Thursday, 28 February 2013

Stop Press on Princess House

Not a good Stop Press, I'm afraid, if you care about our lovely little Square - which is soon to become smaller. The word's just out.  The Secretary of State has spoken.  The stopping-up of the pavement under Princess House has been agreed.  Brace yourselves for a wall of glass and a lot less Square between Princess House and the Old Market Hall. Oh, and say goodbye to  cafe culture.  A major modern building in the heart of our old town is about to become even more in your face.

When I find out more, I'll let you know.  The Shropshire Star will be full of it, I'm sure, and BBC Radio Shropshire.  But having just heard, I thought that those of you who've followed this story would want to know.

How this stopping-up was ever agreed in the first place by Shropshire Council is something else we might all want to know.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Coffee And Cardinals [With A Bit Of Batman Thrown In]

Suddenly, in the midst of what looks like a very busy week, I find myself with free time.  What better, I think, than go out for a coffee. In fact, while I’m about it, why not go out for several coffees, and see what the town’s baristas have to say for themselves?  

I head down Pride Hill and across the Square to Starbucks. Usually it’s packed, but today I’m pleased to see there are a few empty seats. The girl on the till takes my name, and the girl on the coffee machine shouts it out when my black Americano is ready. I sit next to the window opposite a mother with a toddler and a colouring book. Leonard Cohen's heading down to the river with Suzanne - not that most of the people around me will have noticed, too plugged into their earphones to notice anything else. 

I love the way that Starbucks can be sculpted to the needs of its customers.  Like now, a huge island Sixth Formers has formed amid the dull grey sea of the rest of us by the pulling together of tables and chairs. There are laptops all over the tables, and girls and boys sitting two-deep on the chairs, jangling their earrings, talking into their phones, tossing back their hair.  

I love the big windows here too, where I can sit looking out on High Street or the Square, watching the world going by without it watching me back. It’s amazing how often I can sit here and see people I know going past without them seeing me. From outside, you'd almost think these windows were a brick wall.

A woman with a small brown dog on a too-long lead goes by, creating havoc amongst skate-boarders and pedestrians alike.  Then a lady with a walking-stick goes by, her expression tired, her long tweed coat almost touching the floor. I wonder if she knows how elegant she looks.  In the middle of the square, trestle tables are being packed up. When Batman comes into the Square nobody even looks up. But then not even I’m surprised, having come across him earlier on Pride Hill, where I made a donation to charity in exchange for a cake or being photographed in his arms. [And if you think you know which one I chose, then you’re wrong - because I forgot to claim either, would you believe].  

A newspaper – the i – has been left on the seat next to me, so I pick it up. On the front page is a big red cardinal looking grim, a lordly Liberal Democrat peering through his specs, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer looking Defiant Over Cuts Despite Downgrade.  It’s Tuesday 16th February and that’s today’s news.

After Starbucks, I head along the High Street to Eat Up where Radio Something-or-Other is playing, complete with advertising breaks. I order my second black Americano of the day. It’s wonderful [unlike the Starbucks version, of which the best I can say is that it was hot, tasted like coffee and was drinkable] just the way I like it, strong and with a thin layer of froth on top, and there are no stupid tear-open sugar sachets, but proper cubes in Tate & Lyle black treacle tins [not that I take sugar in my coffee, but it’s a nice touch].  

I can’t tell you what the customers are like because there are only two of them and they have their back to me.  I’ve been in here before when the place has been full. This time, however, all the tables are wiped and empty and there’s nothing to look at but the view through the windows - or the Daily Mail.

I take it off the rack and open it up.  Here, instead of being a sinister front-page figure garbed in red, Cardinal Keith O’Brien is a charasmatic figure whose greatest failing is his love of publicity.  Here too I discover that the BBC is going easy on the Lib Dems. I also find a great description - courtesy of Quentin Letts - of George Osborne turning up in the House of Commons ‘like one of the Monty Python  people playing a horseless knight.’ And, further on in the Mail, I read that Britian has lost its Triple A credit rating because the Government hasn’t cut back deeply enough.

After reading this, it feels like time to move on. It’s ten to three and still no one has come in.  You get a day like this once in every few weeks, says the man at the till.

He must be right because down at McDonalds it’s quiet as well.  I buy a burger, fries and coffee, and have change from three pounds. They’ve never heard of an Americano so I talk them through it and take the results downstairs.  

A couple of people are leaving as I arrive but, apart from that, the entire hundred-seater dining area is empty, its lowest level cordoned off, a worker in an apron putting chairs on tables and sweeping the floor.  Behind him rises the great sweep of Shrewsbury’s medieval town wall.  This is not what you expect to find in your local McDonalds. There’s even a woven tapestry hanging on the wall, thought the suit of armour that used to be down here has gone and the children’s turret is looking slightly shabby.    

Even tucked away in McDonalds, it’s great to know that our town wall is   on show. These stones aren't polystyrene. They're real. They're part of Shrewsbury's history. We're not in Disneyworld. And yet I could have walked past all this and never known it was here - especially nowadays when, painted green instead of red, McDonalds on Pride Hill is easier than it used to be to miss.   

What shall I read this time? Looking around, I find a discarded Times. Here the big question is Daniel Day-Lewis.  Is he the best actor ever? I shake out the pages for the Oscars Special which is meant to be inside with all ‘the parties, the frocks and the gossip’, but it’s not there so I’m stuck with Catholic cardinals instead, with Lord Rennard of the Lib Dems and a statement from George Osborn that the country’s current triple A downgrade ‘shows how I was right all along’ [how can this be?].  

The coffee in my polystyrene cup is terrible – an insult to black Americanos.  I fail to taste half of it and leave the rest.  Out on Pride Hill, a man is playing a guitar.  It’s an ordinary day, one of those occasions that’s not cold enough to complain about but not mild enough to enjoy. There’s nothing ordinary, however, about this music. I ask what it is.  Without missing a beat, the guitarist tells me it’s a fandango.

Finally I reach home.  Shrewsbury’s main streets have plenty more coffee establishments, and it would have been nice to visit more of them, but I’m caffeined-out and feeling slightly sick. If you want it cheap [but in medieval surroundings] go to McDonalds.  If you want to watch the youth of Shrewsbury catching up on their coursework and/or falling in love, go to Starbucks.  If you want a really good cup of coffee, go to Eat Up [but you may well have to put up with commercial radio].  And if you’d like to listen to the fandango, HERE’S the link:

Sunday, 24 February 2013

So, What's a Unitarian Church? My Tonight From Shrewsbury finds out...

The Unitarian Church’s defining symbol is the Flaming Chalice. According to their literature the flame symbolizes truth and the chalice generosity, but according to its designer, Hans Deutsch, no one meaning or interpretation is official.

Seeing as it was Sunday, I’d decided to go to church, and seeing as the Unitarian Church on High Street was amongst the places I’d had in mind when, at the beginning of this blog, I’d said I wanted to get ‘behind closed doors and find out what went on’ – off to the Unitarian Church I headed.  

The doors were open for half past ten. There were three sets of them. I entered through a small porch, followed by two sets of wooden doors with glazed panels. Between these sets of doors was a panelled lobby where I paused for a second, staring at the frosted glass in front of me, wondering what I’d find. Then I pushed open one of the doors and entered a fairly standard-looking sort of church - pews, a pulpit, a dais, a table with flowers on it, a lectern and choir stalls.

I don’t know what I’d expected, but it hadn’t been as traditional as this, and definitely not as comfortable.  These were dissenters, I knew, so maybe I’d imagined something a little more austere.  Bare walls, an aversion to heating, pews designed to be uncomfortable – that sort of thing.

Even on first walking through the door, however, it was obvious this was a loved and well-used church. Its oak-panelling was as polished and shiny as chestnuts before they’ve lost their lustre and its brasses shone like gold, as did its organ pipes.  Its windows were full of light, its walls were white and despite a massive royal coat-of-arms on one of them - a royal seal of approval harking back to its dissenting past - it had the air of a church that to its congregation was some sort of home.

I chose a back pew.  All my life I’ve been a back seat girl.  Come in with worship, announced the Minister from behind the lectern, looking round at us all. Come in and find peace and rest, music for your souls.

The service had begun.  It was a quiet, low-key start. The Minister spoke about times in our lives when the lights had gone out, calling on us to think with gratitude of those who’d helped us through.  A short prayer was said to the Spirit of Life and Love, then we were into the first hymn. ‘Come Together in Love,’ we sang with the organ keeping us in time.

After this, the Minister told a story about two old friends, Old Joe and Old Jim, and their falling out over a calf.  Shades of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On the Black Hill’ I found myself thinking. The story concluded with the phrase ‘I have more bridges to build’.  Then there was a prayer about walls being built, and bridges coming down and learning not to fear each other.  Then we were into a poem, beginning with the words ‘What is a friend?’

Friendship, unmistakably was the theme of this service.  We sang another hymn. We prayed again. Instead of closing my eyes this time I tried to write it down:

Spirit of life and love, to want to love and to be human is to be aware of our separation, often feeling alone, not knowing what to do or say.  We want to live in harmony with the world around us. We confess our separation as an act of humility…’

That was as far as I got.  Something was said after that about feeling the presence of God, and something else about grace – it’s in grace we discover God, which I have to admit I didn’t quite grasp.  Then there was a hymn about living together in truth and peace, followed by a prayer about being perfect channels of love, followed by a silent pause for thinking about those who loved us.

I like pauses.  They give me time to recognize what I’m thinking when all too often my thoughts are just swashing about.  This was a proper pause too, a good, decent-sized one followed by a prayer for old wounds to be healed, followed by another pause in the form of a musical interlude performed on the organ. 

The air rushed through its pipes. On any other occasion I might have sat back and closed my eyes, but this was my chance to take in what I’d missed so far - the parquet floor, the lovely mosaic work on the dais, the hanging lamps, the lilies, the stone plaques with names engraved on them, the empty choir stalls, the stained glass flowers decorating all the main windows, the frieze of Wedgwood blue and white running round the top of the walls…

The Darwin family attended this church. Charles Darwin would have sat on these pews until the age of eight, which is when his mother died.  Darwin events still take place in this church to this day.  Then there’s the great poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who preached from this pulpit as a trainee minister.

This church once housed one of the oldest Unitarian congregations in the country. It’s built on the site of Shrewsbury’s first dissenting [Presbytarian] church, which opened its doors in 1691, just two years after it became lawful for dissenters to have a dedicated meeting place. 

By a century or so later, in common with several other dissenting congregations, the one here in Shrewsbury had become recognizably Unitarian - a system of belief defined by the denomination as Judeo-Christian, but with no creed; rejecting some of the dogma of the established church, including the deity of Jesus Christ and the orthodoxy of the Trinity; stressing the importance of liberty of conscience; each individual free to form their own beliefs.

The organ piece finished. We sang another hymn and then the Minister gave her main address.  It began with Robert Scott and the tragic heroism of his expedition to the South Pole, including the self-sacrifice of Titus Oates.  Then it moved on to what if felt like to be all alone. Then it talked about friends being like angels in our lives and finally it ended with recognizing something of God in everyone.  Each friend represents a world in us. May we all try to be such friends, one to another, the Minister finished off.

After the service, which ended with another hymn, a collection plate and a prayer to Our Source who Rises and Shines Forth in All Things, there was another short organ piece, through which the congregation sat attentively – as well they should, because it was a fine organ well played.  Then it was time for tea and biscuits at the back, and a chance for me to ask a few questions.

Not only did I want to know what went on behind these closed doors on the High Street.  I also wanted to know what it meant to be a Unitarian, and why people attended Unitarian churches rather than any others.  Given the lack of dogma, for example, why weren’t Unitarians and Quakers worshipping together?   

Someone talked to me about the freedom to find our own path, to explore and take wisdom from any source.  This definitely sounded Quakerish to me. In his Guardian blog a few days ago [] Andrew Brown wrote, 'I lack the seriousness to make a real Quaker even without the theological commitments. But I do believe we ought to love our neighbours, even when they are miserable, absurd or embarrassing.' This didn't sound too far away from the Unitarians to me.   

 Why all these different dissenting groups, I asked, when they sounded so similar. The Quakers were less formal in their worship, it was explained. They’d sit around in an attitude of meditation, waiting for the Spirit to move them before doing or saying anything. The Unitarians on the other hand – as I had witnessed myself this morning – had a more formal and traditional take on worship, formed around what they described as ‘the hymn-prayer sandwich’.

I got into conversation with somebody who described herself as being at the nature-worshipping end of the Unitarian spectrum.  Was she a Christian, I asked. She was a Unitarian, she said.  She’d been brought up in the Unitarian Church but, no, she wasn’t a Christian. Some Unitarians were, she said, and others weren’t. But the ones who were Christians would call themselves Unitarians first.

It was plain that in this church all views were welcomed.  I wondered if this didn’t lead to arguments sometimes. Being a free-thinker, after all, wasn’t always the same as being tolerant. But Winnie Gordon, trainee-minister here in Shrewsbury, told me that this was the friendliest Unitarian congregation she’d yet come across. People here listened to each other’s views and respected them. And they were welcoming too.  Not everybody in the congregation had grown up in Unitarianism.  Alison Patrick, for example, Tourism Officer at Shropshire Council, had become a Unitarian through a chance link with work, and others had just walked through the doors and found themselves at home.

Certainly I was made welcome.  Outside afterwards I found the High Street buzzing. Starbucks was full, and so was Costa’s. People were going in and out of Waterstones or sitting in the Square enjoying a sudden and unexpected burst of spring. I closed the church door behind me and headed home up Grope Lane. I was glad to know at last what went on inside.

Friday, 22 February 2013

OPEN STUDIO: Helen Foot - The Weaver's Tale

Helen Foot’s studio is behind Philpott’s Sandwich shop on Butcher Row.  I was there last week to interview her for this month’s My Tonight From Shrewsbury Open Studio.  I rang the bell, couldn’t hear if it had worked so pushed on the door and climbed steep stairs. At the top I found myself in a large, well-lit studio with photography equipment at one end [Helen shares a studio with her brother,  photographer Richard Foot] and several massive, computer-operated foot floor looms at the other.

A while back, Helen offered to sell me one of those loom  [I was interested because I weave myself], but reluctantly I’d had to say no.  Weaving is an expensive business.  Now the loom was off to a new home, and Helen was waiting for a bigger, 24-shaft loom to be shipped out to her from the US where it was being built.  

This loom sounded like a real big beast. ‘I never would have been able to afford it without help from Shropshire Council’s Business Enterprise Grant,’ Helen said. ‘It’s great to know that what I’m doing here has their support.’ 

And so she should have their support. The county’s fortunate to have a weaver of Helen’s calibre. She’s the real deal - a hands-on designer/weaver, Royal College of Art graduate, making commercially marketable cloth in a myriad of materials from wool and cotton to fine silks, and doing so right here in the heart of Shrewsbury, tucked away behind Pride Hill. Her original designed and hand-made scarves are beautiful, and she’s currently working with Kate Millbank, a fashion graduate of Central St Martin's, London [with a MSc in Sustainable Design] on their first batch of Shropshire tweed.  

Not only that, but Helen is a home grown talent - one of that generation of young people who left Shrewsbury for university or art college, then spent years plying their skills in big cities like London, only to come back recently, breathing new young life into the town. She attended Meole Brace School, where  GCSE Art enabled her to explore her interest in textiles, including embroidery, batik, printing and stitch. At Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology she developed that interest and later, at Winchester School of Art, she added knitting, printing and weaving to her skills. 

It was exciting and challenging, Helen said, learning about structures, discovering the properties of yarns, trying out endless new techniques.  Exciting too being put forward for national competititons, including Texprint, and graduating top of her class.  All that awaited  Helen at the end of her degree, however, was what she describes as ‘a crappy shop job’. It was down to earth with a bang. 

Not for long, however - though turning things round called for a great deal of perseverance and hard graft. During Helen’s time at college, she’d been lucky enough to intern with Margo Selby,  and after graduation had secured a placement with the Wallace Sewell Studio, which produces innovative textiles for fashion and furnishing exploiting industrial techniques. Both these placements had been great places to learn, and to be inspired.  Helen also secured freelance weaving work for Salt, an interior textiles company based in London and asked for another placement with Wallace Sewell, which she secured, and later, when the position of Studio Manager came up, she got that too.

Helen worked at Wallace Sewell for one year, but then was encouraged by Emma Sewell to take her portfolio to the Royal College of Art, where Emma was a tutor, and apply for a place.  ‘I had nothing to lose,’ Helen said. ‘If I got it, that would be amazing.  If I didn’t, I still had a brilliant job that I loved.’

And Helen did get it - a two years’ Masters degree at the top art college in the country, solely dedicated to post-graduate study, with alumni including Tracey Emin, David Hockney and James Dyson.  There were six weavers in her year, three of whom were international students, so it was a great privilege to be accepted. The first year was spent on what she called ‘outside projects’, working in conjunction with different companies. This was a testing experience, she said, one that took most students out of their comfort zone.  The second year, however, was for students to focus on what they wanted to achieve for themselves, and on the direction they saw themselves taking in their creative lives.

‘It was tough,’ Helen said. ‘This was the Royal College of Arts, and there was always going to be a lot of pressure.  The place was full of strong characters, big ambitions and amazing talent.'  

Helen started out intending to specialize in Jacquard weaving [see this great little video] but ended up doing a lot of hand weaving. The pressure was on all the time, and so was the competition. She narrowly missed a job with the fashion designer, Paul Smith, having already freelanced for his company, but after a final mammoth seven-days-a-week slog, she achieved her Masters degree, and then it was home to mum and dad and Shrewsbury – and what next?

One thing Helen wanted was to work in a mill and get industrial experience.  So when she came across an organic weaving mill on Mull she requested, and secured, a placement.  Creating a business of her own had been a long-term goal, and her Scottish adventure gave her time to reflect on this ambition. She returned from Mull feeling braver and spurred on to give business a go. 

‘What I’ve been working towards ever since,’ Helen said, ‘is a fully-functioning weaving studio with a range of textiles that would be instantly recognisable within the design world.  I want to get into Liberty’s. I want to be known for my designs.’  Some of these designs Helen imagined weaving herself, but other - blankets, for example - she envisaged outsourcing to mills. The Shropshire tweeds she’s been working on with Kate Millbank would be made in a mill rather than by hand.  It was important that weaving time didn’t eat into design time.

Helen talked about having students and graduates in her studio, coming in on college placements. So far about a dozen had worked for her, but the first this year was due to arrive in the next few days and Helen had been tidying up.  'I gained so much valuable knowledge from the placements I did as a student,' Helen said. 'I hope to provide a similarly inspiring experience for the next generation of graduates.' 

This latest student, who was studying Textiles at Birmingham University, would be a competent weaver capable of helping with  warping [a massive undertaking involving not just getting yarn warped, tied and wound onto the loom, but threaded through as many as sixty heddles to the inch - which for a metre wide piece of cloth, or wider, is a lot of threads] as well as doing admin and generally helping keep the business ticking over.  ‘Nothing too challenging!’ Helen said. 

Helen moved into her studio in March 2011. Now everything looked very well established. ‘I love it here,’ she said.  ‘I love this life. Every day is different. There’s no such thing as run-of-the-mill in a business like mine.’ 

What has Helen been doing since March 2011?  First and foremost, she said, she’d been getting herself known across the country, showing at major national craft fairs, developing relationships with stockists and galleries and developing her profile with help from the Craft Council who selected her for their Hothouse scheme for emerging makers in 2011.  She'd also done some freelance work for Alexander McQueen and she was currently  looking to attract new buyers.  ‘What people want to see,’ she said, ‘is value in the product.’  The process of designing a scarf and weaving it was a slow one, she pointed out. Even designing the new Shropshire tweed, testing it on the loom and then arranging for it to be woven at the mill, was a slow and laborious task.  But a tweed jacket was for life. ‘That’s the value in the product,’ Helen said. 

I wanted to know more about these Shropshire tweeds. Helen and Kate have formed a collaborative partnership to produce them.  It’s called Millbank & Foot.  They’ve been working with a variety of yarns, drawing on the colours of Shropshire’s landscapes and its towns, creating their own 'take' on classic tweed, with herringbones, checks and houndstooth designs revamped in striking colours and utilising Helen's technical skills with the loom.

We went over to one of Helen’s looms and looked at it set up with a range of sample colours.  The process of sampling and testing would carry on until the end of March, Helen said, then she and Kate would decide which colours and blends to go for and they’d make all those difficult decisions about how much tweed to initially produce, which mill to use, how and where to sell their bolts of cloth, and how much all of it would cost. 

Helen said it was important to her to source locally as much as possible, and work ethically. Welsh, Yorkshire and Lancashire mills were high on her 'to contact list' for weaving larger products like blankets.  Her tweed yarn used British Shetland wool, but some  yarns in her collections, she admitted, came from spinners in Italy. 'I'd love it all to be British,' Helen said. 'In fact I'd love it all to come from Shropshire, but that just isn't possible to do one hundred percent of the time. If anyone rears rare breeds of sheep in the county, let me know!'

What about the wider world, I wanted to know. I knew that Helen had been successful in getting her fledgling business noticed on the national scale.  What had that been about?  Helen explained that film makers R & A Collaborations  had shot a video of her weaving in her studio, which had been selected for the Power of Making exhibition curated by Daniel Charny, in association with the Craft Council, for a major Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition highlighting the importance and skill of crafts in this country.  It was the V & A’s highest-attended exhibition in recent years. ‘Each time there was a long queue to get in and the gallery was buzzing.’

I said what a fantastic achievement this was for a small Shrewsbury studio in its first year.  ‘It was a double celebration for Shrewsbury,’ Helen said. ‘You know Natalie Hildegarde Liege, the stained-glass artist with a studio down at the English Bridge? Well a film of her work got in too.’

In 2012, having dabbled in curating as well, Helen was selected to curate Plot 9 of ‘Allotment’, a major exhibition held at mac Birmingham in Cannon Hill Park, where she pulled together a group of Shropshire artists and show-cased their work. Then this summer she’ll be in Devon at the contemporary craft fair at Bovey Tracey, showing her new summer range.  After that, there’ll be a selection of other national craft fairs in the run up to Christmas. Then there’s the new loom to get used to [note to self - I want to be there when it’s unpacked], then there’s the tweed…

On top of all this, Helen teaches.  When we met, she’d just finished eight ‘Introduction to Weaving’ sessions with the first years at Chelsea College of Art, and she's now lecturing one day a week at Hereford College of Arts.  She had a winter collection to plan for too.  ‘I know I sound busy,’ she said, ‘and I know that as much as possible I need to free up my time to be creative, but I love the buzz of teaching and seeing the students grow as designers. It spurs me on with my own work and I come away eager to get back in the studio and behind the loom.  I enjoy the whole weaving process from start to finish - the design, the planning and then the physicality of the actual making.’

I persuaded Helen to sit behind her loom so that I could take some photos.  Surrounded by machinery that looked mind-bogglingly complicated she seemed completely at home. If you want to see her loom at work with her in action, click this link. If you want one of her lovely scarves, go to her website. If you want a very special piece of cloth for curtains or furnishings or to make a garment, go to her website too - Helen's your girl. Or if you'd like to keep up with the news on the Shropshire tweeds, either visit Millbank & Foot on Facebook or Twitter or watch this space. Wherever else they may be shown, My Tonight From Shrewsbury will be shouting about them too.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Last Days of the Dana: 'Art is My Therapy'

What we’re witnessing over the next month here in Shrewsbury [though most of us won’t see or maybe even be aware of it happening] is the disappearance of a small town within our larger one, a secret town that most of us have never been inside, but which can be glimpsed in an exhibition at Bear Steps. It’s worth going to, upstairs in the room at the end of the gallery:  Prisoners’ Art From the Last Days of the Dana. Some of it has been produced in the prison education block, some completed by prisoners in their cells.  Some paint a pretty world, some a dark one.  Some of it finds things to be joyful about. Some of it is very bleak indeed. 

‘It would be no exaggeration to say that all us paid staff and volunteers have been shocked and saddened by the news of the prison's closure,’ wrote Tony Sharp, volunteer chaplain, ‘and by the understanding that saving money overrides all other considerations in matters of this kind.’ And again, ‘Let me put on record that the Dana has a record which is second to none in terms of staff/prisoner relationships. Many men have been thankful that they served their time with us’.

Do take a look at this exhibition if you can. It’s on until the 28th February and much of the work is for sale. I’m sharing with you some of my favourites below - the works that most leaps out at me and seem to have something to say.  This one, for example, ‘Basket Case – No Meds’, from Marcos Phillips, whose parents were bargees transporting wood, cement and coal through the Midlands, and who was born on the canals. His are the words that I’ve used in this post's title:  Art is my therapy as well as my medication.

Then there’s Sven Dahlberg’s ‘Triptych of Despair’, using powerful images to explore personal experiences that speak of loss, despair, loneliness, hardship and separation.  And his ‘Family in Forest’, which again touches upon the sense of loss, for family and prisoner alike, brought about by a gaol sentence.

 Another fine painting is Victor Partridge’s ‘On The Bridge’, which after six hours of effort enabled him to ‘capture what he knew, not what he saw’. Then ‘21st Century Scream’ [see above by JM, in acrylic, for sale at £28] was fairly inescapable - as were many more.  Here are just a few of them. Tucked into a small space it may be, but this is a big exhibition in every sense of the word:   

'On the Bridge'  acrylic
Victor Partridge 

Football in the Yard pencil & crayon £16
John Kinsella
[alternative titles: Gate Happy, The Dark Side, There's Nothing Bright About Prison, This Is What I See]

New York [Alicia Keyes] £12

Victim charcoal £8

Tinchy Strider watercolour £12

Leaford 'Bob Marley' ink/pencil

Euphoria  mixed media  £12

Escape Route [?]  pencil £16

Waterfall  acrylic £30

Bright Prospects acrylic  £30

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A Bog, A Square And One Big Stink

There’s a passage running down from the Square to Mardol Head.  It’s called Gullet Passage. At the head of the passage once stood the Gullet Inn. In the Middle Ages a stream ran down Gullet Passage to a place of wet horribleness known as Mudholes, which eventually drained into the River Severn [or Sabrina Fludde, as it was known back then].  That stream flowed down from a bog that stood on the site of the present Princess House - subject of so much discussion at a recent Public Inquiry.

I suspect Professor Lalage Brown knew all this when, at that Inquiry, she suggested that Princess House might sink into a watery swamp if built out any further. The suggestion was quickly refuted however.  Even back in 1881 when the old Shirehall was built on the current Princess House site, that pond or bog had long-since been drained.  However, it’s an interesting fact that the filthy water of that watery bog was once the town ducking pool [clean water not reckoned necessary when it came to retribution, apparently].

So how far back does all this ducking go? The Anglo-Saxon word for the gumble or ducking-stool was ‘scalfing-stole’, so at least it goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.  It was the common punishment for 'scolds' [in other words, women - as if men didn't have the following characteristics - who were quarrelsome, angry, noisy, argumentative and in need of ducking as an 'engine of correction']. However the Act of 1266 ordered ducking to be meted out to defaulting bakers and brewers too.  At that time, a part of what is now Shrewsbury’s High Street was called Baker’s Row - so the defaulting bakers wouldn’t have had far to go - and the rest of the street to the top of Wyle Cop, taking its name from the gumble, was called Gumblestolestrete.   Obviously these duckings had a position of prominence in town life.

By the end of the 14th century, however, the bog on the Princess House site [also referred to in records as’ the pond’, ‘the Bishop’s Pool’ – after the Bishop of Bangor – or simply ‘the pool’] was no longer there and the instrument of punishment was removed to St John’s Hill.  A new stool was purchased in 1669, and the Mayor’s Accounts for 1710-11 record the payment of sixpence for ‘ye carriage of ye Gumble stoole from St John’s Hill to ye lower end of Mardol.’  As punishments went, this one persisted almost into what we might think of as the dawn of modern times.

Why am I telling you all this? Is it because it amuses me to think that a corner of our town currently creating such a stink should once have been a filthy bog? Well, maybe to a small degree, but the real reason is that, fascinated as I am by Shrewsbury’s history, a couple of days ago I went into Candle Lane Books and bought ‘Shrewsbury Street Names’ by John L Hobbs, and it’s there that I stumbled upon this grubby tale of public punishments under the headings ‘Gullet Passage and The Gumblestolestrete’. 

Have you ever been into Candle Lane books?  If you haven’t and you’re local, you’ve missed a treat.  And if you’re not a local, never mind - I’ll take you on a tour - but not today.  Tucked away behind the Square and Princess House, Candle Lane Books deserves a post in its own right.  It’s the sort of bookshop I have to confess I don’t often dare go in.  One of the last times I did, I came out several hundred pounds lighter. [What a confession, I know, and in public too.]

By the way, most of the information I’ve just shared with you, courtesy of author John L Dobbs, is referenced by him from Shrewsbury Public Library’s Calendar of Deeds, the St Chad’s Church Parish Registers and the Shrewsbury Abbey Cartulary [available on Amazon, I do not joke, hardcover, in Latin, no reviews, four used copies available, eighty quid each].

Don’t all rush at once.