Monday, 5 August 2013

Britannia of Blome & Britain in Bloom

How about this as a description of Shrewsbury:

“The Severn is navigabale to Schrosbery, I passed it over a large stone ridge.  At the entrance there is a suburb, the church of which appears to me to have formerly belonged to some fine abbey.  

I ascended from thence to the town ; which is mounted on the platform of a rock, scarped on almost every side, which renders its situation naturally strong.  Besides which, the wall that encloses it made it difficult to be scaled.  

The environs consist of large woods, and high mountains.  Nevertheless, the town is filled with people and rich shopkeepers, who dwell in two large streets, one leading to the market-place, and the other turning from this place towards the left.  Near which are the Great Church, the Exchange and Town-hall.  

They are in a street called Aystrit, which is so broad, that it seems a long market-place, terminating at one of the ends of the town, where stands the Castle and commands it ; being more elevated and by so much the stronger, as it is environed on one side by broad ditches, closed with good walls, and on the other there is no approach to it, on account of the steepness of the rock. But it has been ruined by the late wars, insomuch that, excepting a few towers, and some lodgings within, I see nothing remarkable.”

This piece of seventeenth century travel writing was published in Paris in 1672, recounting the travels of a certain Monsieur Jorevin de Rocheford.  Also included are details of Shrewsbury funeral ceremonies that I’ll share with you another time. The painting above provides an idea of the view that M de Rocheford would have encountered as he approached Shrewsbury, and so would the writer of this account, also written in the seventeenth century.

 “For largeness [numbring five parish churches, besides a chapel ; two of which, St Marie’s and St. Alckmond’s, are fair structures, and beautified with lofty spires,] neatness of buildings, both publick and private, largeness and variety of streets, and populousness, [the town] may be ranged in the number of cities of the first rank.

“It is a town of good strength, as well by nature as by art ; being fenced about with a strong wall ; besides another bulwark ranging from the Castle unto, and in part along, the Severn ; through which there are here entrances into the town: on the East and West, by two fair stone bridges, with gates, towers, and barrs : and on the North by a strong gate, over which is mounted the said Castle, once exceedingly strong.

“It is a place of a great resort, and well inhabited both by the English and the Welsh, who speak both speeches: and enjoyeth a great trade for cloths, cottons, frizes and a variety of other commoditie s: this being the common mart between England and Middle Wales.”

Both these accounts I've taken out of The History of Shrewsbury, Volume I, written by H. Own and J.B. Blakeway, published in 1825 – which I bought in first edition only the other day from the completely wonderful Candle Lane Books, which I shall be writing more about later in the year. The second account was lifted by them from the ‘Britannia of Blome’, which struck me as being of passing interest as today is Britain in Bloom finals Day, with the town of Shrewsbury full of similar jollifications to the ones I described recently for the Regional Finals.

The names may be similar, however, but the similarity ends as soon as it begins. Britannia of Blome is a “geographical description of the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, with the isles and territories thereto belonging : and ... an alphabetical table of the names, titles, and seats of the nobility and gentry ... Illustrated with a map of each county of England and Wales, enobled with illustrations… the like never before seen”.

Richard Blome was active as a map and bookseller in latter part of seventeenth century.  The Britannia was his principle work, though it was described by some as plagiarism, and said to include poorly drawn and sketch maps. 

I have to say these maps don’t look sketchy to me.  Above is one of Shropshire, and I love this one of London.  And, while we're on the subject of engravings, below is one from the Owen & Blakeway History - a lovely stormy view, appropriate to some of the weather we've been having recently, drawn by J.C. Buckley in 1823:

One final word on the subject of the painting of Shrewsbury with which I began this post.  It was donated to Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery in December 2009 and will be one of the treasures on show in the new Museum.  It dates back to around 1630, and is the third oldest known image of the town.

Coincidentally, it turns out that a previous owner of the painting was the same Reverend John Brickdale Blakeway [vicar of St Mary’s from 1794 until his death in 1826], who co-wrote the History of Shrewsbury. In that History, mention is made of the additional storey on the tower of the Abbey Church, which was depicted ‘in an old painting of a view of Shrewsbury’.  As the Blakeway painting - which is believed to have hung in The Council House, which is where Blakeway lived and died - is the only known view of the town showing this feature, it’s more than likely that this is the 'old painting' mentioned in the book.  
How wonderful it is to think that some of Shrewsbury's old treasures have survived and, as in this case, will soon be available for us to see.
By the way, good luck to Shrewsbury’s Britain in Bloom bid. When I hear how it goes, I’ll let you know.  


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