The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Summer 2015 issue of Belle Vue Magazine

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Professor Branestawm and A Crisis For Our Libraries

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

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

New Chapter for the Lion Hotel

Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Eric and Ernie, and John, Paul, George and Ringo have one thing in common.
They were all guests at Shrewsbury’s Lion Hotel.
Not all at the same time, of course. 
Although, if a spot of time-travelling could make such a thing happen, what a hoot that would be!
Now, this disparate bunch might not have too much to talk about if, through some fluctuation in the space-time continuum, they all met up in the Lion’s elegant ballroom - although… who knows?
At the very least, if they all bumped into each other now, they could discuss among themselves how The Lion has changed since their last visits.
And that’s not all.
Darwin would be able to explain to Morcambe and Wise how Ernie’s ancestors had evolved over the millennia, leaving him with short fat hairy legs.
And The Beatles and Charles Dickens would be able to compare Hard Times (1854) to A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Or perhaps they could join forces to produce 'Oliver Twist and Shout'.
But I’m getting carried away.
However, there is surely one thing on which they would all be united.
They would all be united today in their amazement when told (by their time-travelling co-ordinator) that the Lion Hotel has just been sold to a company in Bangkok. 
You see, nowadays, we’re all used to hearing about ‘the shrinking world’ and about how quickly one can travel from one side of the planet to the other. We’re used to the internet and online banking and multinationals. Deals being made at the touch of a button.
But Dickens and Darwin would surely have been shocked at how quickly things have moved on since their day.
And even since the heyday of The Beatles, technology has been dazzling in the speed of its growth and expansion.
So we citizens of 2015 probably don’t find it odd at all that one of our historic English hotels has just been snapped up by a firm in Thailand.
This kind of thing happens all the time nowadays.
Although (and you can call me old-fashioned) it does still rather baffle me, actually.
I just find it puzzling that a firm based in Thailand would have even heard of a hotel in Shrewsbury, let alone wish to buy it!
Anyway, this great hotel has been purchased for an undisclosed sum by the Thai group, the Fico Corporation.
The lovely, Grade I-listed building on Wyle Cop has hit trouble in recent years after its previous owner Howard Astbury was ordered to put it up for sale to pay off debts totalling almost £300,000. It was initially put on sale in 2011 for £2.95 million, but finance firm Duff and Phelps, appointed as trustees of the estate, has not disclosed how much the hotel went for.
Gavin Wright, director at Christie & Co’s Birmingham office, which handled the sale, said: “We are delighted to have secured a sale with an investor who is keen to keep the Lion Hotel operational and refurbish the property. The sale of the hotel demonstrates there are a number of overseas investors with a keen appetite to acquire hotel assets in the UK.”
Fair enough. Or as dear old Eric Morcambe would have said: "Wey-hey! Get out of that! You can’t, can you?”
Phil Gillam’s gentle novel of family life, Shrewsbury Station Just After Six, is available from Pengwern Books, Fish Street, Shrewsbury, and from Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

The Stew - Ugly Perhaps, But Important

Contrary to popular belief I have lived in places other than my beloved hometown of Shrewsbury.
So when I talk about the architectural gems that have been lost over the decades in Shropshire’s county town, I do so with a sense of perspective.
I have lived in, and know very well, for example, Plymouth and Hull, cities at either end of the country that have much in common, both of them old cities with histories going back to the Middle Ages, both of them devastated by bombing in the Second World War.
The Luftwaffe laid waste to vast areas of these cities which is why, today, we see huge parts of their centres made up of 1950s blocks: unembellished Lego-brick architecture.
Obviously, little old Shrewsbury in sleepy old Shropshire was of no great interest to the German bombers.
But a town didn’t have to be on the enemy’s visiting list to have its historic heart ravaged.
Stafford (another place I’ve lived, another place I know intimately) - like Shrewsbury a county town, like Shrewsbury with a river running through it, like Shrewsbury surrounded by beautiful countryside - has not emerged from the post-war era intact, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Luftwaffe.
Building for building, Stafford lost far more than Shrewsbury did in the fifties and sixties and nowadays is full of modern shops, banks and building societies where historic (some might say ‘quaint’) buildings once stood. That’s to do with town planning and an all-consuming desire for “modernisation”.
So I know that we’re very lucky in Shrewsbury. So many of our historic buildings have survived.
But that doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent.
Let us not forget the Raven Hotel, the Crown Hotel, the George Hotel, the Victorian market hall, the original Shirehall in The Square - all gone.
Which brings me to The Stew, not a beautiful building, not a dramatic building, its charms are far from obvious.
But many local people believe The Stew at Frankwell Quay to be important and worthy of preservation. It is a structure that has much to say about the early river trade. It tells a story. And it is a significant heritage asset.
Its fate is set to be decided very soon as a public inquiry comes to its conclusion.
Proposals to demolish it and build at 42-bedroom hotel in its place are the focus of the inquiry.
Last week in this newspaper, Jeremy Cragg, on the letters page, wrote: “There are other sites on the periphery of the Severn Loop where a hotel could be built, if it is actually required, without destroying an historic building. We all want to encourage tourists to the town. They come for a variety of reasons but to see a modern boutique hotel is not one of them.”
Quite so.
If The Stew disappears one day, it will not be mourned in the way the loss of the Raven Hotel is mourned, but that’s not the point. It is a key building in the history of Shrewsbury. Simple as that.
How much do we care? Only time will tell.
You can find out more at:
But as I always say on these occasions: Once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back.

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

Vinyl Records Make a Comeback

Vinyl records are back in the news again at the moment, and it does my heart good to see several shops in Shrewsbury selling these magical, beautiful discs of black shiny plastic.

Many pop music enthusiasts (myself among them) had suspicions when compact discs came on the scene that, despite all the hype, CDs somehow didn’t sound as “good” as vinyl records.

It was hard to explain, but the suspicion was there, and it wouldn’t go away.
We believed (and still believe) that vinyl offered a warmer, richer, deeper, more human sound.
On compact disc, The Merseybeats lacked their beat, the Rolling Stones didn’t roll quite so sweetly.
Not only this, but it is very hard to fall in love with the physical object that is a CD. It’s cold and clinical like something that might be used in a dental surgery. The case it comes in is similarly cheap and disposable. 

It was hard to escape (especially in the early days of CDs) the notion that the music industry was ripping us off by mass producing these unlovable objects and then selling them at a ridiculously inflated price.

On top of all this, you no longer had the exhaustive sleeve notes, the 12-inch by 12-inch cover picture to admire, and that general feeling that you’d just purchased something worthwhile.

Of course, here we now are in 2015 and even CDs are perceived as yesterday’s technology, ‘old hat’ - superseded by digital downloads that take just seconds to acquire.
So let us perform a little dance in the streets 
to welcome back good old vinyl.
We hear that sales of vinyl records have increased by a whopping, speaker-vibrating 49 per cent over the last year.
We don’t need reminding of course that vinyl was once written off with the advent of first cassettes, then CDs, then MP3 files.
But the return of the black stuff can now be seen everywhere.

In Shrewsbury Market Hall we have the amazing White Rabbit store crammed with thousands of records, and you’ll also find vinyl at Cave Records in The Parade Shopping Centre in St Mary’s Place.
The latter is run by Shrewsbury musician Joseph Cave and his wife, Becki, also a musician.
They were celebrating Record Store Day at the weekend, an international event to place record shops firmly in the spotlight. The idea behind Record Store Day first materialised in 2007 when 700 stores in America came together to mark their culture and celebrate records.

Shrewsbury’s Cave Records specialises in selling albums by artists such as Bjork, Black Sabbath, Aphex Twin, John Coltrane, the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, the Velvet Underground and many others.

Meanwhile, newly-opened sound systems retailer Acoustic Boutique in The Square has now introduced record players into the shop to capitalise on the fresh demand.
Says David Whittaker, of Acoustic Boutique: “Younger people, especially indie-rock fans, are now buying records, and older people are rediscovering their love of vinyl.
“With the perceived quality of vinyl and the hands-on approach of putting the needle to the record, people are enjoying their music the old-fashioned - yet new-fashioned way.”
All this talk of vinyl has got me reaching for my records, perhaps not Bjork and the Beastie Boys, but then I’m probably one of those 'older people' to whom that young Mr Whittaker was referring!

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

The Dog and Pheasant with Alex and a Bunch of Musicians

We’ve all heard stories about little lads being left outside a pub with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps while their dad was inside downing a pint or three.
Well, that’s exactly what would happen to my younger brother Tony and I, many years ago, on a Sunday lunchtime in a corner of Shrewsbury that occupies a special place in my heart.
And that’s partly why it was such a very great pleasure to revisit the Dog & Pheasant the other night.
Happy memories of growing up in Castlefields intermingled with knock-about, good-time, "everyone-join-in!" acoustic folk and pop being provided by the musicians in the corner.
So there I was - accompanied by our youngest son, Alex - listening to singer-guitarist Chris Greve plus his mate Tim on fiddle and other friends on percussion and ukulele. And whilst thoroughly enjoying the music, I couldn’t help but remember myself as a 10-year-old, sitting out the back yard of this pub with Tony, drinking Vimto or Coca-Cola, munching crisps, and (because this is what my brother and I did back then) coming up with ideas for our latest comic-books.
From as far back as I can remember, Tone and I made our own comics, magazines and newspapers out of drawing books, crayons, felt-tip pens, cuttings and Sellotape, glue, sometimes poster paints or watercolours, stickers we’d bought from WHSmith, and of course our John Bull Printing Outfit (something only those of a certain age will remember as an initially exciting but ultimately disappointing Christmas gift).
My very first comic was called Forward. Tone’s first comic was called Budgerigar.
Later there was Pogi (whose central character was a little dog) and later still (and rather more ambitiously) the International Railway Gazette. 
The village at the centre of my model railway layout (Minbury) had its own newspaper, the Minbury Mail, and Tony’s village, built around his Matchbox Motorway, was called Wrekinville, and that too had its own newspaper. Well, of course it did! We had to make our own entertainment in those days!
Thoughts of watercolour paints, felt-tip pens and sticky tape scuttled away as Chris Greve and his mates urged everyone to sing along to the classic folk song, The Wild Rover. His deep Canadian lead vocal is compelling.
Chris and his chums serve up a real mix of songs. At one point they broke into The Monkees I’m A Believer, at another point Chris started to sing a Green Day song and our Alex (who knew all the words) started singing along too. As we soaked up the music, I thought to myself: This is a great pub.
Tucked away in Severn Street, the Dog & Phasant's first recorded landlady (in 1868) was a Mrs Mary Besant, and I cannot help wondering if she might have been an ancestor of the Mr Besant who ran a barber's shop in Victoria Street just round the corner and used to cut our hair when we were little boys.
A couple that local folk might remember are Gordon and Pat Bannister who ran the pub from 1968 until 1971. Gordon had been a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber in World War Two. I wish I'd known this when I was a lad; I could have interviewed him for the Minbury Mail.

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

A Few Days In Llandudno - March 2015

Lord Hill's Column

I was feeling a little dizzy by the time I got to the top.
And, for some reason, as I climbed, I had the children’s rhyme going through my head: Round and round the garden like a teddy bear, one step, two step, tickle you under there!
Blood-sugar levels playing up, no doubt. Thinking about gardens and teddy bears when I should have been thinking about - well, loftier things.
But, yeah, as you climb up the spiral steps - 172 of them - to reach the top of Lord Hill’s Column, you’re definitely going round and round and round and round.
I had the chance to visit on Friday and, for the first time in my life, to climb this superb Shrewsbury landmark and enjoy the spectacular views from the top.
It really is quite a monument.
Built between 1814 and 1816 at the expense of the people of Shropshire, the column was constructed to honour a giant of a man and a local hero: General Rowland Hill, Lord Hill of Hawkstone and Almaraz, who was the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted general in the Peninsular War and at the Battle of Waterloo.
History records that his sincere concern for the wellbeing of the soldiers under his command was evident. The troops actually nicknamed him Daddy Hill.
Not only was Hill a highly-distinguished soldier but he also later became MP for Shrewsbury.
As most Shrewsbury school children were taught for generations, the column is the tallest Greek doric column in England. Another feather in Shrewsbury’s cap.
The panoramic views from the top are indeed wonderful although I was just as impressed by the swirling elegance of the staircase with its fine cast iron banister.
This year is a big year for the big man. It’s anniversary time!
Hill (1772-1842) is being placed firmly in the spotlight by Shropshire Council this summer to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and to emphasise Shropshire’s links with that history-changing conflict.
An online visitor trail and guide to Shropshire’s links with Lord Hill and The Battle of Waterloo with a list of events has just been launched on Shropshire Council’s website –
Lord Hill came from a long line of Shropshire landowners and lived at Hardwicke Grange near Hadnall, to the north of Shrewsbury.  His military career was very distinguished and he achieved the rank of Commander-in-Chief during Wellington’s time as Prime Minister.
Several notable portraits of him were painted, and some of these will be able to be seen at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Shropshire Regimental Museum, St Chad’s Church, and Weston Park near Shifnal, at various times over the next few weeks leading up to the actual anniversary of Waterloo on June 18.
There are, by the way, plenty of other opportunities to climb Lord Hill’s Column over the coming months, although booking should be made in advance as places are limited and tickets will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. The charge is £5 per person and all money raised goes towards the restoration of the monument.
Dates for public opening are: May 25, June 13, July 8, August 16, Bank Holiday Monday on August 31, September 13 and October 3.
Happy climbing!

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

My Love for the Shrewsbury Chronicle

The Shrewsbury Chronicle has served its community since 1772, through the reigns of nine monarchs, and is one of England’s great weekly newspapers.
But like many of the good things in life, it’s easy to take for granted.
They say that people who live by the seaside hardly ever visit the beach, and of course those of us lucky enough to live in a beautiful town like Shrewsbury rarely look up above the shopfronts to appreciate the lovely architecture above.
The same principle applies.
As it drops through our letterbox each week, how many of us truly appreciate the institution that is the Chronicle?
From quill to pen to computer, journalists have been contributing to this newspaper ever since the days of stage coaches that would take 16 hours to transport passengers from the county town to London. These days, that might sound like a long time to reach the capital, but this was, in fact, an impressive record-breaking run, well-recorded in the local newspaper. The legendary ‘Wonder Coach’ - which would set off from the Lion Hotel - would, during the length of its journey, use a total of 150 horses. It’s easy to romanticise about such journeys, but there were dangers, and, in the early days of coaching, passengers would live in dread of the highwaymen who might attack en route and would cut your throat for a shilling.
Ah, but those were the days!
My own time with the Shrewsbury Chronicle doesn’t go back quite that far.
I joined the paper in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. That year I attended enough street parties to last me a lifetime, and, to this day, I get a little twitched every time I see bunting.
When I wasn’t drowning in a sea of balloons, fairy cakes, and Union Jacks, I was writing up obituaries while my fellow trainee journalist was writing up weddings.
Yes there were features to write too (my favourite) plus stories from magistrates court, the borough council and parish councils, but my over-riding memories of those days seem to revolve around putting the kettle on to make tea for my colleagues, and having to pop next door to the newsagents to pick up the editor’s cigars and his latest edition of the Press Gazette.
We were based in Chronicle House opposite the railway station, and the editor was the gentleman that was Derrick Bourne, a lovely man who nurtured his cub reporters with encouragement and words of wisdom. Patrick Smith and the fearless columnist Ron Nicholas were other big personalities at the paper back then, along with the colourful ("who’s pinched my pencil again!") sports editor Stan Hall and the ever-charming copy-typist Mrs Rogers.
Since then I have worked on many other newspapers from the Sunday Independent in Devon to the Hull Daily Mail in Yorkshire, as well as the Express & Star and the Shropshire Star, but I still have a special fondness for those early days. It might have been a bit like the knock-about Norman Wisdom comedy, Press For Time, but it was a lot of fun.
I have known and loved the Shrewsbury Chronicle all my life, and I’m proud to have been professionally associated with it for almost 40 years. But, yeah, I’m still guilty of taking it for granted from time to time!

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