If you want to have an interesting conversation in Old Shropshire, the man to follow on Twitter is @shroppiemon. He and I were tweeting only yesterday about my tendency to fisk about, which as Georgina Jackson’s Shropshire Word Book of 1879 [of which I’m the proud owner of a first edition] will tell you, means to go wandering.
I was at it again yesterday - fisking that is, not tweeting. Shrewsbury’s a great town for fisking, not that I get much chance if my writing life has anything to do with it. Yesterday however the sun was shining, I’d had a busy week and I reckoned I deserved time off. The river was flooded to a new high level, exceeding even the flood of a few weeks ago, so as I had my dog for company [and the last time he went too close to the Severn he fell in], I decided we’d keep away from the river and head into town instead.
It’s a lovely walk across town from where I live. I especially like cutting round the back of St Mary’s Church, past the beautiful old Drapers’ Hall, across Dogpole and along the narrow street that lies in the shadow of the Loggerheads Pub. Inside, the pub still has its old ‘Gentlemen Only’ sign, thought it’s a very long time since anybody took any notice of that. Tonight in fact I went past to find the bar packed with jolly ladies in bonnets and hats, drinking hard and singing with equal vigour.
Anyhow, it’s yesterday’s fisk I’m telling you about, not today’s. I passed the Loggerheads, like I said, and entered St Alkmund’s Square, which is one of my favourite corners of town. At the back of St Alkmund’s churchyard stands the sandstone tower of St Julian’s Church. It’s rare for churches to be built back to back, but together with their two churchyards these churches create a green haven set apart from shops, pubs and offices on the town’s main streets.
St Alkmund’s is still thriving, with a dedicated congregation, but St Julian’s has long been out of commission, owned for many years now by Andrew Wright, who for most of that time has lived in it too. Tall, angular, with a sweep of grey beard and very much a part of Shrewsbury’s town life, I remember Andrew back in the hippie days when he used to run Lord Rama, a wholefood shop in Fish Street. I used to buy my black-eye beans in there. In more recent years, I’ve loved looking up at the lights at night in the windows of St Julian’s church tower and thinking of Andrew and his wife Lexie up there, keeping the building lived in and bright.
No sign of life yesterday, however. Walking through St Alkmund’s churchyard, everything on the St Julian’s side looked dark and slightly unkempt. St Alkmund’s used to look unkempt as well. Doors were locked whenever I went by. I’d no idea what went on inside. Windows were bowing out. The churchyard looked unloved - though I’m quite sure that it wasn’t to those who worshipped there.
But now the building has been taken in hand, thanks to the effort of Resident Priest, the Reverend Richard Hayes, and the massive efforts - not least in fund-raising - by the local congregation. An impressive restoration project has taken place, and St Alkmund’s doors are open as if to say come in. Its windows are repaired and the building is flooded with light. The churchyard has been laid out and not just tidied up but planted out. It looks cared for and loved, especially in summer when the chestnut is flowering in the middle of the grass and poppies and cornflowers are coming up along the gravel paths.
On the far side of St Alkmund’s Square, lies the complex of Tudor buildings known as Bear Steps. Down those steps I fisked with Biffo pulling on the lead, crossing the cobbles of Fish Street and heading down Grope Lane. At the bottom of the lane, we dodged cars to cross the High Street and enter the Square, which was being set up for market, its awnings bright in the sunlight.
But it was the other market we were heading for - the main town market housed at first floor level in the 1960s Market Hall with its iconic tower - of which I’ll be writing more another day. In this market, I found my favourite corner of the Birds’ Nest Café, drank coffee, ate cake [beetroot and raspberry] and watched children clambouring over sofas playing hide-and-seek. Susan of Pengwern Books came by and said hello, and the chocolate lady, Julia Wenlock came along. She and I sat talking about making chocolates, which sounds like a pretty good way of earning a living to me.
After she’d gone, I fisked around the stalls, bought a Coalport cup and saucer for a mere three quid, lingered by the fish stall, which had some nice organic salmon on the slab, then decided it was time to head back home. On the way I dropped into the Square where the monthly Farmer’s Market was now fairly packed. I resisted cup cakes and meringues, but fell for soda bread with walnuts and a bap stuffed full of a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it amount of apple sauce, stuffing and roast hog.
It was as much as I could do to carry it all home. On the way up Pride Hill I stopped to talk to the fire-juggling man. Then I bumped into my dentist whom I’d seen on telly earlier in the week on Come Dine With Me. We chatted about it briefly. TV fame seemed to have left him notably underwhelmed.
By this time my bap was getting cold. I said goodbye to my dentist and hurried home, sensing that fisking was over for the day. Usually when I go out, there’s a purpose to what I’m about. But when I do have time to fisk, I can’t imagine a nicer place to do it than here. You should try it some time. Oh, and if you’ve never come across Old Shropshire before, you've just learned your first word.
[Thanks to the lovely owners of those fantastic hats who allowed me to take their
photograph at the Loggerheads Pub. I hope you had a good night, girls.]