The Age of the Bear Steps Hall

Dendrochronology is the practice of dating based on the number of tree rings found in wood. As part of the Shropshire Dendrochronology Project,  Bear Steps Hall and the adjoining properties were sampled in 1997  – with mixed results. The hall itself would not yield a date. Nine samples were taken, all with tight ring-growth and complete sapwood, the basic requisites for accurate dating, but they would not match with any site-master. This means that we simply do not know where the timbers came from, or when

They are certainly not local, nor are they from any areas for which we had site masters at the time. However, the original timbers are all of primary-use oak, i.e. they are not re-used timbers

The extension to Bear Steps Hall  has the side-purl in the roof and the gable facing Grope Lane dated firmly to 1576-7. It seems that the balcony was added as part of the same programme and it produced a date range of 1567-80.

The range known as ‘The Orrel’, which  currently houses the cafe at the upper level and shops at the Fish Street level dated firmly to 1601. The Orrel is the only comparison with the Chester Rows that Shrewsbury has.

On the northern side of Bear Steps, the properties 12A Butcher Row and 12 Fish Street date to 1358/9. This is the earliest date obtained so far  for a timber-framed structure in Shrewsbury. There is a crown-post roof construction and a long jettied front with cusped decoration, which once overlooked the then market place and St. Alkmund’s churchyard. Eventually, the Bear Steps Hall was built up against it, obliterating its outlook and forcing it to look out over Butcher Row.

In Shropshire we have some notable ‘firsts’ – the oldest cruck building in Europe, the precursor to the mighty Longleat, timber which came from a tree growing at the time of Alfred the Great, another from the time before Ethelred the Unready, a 12th century church roof and much more.

We can re-write text books and guides and chronicle the building sequence at Stokesay with accuracy. In Shrewsbury, we have 30 firm dates in 18 sampled buildings. Some, of course, have more than one building phase. Shrewsbury Civic Society has paid for many of these dates to be obtained.

Shropshire leads the field in dendrochronology. At present we have 160 workable dates from 107 sites. No other county has as many scientifically dated buildings.

The Restoration of Bear Steps

By the end of the Second World War, the buildings now known as the Bear Steps had become a group of picturesque but insanitary cottages.  Demolition began with the eastern bays and threatened the whole complex, when in 1968, the newly formed Shrewsbury Civic Society undertook to restore the buildings and return them to the Borough Council.

After immense effort the necessary £50,000 was raised by the Society – £30,000 by voluntary donations. By 1972 the work was complete and the restored complex was opened by the late Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, a Society member best known for his creation of Portmeirion in North Wales. Sir George Trevelyan, Bt, Chairman and later President of Shrewsbury Civic Society, said in 1972 … “when restored these Bear Steps cottages will provide a considerable tourist attraction in the quiet centre of the town.  They can be put to economical and social use … while manifold educational uses can be found for the hall.

We acknowledge M C Charlesworth for these words.

Bear Steps  is now a well respected Art Gallery, and remains the Headquarters of Shrewsbury Civic Society.

The Rex Connell Library

The “Rex Connell” collection is contained in a glass front bookcase – a bookcase packed full of a wide variety of Shrewsbury and Shropshire related books.  This bookcase is now positioned in the main office area of the Bear Steps, and books are available for members to read and/or carry out research.   For peace and quiet, the upper office makes an ideal spot to browse through the chosen volume or make notes – when carrying out historical or geographic studies.

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