Holidays & Travel

Why a market town where elephants once roamed is shaping up to be a top destination for families

Joes Sene takes his family and pet dog on a short break to Bishop’s Castle.

Shop front in the market town of Bishops Castle
Shop front in the market town of Bishops Castle (Alamy/PA) Shop front in the market town of Bishops Castle (Alamy Stock Photo)

Tucked into the Shropshire Hills, Bishop’s Castle is the perfect base for a family break where your four-legged friend is sure to be welcome everywhere.

But it is four legs of a different kind that have firm roots in the history of the market town which sits in the Clun Valley on the Welsh border. Named as one of ABTA’s destinations to watch this year, Bishop’s Castle was once home to serving politician Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India, who added an Indian elephant to his family coat of arms which is displayed in the market square.

During the Second World War many circuses moved their animals and elephants out of the cities to rural places including Bishop’s Castle so they would be safe from the air raids.

Today, signs of the town’s affection for their former elephant residents are everywhere with a huge three-storey high orange Banksy-style elephant mural on a wall in the High Street along with metal elephants marching across two ancient houses on the cobbled streets and a dedicated elephant walking trail.

Elephant Gatehouse
Elephant Gatehouse

We arrive in Bishop’s Castle for a four-day break with two excited children and an even more exuberant young labrador at the luxurious Elephant Gatehouse, an elegant, stone-built Grade 2 listed property built more than 300 years ago as one of the stables for The Castle Hotel.

Our cottage is known locally as ‘The Elephant House’ after it was used to home the evacuated elephants. While most of the elephants were collected after the war, in the confusion, one Indian elephant was left behind unclaimed. It continued to live in the Gatehouse and some of the locals still remember seeing the elephant being walked around the town and recall the local school children would help feed it fruit and vegetables.

About 40 years ago, the Elephant Gatehouse was converted into a characterful house with many of the original features including the oak beam remaining. Its elephant history is immortalised in the stained-glass windows above the Gatehouse’s azure blue front doors and a small cheery elephant waves out of a painting on the front facade of the cottage in place of a window.

I have two spacious, spotless double bedrooms, one with a terrace overlooking the garden with its treehouse and the south Shropshire Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The second bedroom includes a small mezzanine level which the children immediately start fighting over who will be sleeping there this evening.

The interior of Elephant Gatehouse
The interior of Elephant Gatehouse

Dogs are made to feel very welcome and stay free of charge at the Gatehouse and Castle Hotel. Barney, our six-month-old fox-red labrador quickly scoffs down all the treats in the doggie-welcome box and there is a small utility room which is perfect for his bed, although in the winter the rug next to the aga looks a rather inviting place for him to snuggle down.

On our first morning it is predictably teeming down with rain, so after a rather wet and soggy dog walk on one of the trails around Bishop’s Castle we head into the bustling, medieval market town of Ludlow, where there is an abundance of independent cafes and tearooms in the town centre in search of cake and a pot of hot tea.

In the afternoon the clouds lift and by mid-afternoon the sun is almost out as we arrive at the nearby 13th century Stokesay Castle in Craven Arms, which is managed by English Heritage. Regarded as one of the finest and best-preserved, fortified medieval manor houses in England, it has a fairy-tale tower, stunning views of the Shropshire Hills and 17th century timber-framed gatehouse.

Today the 700-year old castle has been carefully restored and the brilliant audio tour provides a glimpse into Stokesay’s past life as a medieval home, as well as keeping the children thoroughly entertained as they poke through the rooms and scale the steps up to the top of the tower. On site is Stokesay Castle’s charming tearoom, which features local and seasonal produce along with recipes inspired by traditional Shropshire food.

Stokesay Castle
Stokesay Castle (Alamy Stock Photo)

Thankfully, on day two the weather is sufficiently clear to head over to the family-owned, 120-acre Great Hagley Estate in Hopton Castle. We are met by owner Mark Willis for a two-hour woodland adventure session with The Great Escape. The children, with Barney bounding behind them, all hugely enjoy navigating the 20 eco-friendly activities in the Tiger Challenge Assault Course, with its low ropes, monkey bars, balance beams, tunnel and small zip line. Unfortunately, due to the winds, it is not possible to try out the 520-metre-long Black Hawk Zip Line, which is purported to be one of the longest in the UK.

A morning exploring Bishop’s Castle’s High Street and it is bustling towards the end of the week as more of the shops are open, most of which are dog-friendly. There are plenty of independent shops selling art, antiques, vintage dresses, textiles, second-hand books, locally made furniture and crafts.

My favourite place is the unique Poetry Pharmacy, set in a Victorian building, which prescribes poems instead of pills to help alleviate a range of emotional ailments. In addition to the poetry bookshop there are poetry workshops, open mic nights and its Dispensary Cafe where you can order a cup of Keats, Rossetti or Wordsworth rather than a regular cappuccino or a flat white.

Joe’s family enjoy Great Hagley Estate
Joe’s family enjoy Great Hagley Estate

The last stop on our action-packed adventure is traveling back in time to Blists Hill, a reconstructed Victorian town where well-behaved dogs on leads are welcome to visit. Entering the world of 1900, modern money is swapped for shillings in the bank and the children sample what life was like for characters usually only found in Charles Dickens’s novels.

The meticulously recreated working town offers authentic food, old fashioned fairground rides, a school, church, steam trains with a host of Victorian performance characters include a policeman and craftspeople. A glimpse inside the shops offer pharmacy remedies, bakery goods, candle making, sweets and traditional printing presses to bring history to life.

Stunning Shopshire has certainly set the bar high for a fun filled half-term break with the children and a dog. The only problem is what am I going to do for the summer holidays!

How to plan your trip

A one-night self-catering stay at The Elephant Gatehouse costs from £238 for up to five sharing. Visit

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