The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Shrewsbury Circular - Trainspotting and Emptying Ashtrays

Walking away from town and across the English Bridge the other day, and seeing the strikingly modern building which houses Mansers Antiques at Coleham Head, a whole riverboat load of happy memories came sailing up the Severn to greet me.
Little pictures came to life in my head . . . trainspotting as a boy on Shrewsbury Station in the 1960s; then sweeping floors, emptying ashtrays, making cups of tea during my first job as a teenager in the 1970s; and finally publishing a book about this town I love so much, and that would have been, what, 12 years ago now?
Such memories were prompted by the eyecatching Mansers building (which, I have to say, looks particularly spectacular lit up at night). You see Mansers replaced a blink-and-you'd-miss-it little building of the 1930s which had connections to all of those memories I've just mentioned.
Now, before we go any further, let me be clear. Even though I have been known to rant on about the ugliness and inappropriate nature of some modern buildings sprouting up in our beautiful, historic Shrewsbury, I actually have no problem with the Mansers stucture.
In 2003, it received the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Design and Heritage Award and also the Brick Awards' 'Best Commercial Building'. In 2004 it got the Shrewsbury Civic Society Award of Merit, and in 2005 the Civic Trust Award. Its position in Coleham Head does not offend me and I think it is a rare example of a modern building sitting happily amidst Victorian housing.
That said, let me now explain that burst of recollection, spanning a large chunk of my life.
It all comes down to the Shrewsbury Circular (a long-since-vanished publication which was packed with local adverts and delivered door-to-door; in some respects a forerunner of the AdMag) and its quaint little base - the aforementioned 1930s building at Coleham Head.
Memory Number One:
There was a knock at the door. It was a blond-haired lad of about ten years of age, stood there with his dad, selling the Shrewsbury Circular.
This was the summer of 1968.
The lad – who was about the same age as me – looked down our long hallway to see if he could see our telly. Tops of the Pops was on and he could hear The Beatles singing Hey Jude. And then, with a thick scouse accent, the boy spoke: “Best group in the world,” he said.
Turns out he was right then and he's still right now.
I bought a copy of the Circular off him (it cost one penny) and he asked me if I was interested in trains.
“Well, I suppose so,” I said, thinking it a rather odd question.
“Dya wanna come train-spotting with me?” he asked.
And that was how it all started – my love of railways.
Scouse and I used to go off to Shrewsbury Station in an evening and get the numbers of the mighty diesel locomotives that thundered through every few minutes. The classes of locomotives had curious names (or nicknames anyway). They were Brushes or Bo-Bos or (best of all) Warships which sometimes were painted British Railways green but sometimes were a striking maroon, and these Warships even had exotic individual names – Vanguard, Formidable, Avenger, Benbow, Centaur, Champion, Goliath, Hercules, Glory, Intrepid, Jupiter, Zenith, Zephyr and Zulu.
It breaks my heart now to think they were all later scrapped at Swindon. Apart from just two which have been preserved: Onslaught and Greyhound.
It was the Warships we really went for. But we would more often than not have to settle for the Brushes and Bo-Bos.
We had great fun, Scouse and I, just hanging around together on the platforms of the beautiful Shrewsbury Station. And I think it was an experience which helped develop in me not just a love of railways, but a love of history, a love of architecture, and a love of Shrewsbury.
Now I come to think about it, there was a lot more to train-spotting than just taking numbers.
Memory Number Two:
It was the summer of 1973.
Wizzard, Suzi Quatro, 10cc, Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, and The Sweet were all over Top of the Pops. And Slade were at number one with Skweeze Me Pleeze Me. (Spelling was not their strong point).
I landed a little part-time job (just a couple of hours each afternoon as I recall) at The Circular office. I'd just finished school and was in the summer holidays before beginning my life as a student at Shrewsbury College.
The job really did involve emptying ashtrays (everybody smoked in those days), sweeping the foors (wooden floors packed full of metal ingots from the old printing machines that had fallen and become embedded in the boards), and making the tea. Each day I had to clock on and clock off, using an antique machine.
But most of all I recall the lovely walk along the riverside each day from Castlefields to Coleham Head, sun glinting off the river.
Memory Number Three:
Back in 2000, when I was looking around for a printer to make my book (Shrewsbury: A Celebration) a reality, I went directly to the old Circular. By then the Shrewsbury Circular had transmogrified into WPG (Welshpool Printing Group) and were just about to move into new premises, but history and association count for a lot. And they didn't let me down. In a matter of weeks, my book was for sale in Waterstones and WH Smith and I was chuffed to bits.
In a little corner of my heart, at least, the dear old Circular lives on.

Shrewsbury Railway Station

Old railway stations are sad, happy, poignant, sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, intriguing, mysterious, haunted places. Shrewsbury Station is all these things.
And parts of it are also shabby, run-down, neglected, forgotten.
I spent a good deal of time on its platforms a few weeks back when the steam locomotive, Tornado, came through, and I had the opportunity to wander up and down, drinking in the architecture and the more remote corners of this beautiful station.
Now, I suppose it's not altogether so surprising that some parts are tatty and crumbling, and especially those parts which are hardly used at all these days by the public. It could be argued: Why bother to clean and paint bits of the place which are pretty much hidden from view? But, on the other hand, it surely wouldn't cost a fortune to keep the place smart and tidy. And, in a way, I think we sort of owe it to this once proud, once fantastically busy station. We shouldn't be allowing it to fall into disrepair.
The station occupies a most unusual position, built upon a mighty bridge spanning the River Severn. It is also right next to the castle, affording passengers glimpses of the Norman fortress as they wait for their trains. And then of course there is the striking, instantly recognisable Severn Bridge Junction Signal Box, the largest manually-operated box still in use in Britain, and a cathedral among signal boxes.
The station itself was opened in 1848 and boasts a stunning facade. As you can probably tell by now, I love this place.
In a more innocent time, when children were allowed to stay out late and unaccompanied by adults, myself and my pals would get ourselves platform tickets in an evening, and, when we weren't trainspotting, we would play with the luggage trolleys, taking it in turns to ride on one while a friend hauled it from one end of the platform to the other. No-one ever stopped us and it was great fun.
So, yeah, I've known this station all my life, and it upsets me to see wooden canopies rotting away and unused corners choked with weeds.
Interestingly, two railway bridges in Shrewsbury town centre are set to undergo a major refurbishment at a cost of almost £1 million. Network Rail will spend £850,000 revamping the bridges (which are, incidentally, just a gentle chug-chug away from the station) – the ones that cast slightly frightening patches of darkness upon Cross Street (near the Gateway on Chester Street) and Castle Foregate. They are to be cleaned and refurbished.
I'm delighted to hear that the work will include structural repainting of the Castle Foregate bridge facade and aesthetic painting of the rest of the bridge. Repainting will also be carried out at Cross Street.
This is all well and good.
But perhaps similar work on the station should be considered – and sooner rather than later.

The Flax Mill and the Canal Tavern

Apart from hitting my head against an iron beam (which was my own stupid fault for not looking where I was going), my visit to the Flax Mill earlier this year was enjoyable. Yes, yes. Since you ask – I was wearing a hard hat (thank goodness) but it still hurt.
The visit was also educational and enlightening. For one thing it taught me to look ahead and not down at my feet.
The tour also succeeded in illustrating just what an extraordinary structure we have over there in Ditherington. It also reminded me of how many schemes, projects, proposals, suggestions (call them what you will) relating to the Flax Mill have come and gone over the years.
Over the past few decades we've heard at various times that it's going to be turned into luxury flats, high-quality offices, an art gallery, specialist shops, an exhibition area, cafes and restaurants which may or may not spill out onto a revitalised canalside yard. The list goes on.
Currently, bosses behind the latest plans to regenerate the Flax Mill are preparing to stage a number of extra tours around the historic site in response to increasing public demand.
This comes after more than 1,600 visitors flocked to the building in May just days after the revamp plans received an initial £12.1 million in support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tours are planned for July 28, August 11 and August 25.
So if you get the chance, do pop along and see what all the fuss is about.
If you didn't already know it, the Flax Mill is, as the world's first iron-framed building, world-renowned as the great grand-daddy of New York's skyscrapers. Funnily enough, we, as children in the 1960s, thought of the place as just a terrible wreck, rat-infested and falling to bits. We called it The Maltings because that is what it was for many years after ceasing to be a flax mill. If the regeneration finally does go ahead, this once half-forgotten and largely ignored place could become a fascinating attraction for locals and tourists alike; another jewel in Shrewsbury's already generously jewel-encrusted crown.
“Some 1,600 attended our open days in May but we are still receiving many requests for visits,” explained Stephen Crosland, co-ordinator for the Friends of Flaxmill Maltings. “We can offer tours for organised groups, but this offer provides opportunities for anyone to come along whether they be local residents or occasional visitors.”
The 90-minute tours will start at 2pm, and interactive activities will also be held to keep youngsters busy.
In case you've lost track (and who could blame you?) of what the latest scheme is all about, it's something like this: The Friends group is busily campaigning to restore the old mill buildings, creating a mixture of businesses, art groups, bars, restaurants and homes. All this, it is hoped, will start in 2014. Funding of more than £460,000 has already been pumped into the project.
Alan Mosley, chairman of the Friends, said: “There is great interest in the site, particularly after the success of the Flaxmill Maltings Partnership in receiving initial support for the £12.1 million Heritage Lottery Fund bid.”
It seems to me that it's been a very long time coming, but, finally, regeneration of the old girl is starting to look like a reality.
So, yeah, do go along on one of these tours – but please don't bang your head.

And talking of old canalside buildings in Shrewsbury, a word now about the Canal Tavern in New Park Road, Castlefields. 
Being an old Castlefields boy myself (and a pupil at the Lancasterian School just a stone's throw from this lovely old pub), I have a real soft spot for the Canal Tavern, and very fond memories of meeting my dad there (when I was old enough to do so) for a pint or two. I can recall a piano in the corner of the bar and a cosy little snug. I also remember a sheep which grazed in a small grassed area in front of the pub.
The Tavern dates from around 1820 and was near the old canal terminus at The Buttermarket. Originally it drew its customers from the passing barges, as well as attracting people working on the wharf, and of course railwaymen from the nearby station. It had stabling for five horses and its entertainment included the game of bagatelle. Needless to say, all that was somewhat before my time!
I hear that the canal preservation people would very much like to incorporate this pub into its own highly ambitious projects. How wonderful it would be if the currently-closed and rather sad-looking Canal Tavern could live again as perhaps both a pub and a museum.

Castle Gates is a Happening Place

Castle Gates is a really happening part of the town these days. I mean, it may not always appear this way (especially if it's raining and you're in a hurry) – but look more closely and you'll see it's positively buzzing; fizzing like a shaken-up bottle of champagne.
And then occasionally, just occasionally, like last Thursday night, for example, it simply bursts into life. I'm talking high-octane Balkan folk-punk mayhem (imagine Madness playing Eastern European tunes merged with Hammer Horror tales of the supernatural). But more of that later!
Back to daytime Castle Gates . . . There can't be that many one-hundred-yard zones in which you can purchase artisan breads, unusual jams, and old-fashioned sweets, and then, in the evening, experience the aforementioned high-energy, lots-of-fun music that can make you feel 18 again even though you're actually old enough to remember Fireball XL5.
What on earth is he going on about, I hear you cry.
Well, I have in mind in particular a cluster of newish businesses that have turned Castle Gates into a thriving place, the atmosphere of which would be more readily associated with cool, student-packed areas of cities like Bristol and Edinburgh.
There's Pomona Grocery, the Shrewsbury Coffee House, the Shrewsbury Bakehouse, and Sweet Temptation.
Where to begin?
Let's start with Pomona Grocery. I stepped inside the shop the other day and it was so charming and timeless that I thought I might have accidentally stepped into a store in Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. I would not have been surprised to discover that there was a wand emporium next door, and, across the road, Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Quality Quidditch Supplies and The Leaky Cauldron pub.
I learned from a poster in the window (which includes a poem by William Morris, 1834-96, and a painting of the sexy little minx herself by Nicholas Fouche, circa 1700), that Pomona is the Queen of Apples, a goddess of fruitful abundance in ancient Roman mythology. And so – the Pomona Grocery. A perfect name for a perfect shop.
With its fruit, veg, cheeses and retro-confectionery, this is a quality grocers with the accent on local and organic – but it's so much more than that.
Just a few doors down the road at 7 Castle Gates you'll find the Shrewsbury Bakehouse, another wonderful enterprise offering hand-baked breads, 'superior flavoured and textured breads' indeed, as well as possibly the best vegetable pasty in the Northern Hemisphere.
Across the road from The Granada, meanwhile, is Sweet Sensation, a shop straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, specialising in old-fashioned sweets and confectionery of every kind. Brilliant!
And so to the Shrewsbury Coffee House. By the way, I was sitting in here the other day when I noticed for the first time the way in which the right hand side of The Bull's Head (directly across the road) has, over the centuries, sunk a couple of foot into the ground. Further evidence, methinks, that this is actually Diagon Alley. But I digress . . .
Yes, the Shrewsbury Coffee House – low-level lighting, scrubbed floorboards, an explosion of framed pictures covering the walls. Superb. Yes, it's noisy (no soft furnishings to absorb the sound), but it's noisy in a good way. On a typical afternoon, surprisingly unobtrusive rock 'n' roll classics play in the background and the music sort of mixes with the sound of the traffic powering its way up Castle Gates, but this all adds to the liveliness of the place. They do iced teas, coffees of every kind, tuna melt sandwiches, cakes and gateaux, chilled lagers, ciders, wine, bottled ales, savoury things.
And then last Thursday night something magical happened. The coffee house became packed (it only needed around 50 people, it's not a large place) as music fans gathered to enjoy Sheelanagig who have burst forth from the Bristol music scene with their fast-paced, tremendously rhythmic jazz-folk. Their two tremendously gifted frontmen are a scarlet-shirted flautist and a Sinatra-hatted violinist. Joining them are an equally talented trio on double-bass, drums and guitar. Together they generate enough energy to send a rocket to Mars.
For me, this amazing gig put the seal on it. Castle Gates is an extraordinary little part of Shrewsbury.

Besford House and 'the Naughty Boys'

“Everybody knew it as the Naughty Boys' Home. It was set up as a way of getting children out of the workhouses. Most of the boys were under care orders – they were children whose parents could not look after them.”
I am having a cup of tea with Bill Preen, now aged 80. Today he lives happily with his wife Fran in Monkmoor, Shrewsbury. They are parents to three, grandchildren to four, and they love to do crosswords together. But life has not always been so pleasant for Bill. And he is telling me about Besford House in Belle Vue during the 1940s. It was his home at that time. He was one of the 'naughty boys'.
'Often boys would wet their beds and then the next day they would be beaten for wetting their beds. They got beaten every day. The great thing was not to show any emotion. I suppose it was the only way the staff could keep control of the boys. We were used to the cane. We were called the naughty boys because we would cause pandemonium once we were out in the community.'
Bill got in touch with me after seeing my column in this newspaper a few weeks ago in which I wrote about Besford House in Trinity Street, a fine Victorian building which is now under threat of demolition because developers want to build houses on the site. Its fate remains in the balance. 
That article did not go into the history of Besford House as a boys' home but it prompted Bill, who is writing a short memoir about his time at the place, to give me a call. He is hoping other ex-Besford House boys will come forward to add their reminiscenses to his to create a fuller story. Bill is one of three brothers who all spent time at Besford House.
' You see, my mother died. And we were taken away from our father. We weren't being looked after properly. We were seized.'
Bill was originally sent to a reception home and then to Sutton Lodge (which is today the Red Cross headquarters in Betton Street). Sutton Lodge, Besford House and also Pen-y-Bont, another large house in the area, were all children's homes at this time, explains Bill.
'I left Sutton Lodge at the age of eight and was moved to Besford House. They had 20 small boys who had a lady looking after them and 20 senior boys who had a lady looking after them. We had a cook and a superintendent and his wife. I was at Besford 1940 to 1948.
'You have to remember it was a different time altogether. People struggled in those days. They didn't even have lavatories in Rea Street then. There's a conduit still at the bottom of Betton Street which is where people would go and get a jug of water. Then they would go for a jug of beer at the Prince of Wales.
"I was only four years old when I was taken into care and I can still remember seeing for the first time the Lion on top of the Lion Hotel and the Dunn Cow on top of the Dunn Cow pub and I was afraid of them. I thought they were alive. I must have been in the car of a social worker and we drove past them and I was frightened.'
At Besford House we had to do all the work. We had to prepare all the vegetables ourselves. We had to cut all the firewood at Sutton Lodge and then take it in wheelbarrows to deliver it to each of the homes. We did all the cleaning, scrubbing of the floors. In the back hall there was a black mark on the tiles and we used to scrub it and scrub it with Vim but we could never get rid of that black mark. I could take you to it now and show you.'
Besford House was built in 1893. It began its life as a boys' home in 1911. “Guardians used to run all the workhouses, but then they were taken over by Shropshire Council in the 1920s, says Bill.
They were clearly tough days, but things began to look up as Bill grew from a boy to a man. He did well at school and went on to work in the civil service for two years before doing two years of National Service. He then got a job as a clerk at The Maltings and was offered a management post there within three years.
But whenever he and his brothers - Sid who lives in Shifnal and Arthur who now lives in Norway - get together, they will almost always exchange stories about their days at Besford House.

Old shops of Shrewsbury

Anybody remember Wildings or Standish Taylor – or Owen Owen or Maddox’s?
Come to that, does anybody remember Timothy Whites?
I only ask because as I wander around the old town, I often think of the stores that have come and gone.
Very often the buildings are still there, of course, but they have been taken over and revamped almost beyond recognition.
Like an antique string of pearls, our town, much used and sometimes abused over the years, will occasionally lose one of its number. But as one familiar name rolls off into history, it will be replaced in time with a shiny newcomer.
Now Wildings conjures up special memories for me. My sister used to work there as a young girl and I would often pop in and say hello.
Wildings – in Castle Street – was a bookshop and stationers which also sold art equipment and had (downstairs in the basement) its very own record department. This was a semi-secret place which never seemed anything like as popular as it should have been.
And well into the 1970s this wonderful little record department had booths in which you could listen to LPs or singles before deciding whether or not to part with your hard-earned cash and actually make a purchase.
These slightly musty sound-proof booths were already quite ancient by this time – built surely for the sounds of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra rather than for those of The Strawbs, Lindisfarne, David Bowie, Supertramp, Roxy Music and American songwriter Don McLean – some of the artists I was into in those days.
I mention Don McLean in that list because I have very vivid memories of buying from Wildings his 1974 LP, Homeless Brother. I listened to it all the way through in one of those sound-proof booths and I well remember thinking: “This is a bit cheeky. If I don’t buy the record now, they’ll think I’m taking the mick.”
Happily, I loved the record so it was not really such a big decision to buy it. And – to this day – it is still a favourite.
Wildings was a much-loved old shop but it was never going to survive as the bigger stores grew ever-bigger.
Standish Taylor was a quirky up-market gift shop a stone’s throw from Shrewsbury Library.
I had not quite realised how expensive this shop was until one day (I must have been about 18 at the time) I popped in to buy my girlfriend a present. I was (and still am) a big softie and Iwas going to buy her a cuddly Paddington Bear.
I can only think I had completely misread the price when I first spied Paddington (complete with his Wellington boots and floppy hat) through the shop’s window. Because when the assitant told me just how much our furry friend cost, it was yours truly who was almost blown all the way to Darkest Peru.
Owen Owen and Maddox’s – well they were almost the same thing.
And this is where we are made aware that Shrewsbury of course represents layer upon layer upon layer of history.
Because just as we are getting all teary-eyed about Maddox’s we should remind ourselves that it (as a building) only came along in the late 19th century and – in so doing – replaced an elaborate timber-framed building dating from the early 17th century. Clearly, big-scale vandalism and a total lack of sympathy for the historic townscape is by no means a recent thing!
Anyway. Maddox’s was a grand department store which for decades was well-known in the county town. You name it, it sold it.
The building (on the corner of High Street and Pride Hill) is still there.
It was taken over for a while by Owen Owen, a Liverpool-based operator of department stores across the UK.
Now, the thing I remember most about Owen Owen was that it had a really charming coffee shop and restaurant. We used to go there a lot when the children were young, we grown-ups sipping our coffee, the lads playing with their plastic dinosaurs from the Early Learning Centre.
In 2007, Owen Owen entered administration and another familiar name disappeared from the High Street.
And finally from my list, Timothy Whites. This was a large shop, very similar in many ways to WH Smith. Timothy Whites (like Wildings) had its own record department and I well remember buying many an album from here – including Country Life by Roxy Music.
I will never forget this episode because the cover of Country Life depicts two very sexy, scantily-clad ladies, and I was actually almost too embarrassed to take the record up to the counter to pay for it.
But somehow I conjured up the courage.
It’s amazing what comes back to you as you walk around the town centre.