The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Rowley's House - Muddy Football Boots and Roman Relics

Our football boots, caked in the mud of Frankwell recreation grounds, had been crammed with the rest of our kit into our battered shoulder bags. We had then gone into town and bought a few pocket-money sweets from that palace of chocolate, comics and Coca-Cola - Claremont Street newsagents. 
And there was still a good half an hour to kill before our bus was due to leave Barker Street bus station.
So what did this ramshackle collection of 10-year-old boys do in that half an hour? We went over to the museum at Rowley's House to hang out among the Roman relics, the Dark Ages detritus and the Norman knick-knacks.
I'm not sure how much this rubbing shoulders with history contributed to our education, but we saw the museum as a little sanctuary, especially when it was cold outside or raining.
All these years later, the future use of Rowley's House - surely Shrewsbury's single most iconic building - is in the headlines.
It could, following a £1 million revamp, become the new headquarters of the town council. And this might very well be a good use for it as the town's museum is finally moved across to the Music Hall. But it is funny how things turn out.
By the end of the 1990s it was becoming apparent that the destinies of three of Shrewsbury’s most beautiful and most iconic buildings were now intertwined. Plans were being drawn up for the future use of the Old Market Hall, Rowley’s House, and The Music Hall.
At the time, the first of these, the Old Market Hall in The Square, was redundant, its last use having been as a magistrates court. It was in a poor old state and badly in need of some tender loving care. 
The second, Rowley’s House, was still being used as a museum and art gallery. 
The third, the Music Hall – tired and worn-out but still well-loved – was the town’s ageing theatre.
Curiously, these three very different structures – the first Elizabethan, the second Tudor, the third Victorian – were now pieces in the same game, and each piece in turn would come in to play. You might almost say it was an example of the domino effect. 
Because within a few short years, the Music Hall would first surrender its film theatre element (“The Cinema In The Square”) to its near neighbour, the Old Market Hall (and Shrewsbury’s film buffs would quickly get used to the venue’s cool new moniker, the OMH.), and then the Music Hall would give up its “live theatre” element to the multi-million pound brand new Theatre Severn built just across the river at Frankwell. 
All this shifting of services would naturally prompt the question: So what is to become of the dear old Music Hall. And the answer was: We’ll turn it into the town’s museum. Which, naturally enough, then prompted the question: But what will become of the existing town museum at Rowley’s House? And the answer: Mmmm. Good question. This one would take a little longer to work out.
Fast-forward to November 2012 and we find Shrewsbury Council considering moving from its current home in The Guildhall in Frankwell into Rowley's House, originally the timber-framed warehouse of the 17th century merchant William Rowley (and later the haunt of mud-spattered schoolboys).
An exciting £10.5 million restoration project at the Music Hall, due to be completed next year, should give Shrewsbury the museum it deserves while leaving Rowley's House high and dry. And this prompted Peter Nutting, leader of Shrewsbury Town Council, to say last week that the council had ambitions to move into its own independent building rather than stay at The Guildhall which belongs to Shropshire Council.
“We believe we should be in our own individual building and have a freehold of our own,” said Councillor Nutting. “There are a number of options including Rowley's House.”
Councillor Nutting said an exercise was under way to see if the building would be suitable for the council's needs, but that even if it were found to be suitable, a £1 million revamp would be necessary. It would need a suitable council chamber and a lift to the upper floors.
Mmmm. I feel sure that English Heritage would have something to say about the idea of a lift being put into a 17th century building!
But that debate is yet to be had.
Oh, yeah. And the Guildhall in Frankwell, by the way. Well, there's talk of transforming the unwanted council chamber into a wedding venue.
So, to recap . . .
If all this were to go ahead, that would mean that the old magistrates court is now a cinema, the old theatre is now a museum, the old museum would be a council headquarters, and the council headquarters would be a wedding venue.
I do hope you're taking notes. 
I will be asking questions later.

The Empire Cinema, Shrewsbury

We are a mere 10 days away from the anniversary of The Empire.
No, no, no. Not the British Empire. The Empire cinema in Shrewsbury. Nowadays better known as Pizza Express.
This lovely little cinema in Mardol was officially opened on November 25, 1922.
It has a special place, of course, in the hearts of many Salopians - and a very special place in my heart because our dad was the immaculately turned-out commissionaire there for a while (and was able to get us in free of charge), and also because, as a boy and as a young man, I saw dozens of films there, films (some good, many of them terrible) which helped form a backdrop to the early part of my life and which gave me a great and enduring love of the cinema.
The dear old Empire closed in 1998 with the coming of the multi-screen Cineworld on Old Potts Way. What's nice, though, is that the building has survived, its mock-Tudor frontage still intact, and, should you go into the restaurant today, you can still experience the gentle slope of the floor towards where the screen used to be.
Now, there are a great many things for which I have to thank our elder sister Jan. She was largely responsible for introducing myself and our younger brother to books and the joys of reading (she would often take us along to the library with her). She was also responsible for taking us on long Sunday afternoon walks around the town. Thus we developed not only a liking for long walks but also a knowledge of (and love for) our home town. And it was Jan too who often took us to the cinema. I'm talking late 1960s, early 1970s. And I reckon I must have seen just about every Carry On film of that era, every Elvis film and every John Wayne western of that time.
Our dad (who had so many different jobs during his lifetime that the subject would make a column in its own right) was commissionaire at The Empire around, I think, 1965-1966.
He looked fantastic in his uniform with smart cap and a tunic with epaulettes. Oh, I wish we had a photograph! I do remember distinctly that he got myself and my little brother in free to watch the James Bond film, Thunderball. I also remember scoffing marshmallows and barley sugars as we became entranced by 007.
Of course the fast-moving, explosive, full-colour and tremendously noisy all-action adventures of James Bond could never have been envisaged as The Empire opened its doors for the first time back in the era of the silent movies. This is how the news of its forthcoming opening was reported in the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News of September 23, 1922.
'The new Empire Cinema in Mardol, is now nearly completed. It was started only in July last, the rapidity of the building operations is due in no small measure to Mr Tom E. Davies, a native of Shrewsbury, who owns a number of cinema theatres in Europe and is also controller of the United Kingdom right for the Charlie Chaplin films; and to Mr Sidney Bernstein who is one of the most capable exhibitors in the country, and already controls many cinema theatres.
'The aim of the directors in building the new theatre is to provide first class entertainment and comfortable accommodation for their patrons; it will seat 1,250 people with ease. The seating will be the semi-armchair variety, and every modern device known to the architect will be installed.
'The entrance hall will be carried out in Jacobean oak with black and white marble floor, and special lanterns are being devised to harmonise with the scheme of decoration. A Wedgwood cafe and tea lounge will be provided on the first floor for the benefit of those who require light refreshments.
'The theatre ventilating plant will keep the building supplied with filtered air, and the temperature will be regulated so that it will be cool in summer and warm in winter.
'Mottograph projectors, which are being used in all the largest theatres in Europe and America, are being installed in the operating box, together with a special screen so that there should be no eye-strain.
'With regard to the programme, only the best pictures will be shown.'
(They clearly had not foreseen the coming of Confessions of a Driving Instructor).
Many of us who frequented The Empire in the sixties and seventies will have fond memories of the well-worn red velvet seats, the queues that would form outside whenever a particularly popular film was showing, the thrilling little sweet shop in the foyer, and the adverts for that Chinese restaurant 'just 100 yards from this cinema'.
So, 90 years on from its opening, let us raise a glass this November 25 to the source of much happiness over many decades - The Empire!

Abbey Foregate and A Little White Lie

In architecture, as in all things, a little white lie is often better than the truth.
I say this as someone who, over these past few weeks in this column, has often touched upon the thorny subject of what makes a building 'historic' or of 'historic value' - and also as someone who likes to ask the question: Do unwanted ugly buildings deserve to be preserved just as much as unwanted beautiful buildings?
In other words, we all love Rowley's House, Bear Steps and St Chad's. But does anyone care very much when the Midland Red bus garage in Ditherington is smashed to the ground? Would anyone worry if there were plans to demolish the old Woolworth's building in Castle Street (yes, the one that replaced the lovely Raven Hotel)? Are tears likely to be shed if there are ever plans to sweep away the 1960s Shirehall next to Lord Hill's Column? And what about the domineering 1960s Market Hall clocktower? Would anyone care two hoots it that went?
What has prompted me to raise such questions again is the unveiling last week of a £4 million redevelopment plan for a stretch of Abbey Foregate.
Now, there are of course wonderful great stretches of Abbey Foregate which are unspoilt, rather lovely, and (by anyone's definition) historic. So which bit are we talking about here? We're talking about the Heaths Houses site, that bland stretch of sheltered housing across the road from The Cedars and which, if you are walking away from town, comes just before The Brick pub.
Severnside Housing announced back in June 2011 that it was closing the sheltered housing after failing to fill empty bedsits.
So far, 40 elderly residents have been moved to alternative accommodation, with another 16 due to be rehomed when suitable properties become available.
The plans for the redevelopment of the site have just gone on display. And having given them just a cursory glance, I have to say that what they have in mind looks very nice indeed. The proposal is for 41 houses and flats which could be completed by 2015.
There will be nine townhouses, seven of which will be for market sale, and 31 two-bedroom apartments, and a single one-bedroom apartment - all kind of mock-Georgian in appearance.
In short, the existing buildings, constructed in two phases in 1967 and 1988 and which never once pretended to be anything other than buildings of that time, will be swept away and replaced with much prettier buildings of 2015 but pretending to be from 1815.
And so a 1967 truth will be replaced by a 2015 lie. And hence my contention that a little white architectural lie can be better than the unattractive (and out-of-keeping with the rest of the road) truth.
Now, it's not that I always prefer a lie to the truth. Stay with me on this.
Whilst considering the pluses and minuses of various drinking hostelries he had known, the American writer Garrison Keillor once talked about the enchanting atmosphere of a genuinely old bar, a place which, in its time, had seen generations of drinkers come and go; a place in which the bar-stools are well worn from having had so many people sit upon them over the years. And his argument was that there is a world of difference between these old bars and the new bar which has a decor carefully designed to make it look as if it is old. 
He said (and I have never forgotten this) that it is like the difference between the truth and a lie.
On this I am as one with Garrison Keillor.
The new pubs can never be a match for the old pubs. The Beaten Track does not stack up against the Nag's Head or The Loggerheads or The Golden Cross or the Yorkshire House. Not because The Beaten Track is not a nice place - because actually it is. But because The Beaten Track is new. It might like to pretend that it's old with its fireplace and its soft lighting, but it's new. Simple as that. 
But now here is where I perhaps contradict myself (if I haven't done so already!) and possibly even show myself up to be a hypocrite.
My regular readers will know that I have been passionate about saving Besford House in Belle Vue, a Victorian mansion that had been under threat of demolition and replacement with new housing. So how can I now be supporting the demolition of Heaths Houses in Abbey Foregate and their replacement with new housing?
To me, this question is easily answered. Besford House is both (a) historic and (b) beautiful, and (c) would have been replaced by inferior buildings. On the other hand, Heaths Houses are (a) of no historic value and (b) ugly, and (c) will be replaced by superior housing.
Or am I indeed being a hypocrite? Answers on postcard please. (Or in a letter or an email).

When Frankwell was like The Wild West

THE VEGGIEBURGER and cheesy chips seemed rather decadent at 4.30 on a Saturday afternoon, but, I have to say, they were very good indeed.
And it was too early (for me, at least) to be drinking alcohol. And so, having been somewhat dazzled by the amazing variety of drinks on offer, I went for a ginger beer float (ginger beer crowned with a generous dollop of ice cream).
This, of course, is not everyone’s, er, cup of tea, but I found it very refreshing.
We were in Franks (yes, I know, it is the Frank bar and diner, strictly speaking, but everyone seems to call it Franks.) And then you get into that whole argument about whether there should be an apostrophe in there, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Frank’s as in a diner that belongs to a bloke called Frank. I think it’s just Frank as in Frankwell, that mysterious, historic, haunted bit of Shrewsbury, just over the Welsh Bridge.
It was while sitting there with my sons and a couple of friends, trying to look sophisticated as I sipped my ginger beer float, that I looked out of the window at the old Welsh Bridge and began remembering what my dad, a Frankwell boy, used to say about this part of the town.
Our dad (he passed away in 2007) told us that when he was growing up ‘between the wars’ Frankwell was a close-knit community with a strong Welsh element. He also used to refer to it as ‘the Wild West’ – a part of the town where fights broke out frequently between the young men, where there was a great deal of drinking and womanising, and where you had to be tough to survive.
Only separated from the town by the Welsh Bridge, Frankwell nevertheless seemed to be another world, Dad would say, and its nickname, The Little Borough, confirmed this.
The title actually dated back to when tithes and taxes were paid at the bridge on the town side by traders entering with their goods from nearby Wales.
The Little Borough elected its own mayor and had its own annual carnival procession, a quite separate one from Shrewsbury’s.
A banner declared: “Frankwell maintains its rights.”
Our dad, born in 1922, lived at number five, Severn Square. He told us that every winter, when he was a small lad, the square  became an island with the rain and the snow cutting it off from Frankwell Quay.
At this time, the Anchor pub was a lodging house run by a couple called Millie and Sticky. Sticky always used to be in the annual carnival, dressed up as the invisible man, Dad recalled.
Frankwell had the legendary Natty Price, who was mayor of Frankwell at one point, and ran a barber’s shop. Dad spoke also of other big characters: Teddy Millington, another hairdresser whose shop was opposite the fish and chip shop.
He told us: “We always seemed to have pigeons flying about the barber’s shop. Everybody seemed to keep pigeons in those days. In fact, my old man had about a hundred pigeons.”
We put together Dad’s life story a few years back which is how I can now reproduce his memories here in his own words.
“My old man would usually be in the Cross Guns. I used to go up and see him to get a penny for the gas, but then I’d go and get a penny’s worth of chips instead of using it for the gas.
“Then of course there was Mrs Jackson’s Tripe Shop near Teddy Millington’s
“Everybody seemed to fight a lot in those days. I remember at the age of 14 or 15 I used to be sparring with Tommy Braddick or Jimmy Braddick. There used to be boxing down the lane where they lived. They always used to go and box at Pat Collins’ Fair whenever it came to Frankwell.
“From the age of 14 I went to work in the General Market for Mrs Griffiths for five shillings a week.
“It was a greengrocer’s selling anything from potatoes to carrots to bananas. My job was to ride a three-wheeler bike to the Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham with a hundredweight of potatoes in the box in the front – plus the other orders as well. I worked for Mrs Griffiths from eight o’clock in the morning til seven o’clock at night. And that was for five shillings a week.”
Dad told us that, at one time, Frankwell had more pubs than any other part of Shrewsbury. Two of the most popular were The Crow and The Anchor.
“Mrs Sayce would send me to The Crow to get a quart of beer in a jug. I often had a sip on the way home and then topped the jug up with water from the conduit. She often said the beer was getting weaker.
“The old fella went to the Cross Guns in an evening and I would wait outside about ten o’clock, hoping he would remember to send me a penny so I could go and have a warm in the chip shop.”
And now here was me, 80 years later, having a warm not in the Frankwell chip shop, but in Franks just across the road from the chippie, and sipping not a beer on this occasion, but a ginger beer with a dollop of ice cream on top. What a wimp!
Sorry, Dad.

Amateur Operatics and Long John Silver

A man went into a pet shop and explained to the proprietor that he needed a parrot because he was playing the part of Long John Silver in the local amateur dramatic society's latest production.
“Oh, you won't need a live parrot for that,” said the pet shop owner. “A live parrot would just be a nuisance: squawking in all the wrong places and pooping on your shoulder. No, no, no. You'd be much better off with a stuffed parrot.”
The amateur actor was unconvinced. “Are you absolutely sure a stuffed parrot would be better for me?” he asked. “I really want this performance to be as realistic as possible. Realism is everything for me.”
But the pet shop owner insisted: “A stuffed parrot would be fine. I can get one for you if you'd like to pop by on Thursday.”
“Oh no, Thursday's no good for me,” said the actor. “On Thursday I'm having my leg cut off.”
Okay, it's a terrible joke, but, I suspect, one that many a thespian might enjoy.
For generations the call of the amateur theatre has been irresistible to a certain type of person; the sort of person, perhaps, who - in spite of all the inherent dangers (stage-fright, forgetting your lines, tripping over the props and making a fool of yourself) - somehow relishes the idea of getting up on stage (very often in a dusty old village hall) in order to (hopefully) sparkle before an audience, whether it be through their acting ability, their singing, their dancing, or just that indefinable X factor!
My admiration for these people is huge. I know I couldn't do it.
I also know that despite television, cinema, the internet, and so many other distractions competing with live theatre, those amateur shows in the local hall or at the town theatre continue to be a big draw and continue to entertain and delight audiences across the nation.
But I noticed last week a piece in this very newspaper in which the Shrewsbury Amateur Operatic Society had put out an appeal which suggested that possibly the above-described type of person could be thin on the ground right now . . . or at least when it comes to blokes.
The call had gone out for a few more fellas in order to give the forthcoming production of Chess a vocal boost of a manly kind. I would step forward myself but I sing about as well as Eric Morecambe played the piano for Andre Previn.
“Virtually all amateur drama groups and amateur operatics groups struggle to find enough men for their productions.”  So said my sister Jan the other day when I asked her about this. And she knows a thing or two about it, having been a member of the Shawbury Players for more than 30 years. “In fact,” she added, “I know that many a group over the years has had to rewrite the scripts slightly to make some of the male characters female because they couldn't find enough men to play the male roles.”
I am conjuring up visions now of women having to play the parts of Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge and Joseph with his amazing Technicolor dream-petticoat.
“All the world's a stage,” said Shakespeare (oh, and also Elvis, of course, in the middle of 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?').
But the next line in The Bard's 'As You Like It' is “And all the men and women merely players.”
Given what we now know about finding enough chaps to play the male roles, perhaps this should now read: “And all the women and, er . . . women  . . . merely players.”
Anyway. I have no doubt that the Shrewsbury Amateur Operatic Society will once again turn on the magic and deliver a fine production of Chess.
It's being staged at Theatre Severn from March 13-16.
Alistair Craib, the society's musical director, says there is a 'a strong requirement for men. If any men are interested in joining this musical, which is the favourite of Elaine Paige, they will be most welcome.'
The rehearsals for Chess take place on Mondays and Wednesdays at Belvidere School, Shrewsbury. The minimum age for participation is 16. Anyone interested can contact Alistair on 01952 884620 for a chat. Or they can pop along to a rehearsal.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Chess was written by Bjorn Ulveus and Benny Andersson of Abba fame, and the lyrics are by Tim Rice.
Alistair said: “The music has in many cases that distinctive Abba sound and also has some beautiful classical singing combined with orchestral arrangements which are quite delightful.”
The show features some memorable songs such as I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bankok. And Elaine Paige, who starred in the first production, says it is still her favourite musical.
“The story, set in the early 1980s, involves love, intrigue and the determination of the chess champions of the United States and the Soviet Union to become the world champion,” said Alistair.
And while we are all in a theatrical frame of mind, a couple of old theatre jokes to finish with:
How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Just one. The actor stands still, holding the lightbulb in position, and the world revolves around him.
How many sound engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: One-two. One-two.

Stagecoaches - Plastic Ones and Real Ones

I had a bright blue plastic stagecoach hauled by a team of four pure-white plastic horses. My little brother's stagecoach was red and hauled by a team of black horses. Goodness, they were handsome! 
When they weren't part of our game (in which the plastic US Cavalry would fight off the plastic Apache warriors) these fine examples of the transportation of the Wild West took pride of place on the mantlepiece in our room.
Of course, when we were little boys, cowboy films were still big box office draws, and the Empire cinema in Shrewsbury would attract crowds to see the mighty John Wayne in movies like McClintock, The Sons of Katie Elder, El Dorado, The War Wagon, True Grit, The Undefeated, Rio Lobo; and of course there were also the spaghetti westerns like The Good The Bad and the Ugly.
Meanwhile, a gun-slinging Milky Bar Kid would appear on our television set urging us to eat white chocolate.
So naturally all of our earliest references to stagecoaches revolved around cowboys and indians, the Wells Fargo company, scorching deserts and vast plains.
It was only later in life that we came to appreciate that stagecoaches were an important part of our own history here in England, and especially here in Shrewsbury.
And it is this heritage that will be celebrated tomorrow (October 12) when a Shrewsbury street will be closed to modern-day traffic so that, just for a while, the colourful age of the stagecoach might return to the town.
Wyle Cop will be shut off to vehicles as two replica stagecoaches are due to arrive at the Lion Hotel at about 3.30pm.
Some 24 guests plus six support staff will be travelling on The Monarch and The Nimrod, which both used to come to the county town regularly during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The party has been following the original stagecoach route from Meriden in the West Midlands, calling at historic inns in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire along the way. 
Having also visited the Wroxeter Hotel at Wroxeter and the Mytton and Mermaid at Atcham, the coaches will make their way to Shrewsbury where, it is expected, crowds (but not Apaches!) will line Wyle Cop to greet their arrival.
I'm reminded of the tales of another famous stagecoach with Shrewsbury connections - The Wonder.
The Wonder, whose service began in 1825, would set out from Shrewsbury on its journey to London, and would change horses at The Haygate, Wellington, and The Jerningham Arms, Shifnal.
It must have been a real spectacle to have seen The Wonder, nicknamed the Yellow Belly because of its bright yellow paintwork, as it set off from the Lion Hotel at five o'clock in the morning, en route for London. The fare was £1 to sit inside the coach, ten shillings on top.
Surely the most celebrated of all the Lion Hotel's coach drivers was one Samuel 'Sam' Hayward who drove the Shrewsbury Wonder for 16 years without mishap.
Sam became something of a legend.
In an account from those days, it is recorded during a stop at Shifnal:
'The horses were piloted in splendid style by the celebrated Sam Hayward, whose stolid-looking face was scarcely ever lit up by a smile, except of the grimmest, while the well-known 'Dicky' Ash, the sententious guard, gave a very feeble imitation of a popular air upon his many-keyed bugle. In an instant the narrow street opposite the Jerningham Arms was full of life and commotion; the horses were out and in again in the twinkling of an eye. The imperturbable coachman was in his place . . . and away sped the Wonder.'
Meanwhile, back to those two stagecoaches coming to Shrewsbury tomorrow.
The party will be greeted in Shrewsbury by town mayor Councillor Keith Roberts, aided by the town crier Martin Wood, and Councillor Mike Owen, Shropshire Council portfolio holder for economic growth and prosperity. What a scene that should be!
The party will then be joined by another 30 guests for an end-of-tour dinner at our historic Lion Hotel Ballroom.
Former Shrewsbury Chronicle editor John Butterworth will give a talk about the hotel and its stagecoach connection.
All in all, it sounds like a rather splendid occasion.
Still can't get those cowboys and indians out of my head, though.
Oh, the Deadwood Stage is comin' on over the hills . . .

Ditherington Bus Depot, Shrewsbury - Parts 1 & 2

OKAY. I’ll be honest with you. St Paul’s Cathedral it is not. And, frankly, it’s somewhat unlikely that anyone has ever stood back from the old bus garage in Ditherington and sighed in quiet admiration or said to their companion: “Wow! Just look at that. Isn’t it lovely?”.
Unlike old railway stations, bus depots are rarely – if ever – beautiful.
And the Ditherington depot is no exception to this rule.
Not even old Reg Varney and his chums from the seventies sitcom, On The Buses, would have found much to cheer about, I wouldn’t have thought, faced with the prospect of a working day based here. But I could be wrong. Perhaps many a bus driver out there actually has a soft spot for the place.
I don’t suppose it was ever attractive, but the bright turquoise paint of Arriva replacing the pillarbox red of Midland Red upon the large garage doors really hasn’t done it any favours.
But quite apart from that, it’s seen a lot of service over the years. And, hey – it’s a garage, for heaven’s sake. What do you expect? But the fact that its days are numbered has got me thinking. Will anyone shed a tear over its demise?
My first real contact with the place was when, at the age of 10, I went there one Sunday morning with my dad and my little brother. Our purpose? Bus spotting. No, really. You heard me.
I know. I know. I know.
There are plenty of people out there who find the idea of trainspotting difficult to grasp, but bus-spotting!
You might say it was a poor man’s trainspotting.
To spot buses you didn’t have to purchase a platform ticket. In fact, in most cases, you only really had to step outside your front door and you’d spot a bus!
Bus spotting can hardly be viewed as a glamorous past-time, but it kept us occupied for a while during the long summer holidays.
However, the novelty did wear off pretty quickly. When you’ve seen one S12 drive up North Street, you’ve more or less seen them all.
Gosh. There’s a thought, by the way. When did the last bus drive up North Street? (Someone out there will tell me, no doubt).
Here’s the thing though.
The Ditherington depot was opened by the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company Ltd (BMMO – Midland Red) in November 1920.
Doesn’t the fact that it is over 90 years old coupled with the fact that it has had an important role to play in the life over Shrewsbury for generations make this a building of historical importance?
According to, the building was turned over to the war effort in 1940 for the production of aircraft components.
By 1974 it had an allocation of 68 vehicles and employed 198 staff.
The place clearly has a story to tell.
The fate of the Ditherington depot has of course been decided because a shiny new £2.5m depot has been opened in Harlescott so Arriva buses have no further use for the old place, and because the original base has been purchased by Shropshire Council (for £2.3m) so that the site can be cleared as part of the redevelopment of the Flax Mill Maltings complex.
And, to be fair, a globally-important 1796 building which is seen as the great-grand-daddy of all skyscrapers will always beat at 1920s bus depot. There again, history is history.
Now, to be honest, I am sort of playing devil’s advocate here because even I know that you can’t keep every building just because it’s kind of old and has a bit of a history. You might say any building more than 10 years old is kind of old and has a bit of a history.
But it is intriguing how some buildings immediately inspire affection (devotion even), such as Besford House in Belle Vue  about which I have written a good deal over recent weeks (and which now appears to have been saved from the bulldozers, thank goodness) while other structures generate little or nothing in the way of support.
For instance, I know a great many people who think the 1960s market hall in the town centre is a carbuncle and should never have been built in the first place. Many folk will tell you we should have kept the Victorian market hall which would have become a real asset in such an historic town.
But others maintain the sixties building has itself become iconic and must now be protected.
It’s quite a tricky argument to get involved in. I wonder what dear old Reg Varney would have made of it.

PART TWO.............
(TWO WEEKS LATER)............


We human beings are a funny lot.  Believe it or not there are plenty of people out there who wouldn’t dream of curling up in front of an episode of Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet.
And there are others too who would regard a warming supper of Marmite toast and a mug of hot milk with something less than enthusiasm.
Still. You can’t win ’em all.
By the same token, my column a fortnight ago about Shrewsbury’s old bus depot in Ditherington seemed to split opinion right down the middle.
Before I go any further, let me say right now that I was actually playing devil’s advocate in suggesting that this purely utilitarian 1920s structure should be saved from a date with the bulldozers and perhaps cherished as an integral part of Shrewsbury’s heritage.
Regular readers will know only too well that I am capable of getting very passionate about our old buildings.
I’m fascinated by history and believe it vitally important to preserve as much as we can, especially in a beautiful and historic town like ours.
But a dirty old bus garage?
Even I accept that sometimes the old has to make way for the new.
You simply cannot keep EVERY old building. If we did, our towns and cities would never move forward.
Certain criteria has to be applied.
Is it genuinely of historic value? Would losing it damage the beauty and/or integrity of an area?
I do think there is a world of difference between a bus depot and, for instance, a fine mansion such as Besford House in Belle Vue (about which I have written much, and the future of which looks a great deal more secure now than it did a few weeks ago).
If the bus garage could have been somehow incorporated into a tasteful redevelopment of the Ditherington area, then marvellous.
But Iam willing to accept this was never going to be the case, and this time it was surely a situation where we might just have to shed a tear and move on.
But a whole range of comments left on the Shrewsbury Matters blog on the Shropshire Star website pointed to plenty of other points of view.
One reader had this to say: “The old railway buildings up Coton Hill have been converted into lovely houses and flats, the same could happen here given a good architect and sympathetic planning department.
“And just as the old railway buildings are part of the history of the town, so is the bus depot part of Ditherington's architectural heritage.”
Another reader said: “The powers that be appear more keen to raze than respect. The frontage of the bus depot is good and could certainly be used as an interesting entrance to the development in much the same way as the former AutoTyres building in Frankwell has been tied into the otherwise monstrous Theatre Severn.”
A reader who goes by the name of Tubleton wrote: “I would prefer to see the old bus depot kept as part of the overall redevelopment as I think it has something to offer.
“With the doors replaced by full length glazing and a new roof it could look impressive. The space could provide any number of uses with the skill and imagination of people much more talented than me. However, I could definitely see it taking on a role of 'Shrewsbury Arts Centre for example as I would imagine it would lend itself perfectly as a gallery style exhibition space.”
John Reece from Australia had this to say: “How about a Midland Red museum? Spent a few years there in the ‘60s during flower power time, sad to read about the building going, but then many other things do too. Happy memories of happy days. Regards to other drivers and clippies who see this.”
Another comment was left by Midland Fred: “What a lovely blog, a great pity there were no old Midland Red photos to go with it. . . I recall as far back as 1948 Midland Red buses lined up in the square – S1 Ragleth Gardens, S8 Kennedy Road, S13 Copthorne, cemetery, Weeping Cross, Harlescott – Oh those where the days. So farewell Ditherington bus depot, in my view you are twice the building behind you.”
Meanwhile, another (perhaps less sentimental) reader had this to say: “I’m glad it’s going, it’s an eyesore and clogs up the roads here. Will be much better as much needed affordable housing.”
So there you go. You can’t please all the people all the time. And in the end, all this chatter was purely academic anyway, as, within days of my article appearing, the old bus depot was demolished.
Dear old Reg Varney (and countless real-life bus drivers) will no doubt be turning in their graves.
But as I say – Time to move on.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Special Message for Liz

This is a special message for Liz at The Cedars. Thank you for being my number one fan. Thanks for reading my newspaper column and for taking an interest in Underneath The Sideboard In The Front Room (it could do with a dust!) . . .
And get well soon.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Shrewsbury, Trumpton, Beauty and Elegance

Not all of Shrewsbury is beautiful. Not all of Shrewsbury is elegant and refined. How could it be?
The town may be famous for being historic and attractive, but it is also a thriving, living, working place that has developed across a thousand years, a town which (like so many others) saw rapid and significant growth in the post-war period, and which, today, is made up of every kind of architecture (and every kind of people), the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So of course, just like any town of any size, we have our industrial areas, our sprawling housing estates,  our 'problem' neighbourhoods, our retail parks and our factories and warehouses. And radiating outwards from our picture-postcard-lovely centre, there are plenty of examples of the bland and the non-descript, the plain and the dull, the grey and the forgettable.
And, let's be honest, no reasonable person could expect an entire town to be beautiful from tip to toe, north, south, east and west.

Then it really would be Trumpton (and not Shrewsbury) as several of my friends insist it is. I am also reminded of the old joke names of Standing Stillbury (Shrewsbury) and Concrete Hardening (Telford), but these of course are cartoon names. We know there is a lot more to Telford than concrete, and we also know that Shrewsbury does not stand still (a new cinema, new football stadium, new theatre – all within just a few years – and there are plenty of other exciting plans in the pipeline). 
But – whatever growth and progress brings our way – that beating heart of Shrewsbury (the part that the tourists come to enjoy) should be kept as pleasing to the eye as possible. A few simple measures can ensure this is done: keeping historic buildings in a good state of repair, keeping everything clean and tidy, making sure unsympathetic development is not allowed to encroach. That sort of thing.
And one more simple measure. Let's just keep a careful eye on garish signs and colours that shout out at you from a hundred yards and smash through the aesthetics of a place.
These seem completely unnecessary to my way of thinking and can do much to ruin the look of a street.
There is a phrase much-used by conservationists, civic society activists, designers and architects: 'the power of place'.
Well, the power of place can be greatly diminished by brightly coloured and inappropriate signage.
When I was up town the other day, a few such signs screamed out at me. Sample, if you, will, the Computerama sign above a now defunct shop at the very start of Castle Gates. Ouch! It's ghastly. It's the visual equivalent of an AC/DC powerchord in a place where Elgar's Enigma Variations should provide the soundtrack. And since the shop itself is no longer trading, why can it not be made to disappear? 
While on this subject, does anyone remember the hoo-ha that erupted a few years back about the frontage of dear old Woolworth's? The store on Castle Street had been there for decades and was as much a part of the fabric of Shrewsbury as Woolworth stores were in hundreds of towns across the country. But the council took exception to its bright red signage, saying it was wrong to have such dazzling colours in our historic town. Woolworth's conceded the point and replaced the frontage with a much more subtle design.
Now, I completely agreed with this. So how come other shops and businesses can now get away with it?
Oh yeah. And having brought up the subject of Woolworth's, some friends and I were talking the other day about the old Raven Hotel in Castle Street, the building which was replaced by Woolworth's in the early sixties. Now, I personally have no recollection of the Raven. I would have been but a toddler when it was dismantled. But pictures of the place are enough to convince me that Shrewsbury lost a real gem when it said goodbye to this amazing-looking hotel.
By all accounts, this had been one of Shrewsbury's principal inns for well over two centuries. And I was fascinated to learn that, during the 1950s, many showbiz stars appearing at the nearby Granada Theatre stayed there, including Lonnie Donegan, Frankie Vaughan, Norman Wisdom and even Laurel and Hardy. (Apparently, Oliver Hardy's wife had her jewellery stolen while staying at the hotel.)
Returning to my original point about garish shop signs, I grant you that, when it comes to the degradation of a town centre, inappropriately colourful signs are hardly comparable to the loss of a fine old building, but, in the end, it all comes down to the need to protect and cherish what we have.

Besford House: Is It Too Late?

THAT WRECKING BALL, I fear, is being prepared, and – if you listen very carefully – you might even hear the bulldozers revving up.
I have a horrible feeling that the Battle for Besford House is already lost.
And yet we are talking here about a handsome Victorian mansion which (wait for it) stands within a conservation area, for heaven’s sake! If a place like this cannot survive in a conservation area, where would it stand a chance?
We are also talking about a Shrewsbury building which, having been for decades an important children’s home, has much to say about the history of the area.
And almost 70 members of the public have objected to the plans which would see it swept away.
When I first wrote about Besford House some weeks ago, I had little idea that it meant so much to so many people, but the article generated considerable and heartfelt feedback from readers.
Within days I received letters and emails from people who really care about this gem which is tucked away in a quiet corner of Belle Vue.
It is currently under threat because developers wish to build new housing on the land and dear old Besford House does not figure in their plans.
Councillors were today due to be discussing and making a decision on this issue.
And the scheme, which would include demolition of Besford House, is recommended for approval.
In the comprehensive report before councillors, it says:
“It is clear from the historical assessment that has been done of Besford House that it does retain some character and features that are of some architectural and historical interest.
“Furthermore, it is acknowledged that even in its considerably altered form, or some modification of it, it would probably be preferable to retain the building as part of any redevelopment of the site.
“Notwithstanding this, located where it is on the site, it would be difficult to incorporate redevelopment of the house into an overall development scheme for the site.
“Furthermore the only real potential use for the building which might be economically viable would be conversion to flats which in itself in all likelihood would require significant alteration and sub-division, which would introduce a form of accommodation that is not currently present in the local area.
“On balance officers, including the Conservation Section, have concluded that the loss of Besford House can be justified for the greater beneficial use of the whole site provided this is in a form which is of good quality and which is acceptable in all other respects, including impact on the conservation area.”
Did you catch those two points early on in those paragraphs?
1. It does retain some character and features that are of some architectural and historical interest.
2. It is acknowledged that even in its considerably altered form, or some modification of it, it would probably be preferable to retain the building as part of any redevelopment of the site.
Now I know I’m a sentimental old thing and I happen to think old buildings should almost always be saved if at all possible (because, let’s face it, they are almost always more beautiful than modern buildings). But mine is not merely an argument over aesthetics. Mine is an argument about history and heritage and what is and isn’t appropriate in an area like Belle Vue.
There is an “old boy” of Besford House, 80-year-old Bill Preen of Monkmoor, who is currently researching and writing a book about the place; about it having been built in 1897, and then how, very soon afterwards, it became a children’s home in those dark days of crushing poverty and terrible workhouses for those whose options had run out.
Such ‘new’ and relatively enlightened children’s homes back then must have shone like a beacon in an era when the alternatives for youngsters without support were grim indeed.
This is history. This is part of the story of Belle Vue. This is important stuff.
Angeline Smith wrote to me to say: “My father and two brothers were put into the home in 1914 when their father died at the age of 35.”
Raymond Bullock wrote to me to say: For me Besford House was wonderful and the staff were outstanding.
“I was there during the 1950s after spending time at Pen-y-bont, Shrewsbury, The Hollies, and the Vineyard children’s homes in Wellington.”
Vivienne Rozario wrote to say: “I was so pleased when I read your article about Besford House. I too think this is a beautiful building and should be saved from demolition. There must be something we can do.”
And Michael Holliday wrote from Australia: “Besford House is very important to literally hundreds of Shrewsbury and Shropshire families. Between the wars it was home to large numbers of boys who were either orphans or from homes where a single parent could not cope.”
What an awful shame it would be if, by the time Bill Preen’s book is published, Besford House itself is gone.

Abbey Foregate Railway Station

Stick around long enough and little miracles happen – like new life slowly being breathed into the long-derelict Abbey Foregate railway station.
For decades, this was one of those “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” buildings, a structure so apparently insignificant that few local people even knew it was there.
I well remember meeting up with school pals in this neck of the woods – long before the regeneration that came with the new link road in the early 1980s, long before the new Greenhous Vauxhall showrooms, long before the Beaten Track pub and the Safeway supermarket which eventually became Asda, long before Cineworld.
When I was 11 or 12, I probably knew nothing of the history of this area. I certainly don’t recall being aware of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway. All that would come much later.
No, we schoolboys would just congregate there sometimes – because it was a kind of cool and mysterious place.
There were broken down buildings just crying out to be explored. Now, this might well have involved trespassing, but there were no signs around to suggest this, and back then there was a sense in which the whole world was free and open.
We were never out to make mischief, never out to be a nuisance to anyone, and we most certainly did not go in for smashing old windows or any kind of vandalism. It was just fun to hang around with mates in this semi-wasteland full of ghosts.
Back then there were still railway lines in this area.
In amongst the ballast supporting the lines you would occasionally stumble upon an ancient cigarette packet covered in oil or a torn page from some old railway document – an artefact from another era.
Why were there still railway lines there in the 1970s when the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway had vanished many years before?
Well, because there was an oil depot there in Abbey Foregate and the sidings were still being used by British Railways for transporting oil tankers (and continued to be used right up until 1988, finally being taken up in 1990).
All this came back to me on Sunday when the old Abbey Foregate station (undergoing renovation) was opened to the public, and I popped along to see how things were developing. There is still a lot to be done here as the idea is that it should become a permanent little museum and visitor centre, but much has already been achieved – thanks to the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust.
The trust was formed in 2003 with the intention of recording, documenting, preserving and telling the story of the railways in Shrewsbury and its region for the benefit of future generations.
A noble ambition indeed.
The trust is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee, managed by a board of eight directors. It has a membership of more than 100.
Its declared aim is to record the social and economic impact of the railways upon Shrewsbury and the wider region. Shrewsbury was of course one of the most important connectional hubs on the early UK rail network with its extensive marshalling yards in Coton Hill, Coleham and Abbey Foregate, the latter known locally as ‘the back of the sheds’.
As a boy I was always very aware of ‘the back of the sheds’ with my grand-dad having been a Great Western Railway man.
It was a fascinating area.
And the handful of streets which still bear the name – ‘the back of the sheds’ – remains a fascinating area.
On Sunday, there was not a tremendous amount to see at the old station – a few pictures of how things used to be, a couple of information displays, a book stall. But it was enough to give you a little taste of the place – and also a little insight into what it can become.
Stop-start, stop-start funding has meant that the project is behind schedule, but hopes are high that the place will be fully open to the public in the not-too-distant future.
For those unfamiliar with the history, the old station here was once part of the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway, known more commonly as “The Potts” – established by Richard Samuel France, a wealthy Shropshire entrepreneur. The 18-mile main line from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech opened on August 13, 1866 with a further extension serving the Nantmawr quarries. Owing to financial difficulties the company was wound up in 1881.
The Potts somehow carried on in a state of suspension until Colonel Holman Fred Stephens took charge in 1908 and renamed the enterprise the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway.
This ran from 1911 to 1933. In 1941 the War Department requisitioned the line, running trains to and from its ammunition storage depot at Nesscliffe.
Some modest service then ran after the war but the railway was handed over to BR in 1960 for dismantling.
For more information on the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust contact Mansel Williams on 01743 235103 or Phil Hughes on 01743 359853.