The Second Happiest Place

A weekend away.  On the recommendation of my sister, I booked a couple of nights’ stay at Gladstone’s Library in Wales.  I’d never heard of it, but it sounded interesting, even without my son being mad bonkers keen on libraries and antiquarian books.  

Having made these arrangements, I looked at a map to plan where might make a good place to break the journey with a cathedral (the other favourite thing of my atypical teenager).  Shrewsbury sounded promising, though Tripadvisor told me that far and away the most popular sight in Shrewsbury was a wildlife centre.  (What, not a religious building?!)  So I booked us on a hawk walk, found a small hotel which I thought would appeal to my Darwinist daughter, and extended our holiday.  Both kids very happy.  Me too.

I admit my son was a bit sniffy at first about the library: not especially old or architecturally interesting, nor housing interesting enough books, and mostly religious.  (Don’t be misled by the interest in medieval religious architecture, he is a non-believer like his mum.)  From age 14 he has worked in his school holidays for two of the foremost antiquarian book dealers in London, and handled exquisite, rare and valuable books. He was gifted (by his school) membership of the London Library.  And is lucky enough to have been shown round the archives of the Palace of Westminster.  A bit spoilt in the book department, in other words.

We drove far too long through one motorway traffic jam after another, finally arriving shortly before Shrewsbury Abbey closed.  We had a good look round, delayed somewhat by the curious old codger working there, who buttonholed us with irreligious stories about the history of the place.

Arriving at our hotel, I was enthusiastically greeted by my first name with a beaming smile and outstretched hand.  The receptionist, a keen historian with a warm sense of humour, gave us various tips for what to do to make the most of our stay before showing us to our rooms.  Mine was an enormous, sunny, octagonal space with a vast bed and piles of pillows and well chosen paperbacks.  A bottle of prosecco waited on ice.  Downstairs, a snug with an honesty bar where the children sat reading after I retired for the night.  In the morning, fabulous cooked breakfast in a cheery conservatory.  And there is a discount if you dine in one of their sister establishments (tasty dinner with friendly service, under £50 for three).

Reading the literature we picked up along the way, I learned that Shrewsbury has been voted the second happiest place to live in the UK, and on the basis of our short stay I can definitely believe it!  The staff in hotel and restaurant, shops and sights, the old boy in the Abbey, even the cheery, cheeky janitor in the museum: they have all, it seems, been given the script: act happy and friendly.  All have chatted to us with twinkles in their eyes, and one lady wheeling her bike even stopped when she saw us studying a town plan to ask ‘lost, or happy lost?’ before recommending her favourite restaurant with a smile.  Such a lovely town, with its narrow cobbled streets and medieval buildings, nestling in an almost perfect circle of the River Severn.  I began to entertain ideas of moving there when I am no longer tied to London, and regretted that we passed no estate agents’ windows for me to indulge in that British pastime of property porn.

And the sun shone on the new leaves emerging on all the trees so that the whole place seemed to sparkle.  Days one and two of the holiday, big success.  Except that one of my children was missing.

Image: Jesse Window, 14th century, not from the Abbey, but St Mary’s in Shrewsbury (just one of about a dozen churches we visited in our short break!) which houses some of the finest medieval stained glass in the country, some brought from Europe.

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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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