The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Prince of Wales, Belle Vue Arts Festival

WHEN you really stop to think about it, a medium-sized, self-contained town like Shrewsbury is actually made up of a couple of dozen or so well-established communities.
And, the other night, as I watched the drama of the England-Sweden game unfold upon a large screen in the Prince of Wales pub in Bynner Street, enjoying a pint with my sons, several things occurred to me:
One: Belle Vue is one of Shrewsbury’s great communities.
Two: The Prince of Wales is one of Shrewsbury’s great pubs.
Three: The Belle Vue Arts Festival – going on this week as we continue to celebrate that brilliant back-heeled goal by Danny Welbeck – is truly (just like that back-heeled goal, in fact) a thing of beauty and wonder.
Now then. Before I launch into a love poem to the Prince of Wales hostelry, let me say a few things about the arts festival.
As you read these words you will still have the opportunity to enjoy some of its delights.
Such as, for instance, a Hidden Places Walk which this coming Saturday leaves the English Bridge Workshop at 11am, and which is led by Jean Wagner who insists, should you partake, that ‘you will never see Shrewsbury in the same light again’. Sounds intriguing. The walk will cost you just £1, it will take about three hours, and you are encouraged to bring along a picnic if the weather is decent.
I can just hear my younger brother (who lives over in Kidderminster) saying: “This all sounds terribly Shrewsbury-ish!”
Then there is the free photographic exhibition at Barnabas Church Centre in Coleham. Tomorrow (Friday) is your last chance to see this (between 10am and 4.30pm) and it’s a display of eye-catching images produced by local talent.
Meanwhile, at Coleham Primary School on Sunday, 2pm to 5pm, there’s the Let’s Celebrate Art event – a laidback afternoon of art workshops for all ages (with music and refreshments).
Finally, local artists are displaying their work at the English Bridge Workshop Exhibition tomorrow and Saturday. Here’s a chance to not only view but also purchase local artwork.
This gentle little annual festival has been running since 2003 and always manages to engage all age groups. As Terry Wogan would say: “I commend the idea to the House.”
And so to the Prince of Wales, the pub in which I have experienced several magical Christmas Eves in recent years and also where I staged a particularly wonderful birthday party a few years ago.
First off, let me tell you a little bit about its history.
The original Prince of Wales in Bynner Street was at number 34 (now a private house). The current Prince of Wales replaced it in 1934. The place has its very own bowling green which is a delight on a summer’s evening. And this backs on to an old  maltings – a fine building – which is now used as offices.
In recent times the place has been blessed with a landlord and landlady many a pub would dearly love to have.
Ian and Vicki, warm, welcoming, always friendly, leave no stone unturned when it comes to attracting customers. There are quiz nights, live music nights, darts, bowls, fancy dress nights, home cooking, you name it. They have ‘cyber families’ on Twitter and Facebook as well as a website. They always have special things going on for any occasion from Valentine’s Day to Halloween.
And Vicki is one of the most extrovert and entertaining landladies for miles around.
If she doesn’t make you smile, you need to have a doctor look at your face muscles.
And another thing . . .
When Vicki took over at the Prince, it had, at the time, a rather strange pub sign which portrayed the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. Very odd.
She asked a local man called John Brown to produce a new (and rather more tasteful) sign with the plume of feathers (emblem of the Prince of Wales) on one side, and Prince Albert on the other . . . Much better.
So here’s to Belle Vue – its lovely pubs and its lovely arts festival.

Shrewsbury Music Hall: Past, Present and Future

STROLLING past the Music Hall the other day, I could not help but imagine what the dear old place will look like when it reopens in 2013 – while at the same time happy memories of concerts there in the 1970s came pouring back like old pals at a school reunion.
And thus the past and the future gently collide in the present.
The audacious and ambitious vision for the Music Hall project is to redevelop the 2,970 square metre site into an “integrated visitor centre” (definitions on a postcard, please) to serve the whole of Shropshire.
This will ensure a viable future for what is widely recognised as “a highly significant complex of historic buildings” in the heart of the county town.
All terribly worthy, no doubt, but why do pictures of long-haired singer-songwriters keep going off like fireworks in my head?
Faded recollections of a more youthful Phil Gillam seeing bands like Fairport Convention, Prelude, and Camel, are not terribly helpful here. Spellbinding appearances by Ralph McTell and Alan Hull of Lindisfarne (circa 1975) are not helping either.
We need to focus. And I’m not talking about Hocus-Pocus by Focus, the dutch rock band which (to the best of my knowledge) never played at the Music Hall.
According to Shropshire Council’s website: “The buildings will house the historic museum collections, reconfigured and re-presented, together with visitor services and information and a programme of contemporary visual arts, community-led events and educational activity to enable a much wider range and much greater number of people to engage with, experience and enjoy leisure, learning and the rich cultural product of Shrewsbury and Shropshire.”
It sounds good. It sounds very good.
With any luck it will be a smaller version of the superb museums we now have in many of our major cities. And that has to be great news both for we townsfolk and for the tourists.
I’m thrilled that an exciting new lease of life is being found for the Music Hall. When the notion of a brand new theatre for the town was firest put forward, there were those (and I was one of them) who feared for the future of this grade II listed beauty, an elegant Edward Haycock design of 1835, a place at which Charles Dickens appeared while at the height of his powers, and at which – a century later – The Beatles performed on their way to conquering the world.
Of course it is not just the Music Hall itself which is being rescued and renovated, but the extraordinary collection of buildings hidden behind that grand facade.
There is the Grade II* listed 13th Century Vaughan’s Mansion, one of only a handful of early medieval defensive Hall Houses in the UK remaining. And it really is a hidden gem – tucked away and for years almost forgotten.
This bizarre architectural smorgasbord also embraces a medieval shut (a passageway between buildings typical of Shrewsbury), some 18th century prison cells and a 20th century civil defence/nuclear bunker. You couldn’t make this up!
When the attraction finally opens next summer, we should all be in for quite a treat.
Another aspect af all this which fascinates me is that in 2009, architects working on this project uncovered yet more mystery and romance. They discovered a magnificent and ornate medieval roof which had been hidden by a (beautiful in its own right) Victorian celing.
Back then, the project manager, Dominic Wallis, reported: “There have been quite a few discoveries. On College Hill we have what are effectively dressing rooms, and when they took away the chipboard panelling, they uncovered a rare and beautiful very early Victorian ceiling, and behind that a medieval ceiling.”
A bricked-up Tudor window was also uncovered.
Hopefully, all of this will be on display when the new attraction opens – bringing us rich insights into the history of Shrewsbury.
I just wonder if they’ll have anything on Fairport Convention and Ralph McTell?

We will learn to love Theatre Severn

AH, THE SMELL OF THE GREASEPAINT, the roar of the crowd. Or was it the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd? Something like that, anyway.
That’s what they always used to say when evoking the intoxicating atmosphere of the theatre.
Well, of course there are roars and then there are roars – those that are welcome (as in applause), those that are not so welcome (as in cries of criticism and frustration).
Now, as far as Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn is concerned, there may not have been exactly a roar of disapproval since its opening in March 2009, but I think it’s fair to say there has been a steady rumbling of disappointment.
A couple of excellent letters published in this newspaper recently, summed up the situation rather well.
“The design, the site, and in particular the programme have all come in for a great deal of criticism,” wrote Caroline Thewles of Cherry Orchard.
I myself have heard many people moan about the design of the building. Firstly, it is not the prettiest of structures, is it? And in such a beautiful town as ours, you would have thought they could have come up with a more sympathetic design.
It strikes me that they used just about every building material known to man to put this place together – bricks, concrete, timber, glass, steel, Weetabix . . . you name it.
Was it that the builders kept running out of one material and so had to move on to the next? How long would it have been before they turned to Lego? It does look like the most awful hotchpotch.
That’s the exterior. What about the interior?
Well, my first couple of visits – to see a rather fine Electric Light Orchestra tribute band and, later, the heart-breakingly brilliant singer songwriter, Beth Nielsen Chapman – left me feeling there simply wasn’t enough leg room between the rows of seats.
I’m tall with long legs and I need to move around a bit.
However, a more recent visit (to see The Hollies) gave me an entirely different impression. On this occasion I did have enough leg room. So maybe it’s all down to exactly where in the theatre you sit.
Another issue – and one that will not be solved so easily – is this: Did we really need two theatres on this site (ie: Theatre Severn itself and then its very own smaller auditorium, The Walker Theatre) when maybe just one big theatre would have been better?
Now this really is a hot potato. It’s often been said that one larger theatre would have brought “bigger and better” artists and theatre companies to the county town. Critics insist that making room for the Walker auditorium compromised the size of the main theatre – leading to a missed opportunity.
The site? Well, the idea of riverside venue is rather romantic, and when it’s all lit up at night it looks a heck of a lot better than it does in daylight.
On the other hand, when plans for a new theatre for Shrewsbury were being drawn up a decade ago, they were seriously considering the site once occupied by the much-hated (and subsequently demolished) towerblock – Telephone House on Smithfield Road. Telephone House, by the way, was surely the least Shrewsbury-ish building in Shrewsbury!
This might have been a good place for the new venue, but (at the risk of infuriating many a Frankwellian), the Frankwell site does not offend me.
Arguments about the quality of the programme offered will rumble on, no doubt. But it is hard to see how a theatre of this size is ever going to break through the “tribute bands and stand-up comedians” barrier.
But, do you know what? In spite of all my reservations, I think I am slowly learning to love Theatre Severn. It most certainly was not love at first sight. It did not sweep me off me feet. But whenever I step inside the place, I enjoy the experience. Perhaps it is going to take a little while to work its way into our affections. But it’ll get there.
Meanwhile, another correspondent, Geoff Fitchett, suggested that anyone who wishes to have access to otherwise sold-out shows should join the Friends of Theatre Severn.
Now, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Surely, Theatre Severn – successful in many ways, but still coming in for some stick – needs all the friends it can get.

Let's save Besford House

There’s this scene in the movie, Father of the Bride.
Steve Martin suddenly discovers that the guy who has just bought his old house from him is in fact a property developer and intends to bulldoze the place to make way for more profitable apartments.
Next thing we know, our apoplectic hero is stood between his beloved family home and a wrecking ball, determined to save from destruction the house he has loved for 30 years but which he has reluctantly had to sell. He knows then that that  old collection of bricks and mortar actually means something. It’s not just a house. It’s more than that.
Now, I know this is only a romantic comedy, but right now I feel like following in the footsteps of Steve Martin and placing myself (if it should come to this) between the demolition crews and a beautiful Victorian mansion in a peaceful Shrewsbury suburb.
Only last year, Besford House, built originally as a private residence in 1893, was on the market as “a nine-bedroom detached house with a guide price of £950,000”. But it did not sell and now there is a plan on the table to demolish the grand old girl to make way for new housing.
Now, I really hate this kind of situation. It upsets me. It gives me indigestion.
The current proposal is in fact a scaled down scheme which would see the building of 16 new homes on the site. Unbelievably, the original plan was for 22 properties but this was cut back by the applicant to a supposedly more acceptable number  after (surprise, surprise) concerns about “overdevelopment”.
Anyone who knows this area will appreciate that these narrow streets were never meant for motor cars. So of course there are objections a’plenty being made in respect of potential traffic congestion. It goes without saying. But many local residents are also incensed that the destruction of a fine Victorian house can even be considered – especially in a conservation area.
“We shape our buildings,” said Winston Churchill. “Thereafter our buildings shape us.”
I would say we are greatly enriched by beautiful and historic buildings and that we should not tear them down without very good reason – very good reason indeed.
A neighbouring county town – just 35 miles to the east of Shrewsbury – suffered more than most from this kind of corporate vandalism in the fifties, sixties and seventies.  Stafford, not as big, not as bold, not as beautiful as Shrewsbury, would nevertheless have been a heck of a lot prettier today (and have a great deal more tourism potential) had it not been for the triumph of the bulldozers and the pickaxe politicians. Take a look at photographs of Stafford prior to 1955 and see the gems smashed aside to make way for red-brick shoeboxes.
I can only think that back then, before words like conservation and preservation came into common parlance, councils were only too happy to sweep away the old, to wield the sledgehammer in favour of “a more modern look” for our towns.
And, yes, of course, Shrewsbury suffered too. No question about that. But, thankfully, we faired better than most.
Right across the country, and in just a few short decades since they sprang up, so many of these inelegant buildings of the fifties and sixties are now seen as eyesores – very often nowadays unwanted and unloved, mostly artless and heartless and now riddled with concrete cancer.
I’m not saying the proposed new housing for Trinity Street would end up that way, but what I am saying is that it would be a crying shame to lose Besford House as a means to an end. And it will be too late to do anything once it is flattened.
In recent years Besford House has been run by the council as a family resource centre and, if it cannot be sold as a private home, you would have thought it would make a nursing home or a small hotel. There has to be a future for this building.
Shropshire Councillor Mansel Williams told me: “The Besfor d House application has been put back a while, as there is a problem with the tree protection zones, which the development has fallen foul of. It’s possible that the application will be amended and will again need to be consulted upon, so there’s still time to submit an objection.
“Will it get permission? Maybe, but even if it’s refused, they will come back with another application; developers hate an open space, to them land means profit. For us, we must try to retain Besford at all costs, the rest of the site will almost certainly be developed at some point in time, as the council wants the capital receipt and the developer his profit.”
Shropshire Council planners aim to make a decision on this matter in July. But if Besford House goes it will be a loss to the beautiful Victorian suburb of Belle Vue, and it will be a loss to Shrewsbury.
Please don’t make me have to stand in front of a wrecking ball.