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...
...cat-calling 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 lots of other here's as well]
[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.