Ms X and I hadn’t had a trip out together for a while, so last Thursday we decided to make up for lost time and take afternoon tea [or, in Ms X’s case strawberry milkshake] in the sunshine in Lily’s Riverside Tea Garden. Four days later, with clouds rolling across the sky, that balmy Thursday feels like a fading vision of summer. I hope I’m wrong about that.
Certainly I wasn’t wrong to take Ms X to Lily’s. Where else in Shrewsbury was she likely to find stuffed monkeys hanging from trees, lantern-lit grottoes, swans gliding across lakes of mirror glass, a fairy castle, a naked doll sun-bathing on a doll-sized park bench and hedges stuffed with soft toys? Stepping down into Lily’s garden we entered Wonderland - flowers cascading over each other, trees vying for the light, hedge after hedge creating tunnels and secret corners, a splash of sunlight here, deep shade there – and the shade, more often than not, lit up by fairy lights.
Lily’s, I discovered, was a great place to lose a child. Exploring was irresistible. Ms X was electrified. If we’d been on one of our secret shopping missions she’d have given Lily’s Riverside Tea Garden a resounding five stars. Almost our entire visit was spent with her running full-pelt around Lily’s maze of paths, discovering gnomes, fountains, silver sculptures, tinsel-trimmed umbrellas, gilded Buddhas, even a tiny Bebop jazz band. Much as Ms X loves strawberry milkshakes, it was as much as I could do to pin her down with one in a big pink glass with a straw.
Have you ever been to Lily’s? If you haven’t [as you may be realising by now] you’re missing a treat. It’s on Smithfield Road, just after the old boxing club and opposite the bus station - the last of a row of terraced houses, with nothing to prepare you for what’ll greet you as you step through the gate.
Lily’s been living in that house for twenty-five years. She wanted somewhere with a garden, she said, but the garden she ended up with was choked with brambles. Undaunted she set to, determined to allow nothing to put her off. But the other problem she discovered was that her garden [and house] were vulnerable to floods.
Over the years, Lily said, she’d grown accustomed to the floods, learning to read the Severn and gauge how high it was likely to come. Occasionally it reached as high as the roof of her patio – which, from a summer's day perspective, is shockingly high. ‘Just by looking at the river I can guess what I’m in for,’ Lily said. ‘And then everything has to be moved up higher. Sometimes I lose things. I’ll leave something behind, reckoning it’s too heavy for the river to budge, but I’ll be wrong.’
Nothing daunts Lily for long, however. Not even floods. Her garden even benefits, she reckons, from all the silt washed down river off the fields. Her great love is her garden, and everywhere you look it shows. Lily's dad and brother had both been gardeners, she said, but her husband wasn’t into gardening - as a carpenter he’d shaped the garden in other ways. ‘We didn’t plan all this,’ Lily said. ‘It just happened bit by bit.'
To begin with the garden had no privacy. People were always coming along Smithfield Road and looking down at the garden with its view over the river, so Lily started planting trees to give them a bit of shelter, and growing shrubs and hedges. She started building arches too, and creating nooks and crannies that gave her endless pleasure. Then she thought why not let other people enjoy it instead of keeping it to ourselves - and that was the start of Teapots.
Lily’s first attempt at a riverside café, Teapots, opened fifteen years ago and ran for six. Then Lily turned Teapots into what it is now - her Riverside Tea Garden. ‘I have it open for six months of the year,’ Lily said, ‘and it doesn’t make a fortune, but I like having it and it covers its costs.’
Lily is very matter of fact about things. Over the years, she’s had all sorts of problems, but she tells them with a poker face. In the rain, she said, she used to have a lot of trouble with paths coming up. Then there was a methane problem, gas building up in the culverts running under her garden making their way into the Severn.
This problem was only correctly identified and dealt with after Lily’s garden wall collapsed into the river. It took three years to put right. Severn Trent had to barge across supplies from the far shore. Eventually they sorted out the culverts and rebuilt Lily’s collapsed bank with steel, but the council forced them to come back and do it with brick. For several years, there was no tea, and precious little garden, but now everything is safe, secure and thriving again.
Lily’s garden is very personal. It’s like looking into a person’s face and seeing who they are. Lily declined to be photographed, but then she didn’t need to – she had her garden to speak for her. Where did the ideas come from - all these grottoes, green tunnels, golden Buddhas and Shivas, children’s toys, Chinese lanterns and all the rest?
Lily and her husband used to be landlord and lady of the Albion Vaults, at the station end of Castle Gates. One Christmas, Lily decorated their big double windows for a competition, which the Vaults won. At New Year, she did it again. Her regulars liked it. She did it for Valentine’s Day and then suddenly the changing window decorations were a feature of the Albion Vaults.
‘That’s where most of the stuff around the garden has come from,’ Lily said. ‘We don’t have the pub any more, but we brought the window display stuff over with us and, bit by bit, I’ve found it a new home.’
I wondered if Lily had any outstanding plans, or if she saw her work here as completed. She’d like more water features, Lily said. There used to be a stream running down the side of the garden with boulders in it, but they’d been washed away by one of the floods, and now she’d like to have more fountains, and maybe another stream somewhere.
Recently, too, Lily handed over the day-to-day running of the tea garden to her daughter, Dirrie. Lily and her husband have four children, three boys and a girl. Sometimes Lily’s daughter-in-law helps out too, and her granddaughters have worked as waitresses.
There’s a distinct family feel about the place. While I was there, people kept coming in whom Lily knew. They were plainly regulars, or family or friends. ‘Afternoon, Chris…’ ‘Hot enough for you, Jim.... ‘Dirrie, there’s a family down by the corner, haven’t been seen to yet…’ Lily may no longer be in charge, but her eyes, I noticed, didn’t miss a thing.
It was time to leave. There was only so long I could keep Ms X in check. We paid our bill, said goodbye to Bobbie the dog, thanked Lily for talking to us and headed for home. If you fancy a tea garden adventure, do drop in. Lily will make you welcome - but only in the summer months.