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A Mystery Lover's England

In abbeys, castles and pubs, tracking down sites of fictional British sleuths, from Sherlock Holmes to Brother Cadfael

September 06, 1998|SUSAN LENDROTH | Lendroth is a freelance writer who lives in Sierra Madre

SHREWSBURY, England — Most visitors who come here by train hurry out of the station with no more than a glance at the castle looming above. I, however, was here as a friend of a 12th century Benedictine monk named Brother Cadfael, and so I lingered at the bottom of the castle wall next to the station parking lot. I wanted to take in the site where the good brother helped retrieve the bodies of the defenders of Shrewsbury Castle who had been thrown from its turreted walls. It was just as I had imagined it while reading the Cadfael story "One Corpse Too Many" (Mysterious Press, 1979).

In 1138 the siege of Shrewsbury (pronounced shrose-bury) really did end with the garrison being killed. But Brother Cadfael was not there; he sprang from the imagination of British mystery writer Ellis Peters in the 1970s. Still, to a legion of fans, the mystery-solving monk seems more real than the people who actually lived and died in medieval England.

Peters' monastic detective, known from episodes of "Mystery" on PBS as well as the Cadfael novels, has helped popularize the historic-mystery genre, and now the map of England is crowded with fictional sleuths solving crimes through the centuries.

An avid mystery buff, I set out for England with novels rather than guidebooks in hand to track down the haunts of a few of my favorite detectives.

Brother Cadfael's Shrewsbury, on the Welsh border in the west of England, about three hours by train from London, made a great starting point. The castle still stands, much rebuilt over the years, as does the abbey church, the center of Cadfael's Benedictine life. Although little beyond the old street names remains of 12th century Shrewsbury, the medieval atmosphere is preserved in twisting lanes and narrow alleys. From the gateways of half-hidden courtyards to cheery black-and-white Tudor-timbered shops, the close-packed old town struck me as settled and content in its layers of history.

I took a roundabout way--a short walk but a steep climb--from the train station to the center of old Shrewsbury, then downhill to the English Bridge and across the River Severn to Abbey Foregate.

My visit to Brother Cadfael's world began there, at Shrewsbury Abbey. The south porch door, now the main entrance, was used by the original monks in the late 11th century. The monastery is long gone, but the abbey is an active parish church, and the quiet aura of worship engulfed me as I walked up the nave, flanked by immense stone pillars that have stood for nearly a millennium.

The big treat for Cadfael fans is across the road: the Shrewsbury Quest, a replication of monastery life in Cadfael's time. Among the rooms and exhibits are Cadfael's workshop, where "the eaves . . . were hung everywhere with linen bags of dried herbs, his jars of wine sat in plump, complacent rows, the shelves were thronging with bottles and pots of specifics for all the ills of winter" ("Monk's Hood," Mysterious Press, 1980).

A pair of robed monks--actors, I assume--paced the courtyard, their brown robes sweeping the walkways. One brother stopped beside me and pointed to a lily. "It's beautiful like you, mistress," he said with a wink. "If I were 800 years younger . . . " Who knew Cadfael's mates were such flatterers!

Visitors may try their hands at calligraphy in the scriptorium, merels (medieval tic-tac-toe) in the cloisters and the chance to solve a mystery from clues scattered throughout the grounds.

A gravel footpath led down to Cadfael's Meole Brook. I sat alone by the purple thistles, watching minnows dart in the shallows and ducks paddle downstream. There, it was easy to imagine the good brother, habit kilted above his knees, gathering water plants just around the bend in another time.

York

As Peters adopted Shrewsbury, Candace Robb has made the northern England city of York the setting for her 14th century detective, Owen Archer. Like Cadfael, he is Welsh-born and works with herbs--he is an apothecary's apprentice--but Archer's life in the York of 1363 is quite different from Cadfael's monastic routine of two centuries earlier.

When Archer arrived at York, a prosperous commercial center, he entered the walled city "from the south, through Micklegate Bar, across Ouse Bridge with its stench of fishmongers and public privy, through King's Square and up Petergate, making first for the minster" ("The Apothecary Rose," St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1993).

It is possible to retrace Archer's route (though, fortunately, without the smells), since many of York's medieval streets as well as Micklegate Bar (gate) still exist. However, I entered old York over Micklegate Bar rather than through it, climbing the steps there to stroll south along one of the restored sections of the city walls.

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