Despite its considerable merit, the old half-timbered town of Shrewsbury is not much known to the outside world. Tucked away in the green hills of Shropshire near the Welsh border west of Birmingham, Shrewsbury is even something of a mystery within the scepter'd isle. For one thing, Britons don't always agree on how to pronounce it.
From the nearest I could deduce, having spent a fortnight in the region last summer, natives pronounce Shrewsbury as it is spelled, while outsiders insist on calling it ''Shrozebury.'' Both natives and outsiders tend to shorten the second syllable to something like ''b'ree.''
Either way, this inviting town, which claims Darwin, Clive of India, and the poet Wilfred Owen as its own, is about to be thrust before the American public. When CBS televises ''A Christmas Carol'' with George C. Scott as Scrooge on Dec. 17, those wintry half-timbered lanes you'll see belong to Shrewsbury.
Scott and his crew had just been to town when I arrived in July, and people were marveling at the ersatz snow that had been created in the midst of those long, lingering summer days. The other piece of breaking news was the coming of a Tesco's Superstore, the equal of any Woodland Hills, Calif., supermarket, a few miles outside the cramped, colorful center.
There is no need for fake snow in December, but in any season Shrewsbury, its neighboring towns and villages, and the noble Shropshire countryside are worth the extra pull from London. This is not the stage-perfect town-and-country life of the Cotswolds. This is the England the English go out of their way to see.
Shrewsbury, sometimes called England's finest Tudor town, as well as the ''Town of Flowers,'' lies encased by the meandering River Severn. It is particularly rich in the timber-framed buildings seen in ''A Christmas Carol,'' which already looked quaint to Dickens when he visited Shrewsbury and stayed at a coaching inn, the Lion, still standing today.
''I am lodged in the strangest little rooms, the ceilings of which I can touch with my hands,'' he wrote. ''From the windows I can look all downhill and slantwise at the crookedest black and white houses, all of many shapes except straight shapes.''
Some of the Lion's public rooms are still distinguished by oak beams and rich wood paneling, but the guest rooms have been brought up to date, all of them, that is, except the Dickens suite with its half-canopied bed and antiques.
At the heart of the old town square stand a life-size bronze statue of Lord Clive of India, once an MP from Shrewsbury, later a victor over the French in India, and a reform-minded governor of Bengal. Charles Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury, and a statue of him - bearded, comfortably seated in a chair with legs crossed - guards the battlemented Shrewsbury Library, once the Shrewsbury Grammar School, where he first opened his eyes to science (though he later criticized the purely classical curriculum as useless for depriving him of any linguistic ability). Just across a bend in the Severn stands a substantial brick house called The Mount where Darwin was born (on the very same day as Lincoln: Feb. 12, 1809). It was here on a visit, after having finished Cambridge in 1831, that he got a letter inviting him to serve as naturalist on the Beagle.
Shrewsbury is not the only Shropshire town favored with Tudor design and echoing history. Ludlow (the subject of a future story) is a gem of a town, and so is the smaller Much Wenlock, which lies at the end of a storied ridge called Wenlock Edge. How can you fail to fall for a place named Much Wenlock? Its abbey ruins are reason enough for a visit, and one of the prettiest blacktimbered buildings is the local Barclays Bank (once the Falcon Inn, says a plaque in front).
At the end of High Street I climbed a flight of stairs in the ornate Guild Hall where on the first Thursday of every month a magistrate's court deliberates on petty crimes. ''Mostly motoring offenses,'' said the attendant in charge as we gazed on the decorative carved chairs with red velvet upholstery that hold the magistrates.
Another half-timbered building caught my fancy up the street, but not so much for its architecture. The second-floor Malthouse is a cozy cafe with low beams and cushioned window seats, where, in the peak of summer, you may confine your choices to a purely ''Strawberry Fayre'' menu: strawberries and cream, strawberry flan and cream, strawberry gateau, strawberries in fresh orange juice , strawberries with yogurt. It was too tough a choice. I had the raspberry surprise.
Bridgnorth is another fetching Shropshire town, though one of its main attractions, the Severn Valley Railway, closes down from November until March. The volunteer-run, all-steam railway was extended last summer to Kidderminster, 12 miles away. Even when the shiny pufferbellies are out of commission, you can ride Bridgnorth's Cliff Railway, the steepest cliff railway in Britain, single wooden cars that connect Low Town and High Town at almost 45 degrees.
I can also vouch for the pub lunches at the Swan, the quintessence of ye olde half-timbered Shropshire decor. For some reason the young woman dishing up the sandwiches, omelets and chips, and shepherd's pie had an American accent. May be she was in town to scout for another CBS movie.