Saturday, 12 January 2013

Yipes! An Enid Blyton Moment in a Carpet Shop!

You must have read it. If not in Blyton's Castle/Island/Mountain of Adventure series, in some other children’s book.  The moment when Jack, Lucy and/or their parrot/dog go into the innocent-looking, friendly local shop run by an innocent-looking, friendly nice man, and catch that first glimpse of adventure in a ruined archway half-hidden from sight, or bolted door with secrets behind.

Well, here I am in Castle Carpets asking for a quote for fitted carpetting, and behind the stands of carpet samples, something very interesting catches my eye.  ‘What’s behind there?’ I ask, wondering if it's deliberately been hidden up and if so [wearing my child-hero-catching-master-criminals hat] why?  ‘It’s very old,’ says the innocent-looking, friendly nice man, who couldn't possibly ever be involved with anything untowards.  ‘Yes, but what is it?’ I ask. 

It turns out it’s a window - which given that Castle Carpets is built into the side of a real live genuine castle [the sort featured in Enid Blyton, and lots of other children’s books], is very interesting indeed. The carpet man, who I'm certain by now isn't deliberately keeping anything hidden, suggests that if I want to see it I go round to the sandwich shop next door.  ‘It looks out on their yard,’ he says helpfully. 

I go and introduce myself.  ‘Hello, I’m a children’s author who’s writing a blog about Shrewsbury.  Can I take a look in your yard?’ The sandwich lady says she doesn’t have a yard.  And she’s not being funny.  She doesn’t either. It takes a while to figure out where the yard – more importantly the window - must have been. It’s long-since been boarded up and plaster-boarded over, but is still there, thank God. It’s just that now all I can see is the back end of the shop.  

I stare at the wall. Feeling sorry for me I suspect, the sandwich lady leads me out through the back of her shop to where a long, low covered passageway runs behind the shops, parallel to the much higher public walkway, much used in the present day.  This lower passageway is now covered in, but once it would have been looked down upon from the castle walls.

I glimpse a hint of roofscapes, and wonder how old they are.  The sandwich lady points out some wall tiles that are rumoured to have had something to do with Shrewsbury School [by which she means the old Tudor school of 1552, founded by charter in Edward VI's reign, which now houses Shrewsbury's Castle Gates Library]. There are rumours of passages between the castle and the school, and all sorts of other secret passageways as well.  What a tangle the town is once you scrape beneath the surface – or walk into the pages of an Enid Blyton book.

Leaving the sandwich shop, I pass beneath an old stone archway that in all my years of buying pork baps here, with stuffing and apple sauce, I’ve never even noticed [this was the Jersey Gate, apparently]. Back in Castle Carpets I tell my tale of boarded-up windows and shuffle about looking disappointed but hopeful.  Sure enough the nice man, whose name I now know is Jake takes pity on me. If I come back at lunchtime when there’s someone else to help him, he says, he’ll remove the sample stands so that I can see what’s behind.

On the dot of one I return, armed with cameras in the plural in case one konks out [in Enid Blyton books, the children are always prepared; in fact, if they’d been here they’d have brought a seed-cake too].  Jake and his helper roll back the stands and out into the light of day emerges one of the most ancient-looking windows I’ve ever seen. I mean, really ancient - medieval mystery ancient; Ellis Peters, that sort of thing.  And it’s enormous too.  Not some little peep-hole. More like a sixteenth century version of wall-to-ceiling plate-glass.

What’s the history of this extraordinary window, buried in the back of a carpet shop?  The carpet man doesn’t know, but it’s obviously a window of great antiquity. ‘If history interests you, would you like to see our cellar?’ he says. ‘What’s in your cellar, I ask?’ gasping for breath.  ‘Follow me and I’ll show you,’ he says.

Pinch me and I’ll wake up in a minute.  Either that, or I really am Lucy and the crooks are about to reveal themselves in the next chapter on the other side of the cellar door.  Jake leads me to the back of the shop where the door in question is fairly innocuous-looking except for a rusty old bolt.   ‘Go down there,’ he says, drawing it back and stepping aside.  ‘And mind your head.’

I do.  And here on this page you can share with me what I find.  Aren't you excited too?  We're staring at rows and rows of vaulted arches looping off into the distance with occasional portals of light from some hidden source.  What was that the sandwich lady reckoned about secret passageways?  Behind me, Jake says he and his father, Eddie, had some special castle expert in one time, and he informed them that both sets of cellars looked exactly the same and at one time they must have been joined up. 

I’d like to know more.  This calls for detective work. I bought a book recently in Pengwern Books in Shrewsbury Market. It's the fruits of an English Heritage report promoting urban archaelogical strategies. Shrewsbury. An Archaeological Assessment of an English Border Town it’s called, and I heard Nigel Baker, its author, speaking once and was greatly impressed. Perhaps this can help me, or the Local Studies Library [though the libraries, I know, have been badly decimated by government cuts] or the Shropshire Archive.  Or perhaps I’m going to have to return in the dead of night, bringing my seed-cake this time, a few chums and a bottle of lemonade. Perhaps the four of us [five if you count Biffo, my dog] will have to get into that cellar by some plucky but not illegal means and see what we can find.

I leave the shop in a daze, glimpsing yet more wonders in the scallop-shell decorative archway over the door, my head spinning with all the fabulous adventures that lie ahead.  Following me, I notice, is a mysterious short woman with her hair pinned up in an elegant bun/French roll.  Was she following me earlier?  I don’t know. Outside when she speaks to me, I find myself returning to ordinary life. What can I have been thinking of?  She’s my daughter’s mother-in-law - someone I count as a friend.

Tonight from Shrewsbury I can tell you categorically that there are no spies, crooks or a hardened criminals in Shrewsbury. Or, at least, I haven’t found them yet. 


[All photographs were taken in Castle Carpets Ltd, Castle Gates, Shrewsbury]


  1. There are cellars in the railway station like these. At the back of the ticket office there is a big solid old door that is supposed to lead into a secret passage up to the castle. Rumour has it some churches were linked too!

  2. Brilliant. I'll make it my business to find out more. BTW. How do you know? This is exciting!

  3. How exciting! Like being an archaeologist but without the broken fingernails ... Did Jake manage to flog you a carpet in the end?

  4. Well, actually..... I DO have a quote, and it's a good one. And on the subject of fingernails, typing's as bad for breaking them as archaeology. My fingernails are horrible.