Monday, 29 July 2013

LIly's Riverside Tea Garden - Another Ms X Adventure

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 cafĂ©, 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.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

STOP PRESS: The Angel Awards

A couple of days ago, heading home at the end of the afternoon, I dropped in on St Alkmund’s Church, drawn in by its wide open doors and the tiny flames of candles burning before the altar.  Immediately inside the porch, mounted on an A-board, I read: Welcome beloved of the Lord, who made you the unique being that you are, and desires even more than you do that you realize your full potential – a human being fully alive, physically, mentally and spiritually.

I liked that. It warmed the cockles of my heart - not that they needed much help on such a warm day.  I also liked the white gauze bows at the ends of the pews. They were for a wedding, I later learned, but they made the church look out of Swan Lake. 

I stood at the back, staring up the aisle towards the altar. I’d only meant to stick my head in through the door, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Sunlight poured through tall windows of clear glass, lighting up the ornate gold work on the dove-grey organ.  I took a photograph of it. I walked up the aisle and took a photograph of candles in a sand-box.  I photographed a plinth of flowers before the altar and the painted window behind it. I turned around and photographed the pews, the aisle and the west window of the church through which sunlight was pouring. I felt as if I’d stepped out of ordinary life into a place where time, well, was just different.  Just as I was thinking this, up popped Resident Priest, Richard Hayes.

Richard is an enthusiastic man at the best of times. Even so, by his own standards, he was fizzing with enthusiasm that afternoon. Had I heard the news, he wanted to know.  No, of course I hadn’t.  It wasn’t until Saturday [ie. today] that it would be announced.  He grinned at me.  When Richard grins, his whole face lights up.

So here we are on Saturday, and the news is out that St Alkmund’s Church had been short-listed for English Heritage’s prestigious Angel Awards. Co-sponsored by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, and supported by the Daily Telegraph, these exist to celebrate the efforts of local people to save historic buildings and places, and are presented every year in the Palace Theatre in London.  The judging panel is chaired by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, and this year’s judges are English Heritage Chief Executive, Simon Thurley, Bettany Hughes, Charles Moore of the Telegraph and the Bishop of London, Reved Richard Chartres.

No wonder Richard was smiling when I saw him the other day. The categories of award are Best Craftsmanship Employed on a Heritage Rescue; Best Rescue of an Historic Industrial Building or Site; Best Rescue of Repair of a Place of Worship; Best Rescue of Any Other Type of Historic Building or Place; and The Favourite, as Voted for by English Heritage Members and Telegraph Subscribers. No prizes for guessing which category St Alkmund’s was in for. 

The criteria for winning involves not only buildings being at risk and in need of rescuing, but communities cherishing and working tirelessly for their restoration. Stories of overcoming setbacks and challenges are welcomed.  The future uses of such buildings are a consideration, as is the legacy created by their restoration. Finally the judges are interested in the vision of those involved in the restoration work, and their sense of inspiration and imagination.  

By the time I’d read all this, I realized that for St Alkmund’s to have made the Angel Awards short-list was indeed a feather in its cap.  However, should it win, the feather will be in Shrewsbury’s cap too. 

St Alkmund’s is an integral part of Shrewsbury’s town centre life. Surrounded by a beautiful churchyard, fine old trees and equally fine old [in many cases] half-timbered houses, it’s at the heart of the shopping and business district of the town, where a church of St Alkmund's has been situated on the site since around 900AD [the church celebrated its 1100th anniversary last year].    

Since the year 2000, work has being going on to re-roof St Alkmund’s, install photo-voltaic panels, re-glaze windows with handmade, clear glass [as they would have been in the late 18th century], re-decorate walls, restore the painted East Window, install a kitchen and toilets and generally bring the entire building into a good state of repair.  This has been a massive project for St Alkmund's congregation to undertake. The churchyard has been subtly but very successfully improved.  It’s one of Shrewsbury’s most tranquil outdoor open spaces. The church is now available for worship, lectures, concerts, drama and quiet reflection, being open daily for most of the year.

The other day, it was that sense of quiet reflection that caught my attention simply by walking past and glancing through the open door.   Maybe it’s something to do with the quality of the light.  St Alkmund’s isn’t a shadowy church with gothic nooks and crannies. Its newly-repaired windows flood the building with sunlight, creating a lovely airy space for peaceful introspection. In addition, as a town centre church, St Alkmund’s offers spiritual support to anyone wanting to develop their life of prayer. 

That’s what it says on its website, anyway.  Short courses lasting not more than a few weeks, or just a day, or even an afternoon, are available.  The chance to become a Friend of St Alkmund’s is also available, joining in the work of preserving and maintaining the fabric of this important town church.  

Certainly St Alkmund’s is the church to watch as the finals of the Angel Awards approach.  October 21st is the big date. Before then English Heritage will be making a film about the church to  show at what their website calls ‘the glittering Awards Ceremony to be held at the Palace Theatre in London’. 

So, a lot to be excited about.  No wonder Richard Hayes was grinning when I bumped into him the other day.  We made our farewells and I headed home, leaving behind long shafts of sunlight, candles and one happy priest.

PS. It would be wrong of me to write all this without mentioning a few of St Alkmund’s sponsors during this long period of restoration. Grants have been forthcoming from English Heritage, the National Churches Fund, the Leche Trust, the Georgian Group and many local Shropshire charities, including the Shropshire Historic Churches Trust.  

Awards have been forthcoming too.  In 2005, St Alkmunds won the John Betjeman Award of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, on account of the repair of its Coalbrookdale iron-framed windows, and in 2010 the Georgian Group gave St Alkmund’s its annual Award for the repair of a Georgian church. 

In addition, the Friends of St Alkmund’s and its PCC have worked tirelessly.  They too deserve a collective, quiet grin.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Bloomin' Shrewsbury

My favourite entrance to Shrewsbury is the one that takes you underneath the railway bridge from St Michael Street.  It’s so dramatic and surprising. If you’ve never been here before, I reckon it’s the best way to enter our town.  You come along this fairly ordinary if not somewhat boring street, past the Royal Mail Sorting office, which might provide a great service but is hardly the prettiest of buildings. Then there’s the railway bridge ahead of you, and that’s not exactly pretty either.  Under you go, hoping that pigeons won’t drop anything on your head - then suddenly you’re out the other side and the view is amazing.  

To one side of you is the railway station with its crenallated roofscape.  Then there's the castle, built on one of the highest points in the town.  The street ahead, Castle Gates, rises narrow and steep, tall buildings on either side.  Immediately ahead is what looks like another castle looming over the road, but when you reach it you discover it's the town library, accommodated in what was once the old Shrewsbury School building. 

By now, you're surrounded by a riot of fine stonework and half timbering, beautiful gardens and the statue of Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury’s most famous son. Beyond the gardens are the houses that are all that remains of the old eighteenth century gaol. Beyond them, on one side of the road, is the half-timbered house from which Palin's famous Shrewsbury cakes were baked and, on the other, the gatehouse to the ancient Council House.

Then the roads tilts ever so slightly to the right and, hey, you’re in the heart of modern Shrewsbury, strolling past H & M and M & S, and nothing you’ve seen so far has led you to expect this.  This entrance to the town is full of surprise - and today more so than ever.

Returning over the Dana from a stint on the allotment, I found Alexia and young Flora in the library garden selling posies of  flowers, and gardeners Andy, Jake and David leaning on their hoes. They looked like they were waiting for something to happen. I asked what it was, and Alexia  directed me to the castle, where  Shrewsbury Theatre’s Maggie Love was all dressed up and looking great.   What was going on? In the castle garden beyond her I  found Shrewsbury Youth Theatre having a Pyramus and Thisbe moment from of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Everywhere I looked there seemed to be people in the costumes of past ages.  And this was the town that I'd dared to boast on the pages of My Tonight From Shrewsbury, had a vibrant contemporary life!

It didn’t take me long to find out what was happening   It was Britain in Bloom day - and the regional judges were on their way.

For the rest of my morning, dressed in my favourite floral waistcoat, which felt nothing if not appropriate, I followed the judges around.  Outside St Mary's Church I met Lady Penelope Penhaligon and her maids, Abigail and Jennie, looking for Sir Thomas Witterley who had arranged to show them to the Raven Hotel. I pointed out the way and they were very grateful.  It was easy, I assured them, they couldn't possibly get lost, but going back two hundred years was going to be the tricky part.  Lady Penelope said that journeys through time weren't difficult to make, so I left her to it, hoping she was right.

Outside St Alkmund's, I met a small group of council officials, including Town Clerk Helen Ball, none of whom were in fancy dress.  Outside Bear Steps,  however, I met this pair.  'Are you the ladies of the night?' I asked, reliably informed that there were medieval prostitutes lurking around the top end of Grope Lane.  This was met by cold stares.  Lady Christine and her maid, Mistress Clark, were not impressed.

When I finally found them, the ladies of the night were full of fun. Their names were Debbie, June and Helen, who corrected herself, saying, 'Well, I'm Sarah, actually.  Sarah Salisbury of the late 16th century, born in Shrewsbury, but died in London.' She broke off for a bit of cat-calling.  A man had appeared.    

Down the bottom of Grope Lane, I met a pair of mere youngsters, and didn't make the mistake this time of asking if they were ladies of the night. Chloe and Ben were their names.  They were brother and sister, and had stopped to examine the markings on one of the old half-timbered building that hangs out over the lane.

Beyond them, I crossed the High Street and entered the Square, which was full of raised beds of flowers and vegetables and elegant dancers performing quadrilles [at least, I think they were quadrilles; I'm sure they'll correct me if I'm wrong]. Towering over proceedings was Shrewsbury's town cryer, and the picturesque scene was finished off with a couple of hecklers/scutchers/spinners from the Ditherington Flaxmill [which was the first iron-framed building in the world, a precursor of New York, but I won't write about that here; it deserves a post of its own].

The Square was full.  How everybody would have packed in if the controversial work on Princess House had been done, it's hard to imagine.  A crowd came streaming out of the job centre and filled it even more. I thought they must have stopped work to watch the dancing, but it turned out they'd been evacuated because a fire alarm had gone off. This meant that suddenly, along with everything else, a fire engine had to be squeezed into the Square.

I left the Square, heading for the peace and quiet of the judges' final destination - the Dingle in Shrewsbury's Quarry.  Here I found Margaret, daughter of Percy Thrower, standing before her father's bust.  She was the oldest of the famous TV gardener's daughters.  Together, she said, they'd all lived in the black-and-white house by the Quarry gates.  In fact Margaret's sisters, Sue and Ann, had been born upstairs in that house. Now it was used by the Horticultural Society, but back then it had been the Head Gardener's house. 

How did Shrewsbury fare in the regional judging stakes?  I've no idea, but the whole thing will start all over on August 5th when the National judges turn up.  I returned home to the 21st century, which was where my day began.  Like Lady Penelope had said, it wasn't a difficult journey to make.   

Shrewsbury Station. Here's way my day began

My flowery waistcoat

Alexia and Flora selling flowers

Shrewsbury Youth Theatre having a Pyramus and Thisbe moment

A member of Shrewsbury Youth Theatre acts the part of a wall

Lady Penelope Penhaligon discussing time travel...

...with her maids, Abigail and Jennie

At St Alkmund's I found Town Clerk, Helen Ball

On Fish Street, I found the ladies of the night... to the men as they went by

Ben and Chloe - a studious pair examining half-timbering methods of the 15th century

The backside of our town cryer...

...The front side of our town cryer, Martin Wood, a very tall man

Graceful dancing in the Square

Graceful flax-spinning by Maralyn Hepworth 

The flaxmill advertises itself

The fire engine approaches as Job Centre staff look on

Passing the soon-to-be new town museum and art gallery...

...I head for the Dingle, and Margaret, daughter of Percy
And here's where they once lived:

So, where are the flowers, I hear you ask.   Is this or is this not Britain in Bloom?

Here they are...

And here...

And here...

And here.
[And lots of other here's as well]

And  who are the gardeners who plant, nurture, prune and care for them?  

Here they are, too.