daily count click past one hundred miles. It would be the first time I’d pedalled that far in one day since I was truly a young man. I’m drawn to make a mark as a middle aged man. And I’ve worked out that if I can reach Staffordshire, I may be in my own bed in just over one more day. Anybody who has ever cycled further than their local town centre will understand this urge to keep going, to get over the next hill, to click over the next mile, to reach the next town.

But Shrewsbury is too good to pass through without stopping. It’s a real battle of wills. I’m faced with a choice of two things I want almost equally. The chance to explore one of the best towns in England and the chance to close the gap between me and everything I hold dear. I could make the choosing easy by following the white lines and avoiding the town centre. I could but I don’t. I’ve been to Shrewsbury on a couple of other occasions and am drawn to what I know of it and even more drawn by what I have yet to find out.

I have never known how to pronounce the name. It almost ranks with “scone” as a word that divides the English in terms of pronunciation. There is a Facebook campaign with rival camps each boasting hundreds of followers. Radio Two DJ Chris Evans held a poll and decided that Shrowsbury was correct as this is how American’s pronounce it. (There are a number of Shrewsburys in the USA – four in Pennsylvania alone) There’s a Shrewsbury in Canada and another in Australia. The town crier calls it Shrowsbury but admits that this is because he finds it easier to say than for any historical reasons. I ask some passers by and get four Shroosburys and five Shrowsburys. I myself prefer the Shrew version but could be happily persuaded by anyone with more authority.

I associate the town with a football ground that was so close to the River Severn that they employed a man in a coracle to fetch lost balls from the water, a rather good lemon flavoured biscuit, the scene of the key battle in Henry IV part one where Hal turns from decadent student prince to the future hero of Agincourt by killing Henry “Hotspur” Percy and the setting for George Farquhar’s play The Recruiting Officer.

Everything about the place tells me that I must stay. I settle down on some grass near St Chad’s Church, brew a mug of tea and flip a coin.