If anything characterises Shrewsbury, it’s the image of coracle maker Fred Davies on match days, paddling across the Severn in his half-shell willow boat to fish footballs out of the water.
Like the quaint ground he served, Gay Meadow, sadly Fred Davies has long gone, but Shrewsbury Town continue to prosper in pastures new, gaining promotion back to the third flight in 2015 and hosting Manchester United in the FA Cup in 2016.
Their home since 2007, the New Meadow was later renamed by local car dealers Greenhous. The 18-month, 34-game unbeaten run there in 2011-12 helped gain Shrewsbury their previous promotion, a decade after a disastrous plunge into the Conference.
Back in 2002, many fans feared the worst. The Shews had not long bid a sad farewell to Gay Meadow, subject to frequent flooding from the Severn that had lent it so much charm. While luxury flat-owners now enjoy views of the surrounding greenery and Shrewsbury Abbey, Blues fans must trek more than two miles south of town, almost up to the A5, to watch their football.
From here, the Welsh border is less than ten miles away. Though Shrewsbury have won the Welsh Cup more times than any English club, six over the course of a century, the club has always looked to England for its league football. While its predecessors, Shropshire Wanderers, were limited to participation in the FA Cup over a five-year period in the 1870s, Shrewsbury Town could attract regular crowds by playing in the Shropshire & District League from its inaugural season of 1890-91 onwards.
Shrewsbury FC, Shrewsbury Engineers, Shrewsbury Castle Blues, a number of local clubs had already won the Shropshire Senior Cup in the late 1870s and early 1880s – but it was Shropshire Wanderers who had made a name for themselves nationally. Reaching the FA Cup semi-final in 1875, Wanderers featured Shrewsbury-born inside-forward John Hawley Edwards, one of only two to play full internationals for both England and Wales. He won his Welsh cap shortly after helping establish the Football Association of Wales, taking part in the country’s inaugural match against Scotland.
It required two meetings, at Shrewsbury’s Turf Hotel and Lion Hotel in May 1886, for a single club to be formed from a disparate local football scene. Wanderers had disappeared and Castle Blues matches were notoriously violent affairs. Adopting blue and white, later blue and amber, Shrewsbury Town FC left the Shropshire & District for the Birmingham & District League in 1895.
Previously based at Copthorne Barracks west of the Severn, The Shrews moved across to Gay Meadow in 1910. A place of medieval merriment, carnivals and circuses, Gay Meadow would serve the club as it progressed from the Birmingham & District to the Midland League and finally the Division 3 North in 1950 as the Football League expanded to 92 clubs.
Still able to compete in both the Welsh and FA Cups, Shrewsbury took a while to adapt to full league status. By the late 1960s, they were knocking on the door of the Second Division, reaching it in 1979 and staying there for a decade.
Shrewsbury invariably provides away fans with a pleasant day out in heritage surroundings – with boat trips down the Severn for those making a weekend of it.
Similarly, from Manchester International 100km (63 miles) away, you’ll need to change trains at Manchester Oxford Road for Shrewsbury (1hr 40min, £21). Direct from Oxford Road, it’s 1hr 15min, £12 online. Most services from London Euston require a change at Crewe or Birmingham New Street, journey time 2hr 30min-3hr. Ticket prices vary wildly.
Shrewsbury station is near the town centre that fills a bend in the Severn. The bus station is nearby. Most local buses are run by Arriva. A day pass is £4.20.
The Shrewsbury Taxi Service (01743 24 44 77) is based in the town centre.
There’s no lodging near the ground – the Brooklands Hotel is a pre-match pub and restaurant.
There’s plenty of choice in the town centre. For convenience, the Shrewsbury is 10min from the train and bus stations, a mid-priced Wetherspoons pub/hotel by the Severn on the site of the 17th-century inn. Nearby, the more contemporary, independent Morgan’s offers the same bar/hotel combination, with six en-suite rooms above a recently renovated pub.
Also refurbished, the Lion & Pheasant is a boutique choice, with 22 individually styled rooms in a building dating back to the 16th century.
For affordability, there’s a Premier Inn near the train station.
Convenient for the match-day stadium bus drop-off point at the Abbey Foregate, the 12-room Lord Hill is a decent three-star with its own restaurant. It’s a 15min walk to town.
Shrewsbury is full of traditional pubs, many which show TV sport and stage live music.
Arguably the best choice for both, The Salopian also does a good line in local ales, with early-evening happy hours.
Another excellent football haunt is The Crown, traditional with a riverside setting on the stadium side of the Severn. England goalkeeper Joe Hart was a regular in his Shrewsbury days.
Back on the town side, the Coach & Horses, tucked down a quiet sidestreet, is a traditional CAMRA favourite, with good pub food and happy hours through the week.
With the accent more on food, its large windows overlooking the Severn, The Armoury is a spacious and stately enough that Prince Harry nipped in now and then when doing his helicopter training in nearby Shawbury.
Ideal for a fine coffee or sought-after beer during the day, the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse also puts on a varied music programme.