Katy Rink joins the Shrewsbury Ghost Tour and finds it a great introduction to our town's rich history, thanks to the expert knowledge of tour guide 'Lazarus Body' aka Robert Elliott (pictured here in Victorian mourning dress)
A GHOULISH SIDE OF TOWN
It was the perfect evening to take a walk on the dark side of town - the moon was up and clouds scudded across an inky blue sky as we gathered in front of Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.
It took a while for us to notice him at first, as we said our hellos. Then someone pointed to the opening of a little shut - one of the many dark, narrow passageways that criss-cross our medieval town.
Tour guide Robert Elliott cut a ghoulish figure, adorned in Victorian mourning clothes, a silk black hat, cravat and tails, standing stock still, as though keeping vigil with the dead.
After introducing himself, poker-faced, as ‘Lazarus Body The Undertaker’ he lit the way, with a glowing blue lantern.
Lazarus was the perfect guide throughout - holding us spellbound with richly detailed tales of Shrewsbury’s fabulous cast of ghouls. We’re one of the most haunted towns in England, if you didn’t know. Apparently it’s to do with the loop of the River Severn, which keeps the ghosts trapped inside, since they can’t cross the water (it’s a good story, anyway).
From the little boy killed by falling masonry in 1596 who cries out under the Old Market Hall, to the children who died in a house fire above the modern-day Templeton Jones shop (pictured below) and the medieval serial killer ‘Bloudie Jack’ who kept girls’ fingers and toes as souvenirs up at the castle - we’ve got some killer tales. Lazarus was certainly not short of material.
There is so much brilliant history in Shrewsbury, which owes its foundations to the Anglo-Saxons who settled on the scrubby hilltop overlooking the River Severn. By the late Middle Ages it was growing fat on Welsh wool and flax and many of its gorgeous, half-timbered buildings date back to this prosperous era. It’s had its fair share of bloody rebellions too: frequent skirmishes with the Welsh; the famous 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury and the seizure of the town by Parliamentarians during the Civil War, to name a few. The ghost stories were an entertaining way of peeling back the years. Robert/Lazarus is not only a gifted storyteller, he’s a decent historian too and easily blends fact and fiction.
The mysterious, and easily missable 'Coffee House Passage' which runs between The Square and College Hill
It was great fun exploring hidden corners of the town at night. I’ve lived in Shrewsbury for over a decade and thought I knew every cranny, but Lazarus pointed out things I’d never noticed, like the grills from former police cells under the museum. We walk these streets every day but miss these historical cues. It’s all a bit Harry Potter-ish, close-up. I could swear that Coffee House Passage, between The Square and College Hill, wasn’t there before, like Platform Severn and a Half.
Another of Shrewsbury’s famous shuts, The Compasses Passage, cuts through from Town Walls to Wyle Cop. It seemed to take an eternity, in the pitch black. We skittered along giggling at sounds of mewling and babies crying (tricksy Lazarus was at it again).
The Parade Shops in St Mary's Place, a former hospital, boasts a whole cast of ghostly characters of its own!
We all loved our guide’s deadpan style: “Oh yes, there was quite a lot of death going on here,” he said, as we reached the highest point in town at the top of Pride Hill - once marked by a medieval High Cross, where executions were said to have taken place. We learned about hanging, drawing and quartering, not to mention live disembowelling! And about traitors’ heads which were carted off to London to display at The Tower, whilst the limbs often went on tour (embalmed and seasoned with herbs!) as a warning not to mess with those in power; it was all good, juicy stuff that makes our modern lives seem a bit drab by comparison.
Snap lots of pictures on the tour - as your mobile phone might capture 'floating orbs' and other apparitions that cannot be seen by the naked eye!
I don’t want to give away too many of Robert’s stories, but if you are well versed in our classic Shrewsbury ghost tales - the poor chap trapped in St Julian’s Churchyard, the drunken steeplejack at St Alkmund’s, the foreboding Lady in Grey at The Parade (a former hospital) and the super creepy story of the painting in the Nag’s Head - you’ll love hearing them in situ, and with such fine telling.
For visitors who don’t know our town, the museum’s ghost tour is a fabulous introduction to the rich tapestry of characters who have trod these streets before - an immersive, street-level history lesson with a very light touch.
Shrewsbury Ghost Tours are held on various dates throughout October and early November from 7pm to 8.30pm, meeting in front of the Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery (£9 adult, £3.50 child).
A special Hallowe'en Ghost Tour (October 31st) will take visitors underground into the creepy cellars and prison cells (pictured below right), ordinarily closed to the public, revealing a darker side to Shrewsbury Museum. Starts 6.30pm outside the museum. Booking essential (£15 adults, £7 child), suitable for ages 10+ to include a glass of wine or soft drink.
Booking for both is via www.shropshiremuseums.org.uk/events