The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Harvey, Elwood P Dowd, and Shelton Hospital

Shrewsbury’s rather grand, certainly imposing, and perhaps even just a little bit frightening Shelton Hospital is facing an uncertain future.
It will eventually be reborn as something, but no-one is quite sure what.
Shropshire’s one-time lunatic asylum is now likely to lie redundant over the next three years because, say health bosses, any future use of the building has been ‘hampered’ by the poor economic climate.
The old place, founded in 1843, was closed down in September as the town’s new £46 million Redwoods Centre opened, the latter being a 112-bed facility which looks every inch the ultra-modern ‘mental health village’, a 21st century replacement for the Victorian hospital.
Now then. What do you think of when you picture a Victorian mental hospital?
Undoubtedly, some ‘treatments’ carried out there 100 years ago would now be seen as appalling and primitive, but knowledge and understanding of mental health was not of course what it is today. And the public’s attitudes also took a long time to change.
To our everlasting shame, Shelton Hospital (along with just about every other mental health hospital around the world) was the butt of jokes for generations.
I well remember the kids at our school laughing about ‘the loony-bin’ and pointing at anyone who was a little bit different, mocking them and saying they had escaped from Shelton.
Almost unbelievably, this ‘brand of humour’ continued for some into adult life.
As an antidote to such cruelty, may I recommend the wonderful 1950 James Stewart film, Harvey, a movie which is kind, sympathetic, gentle and compassionate in its treatment of the central character, Elwood P Dowd.
Elwood, played with such grace, charm and warmth by Stewart, has an invisible friend who just happens to be a six-foot tall rabbit called Harvey.
Only Elwood (and a few privileged others on occasion) can see Harvey, a benign spirit.
Dowd’s sister tries to commit him to a mental institution (which, if memory serves, looks uncannily like Shelton Hospital) and a comedy of errors ensues. Harvey and Elwood become the catalyst for a family healing its wounds and for romance blossoming in the most unexpected places.
Yes, yes, yes. I know this is a sprightly comedy from 60 years ago and, you may say, has little or nothing to do with mental health care in 2012, but I still think it has plenty to teach us about how we human beings treat one another.
For a more informed view of things, I spoke to my brother Tony, himself a mental health nurse who is Clinical Manager of Worcestershire Early Intervetnion Service, and who worked at Shelton Hospital from 1983 to 1986.
“I have fond memories of Shelton Hospital which is a very beautiful building in very beautiful grounds.” he said. “It had its own little farm and so, to some extent, the place was self-contained and self-sufficient.
“They had a cricket ground and the patients would have their own cricket team and the staff would have their own cricket team and they would have matches regularly.
“To be a nurse there at that time it was considered an advantage either to play cricket or to play a musical instrument because they also had a band and had regular dances there.
“It was very much a self-contained community.
“Of course in Victorian times these places were designed to be self-contained. It was an institution so people who were admitted there often ended up living there their whole lives.
And often the staff also would stay there for years and their children would eventually become staff there so you would have generations of people who had worked at the same place.
“By the time I was there in the 1980s there was beginning to be a shift towards more community care and less emphasis on people staying in the hospitals.
“It’s been a very gradual process. But the move has been increasingly towards seeing mental illness as a treatable thing and that people can continue to live in the community and live normal lives.
“Today there is a minimum number of in-patient beds in our hospitals and attitudes have changed massively over the years.
“So in a way the history of Shelton Hospital is the history of attitudes towards mental illness.”
Perhaps, since Victorian times, we have simply become a much more understanding society. Perhaps, in a nutshell, we have (generally speaking) become nicer people.
It’s pleasant to think so, anyway.
And talking of ‘pleasant’, the last word should surely go to Elwood P. Dowd.

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say: ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’
“Well, for years I was smart.
“I recommend pleasant . . .
“You may quote me.”

Beat of the New Year Drum

The pretty twinkling fairylights of Christmas are once again being switched off beneath the grey, grey skies of January, and we all must march on – hopefully with optimism, a sense of excitement, and a spring in our step – into another new year packed to overflowing with possibilities.
But before we do, let’s just have a sneaky look over our shoulders at some of the memorable moments Shrewsbury offered us during 2012, focusing on just a few of the quirky subjects covered in this Shrewsbury Matters column over the past few months.
The Shrewsbury Coffee House, a place I revisited again this weekend with some of the family, seems, on the face of it, an unlikely venue for gigs because it’s really quite small. But back in July I went along there with our youngest son to witness the barking mad and brilliantly talented band, Sheelanagig, who play a sort of crazy, high-energy Eastern European folk music with lyrics about witches, vampires and monsters.
It was a cracking, unforgettable evening in this lovely little establishment on Castle Gates.
The night proved the Coffee House can stage superb gigs, but it’s also a super place to pop into during the daytime for perhaps a latte and a slice of cake.
Theatre Severn: I was moved to write a piece about our much-criticised theatre simply because the rumbles of discontent had continued into the summer of 2012.
While acknowledging that there were serious misgivings still being voiced about its design, its site in Frankwell, and its programme of attractions, I had a suspicion that we, the people of Shrewsbury, would eventually grow to love it.
Having said that, it really isn’t the prettiest theatre in the country, now is it? And from the back (viewed from the pedestrian bridge across the river) it looks like a factory from the 1930s.
But I very much like the interior and I’ve had some terrific evenings there.
The Music Hall – with its commanding position in The Square and its rich history – is never far from our thoughts, and the tremendous renovation that is currently going on there is awe-inspiring. I was lucky enough to take part in a tour of the Music Hall (they hold these for members of the public from time to time) and was given an insight into exactly what is going on there.
Our guide that day – the excellent Tim Jenkins from the Museums Service – told us of the many engineering headaches encountered along the way, as this exciting £10 million project continues to progress.
And he explained that what will eventually become a state-of-the-art museum and gallery for Shrewsbury and for Shropshire as a whole, actually comprises several different buildings from several different eras.
There’s the Victorian theatre, the 13th century Vaughan’s Mansion, there’s a medieval passageway running between the remains of two Georgian houses, and even a nuclear bunker from the days of the Cold War.
I have no doubt this is going to be a place of which Shrewsbury can be justly proud.
Besford House was a hobbyhorse of mine last year, revisiting the subject several times as its fate remained in the balance.
This is a handsome Victorian mansion in Trinity Street in Belle Vue and is best remembered as a boys’ home, a role it had for much of the 20th century.
There was a plan to demolish the place to make way for modern housing.
Like many others, I thought such a plan to be horrendous. We are talking about a fine old building in a conservation area.
Thankfully, common sense (as they say) prevailed, and Besford House’s future now looks to be safe.
Old shops in the town centre proved to be a topic that prompted many memories. I happened to mention one week my own fond memories of Standish Taylor, Wildings, Maddox’s department store and Owen Owen.
Well, the letters and emails came pouring in. It seems everyone has their own memories of the dear old town.
Other subjects touched upon last year were The Flax Mill (and what a long-drawn-out saga that has been) with ambitious plans for the future of what has been, for decades, a sad wreck of a place in Ditherington; our splendid railway station and the poor condition of some of its platforms and forgotten corners; and the revamp of The Albert Hotel on Smithfield Road.
The Folk Festival proved another fantastic success this year and has established itself as a jewel in the crown of Shrewsbury’s cultureal life.
We looked with interest at a scheme to replace some bland sixties flats in Abbey Foregate with much more attractive dwellings, and we said farewell to the 1920s  Ditherington Bus Depot.
Stagecoaches came to the town in October whilst in November, upon what would have been its 90th anniversary, I paid a personal tribute to the Empire cinema in Mardol.
Happy New Year!

Shrewsbury was Made for Christmas

Shrewsbury was made for Christmas. Don't let anyone tell you anything different. 
It wasn't made as a place in which the young Charles Darwin could grow up to become one of the most important people on the planet. (Although it turned out to be this as well). 
And it wasn't made as a place in which a wealth of beautiful and historic buildings can be enjoyed within the horseshoe bend of the River Severn. (Although it turned out to be this as well). 
And it wasn't made, in the late nineteenth century, as one of Britain's great railway centres. (Although it was certainly this as well).
No. Not a bit of it! First and foremost, above and beyond everything else, it was made for Christmas.
It you don't believe me, just ask Santa.
For me this fact is emphasised every December.
“So, Phil,” I hear you ask. “Just exactly what has made you so Christmassy all of a sudden?”
Well, it's like this.
Our weekend began with a trip to see my Kidderminster-dwelling younger brother and his wife and family. 
“But just hang on a minute, Phil. I thought this column was supposed to be about Shrewsbury, not Kidderminster,” I hear you say.
Well, yes, dear reader, that's true, but you did want to know why I'm feeling Christmassy and I'm just trying to answer your question.
“Oh, all right then,” I hear you concede.
So anyway. Our wives and my niece went off and did some Christmas shopping, leaving my brother and I to join up with a bunch of his drinking pals and we set off from Kidderminster railway station to have a leisurely afternoon/early evening pub crawl in Worcester.
“Hang on a minute, Phil,” I hear you interrupt again. “I thought this column was supposed to be about Shrewsbury, not Worcester.”
Look, I'll never get this story finished if you don't pipe down.
A goodly number of pubs (and a goodly number of pints later) and we were definitely full of the Christmas spirit - although (younger generation please take note), not for one minute did any of us become loud or raucous or anti-social. Rather, we remained the same good-mannered, softly spoken and courteous middle-aged gentlemen who had first boarded the train in Kidderminster some hours before.
My wife and I returned to Shrewsbury the following day. (“Ah, Shrewsbury at last,” I hear you say. “We thought for a moment we were reading Kidderminster Matters!”
Oh, do be quiet, dear reader.
Anyway, we wrapped a few presents, wrote a few cards, and then joined my mother-in-law for a Christingle service at the United Reformed Church in Abbey Foregate.
When they dimmed the lights and all the little children stood in candlelight singing Away in a Manger, I knew Christmas had arrived.
It would have been nice to have little children of our own with us, but our three are all grown up and they would have just looked silly queuing up for their Christingles.
But, you know what? Let it get a little colder. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Because this is what it's all about.
You don't have to be religious in any conventional sense (or in any sense at all) to be moved by the spirit of Christmas. You may well have decided that, intellectually, you cannot disagree with a single sentence of Professor Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion'. You might think that Christianity (or any faith, come to that) is daft. But let me put in a word here for magic. Feel the magic. Allow yourself to drink in the wonder of it all.
This is how it is for me:
Walking across the English Bridge on a cold, star-spangled Saturday night, the moonlight reflected in the waters of the Severn, I hear the incoming Aberystwyth train slowing upon its approach into Shrewsbury Station, I see families hurrying home - mums, dads, children - carrying their bags full of goodies. 
And I think, at Christmas time, there is nowhere else I'd rather be.
Because Shrewsbury was made for Christmas.

Jennings and The Legacy of Wakeman School

Petrified paintpots! Crystallised cheesecakes! What a super-wacko-sonic idea! At least that’s how young Jennings might have reacted to the way in which Shrewsbury’s Wakeman School is readying itself to leave our county town a fantastic artistic legacy.
Sadly, though, this is not 1954 and we are not all living inside one of Anthony Buckeridge’s joyously innocent schoolboy adventures where Jennings and his loyal best friend Darbishire get up to all sorts of jolly japes and enthuse about things in language unrecognisable to today’s 12-year-olds.
Crystallised cheesecakes indeed.
Nowadays, certain specimens of our youngsters are more likely to respond to the Wakeman’s fine idea with a grunt of disinterest as they continue to play on their all-consuming computer games – or even more likely would simply text their reaction in words which aren’t actually words at all because (like a second-hand box of Scrabble) they’re missing so many letters.
But the school just over the English Bridge deserves praise, and not just a grunt of praise or a text message of praise.
Because a massive new public art project, using some gorgeous work made by hundreds of current and former Wakeman School pupils will be the school’s parting gift to the town.
Prooving (if proof were needed) that whether we’re discussing the era of Jennings or today’s generation, we have always been blessed with plenty of gifted and creative youngsters.
The school is to close in August 2013 (its 75th anniversary year, as it happens) as part of wider changes to education provision across Shropshire.
This newly-announced arts project, an inspired and ambitious initiative, will see ceramic artwork (created by students over the past 30 years) installed in some of Shrewsbury’s most famous buildings, as well as on bricked-up windows around town.
Brainchild of Wakeman art director Mike Griffiths, it is hoped the first pieces of this artwork will be placed by early next year, each one framed in 4ft by 3ft frames.
It’s a cracking idea, and I can’t wait to see the artwork appearing around the town.
Almost inexplicably, I’ve always had a soft spot for the old Wakeman. It’s not as if I went there. When I was a boy, the Wakeman was an old-fashioned grammar school and I was considered not clever enough for such an institution. However, our big brother went there and I can still remember his bottle green blazer with that distinctive badge on the breast pocket – the letter W and the three leopards’ faces – or loggerheads as they are known.
When each of our three sons reached that age when they were considering which secondary school to attend, and all the schools in town held open evenings for prospective pupils and their parents, I made of point of visiting the Wakeman with our lads, mainly because I rather liked the look of the place myself. It’s a splendid building in a lovely location next to the river; its classrooms are large, its staircases wide. But it also seemed cosy to me, homely almost. Not like the sprawling shoeboxes they built in the fifties and sixties.
Anyway. My own tastes, as it happened, amounted to nothing, and our three chose another school instead.
Nevertheless, my own quiet admiration for the place has continued.
And this farewell gesture from the pupils is a great idea.
Mike Griffiths, who has been teaching at the school since 1982, said almost 4,000 pupils had made ceramic pieces over the years, with about 1,000 stored at the school. Rather than just throwing them away (surely unthinkable!) when the school closes next summer, this work will be displayed around the town for generations to come.
The project is called The Look Up Trail.
Each year since he joined the school, Mr Griffiths has sent out all Year 9 pupils into Shrewsbury (urging them to look up) to sketch the town’s buildings before then making ceramic tiles of windows, chimneys, doorways and doorknockers. Mr Griffiths said he had been captivated by the beauty of Shrewsbury and he wanted to pass on the ability to appreciate its character to his pupils.
He said the trail will cement links between the school, its pupils and the town.
“Whether they are 16 or 47, the beauty will be there and in years to come, some people will be walking around the town and come across the Wakeman Trail and say: ‘I did that one, that’s one of mine’,” he said. “That would be everything I want the trail to do.”
What a nice thought.
And Mr Griffiths added: “When it is all finished we will have a Wakeman Trail leaflet at museum centres or the library. It is called the Look Up project because that is what I have been encouraging the children to do. It is our gift to Shrewsbury. It is probably unique – I don’t think there will be anything like this anywhere else in the country.”
Well. Hearty congratulations to everyone involved in this project, pupils past and present, the two funding providers – the Wakeman Parents Association and the Local Joint Committee – and of course Mr Griffiths.
Like I said to begin with: Petrified Paintpots!

The Music Hall and a Ghost Tour of Shrewsbury

Like Scrooge, I too have been visited by three spirits. Although, in my case, they were the Ghost of Shrewsbury Past, the Ghost of Shrewsbury Present, and the Ghost of Shrewsbury Yet To Come. 
These experiences were visited upon me during two very different tours in the town centre last week.
There was a spooky ghost tour around the streets, shuts and passages on a particularly pitch-black and freezing evening – illuminated only by the lantern of our guide and (in the main shopping streets) the Christmas lights. And then there was a most wonderful tour around the Music Hall complex. Let's start with the Music Hall first.
Shropshire Council's museum's service have been arranging trips for parties of around 20 to step inside what is still very much a building site, albeit one of the most fascinating building sites you're ever likely to see.
Exposed masonry, scaffolding, and dust from bricks, wooden beams and concrete are among the main characteristics of this tour, but look beyond all that and witness centuries of history revealing themselves.
What we all refer to as the Music Hall project actually encompasses much more than the Victorian theatre, taking in within this mish-mash of structures the Grade II* listed 13th century Vaughan's Mansion, one of only a handful of early medieval defensive houses remaining in the UK. This was the home of wool merchant William Vaughan and dates from the 1290s.
Then we have of course the much-loved Music Hall and Assembly Rooms with that gorgeous facade, designed by Edward Haycock in 1835 and listed as Grade II. For goodness sake, the Music Hall alone has enough history to fill a book in its own right. Charles Dickens performed here. The Beatles performed here.
Then (running between what was Oscar's cafe and the tourist information office) we have a medieval passageway between the remains of two Georgian houses. This is the bit you would have used (just a few years ago) to walk up to the boxing office and book your tickets for the panto.
And then, to top it all, you have a nuclear bunker from the days of the Cold War. You couldn't make it up.
The scheme to turn all this into a fantastic museum and art gallery for Shrewsbury and Shropshire may well be behind schedule (which is, by the way, completely understandable when you see the scale of the job being undertaken), but, as we were assured by our guide, it is still within budget.
Among the many wonders which we saw on the tour were wooden roof trusses in the west wing of Vaughan's Mansion tree-ring dated to 1623; this in a roof wrongly believed to have been completely destroyed by a fire in 1917. Much of this incredible area is to be restored to its Jacobean splendour.
The £10 million project will also see Vaughan's Mansion become the medieval gallery of the new museum while the main auditorium of the Music Hall will become the principal gallery.
We also saw how massive new beams have had to be introduced to hold up a ceiling which had been in danger of collapsing in the area which in recent years (just prior to the opening of the OMH across the road) had been used as the Cinema In The Square.
Our guide told us of the many engineering headaches that had been encountered along the way because all these very different buildings somehow being merged into one big mess: two Georgian houses, a medieval mansion, a Victorian theatre and a nuclear bunker actually amounted to “the worst Lego kit in history.”
It's a truly splendid little tour and if you get the chance to join a future one, make sure you get on it.
As for the project itself. Well, everyone involved in it deserves our congratulations for what has been achieved so far. And I can't wait for the new museum and art gallery to open – hopefully next summer.
Meanwhile, the ghost tour of Shrewsbury is great fun.
Our guide for this one (dressed as a Victorian undertaker with a big black top hat and flickering lantern) met us outside the Old Market Hall in The Square and took us on a journey which encompassed Grope Lane, Butcher Row, Pride Hill, the old police station just off Castle Street, Traitors' Gate, The Castle, the old Royal Salop Infirmary (now The Parade of shops), the Nags Head on Wyle Cop.
Of course there is the lovely Appleyards delicatessen at the top of the Cop which, on this evening of supernatural tales, reminded me of an old joke. Where do ghosts like to shop? At the ghostery store.
Then we moved on to Barracks Passage, the Lion Hotel, Old St Chad's and the Golden Cross, each one of which had ghost stories aplenty attached to them.
The presentation was suitably tongue-in-cheek, but pleasing to believers and sceptics alike.  At the end of it all, in the dark and the cold and with an eerie moon high above, you were left asking yourself: Are these streets really haunted?
I don't know. I always thought a ghost's favourite street was a dead-end.

Lord Hill's Column - Worth Spending A Few Bob On

It is often said that the vast majority of those people lucky enough to live at the seaside take their environment for granted. They hardly ever go onto the beach, hardly ever go for a paddle, and wouldn't dream of building a sandcastle.
More fool them, I say.
But similarly, it can surely be said that the vast majority of those people lucky enough to live in a fine historic town (like Shrewsbury) hardly ever admire the superb buildings, hardly ever explore the history on their doorstep, and probably have little or no knowledge of the town's most famous characters.
For instance, although countless townsfolk walk or drive past Lord Hill's column every day, how many actually know very much about the column, and how many know anything about the man it commemorates?
I know that I myself, as a young student at Shrewsbury College back in the seventies, would pass Lord Hill twice a day with scarcely a thought as to who he was. Being a fashion guru (as I still am today, of course), I was far more interested in flared trousers (and, frankly, rather attractive tank-tops) than I was in obscure blokes stood on top of doric columns.
But in later years, I discovered why this particular bloke was considered to be important. And now, here in 2012, he's back in the news again!
Only last week, conservation experts were busy examining the statue at the top of the column to assess whether it was in need of major repairs. Staff from Taylor Pearce Restoration Services made use of a cherry picker to get a really good look at the splendid fellow who stands proudly atop the structure, surveying Abbey Foregate and the town beyond.
Not for the first time in recent years, the condition of the 17ft statue was under scrutiny.
For much of the year the area around the base of the column has been fenced off after a small piece of masonry plummeted to earth in April. You wouldn't have wanted that landing on your head, now would you?
Anyway, a report will now be prepared for Shropshire Council, detailing whether repairs to the statue are required.
There was a fair old bit of controversy back in the 1990s when a considerable sum of money was spent restoring the statue which (understandably enough) had deteriorated after decades of wind and rain and frost.
And going back a bit further, one of Lord Hill's arms fell off in 1945 and money had to be spent to get him fixed up. Again, a debate raged in the pages of the Shrewsbury Chronicle about whether or not this was to be money well spent when there were so many other pressing priorities.
A poem appeared in the newspaper, ending with these lines:

Has proud Salopia lost her pride,
Has she no honour more,
To leave me to disintegrate,
And broke for ever more.
I cannot think so ill of you,
Salopians, but would fain,
Believe you'll find a sculptor,
To make me whole again.

Indeed - now as then - it is unthinkable (no matter what other pressing priorities there are), that we proud Salopians would allow the good lord to fall to pieces.
Lord Hill's Column not only dominates Abbey Foregate but can also be seen from many other parts of Shrewsbury. Built in 1816 it is undoubtedly one of the town's great landmarks. As such it is up there on the list of structures that make Shrewsbury special, up there alongside the Bear Steps, the Old Market Hall, St Chad's, Wyle Cop, the castle, the library, the Abbey Church, the English Bridge and the Welsh Bridge, St Mary's, St Julian's, St Alkmund's, our gorgeous railway station, Ireland's Mansion and Rowley's House.
In short, it is one of our jewels in the crown.
But who was Lord Hill?
Well, Lord Rowland Hill was an important military officer who fought alongside the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Wars and at the Battle of Waterloo when his horse was shot from under him.
Remembered now as Shrewsbury's most distinguished soldier, he succeeded Wellington as Commander-in-chief of the army in 1828. His military achievements, combined with his concern for the men under his command, generated respect and affection from the rank-and-file troops. He actually became known as 'Daddy Hill' by the soldiers who acknowledged his kindness.
He died unmarried in December 1842 and is buried at Hadnall. 
The fine column, with its four lions around the base, was erected in his memory, and it is said to be (at 133ft, six inches high) the tallest Greek doric column in the world.
Surely it, and the statue on top, is worth spending a few bob on?