The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

That Mysterious Old Canal

WHEN WE WERE KIDS, we were vaguely aware of a long-disused and mysterious old canal.

Its precise history would have been unknown to us, but we knew that it used to come into Shrewsbury through Ditherington.

Why? When? How? – We neither knew nor cared.
We also sort of knew that it used to terminate at The Buttermarket on Howard Street.
I’m also thinking that, back then in our childhood days (1960s, early 1970s) the section that ran into Castlefields alongside the Canal Tavern pub must have been sealed off from the public. Why else would we youngsters not have played along the old towpath?

Volunteers working on the canal restoration

And did I dream this or do I truly recall stagnant water and impenetrable overgrowth seen from Gas House Lane. (Well, mum and dad always used to refer to it as Gas House Lane – that bit of New Park Road leading into Castle Foregate.)
Anyway, I am indebted to Bernie Jones of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Trust for getting in touch recently to educate me on all of this.
Those fragmented memories of mine refer of course to the final stretch of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal, and nowadays you can walk or cycle from Telford Way along the towpath out to Uffington, and you can stroll alongside the Canal Tavern in Castlefields. But what you now see is merely the ghost of a canal.
The Trust is working to restore the canals from Norbury Junction (north-east of Newport) through to Shrewsbury, a project that seems both exciting and hugely ambitious.
The Shrewsbury and Newport Canals were officially abandoned by the 1944 Act of Parliament but they are now under active restoration.

Engineering problems

The Trust was formed in 2000 to return the Shrewsbury & Newport Canals back to navigation. Very little of the line of the canals has been built on and no insuperable engineering problems lie in the way of restoration.
Aims of the Trust are to protect, conserve and improve the route of the Shrewsbury and Newport Canals for the benefit of the community and the environment, with the ultimate goal of restoring a continuous navigable waterway linking Norbury Junction to Shrewsbury.
We are talking about a route covering almost 25 miles and the whole project would cost a whopping £80 million.
Bernie says: "In the current economic climate the major impediment to restoring these significantly important canals, from a heritage perspective, is funding. We have had a feasibility study on the whole of the 24.75 mile length and there are no insurmountable problems that lie in the way. Just finding around £80m is the main challenge. 


"The short term aims are to keep the project in the public eye and increase our 1400+ membership. This will enable us to leverage funding from various sources as there is such a large and growing number of people behind the project. I would urge people to visit our website and take seven minutes to view the video 'Water Adds Value', as this shows that money put into canal restoration is an investment.
"The longer term involves working with numerous stakeholders and for our Trust to be opportunistic by taking advantage of funding packages that become available to do some restoration work via Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy agreements, or by other means. As more sections get put back into water, we will reach a ‘tipping point’ where all of them can be joined up and the canals will be navigable once more.”
Visit the trust’s website to find out more.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Cassettes making a comeback? Time to rewind!

CAVE RECORDS, a specialist vinyl record shop in The Parade, Shrewsbury, is looking to expand its range of cassette tapes.
Hang on a minute. That sounded like a statement from 1973.
But no, it’s true. This is 2016 and they want to expand their range of cassette tapes.
What’s going on here?
Now, I’m sure I’m not alone in having had something of a love-hate relationship with this long-outdated technology. All music lovers of a certain age will well remember the way these tapes used to – every now and then – wind themselves into the machines, and you’d have the devil’s own job trying to salvage the tape without damaging the player.
Often a pencil would come in handy when it came to winding the spools on these pesky cassettes.
Yes, these cassettes were brilliant for making your own personal compilations of favourite tracks, but when they went wrong they were a complete disaster.
So I can’t quite get my head around this resurgence in interest.
Okay, let’s – er – rewind a little bit.
1983 saw the introduction of compact discs.
In 1985 Dire Straits became the first band to sell a million copies of a CD with their album Brothers In Arms.
Sales of CDs took off, the format taking over from vinyl records and also of course taking over from cassettes.
When it became easy to “burn” your own compilations onto a CD, cassettes seemed utterly outdated.
And most of us thought that in 2010 when Sony stopped producing its famous Walkman cassette player, it was all over for the humble cassette. But maybe not.
Firstly, there’s a wave of nostalgia for these things. Secondly, a simple desire on the part of artists to get back to the heart and soul of their music is driving them back to the cassette.
Sales are on the rise as fans flock back, making it clear audiences want a more tangible alternative to Spotify and iPods.
Becki Cave, who runs Shrewsbury’s Cave Records, said of cassettes: “It is not our main line but we are seriously considering it as one again, now that it has become so popular.
“We had a small record label in America offer us cassettes by new artists, and they have sold better than some of our vinyls. Cassettes are cheaper for artists to make and it is clever marketing for bands. It has a grungy, underground feel to it.”
Becki said there is now genuine belief that cassettes could follow vinyl back into the mainstream.
“People like having the product in their hand,” she said.
The fact is, sales of cassette tapes are rising so rapidly in the US that the Recording Industry Association of America is investigating ways to track sales for the first time since the early 1990s.
And mainstream musicians have started producing albums on cassette again.
What’s going to be next to make a comeback – the VHS video?
Looking back over my own music collection now, cassettes are extremely thin on the ground. But alongside my hundreds of CDs and vinyl records, I had 182 cassette tapes in 2010. How do I know this? Because I wrote a blog about it at the time.
Very soon after writing the blog, I got rid of almost all of the tapes.
My wife has always thought of me as a hoarder. Should I now tell her that I might have made a mistake in letting go of those cassettes?
I don’t think I’ll bother recording her response.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wheels in motion for Shrewsbury's summer of fun

Growing up in this wonderful old town back in the 1960s, there was the carnival every year, there was (of course) Shrewsbury Flower Show, and there was the West Mid Show.
And that was pretty much it in terms of big events.
Oh yeah. Circuses would arrive in town from time to time, and fun fairs would occasionally pitch up down on Frankwell, but - hey - look at Shrewsbury today. Just look at all the festivals and other crowd-pleasers we have going on during the year.
I was reflecting on all this as I watched cyclists whizz past me on Sunday during the Shrewsbury Cycle Grand Prix.
This top cycling event attracts thousands of enthusiasts and also professional riders from across the UK.
It’s really quite a spectacle - and brings life and a splash of colour and drama to the town centre on what would otherwise be a very quiet Sunday afternoon.
As the riders flashed by, I recalled how deadly quiet the town used to be during the Sundays of my childhood. In those days, you could have walked from the railway station to the market hall without meeting another human being. If you spotted a cat in those days, it was a big deal.
Yes, yes, I know. I’m going back to an almost forgotten era when the shops didn’t open on a Sunday. 
But the change in mood in Shrewsbury is not just to do with shops being open on Sundays. It’s to do with the fantastic variety of events now populating the ‘Shrewsbury Calendar’.
Just think of what we now have going on in this town, from the Big Busk and the Cartoon Festival in April to the Children’s Bookfest, the Shrewsbury Regatta and the Shropshire County Agricultural & Horse Show in May, plus, as I say, this rather wonderful Cycle Grand Prix.. and we have all this before we even get to June!
And then we have the River Festival scheduled for this coming Sunday, then Shrewsbury Carnival on June 13, the Shrewsbury Half Marathon on June 21, and the amazing Food Festival on June 27 and 28. June also sees the Belle Vue Arts Festival sprinkle its own fairy-dust upon the streets and avenues just to the south of the town centre - and more on this in a moment.
Going into August we have the tremendous trilogy that is: the flower show, the folk festival and the steam rally; three truly superb events.
Into September and we have the Shrewsbury Triathlon and the big music event, Shrewsbury Fields Forever.
Oh, come on, people. There’s really no excuse here for being bored!
There must be plenty of larger towns than Shrewsbury that would be envious of all this.
Just to return to the Belle Vue Arts Festival, by the way, this is now in its 12th year, it gets under way this coming weekend, and there’s just so much going on it’s hard to know where to begin.
This year’s theme is ‘Memories’ and the festival will feature a host of activities including art, photography and poetry exhibitions, workshops, history talks, quizzes, pub walks, and music, as well as the ever popular and successful Open Garden Day and the colourful Scarecrow Trail.
Even if Belle Vue isn’t your neck of the woods, check out the arts festival website and pop along to some of its attractions.

Phil Gillam’s gentle novel of family life, Shrewsbury Station Just After Six, is available from Pengwern Books, Fish Street, Shrewsbury.

From tomfoolery to tragedy

The Yongy-Bonghy-Bo and the Canoodling Gnus in a Canoe. What's the connection?
Allow me to explain.
Well, very few people remember it now, but there was a very silly American cartoon series that they used to show on television in this country on a Saturday morning.
It was called Tomfoolery and it was based on the poetry of Edward Lear, with some additional characters inspired by works of Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash.
My brother and I loved it.
First broadcast in 1970, it featured characters such as the Yongy-Bonghy-Bo and the Umbrageous Umbrella Maker. Other regular characters included the Enthusiastic Elephant, the Fizzgiggious Fish, and the Scroobious Snake.
As I say, it was very silly - very silly indeed.
And all this came flooding back to me the other day as I was given a sneaky look round the latest exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery - a show entitled Beastly Machines.
Just like Tomfoolery, this show is also very silly indeed.
Being staged until July 12, Beastly Machines is the brainchild of kinetic sculptor Johnny White. Johnny’s sculptures are influenced by current affairs, media-stories, plays on words and comic artists such as Gary Larson and Steve Bell. They are lovingly handmade in his workshop in Derbyshire, often using found or salvaged objects and junk. Initially he used scrap components due to financial constraints but now he uses them for visual and ecological reasons too.
Highlights of the show include a six-metre-long whale which springs into life at the push of a button, a flying pig, the aforementioned two canoodling gnus afloat in a bright blue canoe, and Rover the hound who moves in and out of his kennel when you move a lever back and forth.
Johnny’s creations are humorous, imaginative, irreverent and sometimes very noisy and ‘Beastly Machines’ is a not to be missed exhibition that will capture the imagination of visitors of all ages.
In a nutshell, the exhibition is just a bit of - well - tomfoolery!
There is a total change of mood, however, as we come to another exhibition at Shrewsbury's wonderful museum and art gallery.
Because running throughout June is "The First Casualty of War Is Truth".
Andy McKeown and Maggie Love will this evening (June 11) be talking about their new media installation, which is being staged on the balcony of the art gallery. The installation, which commemorates the 5,286 people from Shropshire’s Roll of Honour who lost their lives during World War I, sets this heart-rending loss alongside the mass media, communications and propaganda of the day.
People are being invited to visit the exhibition and participate in the creation of a visual and audio record of the Roll of Honour by transcribing a single name from the list to a single handwritten Telegraph card and making a voice recording of that person’s name. A single unique voice for each name on the Roll of Honour. The completed cards will be placed below a continuous stream of names, to grow and develop throughout the residency.
Andy and Maggie will also examine the mass media of the era and its impact on the population during the conflict, stripping back historically from now to World War I, discarding technologies (and their impact) along a time line.

Phil Gillam’s gentle novel of family life, Shrewsbury Station Just After Six, is available from Pengwern Books, Fish Street, Shrewsbury, and from Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Belle Vue Magazine is Gaining Ground

I'm so thrilled and delighted that the Belle Vue Magazine is really gaining ground now following distribution of the summer edition (issue two).
Had a couple of really lovely letters today that sort of sum things up:
One came from the Belle Vue Methodist Knit and Nat Group who said: "People in Belle Vue have become very excited by your magazine. It is really highly regarded and valued. Please accept my congratulations on a great production."

Another letter came from Briarfields Residential Home and said: "We were very pleased to receive a copy of the Summer edition of your magazine. I wonder if you would be able to let us have a few more copies as it would be lovely to distribute some around the home for our residents to read. Can you please give me some more information about your magazine, how many issues per year etc. Today we used the 'Where are you now' quiz on page 24 as an activity for some of our residents and we are collating the answers and will be sending in our entry very soon."
Both these lovely responses make me feel the whole enterprise is worthwhile, and that the Belle Vue Magazine is establishing itself as a firm favourite in the area.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Summer 2015 issue of Belle Vue Magazine

And so the second edition of the Belle Vue Magazine makes it into the world.... or makes it into Belle Vue anyway!
Granville the butcher was thrilled to bits at being a cover star.
All being well, the issue should start dropping through 3,200 letterboxes the week beginning June 8.
I think, for me, picking it up from the printers is still the most exciting part of the whole process. I'm quite sure this aspect of publishing a magazine will never lose its appeal for me.
It's a lot of hard work, putting this thing together, but it's also tremendous fun and I actually love every minute of it. Truly, every minute!
Oh, and for those of you who missed out on seeing the launch edition, by the way, here's what it looks like:

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Professor Branestawm and A Crisis For Our Libraries

When Professor Branestawm realises he has lost the book he has borrowed from Great Pagwell Library, he comes up with the perfect solution.
He will simply borrow a different copy of the same title from another library and take that copy back to Great Pagwell, and then take it out again the next day and return it to the library from which he had actually borrowed it: Little Pagwell.
Thus he will avoid having to pay a fine for losing the book. But of course it doesn’t end there.
In order to go on avoiding having to pay a fine, he will have to repeat this process every few days: taking the book out of Great Pagwell to return it to Little Pagwell and then borrowing it again from Little Pagwell to take it back to Great Pagwell.
Fair enough. But it gets more complicated.
Because then the professor loses his second copy of the book and then has to take out a copy from the library at Upper Pagwell.
In this delightful farce from Norman Hunter, the professor ends up having to borrow copies from the libraries at Pagwell Town, Pagwell Village, Old Pagwell, New Pagwell, North Pagwell, South Pagwell, West Pagwell, Pagwell Central, Pagwell Hill, Pagwell Docks and Pagwell Gardens.
This wonderful story was written in the 1930s, a time when it would have been quite possible for a place to have a dozen district libraries.
Here in 2015, with crippling budget controls in place, libraries are disappearing all over the country - even in Pagwell, I dare say.
The magnificent Shrewsbury Library on Castle Gates stands as a beacon for a service which has been quietly, unobtrusively loved by successive generations.
But while we here in the county town might not be aware of it, libraries a few miles down the road are under threat.
Pontesbury and Church Stretton spring to mind.
We now hear that libraries could be run alongside GP surgeries as Shropshire Council looks to make a 30 per cent cut in funding.
The ‘health hubs’ would offer general library services and internet access while also being the base for an NHS community care co-ordinator, according to proposals put forward by David Sandbach, a former chief officer at Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital.
This idea has been backed in principal by officials at Shropshire Council.
The future of Shropshire’s libraries remains unclear with more cuts in funding potentially on the horizon, and the council wanting 22 of its libraries to be taken over by community groups.
Oh dear. In Branestawm’s world, Pagwell Gardens and Pagwell Docks would be merging, Pagwell Town would be in the process of being taken over by the Women’s Institute, and most of the others would be closing altogether.
Speaking during a meeting of Shropshire Council’s health and wellbeing board, Mr Sandbach said Pontesbury Library was one that could benefit from the health hub plan.
At the moment, options for Pontesbury include moving the library into the local school in a similar scheme to Church Stretton where the town library is to shut and be run from Church Stretton School.
For those of us who love books and love libraries, it’s all rather sad.
It strikes me that if Professor Branestawm had been living now, his plan to shuffle books from one library to another would be a non-starter.

Phil Gillam’s gentle novel of family life, Shrewsbury Station Just After Six, is available from Pengwern Books, Fish Street, Shrewsbury.