Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Public Inquiry: Stopping Up the Overhang at Princess House.

Social media is something I engage with on an almost daily basis.  Even so, there are moments when it really hits me just how powerful words can be in our contemporary world.  I woke up this morning to a ‘ping’ on my phone. It was Twitter telling me I had a new follower.  I looked him up.  He came from Ontario, Canada, and he’d just favourited my ‘Be There Or Be Without A Square’ link, and retweeted it to his 3,400 followers.  I shall check my Canadian statistics in a couple of days.  It’ll be interesting to see how many of them read that piece.  The stats for My Tonight From Shrewsbury anyway tell me it's being read around the world. Shrewsbury is reaching places it may never have got to before. That’s an interesting thought. 

ANYHOW, all of that’s an aside to the main drama of the last couple of days, which is the public inquiry into the building out of Princess House onto what is currently publicly-accessed land. Yesterday in the Shirehall, local people and their representatives crowded into a room that was fast becoming too small.  There weren’t enough chairs.  New ones were brought in and lifted over heads. Tables were moved.  People shifted up.

‘It’s 10.00am.  This Inquiry is now open,’ announced the bright-eyed, grey-haired, crisp looking man sitting in the centre of the room, behind a desk strewn with papers. His name was John Wilde.  He was the Secretary of State’s appointed Inspector for the Inquiry.  On either side of him, at long tables, sat representatives of Rockspring, the company that owns Princess House, and representatives of all the major objector groups. The rest of us sat in the middle, bunched together. Spectators, audience – I don’t know what to call us.  Perhaps ‘the floor’ would be appropriate.

Everybody was free to have their say, the Inspector said. There was plenty of time - nobody should think they wouldn’t have a chance.  But could they please bear in mind that this wasn’t a planning inquiry.  For good or ill [my words, not the Inspector’s] permission for the Princess House proposals had been granted at County Council level, and all that was being looked into here were issue to do with stopping up the highway.

‘You have to keep to that subject,’ warned Inspector Wilde. ‘And if you have something to say, make sure it’s something that hasn’t been said before. It won’t help this Inquiry to repeat arguments over again.’

Up to this point, the atmosphere was convivial. The room was packed, but more people still managed to squeeze in.  ‘It’s very cosy isn’t it? No one’s going to sit on my lap, I hope.’  Unless I’m much mistaken, it was Inspector Wilde who said that.  Whoever it was, certainly everybody laughed.  At least they did until the two points for consideration were spelled out.  First up - was it necessary to stop up pavement under Princess House? Second up – what were the disbenefits to the Square should this stopping up take place? 

‘In other words, do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages if the proposed stopping up goes ahead?’ said the Inspector.  And nobody was laughing now.

The Rockspring side was represented by a young man with a shaved head whose name I didn’t catch, a bigger man called Mr Tibble, with a spotty handkerchief in his pocket and lots of floppy white hair, and tall, grey man called Mr Renshaw, from a Town Planning company called Stride Treglown, who’d written a Proof of Evidence report which he started the proceedings by reading out.

Princess House, a building which sat ‘uncomfortably in its context of historic buildings’ [groan from the floor], had been bought by Rockspring with a strategy in mind to ‘regenerate this building for the benefit of the town’ [titter from the floor]. Their planning application to stop up the publicly-used pavement under the building’s overhang had come about as a result of shop tenants’ complaints, and the threat of some of them moving elsewhere. The company had spent six months making their proposals acceptable to everybody from English Heritage to the County Council, and it had been successful in getting planning permission. There were no objections to what they wanted to do.  

In addition, their desire to take custody of the pavement beneath the overhang was backed by surveys into the pavement’s use.  Granted one day their CCTV camera had had its view blocked by delivery trucks, but another day Mr Renshaw had been out in person and, despite the opposition’s claiming that the overhang was well-used, counted only a small handful of people walking beneath it in the course of an hour.

After his statement, Mr Renshaw was available for cross-examining.  I wouldn’t have liked to be on the other end of it.  Opposite him sat Sheila Sager and Alan Shrank, representing town centre residents, and they were looking very mean indeed. The town’s councillor for the ward in question, Andrew Bannerman, looked slightly more jovial, but only because his cheeks, I’ve noticed, have natural high colour.  Next to him, white faced and stern in his dog collar sat the Civic Society’s representative, the Reverend Richard Hayes – a man I know to have a razer mind and to never be lost for words. And flanking this group at either end were the equally determined-looking Town Clerk, Helen Ball, and a representative of Shops in the Loop, the town’s retail interest group, John Hall. 

Slowly they picked their way through the evidence.  Those shop keepers’ complaints – had they been unsolicited? [It turned out that no unsolicited complaints had been made.] Did Rockspring deny offering assurances about outdoor seating arrangements being retained if the proposals went ahead? [Yes they denied it, though later it turned out they had]. That survey Mr Renshaw had conducted, with such low numbers for people’s use of the overhang – was it true that it had been taken during a snow storm when almost nobody was about?  

After Mr Renshaw’s cross-examination, it was the objectors’ turn to make their statements, starting with Town Clerk, Helen Ball who, when facing cross-questioning, ably fielded Mr Renshaw’s attempts to tie her up in knots. ‘I couldn’t possibly answer that question,’ was her bemused, and not infrequent reply, ‘why are you asking that?’ to which Mr Renshaw replied, ‘I’m meant to be asking the questions here, not you,’ to which, in turn, Ms Ball replied,  ‘Well, ask me something I might know.’

I’m sure that gives you the idea.  After Helen Ball’s statement, all the other objectors took their turns. Included amongst their concerns were the impeding of views into the square from the High Street if the stopping up was allowed; issues of personal safety [and just as importantly, perception of safety] if pedestrians were forced out into the public highway which runs through the square; the value of café culture and what would happen to the square without it; issues to do with how close to the highway tables and chairs could be safely placed; where highway ended and pedestrian use began; how many people, on what sorts of occasions, could be expected to pack into the square for major events and small, and whether more space was needed rather than less.

Somewhere in all this, one of the Rockspring people – I can’t remember whether it was Mr Renshaw or Mr Tibble – wondered whether Shrewsbury people understood the way the retail sector worked.  As a number of the people in the audience were retailers themselves, this was met by indignant groans.

People talked about the uses of the square as Shrewsbury’s main – indeed only – large open space.  Its civic role was mentioned, as was its neighbourhood role, as an open space used by residents as well as visitors.  Some sterling work had been done by Alan Shrank for the Town Centre residents on acceptable distances between tables and chairs and the highway which ran through the square. He was dry. I’d even push out the boat and say on a couple of occasions, though his face moved not a muscle, he was droll.  Certainly he wasn’t to be tripped up.   And then, after him, came Richard Hayes.  The Reverend Richard Hayes. Our white knight - and I’m not joking here. If Shrewsbury had been a damsel in distress, she couldn’t have been better saved. 

For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of meeting Richard Hayes, he’s the quintessential English cleric.  Slight stoop, almost imperceptible stutter, sweep of white hair, razor sharp mind and, though quietly spoken, the sort of tongue that goes with it.  Beginning by knocking on the head the idea that Shrewsbury people – including himself, who’d been a parish priest for many years in the City of London, at the heart of the banking culture – had little understanding of commercial/retail interests, the priest in charge of town church, St Alkmund’s, launched into words of praise for what he called ‘our Saxon town’. The square at the heart of it, he said, was a place of harmony. It contained fine buildings and seating, flowers and space.  It was open - a place where people felt safe.  Once there had been anti-social behaviour in the square, but that had been greatly reduced by the growth of café culture, and now that culture was under threat.

In an interesting take on proceedings, Reverend Richard Hayes seemed genuinely concerned for the owners of Rockspring and what they were bringing upon themselves.  Looking directly at their representatives, he used the phrase ‘shooting yourselves in the foot’.  Rockspring wanted to attract customers to their tenants’ shops, he said, but they were creating an environment that was less attractive and welcoming, and therefore less likely to attract footfall.  For all his sympathy, however, there was steel behind his summing up. The square belonged to the people of Shrewsbury. It was a piece of public highway that had been in use for the entire forty years of Princess House’s life.  And now it was about to be lost.

‘Abandon this ill-considered plan,’ said Richard Hayes. ‘Refurbish Princess House as you see fit, but leave the shop fronts where they are.  If you do that, you will win the good will of local people, and financially it will be to your gain.’

The rhetoric was really ramping up by now, ably followed by Councillor Bannerman who challenged Rockspring’s assertion that the people who objected to one seventh of the town square being taken were ‘only a little cabal.’  To quote Churchill,’ said Councillor Bannerman, drawing himself up to his considerable height, and looking round the packed room, ‘Some cabal!’

Councillor Bannerman pressed home the point that Rockspring were exceeding their powers in giving assurances to tenants that outdoor tables and chairs would be retained if the overhang which currently housed them was built out.  It was not for developers to make Planning Approval decisions.  That lay in the power of the council, he said. He also talked about localism, and the importance of public feeling - as indeed he did later in the day, in his closing remarks. He made the point that Shrewsbury needed more space in its fine old square, not less. [Someone from the floor - quickly reprimanded by the Inspector - called, ‘Pull Princess House down, that would make enough space.’] The words ‘private gain at public expense’ came up, and were also repeated in Councillor Bannerman’s closing address, as were the words ‘fly in the face of reason.’

I could go on. So much more was said by so many people whose points deserve to be reported - but unless I give it to you verbatim, I can’t repeat it all. Highlights from the floor included a gentleman called Mr Petridis pointing out that shelter from the elements was what most shopkeepers wanted for their customers - not to have that shelter removed; this was an ugly 60s building, he said, its only redeeming feature its overhang - and here its owners were trying to do away with it.

Then Peter Owen of the Friends of the Museum pointed out the sheer numbers of children who’d be tipped out of buses into the square once the new Shrewsbury Museum was open for business later this year.  Disability issues got a mention. So did the potential for Princess House to sink into a watery bog if the building work went ahead [this was discounted].

It was beginning to feel like the end of the day.  Numbers had dropped off. A room that had been bulging at the seams in the morning now at the end of the afternoon had some significant gaps.  Points had been scored. Weaknesses in arguments, and downright twisting of facts had been shown up. Final statements were made for and against.  Stirring words, thank you Councillor Bannerman. And when Mr Renshaw for Rockspring accused the town’s case [despite the weight of information presented in its argument] of being purely emotional, an emotional roar rose to the rafters of ‘what do you expect?’.  

Inspector Wilde said he’d submit his report to the Secretary of State in the next three weeks.  After that - he raised his hands.  This was government we were talking about.  No way of knowing how long their decision would take.

The Inspector’s final suggestion was that with a [silent] representative from each side [‘not the whole lot of you – I don’t want to look like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn’], he should retire to the square to take a look around.  He’d already done so before the Inquiry.  Now, having heard what people had to say, he wanted another look. 

‘This Inquiry is now over,’ he declared.

‘Can we thank you for the good-humoured spirit in which you’ve conducted it,’ ex-Chair of the Town Centre Residents, Professor Lalage Brown, declared in return.

Claps all round.  Everyone agreed. There had been humour in the day.  Inspector Wilde’s down-to-earth demeanour had had a knock-on effect.  There we all were, on both sides, giving it our our best according to our lights. Allowing for the strength of feeling, things could have been so much worse.   


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Be There or Be [Without A] Square

I’m going to get a bit architectural here, so bear with me. A building technique that had its roots in the middle ages but came into its own in Tudor times lies behind a Public Enquiry taking place in Shrewsbury this coming Tuesday.  In its day, this technique was a means of increasing a building’s size, reducing its tax bill and providing a more efficient way of spanning floor joists, all without impacting detrimentally on its surroundings. Right here and now, however, in our very own 21st century Shrewsbury, that building technique is in danger of becoming something in the nature of a land-grab device.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about Tudor overhangs. Here in Shrewsbury we have some of the finest examples of them in the UK.  If you Google the words ‘overhang’ and ‘Tudor’, almost the first image to come up is Henry Tudor House on Wyle Cop.  Add to that Bear Steps, the Costa Coffeehouse building. Grope Lane, The King’s Head in the Mardol. Ireland’s Mansion. Rowley’s House, and other buildings from almost every street in Shrewsbury, you’ll see that the whole town contains examples of Tudor overhangs.  In large part, they define Shrewsbury’s character.

Back in the 1960s and early 70s, when developers sought planning consent for new buildings, they attempted to mirror in concrete the architectural style of the rest of the town - including the Tudor overhang. In a town of the historical importance of Shrewsbury it was vital that, in order not to dominate, new buildings strove to fit in with the architecture for which the town was famous. Today for example, standing at the St Julian’s Church end of the High Street, looking towards the Square, you’ll see that not every building is old but that almost every building, old or new alike, has some form of matching overhang.  Its like an echo running down the street. There may be people who don’t like some of our modern buildings, but undeniably there’s been an attempt at harmony.

Not for much longer, however, if the owners of one of those buildings has their way.

The building in question is Princess House – a building which owes very little to its surroundings other than its overhang, which starts on the High Street, runs down the side of the Square and runs along the back on Princess Street.  That’s over 1,000 square feet of overhang, or about 97 square metres in the Square alone, and around two thirds of that again if the overhangs on Princess Street and the High Street are included too.

These figures are important because what’s being proposed  is that the public highway beneath that massive footage of overhang - specifically in the Square where at ground floor level the building houses shops - should be stopped up allowing Princess House to be built out, increasing its size to the extent of the overhang and depriving the town of a huge amount of public thoroughfare.  

Is this what we want? This is where the ‘my’ in My Tonight From Shrewsbury comes into its own.  This is what I think – and, no, it’s not what I want.  The Square is the heart of our town.  It houses thriving markets packed with stalls and shoppers, holiday activities and carol concerts. I’ve been to World Music Day in the Square, and watched a full-scale opera. Everything from morris dancing to brass band concerts takes place in the Square, along with open-air exhibitions, New Year celebrations and the switching on of Christmas lights. And the Square gets crowded on these occasions - so crowded that a number of years ago the council closed it to vehicular access to give pedestrian priority. 

Not only that, but the Square has been at the heart of Shrewsbury town life for hundreds of years, and it houses some of the town’s most iconic buildings. The axis formed by the Music Hall [due to be opened later this year as the town’s new multi-million pound museum] the Old Market Hall and the Robert Clive statue, with a backdrop of fine Tudor buildings and Georgian/Victorian facades [of such quality that they were used in the Dickens ‘Christmas Carol film] proclaim that the Square is the town’s premier civic space.  Already Princess House has intruded into that space with three storeys of overhang.  Now it wants to protrude even more.   

Hardly surprising then that the proposed change to the character of the square isn’t universally popular - but there’s a potentially even more worrying issue. If Princess House is allowed to stop up the land beneath its overhang and turn it into shops, then the owners of every overhang in town might start looking to their own perceived rights to extra floor space.  And if they were to be successful in claiming precedence, pavements could disappear and buildings change their character all over town.  Maybe it sounds melodramatic to say that Shrewsbury’s essential character would be in danger of destruction, but there’s no doubt that the delicate balance between old and new could be lost.

The Public Enquiry set up by the Secretary of State - which will include opportunities for those who come prepared to speak - will be kicking off at the Shirehall from 10.00am onwards this coming Tuesday, and carrying on until Wednesday, looking specifically into the validity of stopping up the public highway beneath Princess House, and its impact on the Square and overlooking streets. That the Secretary of State deems this to be necessary is a measure of the importance of the issue.  Arguments against the proposal have been made in writing by Shrewsbury Town Council, Shops in the Loop, the Civic Society and the Town Centre Residents Association. There may well be many others.  Those are just the ones I know about.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that what  happens at this Public Enquiry is important for our lovely little town. My own view is that there’s a matter of principle here. There should be no further loss of space in the public realm. To this end - and in order for the Inspector to understand the situation and make a fair and sensible judgment - the greater the number of those who manage to attend for any part of Tuesday or Wednesday, to show how much they value their town square, the better. It really could be one of those occasions when just being there makes the difference.

I’ll be there.  The way I see it, it’s a case of ‘be there or be without a Square’.  But if you can’t be there, I’ll tell you all about it afterwards. 


Friday, 25 January 2013

Pomona, The Ancient Apple Queen of Castle Gates

Two thirty in the morning and Des is up and out, heading for the market in Birmingham.   Once he ran a business with a massive turnover and forty-five employees, but now he’s on his own, nosing into the darkness to bring back the best produce to Pomona, Shrewsbury’s greengrocer’s shop in Castle Gates.

Pomona, goddess of apples, celebrated in poetry by William Morris, and in tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones - in her latest incarnation she’s a veritable jewel in Castle Gate’s crown, lit up like a stage-set by night, tumbling out onto the pavement in full harvest-festival mode by day.

'We always reckoned we had a good shop in us,' Des announces, the 'we' in question being himself and partner Debra, who's to be found most days behind the till in Pomona, and has the equally important [and not always enviable, I guess] role of hauling Des back when his enthusiasm runs ahead of him.

Des certainly doesn't come across as a man who lets the grass grow under his feet.  I'm sitting opposite him in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, and his drink's already downed whilst mine still sits in the cup.  He describes himself as gung-ho and instinctive, and in his cloth cap, tweed jacket and shopkeeper's apron, that's exactly how he looks - in a greengrocery sort of way.

An unnamed source once described Des to me as like an onion – ‘you just keep peeling back the layers’.  So here I am, attempting to do that. What brought him and Debra into fruit and veg, I ask.  And more specifically, what brought them here to Castle Gates? Des puts it all down to an appreciation of good food, both as consumers and members of the eating public. ‘I’ve always loved to grow,’ he says.  ‘I loved cooking and I loved gardening.’

 In 2001, when he and Debra moved up from London, along with partner Mike Hamilton they started Boxfresh, the organic boxed vegetable company that they turned into a multi-million pound business. At its height, Boxfresh supplied customers all the way from Bristol to Manchester. It was a massive success.  At the same time, Des and Debra bought an apple farm in Herefordshire and during Pomono’s first year, they sold their own apples in the shop, in the farm’s original 1950s wooden boxes. 

It must have been a wrench, I say, to give up Boxfresh. ‘It grew too fast,’ Des replies. ‘I ended up spending all my times in meetings.  It became an office job, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I’d lost the hands-on say about quality.  I’d lost the direct contact.’ 

A deal was struck to sell Boxfresh, though sadly partner Mike Hamilton never lived to see it through.  He died on May 11th 2011, around the time Des and Debra took the keys to Pomona.  At around the same time, they sold the farm, enabling them to concentrate their efforts on the good shop they’d always reckoned they had in them.  ‘We should have done it before,’ Des says – and that’s despite the 2.30am starts to his day. 

They first heard about the shop in early 2011. ‘The Communards’ as Des calls the Crabapple Community who own the building, were looking for a new tenant after the closure of the health food shop, Wild Thyme.  Des and Debra only took one look for the potential to be obvious.  ‘Did you know the shop is listed?’ Des asks me. ‘You can see why, too. We looked at its lovely mirrored wall and two bay windows and saw immediately how our shop could be. We learned a lot from the Boxfresh years. And I’ve always had a bit of an eye.’ 

On the subject of Des’s eye, I ask what he’s looking for when he’s rifling around Birmingham at four in the morning, poking at parsnips and rummaging through the radishes. He’s looking for quality, he says.  He’s looking for taste, and products that might be interesting and a bit different  – salsify, for example, or fresh figs in season.  And, as much as anything, he’s looking for price.

Pomona’s not some high-class wrap-your-potatoes-in-gold-foil type of shop.  That’s something Des really wants people to know. It’s a regular greengrocer’s, he says, and its prices must reflect it.  In addition, when he’s at market he’s buying for a variety of Shrewsbury hotels, pubs and restaurants and he needs to bring home a good deal for everyone. 

And organic, I ask, thinking back to Boxfresh.  Des shakes his head.  Not unless specifically stated, he says. There’s an assumption otherwise because of the history of the shop, and Des and Debra’s history too, but Pomona’s prices are high street, not high end. To attract the sort of customers it wants, the shop can’t afford to be 100% organic. 

I ask what happens when Des isn’t working – in the few short hours, that is, between closing the shop and the alarm at half past two. Des and Debra have three daughters.  They live quiet lives.  They’re not the life-and-soul-of-the-party types.  That’s what Des says, but I’m not letting him get away with that. This is a small town. I know for a fact that he plays in a band.

‘Ah, that,’ Des says.  He sings as well as playing mandolin and bass.  Irish music.  The band is called Star of the Sea. They play around town – the Wheatsheaf and the Anchor are two pubs Des mentions - and regularly at the Irish Centre in Birmingham.  In fact they’ll be there this coming St Patrick’s Day and there’s a charity ‘do’ coming up as well in the Lion Hotel Ballroom, Saturday 23rd March, tickets for sale in Pomona, proceeds to Shrewsbury-based charity, Village Water. ‘This is a great town for charities,’ Des says.

We move onto the future, which isn’t hard when you’re talking to a man whose mind is plainly always running ahead.  Des talks about growing sales and bringing in new products – not just fruit and veg, but certain groceries and locally-made bags, cups and mugs.  He’s also interested in finding uses for the floors above the shop.  ‘The higher you go,’ he says, ‘the more old newspapers and other artifacts you find.  With that space up there as well, we might have the makings of a good tea shop.’

‘Anything else?’ I ask. ‘Nothing concrete,’ Des replies. ‘Lots of ideas.  Still things to do.’

It’s time to go.  On the way home I call into Pomona.  Debra confirms everything  Des has said.  I take her photo and browse around the shop. This is high street as it ought to be, not what it often is.  Behind the till is pinned a postcard of the Burne-Jones tapestry.  In the window, the William Morris poem catches my eye:

I am the ancient apple-queen.
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.

Ay, where’s the river’s hidden gold!
And where the windy grave of Troy?
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out of the heart of summer’s joy.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones -1833-1898] & John Henry Dearle [1860-1932]
Made by Morris & Co
About 1900
Tapestry-woven wool & silk on cotton warp
Victoria & Albert Museum

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Snow Special 2 - Walking the River Loop

Ever since starting My Tonight From Shrewsbury, I’ve been thinking that a river loop walk might be a nice idea, and this morning, waking to yet more snow on the skylight, the timing felt perfect.  I and my small brown fluffy dog set off for the bus station, heading for the river.  On the way we passed what in summer is the delightfully quirky Lily’s Tearoom [complete with grottos, Buddhas and fringed plastic sunshades], followed by the new Premier Inn building.

I stopped to ask a man in a hard hat when the building would be finished.  He rolled his eyes.  ‘They say next month,’ he said, ‘but I’ll believe it when I see it.  I mean, look at the place.  Where are the workers? They’re all at home.’

It was snowing quite heavily by now, so I could quite see why.  I carried on to the footbridge over the river to the cricket pitch. I was hoping to see a few snowmen, and I found a cracker on the crease. ‘Perhaps,’ I thought to myself, ‘I can hold a My Tonight From Shrewsbury snowman competition.’  With that in mind, I headed towards the Welsh Bridge, with the Quarry [town park] on the other side of it.

The town is dominated by two bridges, the Welsh one on the west of the town, the English one on the east.  Both are old, but not a half as old as the bridges they replace.  I hurried over the Welsh Bridge, head down against the snow and the town’s new sculpture, which cost more apparently than Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North.  In the Quarry, I found nothing to compare with the snowman on the cricket pitch. He had plainly won, twig-hands down. 

I crossed the Porthill foot bridge to get a view of the town from across the water.  In summer this bridge is one of the entrances to Shrewsbury’s annual Flower Show.  The river walk beyond it has one of the best views in town, with the Pengwern Boathouse presiding over a gentle curve in the river and Beck’s Field rising up to Shrewsbury School on top of the hill. 

I trudge up Beck's Field now, through fairly deep snow.  On Flower Show nights this field is packed with picnickers, drinkers and other assorted revellers, here to watch as the sky fills with light and fireworks are reflected in the river.  I remember one night, sitting on top of Beck’s Field when a whole string of Chinese lanterns appeared overhead, some in clusters, some alone, like bubbles blown by a little kid.  The fireworks were over, but as I watched those lanterns drift across the town, they seemed to say the show’s not over yet. 

Another time I sat on top of Beck’s Field to watch a total eclipse of the sun.  The whole town was spread out beneath me, tucked into the loop of the river.  Suddenly the birds fell silent as if they knew what was coming next. Then the breeze dropped.  Nothing stirred across the whole of Shrewsbury.  Then  the light went out.  I don’t know how long it was out, but it seemed to last for ages. In the semi-gloaming I could see Shrewsbury’s rooftops, spires and domes from one end to the other - and then, like the daily miracle of dawn, the light returned.

So much for Beck’s Field.  I’d reached the road by now which led to the Kingsland Toll Bridge. Snow was still falling and  I had to take off my hat and give it a brush. I headed across the bridge, remembering the time when not only motorists but pedestrians had to put their money in the box. On the other side I found myself back in town, but I wasn’t ready for shops and traffic yet, so I doubled back on myself and re-entered the Quarry just above the bandstand, which looked amazingly elegant in the snow.  I plodded my way towards it and arrived just as the Shrewsbury School bell rang out the hour, followed by the deeper, more sonorious tone of St Chad’s bell.  They could have been a couple of songbirds caught in some weird mating ritual, serenading each other in the snow.

I took a couple of photos and hurried away.  If the clocks were tolling the hour, then my walk was taking too long.  Under Kingsland Bridge I headed, my sights set for home. This stretch of the riverbank is a great dog-walking promenade. Ahead of me I could see an enormous black Alsatian, which in the snow looked like a wolf. It’s amazing how many people I only recognize when I come across their dogs.

Just past the Girls’ High School, I made the choice to leave the river and walk up to the town walls. This lengthened the route, but I reasoned the town walls shouldn’t be missed, especially in the snow.  Though most of the pavements in town had been salted, I found plenty of snow on the high pavement that runs along the inside of the wall. I followed it passed the Catholic Cathedral, then leant over the wall for a glimpse of the allotments at its foot.

In all the time I’ve lived in Shrewsbury, I’ve never known who works those allotments, or how one goes about getting a plot.  Perhaps that was something I could investigate for My Tonight From Shrewsbury, I thought as I headed for the English Bridge. But not today. 

At the English Bridge I picked my way down a set of winding stone steps to find myself on the river bank again.  On the far shore I could see the building site that the old Gay Meadow, home to Shrewsbury’s football club, had become. A couple of islands sat in the middle of the river, formed of silt, where swans nest in the spring.  Someone once told me that the River Severn’s the third siltiest river in the world.  At the English Bridge, there’s a huge bank of silt that normally looks muddy, weed-infested and slightly threatening, as if it might harbour men of ill-repute.  Today, however, the snow had made it look pretty and welcoming. I picked my way across it to the river. I even went under the arches of the bridge, where the graffiti is raw and cans are strewn about, and took a few photographs there. 

But my dog wouldn’t come with me.  Perhaps he had more sense, or perhaps he’d simply had enough. Either way, he set off for home, and I hurried after him, both of us weary and bedraggled - hard to say who was the worse. At a dog’s pace, on a good day, it only takes a couple of minutes from the English Bridge to Traitor’s Gate.  Here I stopped for one more photo – the terraced garden of the Council House, where the Marches Council met for centuries, and Prince Rupert was encamped the night that Traitor’s Gate got it’s name. 

My dog and I trudged up St Mary’s Water Lane and hit Castle Street at the top. Cars. Bright Lights. Busy pavements. Big shop windows. Here H & M. There M & S.  We headed for home. It didn’t take long.  Back to where we'd started, having walked the perfect circle of the river loop. I fed the dog - whose name is Biffo in case you’re wondering - saw him safely into his bed by the radiator, then made my way down to the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse where I’ve been ever since, laptop on the table, writing this up.  It’s been a good morning so far.  I have high hopes for the rest of the day.   

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Welcome to our first Snow Special, and thank you to Sammy Cahn, lyricist, and composer Jules Styne for sitting down in Hollywood, on one of the hottest days in the summer of 1945, and writing a song to remind us that the last word on the subject of snow doesn’t have to be ‘White Christmas’.

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Well, I can tell you that here tonight in Shrewsbury the fire is indeed delightful  [I’m sitting beside it now with my computer on my lap] and the weather outside is frightful. I know this for a fact because earlier today I managed to lock myself out of my house, with shoes that leaked and without a phone.  Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow was not what I could be heard muttering to myself as I trudged the streets.  In fact the sentiment was more like the graffiti below - which I can assure you wasn’t mine. 

Back indoors, my spate out in the cold set me thinking back to the Great Frost of 1739. It arrived on Christmas Day and remained throughout January and February. The River Severn froze hard enough for stalls to be set up on it selling food and drink, and carriage trips went up and down the ice with paying passengers.  Even a printing-press was set up on the river to record events, and one of its prints can be seen framed and in the collection of Shrewsbury Museum today.

One of the highlights [pun alert] of the frost was the death-defying attempt by famous daredevil Robert Cadman to tightrope walk across the frozen Severn uphill into the centre of Shrewsbury.  The event happened on February 2nd, 1739. The river was packed with people come to watch, and so was the area around St Mary’s Church, where Robert Cadman’s wife was shaking the collecting tin. The plan was for her husband to tightrope walk approximately two hundred and fifty metres from an anchor in the Gay Meadow [later to become home of Shrewsbury Town Football Club] to the sixty-eight metre high church spire. 

So confident was Robert Cadman of achieving this objective that he stopped half way up the wire to fire off pistols and perform a variety of tricks.  He made it safely to St Mary’s Church spire, but then requested that the rope be slackened in readiness for his grand finale.  And therein lay his downfall [sorry, another pun alert]. 

Robert Cadman’s assistant heard him wrong. Instead of slackening the rope along which his brave master, attached to a wooden breastplate with a central groove, intended to hurtle to the ground in an appearance of flight, he tightened it. And that fatal error meant that Robert Cadman hurtled to his death.

Many people died in the Great Frost of 1739, but none like Robert Cadman.  ‘Good night, you madman, poor Bob Cadman,’ someone scrawled on the ground where his body fell.  And that spot is still commemorated. To this day you’ll find a plaque there in his name.  Here’s what it says:

‘Let this small Monument record the name
of Cadman, and to future time proclaim
How by'n attempt to fly from this high spire
across the Sabine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell,
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Harried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night.’

Well, if that frozen little tale of woe isn’t enough to put you off snow and  ice, here’s more of Shrewsbury in the snow.  'Bright White Blanket' - a beautiful little film about Shrewsbury in the snow by R & A Collaborations, dedicated to the memory of Danny Beath.  

Thursday, 17 January 2013

OPEN STUDIO: The Sunny Side of the Street - with Linda Edwards

I first came across Linda Edwards strolling between the stalls in Shrewsbury Market.  She was a nice, smiley lady with blondish, quirkily-cut hair, wearing bright colours and wheeling around a basket on wheels.  I’d always wanted a basket on wheels, so I went up and asked where she’d bought it.  I can’t remember what she said, but not long afterwards Linda set up the Shropshire Illustrators’ and Children’s Authors’ Café [SICA] and since then we’ve been friends.
I tell you this because I’m sitting in Linda’s kitchen, beneath an array of woven baskets that she brought back from Kenya after having lived there. Tea is served in her mugs, and when I say ‘her’ I mean it quite literally. From design stage to manufacture, these beautiful mugs decorated with Shrewsbury’s finest facades have ‘Linda Edwards – Designed in Shrewsbury’ stamped on the bottom of them.  ‘Life can be so sweet I read on the inner rim of my mug, and around the outside I find ‘on the sunny side of the street – in Shrewsbury’.
There’s an abundance of sunny side to be found in Linda’s work.  Early in her career, she noticed the way that people were drawn towards the positive.  They wanted sunny and uplifting - and Linda could do sunny and uplifting. 
The Usborne Children’s Bible is a case in point. That’s the complete Usborne Bible we’re talking about here – not just some picture book with selected stories, but the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, with full-colour illustrations on every page. Quite a break for a first-time illustrator of children’s books, but Usborne’s view was that commissioning any artist was a risk, so they might as well take risks on artists they liked.
When it first came out, the Usborne Bible garnered praise in The Daily Telegraph from non-less than Carnegie Medal winner, Gillian Cross. When someone said that Linda could make anything smile, even a spider, I knew just what they meant.  In the Usborne Bible even the camels are smiling.  
So how did Linda get started as an illustrator and commercial artist?  And just as importantly for the readers of this blogsite, how did she discover Shrewsbury? I ask the question and it turns out that the two things happened more or less together. Linda studied Geography at Cambridge University, but had always drawn and painted in her spare time.  ‘I used to sell on the railings in the Kings Road, Chelsea - watercolours and things like that,’ Linda says.  She shows me an example of the sort of thing she used to paint. ‘They always sold. Even then, I seemed to have a feel for what appealed.’

In 1993, a relative newcomer to Shrewsbury, having come here for her husband’s work, Linda found herself alone with two young children to support.  She joined forces with Ludlow-based card publishers, Clare Maddicott, and designed and built them trade stands as well as illustrating cards. It was one of her Clare Maddicott cards that was noticed by Usborne Books, and led to her commission to illustrate their Children’s Bible.

‘It all took off from there,’ Linda says, ‘it all’ referring to nineteen books for Usborne, cards, stationery and gift-wrapping for Clare Maddicott, kitchen textiles, ceramics, enamelware and numerous of Linda’s own illustrations and distinctive merchandising, all in the vibrant and uplifting style she’s made her own. 

Whilst we’re talking, Linda leads me round her house and down the garden to her summerhouse, which I’ve only ever glimpsed over her garden wall. This summerhouse is a tiny Georgian house in miniature.  We take a glance inside and a chaise sprawls against a crumbling wall, resplendent beneath an empty gilt frame. Cushions and rugs are scattered about.  A decorated table, painted by Linda, sports dripping candles, a sprinkling of dust and a few cobwebs Over it all hangs a rusty candelabra. In one corner stands an old record-player. Tiny red apples are stacked in trays.

This summerhouse is even older than the house, apparently. Set in a garden  that overlooks the town park [called the Quarry] and its walkers, cyclists, children, mums, prams and even rowers, rowing merrily down the Severn stream, it calls to mind another of Linda’s merchandised slogans ‘Life is But a Dream’.  And this garden is a dream, no doubt about that - a romantic, dreamy corner of Shrewsbury. It’s not hard to see where Linda finds her inspiration. 

In the centre of the garden is an enormous Himalayan birch with snow-white branches and trunk, and a few tenuous leaves still clinging on from autumn. Linda planted this tree when she first came to Shrewsbury.  It was just a sapling then, but now it’s put down roots and so has she.  In fact, the Tree of Life is the perfect leitmotif for her working life. It crops up again and again.  

We’re up in the studio now, and trees of life are on show everywhere I look - in packs of cards, on tea cloths and framed in endless variations on the wall.  I seem to remember there was even a white tree of life on show as I came in through the front door.

Linda apologises for everything being so tidy. Recently she's been clearing up, but she wouldn't like me to think her studio is normally like this.  It's a lovely studio, full of light, which would have come in useful, Linda says, back in the days when it was used as an operating theatre. I express surprise.  Linda explains that this house and the ones on either side used to be a nursing home.  It's hard to imagine old folk, and sick ones too, living in a house that now feels so vital and alive. But lots of children were born here, which is a happy thought.

I browse amongst Linda’s merchandizing – bags, mugs and framed prints, shelves of books and stands of greetings cards.  What does the future hold, I wonder for Linda Edwards?  I pick up one of her mugs. Behind it I see coasters, bags and prints, all bearing Linda’s drawings of Shrewsbury’s finest facades.  So successful has this range been, Linda tells me, that she and her partner, Nigel, are planning to do something similar in other towns, including several London Boroughs. I browse through digital collages which Linda worked on a while back in collaboration with Shrewsbury Museum. I don't linger, however, because time's moving on and I haven't made it yet down to the Rusty Bike Gallery in Linda's basement to see some of her paintings. 

These are packed with colour, every bit as alive and vibrant as Linda’s commercial work.  Inspired by poetry, especially ancient Chinese poetry, they’re painted in oil and acrylic, with elements of collage and more than a hint of gold.  Here I notice the Tree of Life again, only this time enclosed, the garden in the city, the artist’s studio in the heart of town.  How appropriate, I think.  

My tour is nearly over – or so I imagine.  Back in the hall, beneath a fine Jane Ray painting, I notice a series of objects in a cabinet.  What are these? Elephants? How could I have failed before to notice a cabinet full of elephants? Linda explains that these lovely little porcelain collectables are based on her card designs. She brings out one of the cards to show me.  It’s of a smiley elephant. In Bavaria, where the company who made these collectables was based, Linda was known fondly as the ‘elephant lady’.  

And in Africa - thanks to the contents of the next cabinet, which is lined with rows of jewel-like, brightly enameled miniature teapots - schools have been built.

I am astonished.  Everything in Linda’s house has a story, and this is one I definitely want to hear.  Linda lifts out a little teapot, selecting one decorated with the design that first caught Usborne’s eye. Together she and Clare Maddicott donated Linda’s card designs to a charity called Trade Plus Aid, which funds development projects in Africa, Asia and South America.  The charity’s aim is to alleviate poverty and assist disadvantaged communities to become self-sufficient.  And enough of Linda’s enamelled teapots were sold to build two whole schools.   

From Africa back to Shrewsbury.  I ask before I leave what Shrewsbury means to Linda, why she’s stayed, and what makes it stand out from anywhere else.  Cambridge was a beautiful city, she says, but more competitive. People in Shrewsbury come across as far more willing to share. Take the Shropshire Illustrators’ and Children’s Authors’ Café – people come to it to share their work, pool their knowledge, offer professional advice. There’s no point-scoring. The atmosphere is friendly and laid back
 And people come a long way too.   One of the interesting things about Shrewsbury is that an hour from it in any direction will take you to such divergent places as Stafford, Manchester, Birmingham and Mid-Wales.  
‘After city life, Shrewsbury can appear a bit sleepy,’ Linda says,  ‘but it’s not when you get to know it.  And it’s especially not now. The town is absolutely buzzing with life.  It’s full of new people, exciting prospects, shops opening, individuals and groups coming up with ideas, trying things out, giving things a go.’
Linda describes herself as rooting for Shrewsbury.  She doesn’t just say it either.  Her work backs up her words. ‘Life can be so sweet on the sunny side of the street – in Shrewsbury’ proclaim her mugs and bags.  And it might be night time in the rest of Shrewsbury, but the sun's still shining on Linda Edwards’ street.