Tucked in a hollow to the north-east of Wenlock Edge, the tiny medieval market town of Much Wenlock is a welcoming web of narrow twisting streets and alleys, half-timbered houses, black-and-white cottages and limestone buildings. Small in size, the town nevertheless has the indelible imprint of early English history stamped in every nook and cranny and is an absolute delight to wander through.
Granted its first charter in 1468 the town developed around Wenlock Priory, which was dedicated to its first abbess, St Milburga, in the 7 th century. Milburga came from a family of saints, her mother and two sisters were all saints and her father, Merewald, king of Mercia, founded the priory about AD680 as a nunnery - as such, it ranked high in the monastic orders of Saxon Mercia. Unfortunately, the priory fell prey to marauding Danes and was destroyed some 200 years after its inception. A further period of 200 years lapsed before it was rebuilt in 1050 by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and husband of Lady Godiva. Roger de Montgomery re-established it as a Cluniac priory, subject to French allegiance, an unpopular move with the kings of England who resented anyone having such an allegiance. The English monarchy penalised the priory until it was eventually forced to sever its ties with France in 1395. Finally, in 1540 the priory was forced to close its doors by order of Henry VIII at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries; many of the buildings were destroyed and all were looted of their valuables. As with many other monastic institutions that fell during this grim period, Henry gained immensely from Wenlock Priory's demise, as it owned considerable amounts of land and had coal mining and iron founding interests.
Despite the town's other attractions, it is the extensive ruins of the Priory of St Milburga that make this small medieval town so special. The best remaining features of these spectacular soaring ruins are the carvings on the wall head in the cloister garth, and the intricate Norman interlacing of arches and doorways in the Chapter House. Two finely carved stone panels, incorporating Romanesque sculpture, still remain on the walls of the ruined octagonal washhouse. One shows two men standing beneath arches, the other depicts Christ sleeping in a boat on a lake - both panels are full of strength and character. Particularly impressive is the restored Prior's Lodge, an early 16 th century L-shaped building that incorporated the infirmary. It has a steeply pitched roof of Hoar Edge sandstone tiles above its row of mullioned windows.
In the centre of Much Wenlock is another most striking building, the glorious black-and-white mainly 16 th century Guildhall. Its overhanging first floor is held up by stout oak pillars, one of which was the town whipping post and still carries the iron staples to which the prisoner's wrists were secured. Beside the whipping post are mobile stocks in which miscreants were paraded about the town, thereby broadcasting their shame whilst inviting greater abuse - these were last employed in 1852. The interior of the Guildhall includes much superb panelling and fine carving. Beneath the building a medieval Butter Market was held.
Adjacent to the Guildhall is the Holy Trinity Church, whose beautifully weathered tower has surveyed the tiled rooftops of Much Wenlock since Norman times. This ancient edifice has had layers added in medieval times, such as the impressive 13th century doorways in the porch and the 14 th century chapel, whose windows are adorned with intricately decorated tracery. On its Jacobean pulpit are some carved panels, which include, rather incongruously, Mermen with two tails apiece. On the other side of the street, opposite the Guildhall, is the local museum, and further along in Sheinton Street are the half-timbered Old Gaolhouse, built in 1577, and the mainly 17 th century Manor House.
Another 17 th century structure of timber frame and plaster, situated in the High Street, is Raynald's Mansion. This impressive timbered building has three steep gables and second storey balconies adorned with carved balusters in each of its bays - these were added by John Raynald in 1683. Across the road is an early 17 th century timber-framed and whitewashed brick building with a superb Jacobean staircase within - once the old Falcon Inn and now the local bank.
Remarkably, Much Wenlock can claim some credit for the revival of the Olympic Games. Dr William Penny Brookes, a native of the town who introduced physical education to British schools, held his first Olympic Games at Much Wenlock in 1850. This annual event became so famous that in 1860, when games modelled on those of ancient Greece were held near Athens, the marathon winner's trophy was called the Wenlock Prize. Sadly, Dr Brookes died in 1895, a year before the modern Olympic Games began in Athens.
Four miles north-east of Much Wenlock is Benthall Hall, an attractive 16 th century mellow stone house whose sparkling mullioned windows and high moulded brick chimneys enhance its impressive façade. Inside, a major feature is the intricately carved oak staircase, beautifully complimented by an elaborately decorated plaster ceiling and some fine oak panelling. The formal gardens are also a joy to walk through.