Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Congratulations Julia and TootSweets

Just a quick one here.  Delighted to learn that Julia Wenlock, whose TootSweets chocolate evening I wrote about just before Easter, has won a major, and highly coveted, national award. We should all be so proud of Julia - and hotfooting it to the market to buy her chocs.

The Award was presented by the Academy of Chocolate, founded by leading chocolate professionals with the purpose of promoting greater awareness of real chocolate in its unadulterated form.  The ceremony took place at Fortnum & Masons, and Julia received the Silver Award for handmade Salted Caramels in the Best Filled Chocolate category before an audience of key movers and shakers from the world of fine chocolate.
There is no surprise on my part about this award.  Two chocolates above all others stood on Julia’s chocolate evening.  Her lavender-filled chocolates, using lavender from a farm near Newport, were sensational.  But her salted caramels were without doubt the most eatable chocolates so far in my long love affair with chocolate.
Congratulations Julia.  

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Railway Bridge - And Otters

I was walking down by the river a couple of months ago, rejoicing in the waters having gone down and the towing path being free again.  In the distance stood the railway bridge, which some people might not think is beautiful, but I do.  It was a dull day, which meant that the sudden flashing of a torch’s beam down there in the darkness really stood out. What was going on?

As I drew closer, a couple of dark figures came into view.  One ran off down the path, the other stood on the cobbles directing the beam from his torch into the brown, swirling waters between the pillars of the bridge. What was he was looking for, I asked.  ‘Otters,’ he replied. 

I’ve only seen otters in the River Severn twice.  The first occasion was the night I moved into town back in 1997.  I walked down St Mary’s Water Lane in the dark and stood looking at the black river as it flowed out of town.  Suddenly up popped what I thought at first was a seal. Except it couldn’t be a seal - I’d seen seals off the Welsh Coast, and they were bigger than this little creature.

It took one look at me and dived again, and then I didn’t see any more otters until a couple of years ago. It was a bright sunshiny day and I was dog walking between the Castle Walk footbridge and the railway bridge.  Suddenly there the little fellow was, swimming along by my side.  It dived and resurfaced, dived and swam out of sight, then reappeared again. Somewhere around the steps at the bottom of St Mary’s Water Lane I lost sight of it for good.  For all my looking, I couldn’t find it again.

Not could I this time.  The man with the torch told me he’d first seen it on the far side of the river.  Then he’d caught a glimpse of it diving off the plinth holding up the central section of the railway bridge. Then it had popped up its head right in front of him, on this side of the river, and the last time he’d seen it had been over the other side again, which was why his friend had gone running down the river, hoping to get across it and along the far bank for a closer view.

Whether he succeeded or not, I’ve no idea, but I’ve been hanging onto the story ever since, hoping that one day I’d see it too and could tell you all about it.  It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve decided to write about the railway bridge anyway.  

Despite the graffiti that you sometimes find down there, the slippery cobbles and the pigeon poo, the railway bridge is one of my favourite places in Shrewsbury, firing my imagination like almost nowhere else. It’s actually not just one bridge, but three – two of them made of iron-girders, the third an arched stone bridge tucked almost out of sight between the other two. At the right time of day, you’ll get sunlight reflected off the river onto the bridge’s grimy walls, even reaching into its deepest, darkest recesses.  Trains rumble overhead, and its acoustics are fantastic.  Whether it’s the hrmm-hrmm of pigeons, the slap-slap of water against pillars or the notes of a jazz saxophone improvising under the girders on a still, quiet night, the quality of sound is remarkable. 

I haven’t heard that saxophone for years now.  The first time I heard it was around the same time I caught my first glimpse of that otter.  I remember a white veil of mist coming up off the river, street lamps under the bridge being broken and this wonderful music coming out of the darkness. I couldn’t see who was playing it, but often after that I’d go down at night, and the phantom saxophonist would be there. I should have gone and introduced myself instead of enjoying his music from afar.  I suppose I didn’t want to interrupt somebody’s private pleasure.  Now, though, all these years later, I wish I’d said thank you.  

What I did do, though, was put that saxophonist – and indeed the railway bridge - into the first of my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ novels, ‘Sabrina Fludde’:  ‘What the girl wanted was a memory that would rescue her with answers.  But what she got was music instead. She looked around, trying to see where it was coming from, but the river path stood empty, and so did the railway bridge.  Nobody was here to play to her, but she could hear the tune all the same.

‘The girl listened to it, reluctant at first, but slowly lulled despite herself.  How could it be otherwise?  The tune sang out as if if it were a living thing, soaring and swooping among the girders of the railway bridge, echoing up to its black stone arches and rolling across the river like a mist.  And its notes were words, and every one of them a song of secret comfort.

‘”You’re fine,” it sang out. “Really. Fine.  You’re brave and strong and where you should be. There’s nothing to be frightened of.  Everything is just fine.  Trust me.”’

And the girl did! The notes seeped into her like an enchantment, and suddenly she WAS fine! She knew she was, just like the music said.  She didn’t feel sorry for herself any more.  She didn’t feel frightened.  She felt safe.’ 

Abren is the child with no memory.  She turns up in Shrewsbury [Pengwern in the book], carried by the River Severn. Along with the street boy, Phaze II, she makes herself a home up amongst the girders of the railway bridge where nobody ever looks up.  Except for me, of course. Having invented both these children I look up and see them all the time. Even today, all these years later, I can’t believe that they aren’t there.   

It’s thirteen years now since Sabrina Fludde was published. I have two particularly abiding memories from it.  The first is Millennium Night, the two children sitting out on the girders over the dark river, listening to the town whooping and cheering as the fireworks go off.  They live in the heart of the town, yet its life is a world away from them.  And at the end of the book, having made the Severn journey from source to sea, a new adventure steers them beneath the stars.

I attempted a new adventure myself last week, trying to get to the Abbey under the arches on the other side of the river.  It always used to be possible back in the days of the Gay Meadow football ground, coming out at the Wakeman Garden by the English Bridge.  I assumed that was a right of way.  For years I’ve seen people using it.  But that way’s blocked now, and when I followed the footpath at the back of the old football ground [now the building site for David Wilson Homes] I found that way blocked too.  In fact padlocked. Interesting, given that a proper tarmac path had been laid.  What’s it there for if people can’t use it?   

Somebody told me once that Shrewsbury railways station is one of only three in the world to be built across a river. I don’t know if this is true, but it doesn’t need to be true to make the railway bridge special. If you don’t know it, go and take a look.  And, if you’re a musician and your instrument is transportable, then - be it penny whistle or saxophone - take it along.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Ghosts In The Loggerheads? Whoever Would Have Thought It?

Liz and Nick have been running the Loggerheads for long enough now to settle in, get to know everyone and get to know the ghosts.  They’ve had a busy time with all those ghosts.  I do not kid. 

The Loggerheads is Shrewsbury’s iconic pub. To describe it as small and dark with narrow, sloping quarry-tiled corridors, a centrally located not exactly over-large bar and a variety of tiny booth-sized rooms called things like ‘Poets Corner’ and ‘Gents Only’ merely scrapes the surface. Nothing on the outside indicates what you’ll find within.  Because it’s atmosphere you’ll find within.  There’s not another pub in Shrewsbury quite like it.

The Loggerheads isn’t the oldest pub in town.  Far from it. It’s earliest history is unknown, but it’s reckoned to date somewhere in the latter half of the 17th century, which is fairly modern by Shrewsbury standards. Certainly records show a public house on site in 1780, called the Greyhound.  Since then it was renamed several times - the Horse and Jockey, the General Lord Hill, the Shrewsbury Arms and finally the Loggerheads, officially taking on the nickname it had already acquired.  


As old buildings go, the Loggerheads doesn’t have a huge amount of recorded history. On 9th May 1822, it was sold at auction. 'All that old established and much frequented public house and premises known by the sign of General Lord Hill, now in the occupation of Mr. Thomas Williams. The situation is central and the premises are in excellent repair. To any person desirous of making a good thing of the business by keeping a superior tap of home brewed ale, or to a maltster or brewer desirous of securing the custom of a good house, a most advantageous opportunity presents itself.'

How many times the Loggerheads has changed hands since then I’ve no idea, but ten years later it was advertised to let after the landlord, Mr. Brindley auctioned off his household furniture, brewing vessels and 140 gallons of ale. By 1900, the inn was owned by T. Cooper & Co. of Burton-on-Trent and the landlord was one Joseph Russell, his house consisting of three public and nine private rooms, including accommodation for ten people in three bedrooms.

At some time the pub contained a brothel, according to Liz who’s seen the ghosts queuing up for it on the staircases, beer in hand.  She’s been Landlady now for fourteen months and has seen plenty of ghosts in the Loggerheads – and not just after last orders when the doors are locked and the lights go out. 

Liz is a care-worker by training, a job she loved. Before becoming Landlady of the Loggers, she worked for a number of years in Brittany while Nick was stuck in Shrewsbury, unable to sell their property, trapped by the recession.   This was a difficult time for the whole family.  Wanting to return to the UK and put the family back together, Liz and Nick looked into starting a joint business venture. As a Loop Baby, born on College Hill, Nick was keen that that venture should be in Shrewsbury, and when the Loggerheads came up, they jumped at it.  In Liz’s words, ‘There was only one pub in town that either of us could imagine wanting to take on – and this was it.’

Liz and Nick took on the Loggerheads as untrained novices. Their first day was Valentine’s Day 2012.  It was getting on for thirty years since either of them had pulled a pint.  They’d never been into a pub cellar and had no knowledge of how to run one.  When they opened the door at 11.00am, there were seven ex-licensees standing outside, and three of the town’s current licensees, as well as somebody wanting to celebrate their 70th birthday with friends.  They all piled into the front bar, which is very much the inner sanctum of the Loggerheads, and sat with arms folded, waiting to see what would happen next.  Liz and Nick stared at them.  They stared back.  Then Nick laughed.  ‘Go on,’ he said.  ‘What do you want? Which glasses? You’re going to have to tell us.  We don’t know.’

A book was run on Liz and Nick.  Their sticking it out for six months was reckoned to be the maximum.  It was only thanks to YouTube that they learnt to do the cellar. Some people were horrified to see ignorant first timers in charge of the most precious pub in Shrewsbury. The only way they got by, according to Liz, was by asking questions.  And the help they had, she says, was fantastic.  ‘We couldn’t have put it all together and made it work without an incredible amount of support.’

Marsdens is the brewery that owns the pub, but the Loggerheads provides a selection of ales from a number of other breweries. Banks and Pedigree are available all year round, but annually there are fifty other ales too.  This is a proper pub, Liz says.  A drinking pub.  A local. She doesn’t see herself as its owner.  She sees herself as its keeper.  It’s up to her to preserve what’s good about it, ‘to keep it nice,’ as she puts it, and to respect it.

To this end, before changing anything Liz talked to the locals about what they liked about the Loggers and what they felt needed to be addressed.  Major structural problems had been dealt with six years earlier when the front wall had begun to move away from the rest of the building.  This meant that Liz was free to turn her attention to lesser matters, like careful redecorating, installing an extra pump so that mild could be available all the time, and making the seating – especially in Gents Only – more comfortable [cushions] without actually removing what was already there [benches].  

Fires also went into every room.  This was something else the locals wanted, in keeping with the pub’s character, and this is what they now have.  There’s a newly set up darts team too, a poker night on Wednesdays, live music at weekends and a Tuesday night slot for younger musicians in Gents Only, as well as the long-standing one on Thursday nights. There’s wine on offer too, as well as all the ales.

And there’s a refurbished menu.  All of it’s what you’d call comfort food - Sunday roast, local steaks from the grill, sausages and mash with lots of choice and flavour, served between 12.00 and 3.00pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, and 5.00 and 9.00pm Tuesdays to Thursdays.  In other words, at times when the pub’s less likely to be used exclusively as a drinking hole.  

Liz works in the pub from eleven in the morning until three the following morning.  It’s a long day.  Three of her and Nick’s children have left home, one’s just off travelling,  another works in the pub with them, and then there’s the eleven year old for whom this has been a huge change of life. ‘But there’s a sense of family about this pub,’ Liz says.  ‘People look out for you, and they look out for your children. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, so have never really had a proper base.  But I’ve got one here.  The friendship here is a powerful thing.’

The Loggerheads is an old-fashioned pub. With its tiny, dark rooms and slightly odd layout, it’s the sort of pub you can imagine being ripped apart, themed and spat out again in homogenized form.  It’s to Liz and Nick’s credit that they haven’t gone down that road.  At least, I think it is. One day last summer, an American lady, ‘as round as she was tall,’ says Liz, fell backwards off her stool in Gents Only and had to be helped up.  She was fine, no bones broken or anything like that, but she held back until the pub was quiet, then said, ‘I thought I ought to tell you, you may not realize it   – your floor slopes.’ ‘Oh dear,’ said Liz. ‘We’d better see what we can do.’ But I’m happy to report that her floor still slopes.

Another time an old chap came into the bar drunk.  He tried to order a pint.  Nick said he’d had enough and sent him on his way.  The old chap went down the road, in through the next door and up to the hatch of what he didn't realize was the same bar. Here he encountered the same  face behind the bar - and the message was the same as well. ‘How many bloody pubs do you own in this town?’ was what one disgrunted drunk wanted to know. 

By day the central room is very much an inner sanctuary [though not so much at night].  Liz is aware of people feeling uncomfortable about coming in, as if afraid of invading a private space, and she’ll always try to catch their eye and draw them in.  It’s the place to be, she says, for stories and company.  It isn’t the room for sitting drinking on your own.  That’s more likely to happen in Poets’ Corner or Gents Only. 

Gents Only is where the music happens on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Poets’ Corner is the tiny back room [just about enough space for four little tables and a couple of benches] where the Shrewsbury Poetry Society used to hold its meetings.  This explains the Samuel Beckets and Sylvia Plaths that once lined its walls.  Those old photos have gone since Liz moved in, and I wonder why.  Liz says that the locals found them gloomy. They were mug shots, not friendly pics.  Only two people, she said, have asked what happened to the poets since she took them down.  And now that’s three, because of me.  Mug shots or not, I liked those old poets. Ghosts, I reckon, might turn in their graves.

So here we are then, back to them again.  And, according to Liz, there are plenty of them in the Loggerheads too. There’s the lady she sees coming into the lounge dressed all in black.  Then there’s another lady with two children who wakes her up at night, standing by her bed. Then there’s the gentleman who opened the door and walked in one day, dressed in a long green velvet coat, white socks and three-cornered hat.

And then there’s the noise.  Lying in bed at night, Liz will say to Nick, ‘Can’t you hear the chattering along the top landing?’ But he can’t.  She’s been out onto the landing too, and seen it as it must have been in the old days, all the walls dark, the wood work unpainted and men crowding the landing and stairs.  She’s asked them to cut the noise – and they have.  But another night she’ll wake up and they'll be at it again.  

A good night for seeing ghosts is Tuesdays, Liz says, though she’s no idea why.  So if you’re thinking of going for a pint at the Loggers, and you want a bit of a thrill, Tuesday nights might be a good bet.

PS. If you’re wondering about the name ‘loggerheads’, some reckon it’s likely to be a corruption of 'lubber's head', the old English for a leopard's head, as mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part II when Falstaff is invited to dinner at the Lubbar's Head in Lombard Street. I mention this in passing because Falstaff is a subject I’m hoping to get onto in a couple of weeks time.  Look out for it, and in the meantime read your Henry IV Part I.   

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

10th Annual Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival

A sunny Saturday morning and off over the English Bridge to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust [next door to Shrewsbury Abbey, made famous by Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael books] to find out about slugs.  ‘Are you fascinated by the strange world of slugs?’ said the flyer that I’d picked up in town.  ‘There is a species in Shropshire that eats wallpaper – could be a helping hand with the decorating? Join this unusual workshop exploring the slimy world of slugs.’

By the time I arrived, however - it being a leisurely sunny Saturday morning - the first session was over and the second one had inexplicably moved out of town to the Preston Montford Field Centre. So how did I overcome my disappointment? What did I do instead? I did what I should have done in the first place - headed for the Square for Shrewsbury’s Annual International Cartoon Festival. 

This is the tenth year of the Cartoon Festival.  As I understand it, it’s the only major cartoon festival in the UK.  Certainly it’s become an important part of Shrewsbury’s summer season of arts events. I arrived in the Square to find the place heaving with artists, boards, brushes, pens, happy snappers and curious questioners.  A band played under the statue of Clive of India, adding a sense of jollity to the proceedings.  Children queued to have their portraits drawn. I wandered round in the sunshine, not sure what I found more fascinating - the cartoons, or other people’s fascination.  

On Sunday I went out again, taking my family with me.  By this time, yesterday’s enormous canvasses had been filled with colour, which was just as well as it was a grey old day, the sort we've become depressingly used to over recent months.  In the distance I made out the flash of a red beret, which I knew without seeing her sunny smile, meant that illustrator Linda Edwards [she of all those lovely trees of life, if you remember the Open Studio I did on her] was here in the Square.  

You can’t go far in Shrewsbury without meeting friends.  Linda wasn’t here to draw, as it turned out, just to see what was going on. She told me that  I'd find more artists and lots more work in the indoor market. Usually the market is closed on Sundays, but our little group took a short cut down Gullet Passage and found it open to the public, lights on, tarpaulins down, most of the weekday stalls doing business, a buzz of voices as people and stallholders alike stood around enjoying having artists on site, drawing in every conceivable spare corner.

The place was full of people that I knew. More than that, half of them I'd written about or interviewed.   For a moment I felt as if I'd walked straight into the pages of My Tonight From Shrewsbury.  Alison Patrick greeted me, whom I'd last spoken to at the Unitarian Church when I was doing my secret worshipper thing.  Then Market Hall Manager, Kate Gittings, waved from a distance.  Then in the distance there was Julia Wenlock too, whose chocolate evening I partook in around Easter time. And the last time I saw Town Clerk, Helen Ball, was when she was speaking at the Public Inquiry in defence of our town square.

I and my jolly little group of cartoon festival attendees settled into Mirage Mezze, ordered more food than we could ever eat without taking half away, and lounged about in huge, gilt, velvet-padded thrones.  All around us, people were  plainly enjoying themselves.  Up in the gallery, the Bridgnorth Ukelele Band was thrashing it out, giving it as good as they’d got. It almost made you want to dance. At the stall next to us a couple of cartoonists were plying their wares, churning out complementary cartoons for anybody brave enough to sit in front of them and face their sharp eyes. In fact, all over the market hall cartoonists were drawing, and their work was hanging up everywhere.

My picture was drawn by a lady cartoonist in a red top hat.  All the way through my sitting, she kept laughing.  It made me laugh as well.  This, I realized afterwards was a ploy.  Below's what I mean.  Given the reality she had to deal with, I thought I got off rather lightly. 

So, another joyous weekend in lovely Shrewsbury.  Three cheers for the Cartoon Festival. It certainly beats slugs. 

Here are some of the artists whose work I enjoyed:

Bill Stott
Goddard Cartoons
Surreal McCoy
Huw Aaron
Ariss Cartoons
Pete Dredge
Drawn by Helen [my top hat lady]

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Secret Shopping With Ms X

We’ve had babies.  We’ve had Batman.  We’ve had bakers and chocolate makers, market stall holders and a prison governer. What hasn’t My Tonight From Shrewsbury had yet?  A three year old secret shopper.

Ms X agreed to do the job for me this week.  She and I went round Shrewsbury a few days ago.  We didn’t just do shops. We did a  bit of tourism too.  Aware that this could end up costing me, we agreed that anything Miss X liked I’d photograph, and she could tell her mother about it afterwards.   

Our trip started in SHREWSBURY ABBEY.  Ms X spent a long time in the Abbey, trying out most [and I mean most] of its pews and singing Ba Ba Black Sheep very loudly in the choir stalls.  We lit a candle.  We got as close as we could manage to the altar without doing damage, and talked about how golden everything was. 

The organ interested us, especially its pedals, which we didn’t touch.  Nor did we touch the assortment of toys in one of the side aisles because Ms X reckoned they were baby toys, not for girls like her.  Ms X was interested in finding knights.  She’s into castles, princesses and fairies, and has a thing for knights. When we did find them, however, they turned out to be bigger than she’d expected and made of cold, grey stone, which made them look scary, so we bid a hasty retreat.

Before we left the Abbey, Ms X piled up kneelers on a pew so that she could sit up high and look around. We checked the candle to see if it was still alight. She said again about liking gold.  She’d like to come again, she said.  I said we could another day.      

Next up were SWANS.  Ms X was keen by now to get to the shops, but was riveted half way across the English Bridge by the sight of a swan on an island in the middle of the river, building its nest.  She wanted me to photograph it, which I did.  On the way back at the end of the day, she pointed out that two swans were on the river now.

INFINITY & BEYOND.  Miss X was very disappointed indeed that this shop/cafe wasn’t open. She liked superheroes, she said. Looking through the window at all the framed superheroes on the walls, she became very animated. It was nice inside there, she said, but what a shame there weren’t any lights.

BELLINI’S ICE CREAM PARLOUR. There were lots of shopping opportunities on Wyle Cop, but we walked past them all in pursuit of ice cream.  At Bellini’s we had to face the disappointment of no credit card machine, which meant tiny legs having to trail almost all the way to the Square to find a cash machine [and back].  But the journey was worth it in the end,  Miss X showing a preference for strawberry ice-cream, which she chose to eat in a sundae glass.  She ate very slowly with a tiny spoon, during which time it did not escape her attention that I managed an ice cream sundae AND a piece of cake.  Ms X said she’d like to visit Bellini’s Ice Cream Parlour again. 

THE ANTIQUE MARKET.  Ms X had started out our day in Shrewsbury by saying let’s go and have adventures, so I suggested she might like to go downstairs into a secret cave underground where treasures were hidden.  Ms X thought this was a good idea.  We headed along Princess Street, then downstairs into another world.  I’d worried slightly that Ms X might find this underground world scary, but not a bit of it. In a state of high excitement, she ran from stall to stall.  It was as much as I could do to keep up. There were moments of panic when I thought I’d lost her, but then she’d pop up laughing behind a chest, a chair or a rack of frocks.

Every now and then Ms X stopped for me to take a photograph.  Here’s the hand-painted German rocking cradle that she liked. Below’s a tin toadstool music box, complete with handle.  Then there’s a lovely yellow dress with feathers.  Then a flamenco dancing doll. Then an embroidered Chinese suit. Then here's the skateboard which Ms X would have been happy if I’d bought, and the vintage Mickey Mouse [which I nearly bought] and the paint box that I did buy [there’s only so much of seeing little people  loving things that one can resist]. It was called  ‘Treasure Trove’ and Ms X rewarded me for it with a nice big smile.  

THE WORKS.  After the Antique Market, Ms X and I crossed the Square and caught sight of another superhero lurking  behind the window of [I think] Thompson’s Travel Agency. We then headed up Pride Hill, getting as far as THE WORKS where multi-coloured windmills on sticks, wrapped in shiny sellophane, caught Ms X’s eye.

We went in.  Flying saucers caught our eye, but we didn’t buy.  Haribo Strawbs caught our eye, but we didn’t buy. A fancy face mask caught our eye, but we didn’t buy. Some puzzle books and books on superheroes caught our eye, but instead I bought paint brushes  to go with the paint-box from the Antique Market.

At the top of Pride Hill, we went into WAITROSE.  Ms X selected pasta for our meal, and pasta sauce.  Outside we stopped for a short tree hug, then it was back to mine and time to paint.  Ms X had enough of secret shopping for one day. But she’d had a good time.  At least, that’s what she told her mum when I took her home.   

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Babies, Baristas & Boogie Nights - Jessicah Kendrick & The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse

Jessicah doesn’t know the sex of her and Chris’s baby.  They’re waiting to find that out at the birth. It’s going to be part of the excitement of the occasion, seeing their little child for the first time and being told ‘here’s your son/daughter’.  It means they can’t get stocked up in advance with pink or blue, but they don’t particularly care about pink or blue and babies certainly don’t know the difference.  They’ve bought a cot, a rug, a bath tub and some plastic ducks. That’s enough for now. 

What about a name, I ask.  If it’s a boy, Jessicah says, Chris is keen on Django, but Django Unchained has rather put her off.  Besides, why should the baby be named after a musician admired by its father any more than a coffee-shop its mother once worked in? Starbucks Kendrick? Or Django Quinn.  Or Django Starbucks Kendrick-Quinn? Which one do you think has the right ring?

The Chris I’m talking about is Chris Quinn, whom I interviewed earlier this year.  The Jessicah is Jessicah Kendrick, the amazingly zippy founder-come-manager-at-large of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse.  For once she’s not dashing about, but sitting on my sofa nursing her neat little bump.  She’s a petite, wiry woman with an elfin face and big smile, and she’s smiling now, telling me that Chris reckons a baby won’t change their lives. It’s going to be easy.  If it was that hard, people wouldn’t do it - that's what Chris says. 

I’m not saying anything, and I don’t need to.  Jessicah is the oldest of a family of five. She remembers her dad leaving the house and driving off into the night accompanied by crying babies.  She knows it won’t be quite as easy as Chris thinks, but reckons they’re ready for it, and that Chris’s lifestyle as a guitarist won’t get in the way.  His working nights and her working days could even end up being a bonus when it comes to childcare.  

All of this is conveyed in a soft American drawl.  The family arrived in Shrewsbury from the States when Jessicah was thirteen. She was a young-for-her-age, tree-climbing thirteen. When in her first few days at school she was told, ‘My friend thinks you’re cute, will you go out with him?’ she was shocked. Dating and Bacardi Breezers were a world away. But she adapted.  ‘It’s what you do in a situation like that.  What you have to do. I started wearing cooler clothes and hanging out with the popular girls.  It wasn’t until SCAT that I got to be myself again.’

After SCAT [Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology] came Middlesex University and a Fine Arts degree.  As well as art, Jessicah was interested in sociology.  Back in the 80s, everything had seemed silver-lined, but it wasn’t like that now and she wanted to know what had happened.  How had Sex in the City turned into Desperate Housewives? Why were so many women no longer willing to call themselves feminists? 

This interest developed into Jessicah’s dissertation.  In times of economic upheaval, she discovered, people looked backwards to what they knew and what made them feel safe. They also looked inward to what they could control. So folk music boomed, along with pursuits like knitting. Marriage came back in and so did an idealistic view of love and the two-point-two family. Against this backdrop, feminism came across to many as threatening.

After university, Jessicah returned to Shrewsbury and set about looking for a job. She woke up every morning with no lectures to go to, her student days a thing of the past. How to fill the rest of her life - especially for a live-wire girl who liked hard work and didn’t relish hanging about? Enter photographer and film-maker Richard Foot.    

Soon, along with Richard, Jessicah was involved with Platform Alteration, a monthly arts and music event held upstairs in the Old Post Office pub. People would bring along their artwork.  There’d be competitions and judgings. Bands would play.  The tall poet, Andi Fusek Peters, came for a reading.  Jessicah was on the committee.  It was a busy time.

Was that where Jessicah met Chris, I ask.   No, she says, she met him before that. Ten years before, and there had been a few dates. But they’d only really got together a few years ago. ‘There was a moment,’ Jessicah says, ‘when I thought, if I don’t go for this I just might lose it.’ And they’d been together ever since. 

‘We’re good together,’ Jessicah says. ‘We complement each other.  Both of us are work focused.  Both get on with people, both want the same things.  There are people who might find a musician’s lifestyle hard to live with.  But I’m an independent person.  I like time to myself.  If Chris is off to Germany for a gig, there’ll always be other things I want to do – either that or I’ll be off round to my mum’s.’    

Jessicah’s mum is Sheila Sager, artisan baker and co-chair of  Shrewsbury’s Town Centre Residents. She lives across town from Jessicah on one of Shrewsbury’s cobbled hills.  If her daughter’s busy and likes a bustling life, it’s because that’s always been the family way.  As a child, Jessicah, says, the house was always full. 

‘You’d come to the table, and fifteen other people would show up and some of them you’d know but others you’d never have seen before. Everyone was welcome. I have a distinct memory of bathrooms full of people dyeing their eyebrows blue, and rooms full of people with projects on the go.  Even when my parents weren’t in, kids would come round. In the UK, I learned, it wasn’t usual to go round to people’s houses unless you were invited.  But back in the States I could have knocked on any number of doors and  it would have been Hi Jessicah, does your mum know you’re here, do you want to stay to supper? There was a real sense of the community looking after its own children.  I guess we brought that with us when we moved to Shrewbury.’ 

Certainly Jessicah brought that with her when she opened up the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse.  What she wanted was a home from home. ‘A place to pitch ideas,’ she says, ‘to share stories, play games, chat and just hang out.’ Now here we are two years down the line, and I wonder how Jessicah feels it's worked in practice. 

‘I feel amazing about The Coffeehouse,’ she says.  ‘It’s exceeded all expectations. I remember somebody saying that the one thing Shrewsbury didn’t need was another coffee house, but they were wrong and I knew it even then.  I feel as if Shrewsbury was craving for something and the Coffeehouse filled the void. Do you know, over fifty per cent of our customers come in on an almost daily basis? Two years down the line, I really feel as thought the Coffeehouse belongs to its customers, and we owe it to them to keep it what it is.’

But in the first place, where did the idea come from? At one point, Jessicah says, she was going in five directions at the same time, working in Starbucks, in her mother’s bakery, training as an interior designer, helping make industrial-sized amounts of jam and doing up houses. She liked doing things with people, and she liked hard work. ‘If someone had said come and dig a giant hole with me, I’d have said yes,’ she says.  ‘I wouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought.’     

Eventually Jessicah had what one of her sisters called a  ‘quarter-life crisis’.  Creating a mind map was how she sorted herself out. What did she like doing?  She listed it all down.  What was she good at? That went down as well. What common ground was there, and was there any way of pulling it all together? Jessicah started looking for connections.  People. Building work. Good food and drink. Good chat.  Thinking. Music. Community. The arts.  Sleeves up.  Hard graft. A bit of demolition thrown in for good measure. Of course – a coffeehouse. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a coffee with Sheila Sager.  She told me that when Jessicah first came to her with her grand idea, she as her mother had been full of what about this, and have you thought about that, and Jessicah, I’m not so sure, and Jessicah, you do know that...  But Jessicah kept telling her, ‘Mum, this will work.  I know it will.’ 

And of course it has.

Jessicah says she enjoyed it all from the construction onwards, doing all the demolition and decorating,  spending days scraping off carpet glue with friends.  Then there was the shopping stage on eBay and in Salvage Yards for furniture and fittings.  Then the coffee stage, investigating roasteries, and the food stage, investigating local produce and menus. What she envisaged was the sort of ramshackle college-run coffeehouse that crops up in university towns - ramshackle in a good way, she emphasizes.  What she didn’t envisage was how busy or successful the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse would be, or what a wide range of people would use it, and continue to come back.  

What next, I ask?  Jessica says she doesn’t know for sure if this is her for life.  She could end up as a plumber or a landscape gardener or something else.  At the moment, there’s a shepherd’s hut in her parents garden that’s most definitely a project waiting to happen. ‘I love it,’ she says, ‘that some people feel a calling towards just one profession.  Artists, musicians, writers, whatever. But I’m not like that. I could be a carpenter.  Why not? Or go into zoology.  I mean, I love animals.’

Jessicah’s love of rabbits is something I decide not to pursue. What about her managements skills, I ask instead. She’s a great believer in delegation, she says.  In fact, she’d rather be told what to do than do it herself - that’s why she’s surrounded herself at the Coffeehouse with people who are good at directing.

There’s Simon, who does ordering and accounting, and Richie who’s in charge of food and drink, then, as overall manager, Jessicah’s in charge of events.  What she wants – and what she’s worked to achieve - is a team mentality.  She remembers how soul destroying it used to be back in the days when she worked in a coffee shop elsewhere.  ‘The only chance of expressing individuality,’ she says, ‘was by the number of multi-coloured pens tucked in your apron, or the way you poured the drinks.  No way do I want the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse to be like that. I love it when people use their initiative.’ 

On the subject of events, I want to know more. The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse has taken off like a sky-rocket, and it’s not only because of its coffee - it’s because of its events. To begin with Jessicah used Chris’s contacts to book live acts, but slowly word got out that a Shrewsbury Coffeehouse gig was worth adding to the tour. The place would be packed.  The audience would be appreciative.  The venue allowed for the sort of intimate atmosphere that show-cased jazz, folk, swing and roots music at its best.

Jessicah’s been pulling in some big names too. Last year the Coffeehouse hosted Fapy Lafertin, the godfather of Gypsy Jazz.  Then they had Dick Gaughean – he of the legendary Boys of the Lough. Then John Etheridge, Stephane Grappelli’s long-term guitarist, performed - and that night was so popular that he’s coming back this week to a Shrewsbury Coffeehouse event at the Lion Hotel.*

To be able to bring to Shrewsbury musicians of this calibre  – especially to a new venue - is quite a feat.  But in the coming year, the Coffeehouse also has booked Tim Kliphaus, the Dutch virtuoso violinst who trained with Stephane Grappelli;  Clive Carroll; John Doyle, who played for Barack Obama at The White House on St Patrick’s Day; and Catfish Keith, American acoustic blues singer-songwriter/steel guitarist.    

Jessicah loves it that people of all ages come to these events.  She also loves it that other groups use the Coffeehouse too. There’s a book club and a thriving poetry group, and everybody from bus users’ groups to school PTAs are holding their meetings in the Coffeehouse.  ‘If it’s open, why not?’ Jessicah says.  ‘The space is there to be used.’ 

How does Jessicah see the Coffeehouse developing? More work needs to be done on the food front, she reckons, introducing interesting cheeses and meats, and breakfasts including fruit and yoghurt. And it would great to have lectures sometimes. Jessicah  would love to get people in to talk about their different fields – art history, philosophy, science or whatever.  And on the subject of science, she’d love a New Scientist magazine club where instead of sitting round talking about books, people could talk about latest articles.  If someone volunteered [hint] to set it up, she’d give it her full support.  However, with a baby just ten weeks away, even someone as active and busy as Jessicah can see that it isn’t the moment to be doing it herself.

When that baby comes, I’ll let you all know.  We’ll hang out the buntings and raise a glass.  For now, however, it’s time to say goodbye. Jessicah stands on the doorstep.  Today’s her ‘day off’, but already she’s been into the Coffeehouse once, then on here to talk to me, and now she’s heading back again to find the Coffeehouse diary and book an event. 

I say I hope that when she gets there, she won’t stay. What she should be doing is going home, putting up her feet and taking a rest.  If you see her doing anything else, tell her straight.  But will she listen?  Will she hell.

What's on at The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse

*STOP PRESS:  This Friday, April 19th