Shrewsbury in Black and White

In Shrewsbury you can, as the British say, start as you mean to go on: the Tourist Information Office itself is in a half-timbered Medieval building

Just how long I’ve been gone from the US hits me once in a while when I find myself forgetting which expressions are British and which are American.  Suburbs in the USA have plenty of houses in a style I think of as Mock Tudor – but is that the American term?  Or the British term? 

Costa Coffee (a British chain competing with Starbucks) in Shrewsbury -- get your morning coffee in a centuries-old shop

Whatever Americans call them, you probably know what I mean: modern houses dressed up with trim in patterns of stripes, grids or herringbones that show up dark against the lighter plaster or stucco spread between them, in imitation of medieval timber-frame buildings.  Here in the UK, the middle-of-the-road term is Mock Tudor; if you want to be more polite you call it Tudor Revival, and if you want to be less polite you call it Tudorbethan, a mish-mash of Tudor and Elizabethan meant to indicate the building didn’t come from any historical period, but is only a cheap fake. 

A view of an optometrists office, showing how upper stories jut out farther than lower stories; this wasnt just because of a need for more floorspace, but was dictated by the complexity of putting one set of framing, held together with mortise and tenon joints, on top of another

But here in England, we also have the real thing, hundreds of half-timbered buildings still in use even though they were built in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the periods directly following because the technique was used here for hundreds of years.  The Midlands—the common name for an imprecisely defined part of the country made of up the counties in the middle, those not classed as North or South of England, the West Country or East Anglia, if that makes things any more clear—is known for having lots of these, for half-timbering with more ornate patterns, and for using curved braces to make designs called stars. 

On the other hand, sometimes space *is* at a premium; these peoples house is a bridge over the roadway

The technique is called half-timbering, because—depending upon which authority you trust—the timber framing was set on foundations or even a lower story of stone (or later, brick), as opposed to earlier buildings in which the supporting timbers were set in trenches, which made them more stabile than if they had no foundations at all, but also made them more inclined to rot away. 

This one may be crooked, but its good for a few more centuries. (A friend found woodworm in the enormous oak beams of his medieval house. "Yeah", said the pest guy. "In about 500 years, you should start worrying.")

Wikipedia will tell you that the technique is called half-timbering because all the framing is constructed of tree-trunks or -limbs cut in half, but you don’t have to visit many medieval half-timbered buildings (or even look at the pictures in many books on traditional English architecture) to know that just isn’t the way these houses were built. 

Carved finial


Now, the English are sometimes more direct in their use of language than Americans, despite their reputation for understatement. These are, after all, the people who refer to retirees as OAPS (old age pensioners) and where, until recently, charities set life-sized figures of children on crutches or in leg braces, with coin slots and signs saying “For the Spastics”, outside stores and pubs. (The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope in the early 90s; you can see a picture of one of the collection boxes here). So, in line with that kind of plain speaking, these wonderful historic places are often just called black-and-white buildings.

Street scene in Shrewsbury, showing buildings of various eras cheek-by-jowl down the street

The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury is known for them, so much so that their tourist information board’s web site says “Shrewsbury’s not all black and white, you know!”—of course it isn’t only black and white; I told you only last week that the Abbey there is red—although other pages from the same site brag that the place is “awash with black and white timber-framed historic buildings”.

This placque appears on the building on the left in the previous photo, which now houses a branch of the chain Edinburgh Woollen Mill. It reads: "Erected by Richard Owen the Elder, Gentleman. AD 1569"

I hope you enjoyed this photographic tour of some of Shrewsbury’s black and white sites, in full colour.



Filed under Architecture, Culture, Travel

9 responses to “Shrewsbury in Black and White

  1. Malcolm

    One common reason for the projecting first floor over the ground floor (for which read ‘second floor over first floor — and there’s another US/British difference) was to cantilever the projecting floor, which often lacked structural support from below. This was most likely to happen in towns, where site values were high. An enlarged one-room upper floor could be built over a single-room ground floor; and a two-room top floor could be built cantilevered over that. The weight of the roof, plus any heavy furniture on each side of the window, would bear downwards and make the floorboards tend to bow upwards against the weight of furniture placed there. Before the criminal ‘rookeries’ were swept away, coiners and others who had to work from fixed premises often escaped by jumping the narrow gap between facing upper storeys (there’s another) across the street.

  2. I’ve always called them “Mock-Tudor”, or perhaps “fake half-timbered” If I’m feeling a bit snarky. My wife and I are enjoying your posts on Shrewsbury. We like Cadfael (and pretty much anything by Ellis Peters), so it was a delight to get the data on the real thing.

    • Nice to hear from you again! Thanks for the comment. I might be able to wring ooooone more post out of the trip to Shrewsbury, but I don’t know. Sometimes the bits and bobs (as the British say) of experiences and sights (and sites) just don’t fit together into something that’s coherent, that’s worth writing down. Shrewsbury’s definitely worth a visit, in any case.

  3. Malcolm

    And I meant to add that, in typically British style, the town is pronounced “Shroosbree” but the public-school of the same name (and town) is “Shroesbree” – and by public school I mean, of course, a private, fee-paying elite boys’ school. Anyone who pronounced the school in the same way as the town would be NQOC [Not Quite Our Class, darling].

    • A, that explains it! A friend who grew up in Oswestry (note to Americans–less than 30 minutes from Shrewsbury) said he didn’t know why some people say it one way and some another. Maybe he just didn’t want to open up the conversational can of worms that is the British class system.

  4. Wow, I am now feeling really odd about our mishmash house design of part Tudor, part Palladian, part ???? To be fair, none of us in North America seem to have the reverence for older architecture which comes from living amongst these gorgeous masterpieces. We just tear down and rebuild willy nilly (there is an American term for you, used by a Canadian).

    Well, we built our house when I was only 29 years old, and few 29 year olds can be trusted with architecture without guidance or a degree in architecture. Ah, what I would do differently now…

    Thanks for the wonderful photos and tour of an amazing place. Shrewsbury seems like an amazing place to wander around.


    P.S. The whole public school thing is weird for us North Americans too, as we are mostly public schooled (meaning paid for by tax dollars, for all) as opposed to private schooled (meaning paid for by those who can afford it to separate them from the huddled masses). However, I understand that it dates back to when some males were schooled at home, usually by the local vicar privately, as opposed to being sent to Eton or some such public school.

    • Oops — didn’t mean to insult your house! North America probably is exempt, as no half-timbered house there can be accused of masquerading, as the house couldn’t possibly date to medieval times. Apologies!

      As for public school — I didn’t know the local vicars did the tutoring, but can easily believe you must be right, though certainly some families hired private tutors. And as you say, that was for boys. The children in, for example, Virginia Woolf’s family were taught at home around the dining room table by their parents until the boys were of an age to go to school, which was about 11, and so the brothers went to ‘public’ schools and the sisters…didn’t.

      • Ha! No offense taken, I was just kidding. We actually took a design which was originally intended to be the half timbered look and used brick and siding instead which is most common here in Ontario. Then we added a few of the half round Palladian windows….shudder… it was in 1993 so not the height of good taste for anything. My taste would be more arts and crafts now.
        I just really admire the Brits for their reverence of old buildings, even the little two up/two down miner’s cottages and such. Every building is cherished it seems, no matter how large or small. That is how it should be.
        I love my house anyway, and I feel like I should include a photo, lest you think I live in a monstrosity! Thanks for the fun post. And yes I guess the rich folk would have had a live-in tutor for their males at home, I have just read so many books where the poor vicar makes some extra money by tutoring locally.

      • Or even a live-out tutor … I think I recall reading about a tutor who came to Leonard Woolf’s house when he was little–Woolf, not the tutor!–and taught all of them, but maybe that was different because they were Jewish, and presumably wouldn’t be inclined to the vicar, or him to them. The tutor carried a parrot on his shoulder, so his back was constantly besmirched with…what parrots produce. Bleah…

        I’m sure your house is charming! And as for the British love of old buildings, it is hard won and the fight isn’t over… I went on a tour of the revamped St Pancras station, where there’s a statue of John Betjeman, the poet, who was instrumental in keeping the old station from being torn down–and apparently it was quite a fight. There’s a pub there called the Betjeman Arms, too.

        Then there’s the SPAB (Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings — but if you’re interested in Arts & Crafts, you may already know about them. I think Morris was a founder. (I’d Google to check, but I’m urgently needed to go sit in the garden and sip something tall and cold — it’s a gorgeous day here.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s