Wednesday, 3 July 2013

La Vie en Rose, in Shrewsbury

I have roses on my mind. For a couple of weeks now, walking around Shrewsbury, their scents have been wafting towards me.  They're in the Dingle. They're in that Quarry bed up by the main gates. Crossing St Alkmund’s Square, I catch the scent of them and find as delicate a yellow rose as I’ve ever seen anywhere.  Next to it, I find a cluster of fluffy pink bush-roses on tiny, graceful stalks.  Then, passing St Julian’s, I look up to find flame-red climbers gracing the church wall.  Then on the convent wall, behind Old St Chad’s, I find blowsy pink roses nearly past their best, though with a few buds still to open out. 

By now I've reached the top of Belmont Bank. I stand still and  smell the roses but can’t figure out where their scent is coming from.  I look around.  Where are they?  I walk on, but still I can’t locate them.   

They talk about Shrewsbury being a town of flowers.  Some flowers I actively dislike [begonias to name just one] but I love it that in a busy town centre with cars passing by you can still stop at the scent of a rose and look around to see where it is.  Closer to home, I only have to open the gate into my daughter’s garden and it’s as if I’ve lifted the glass stopper on a bottle of perfume.  And even closer still, outside my own house, a rose bush my husband and I bought one year at the Shrewsbury Flower Show is spreading across our old brick wall, scattering its blooms like stars.  

I’ve been out this morning tying them back.  Is this a particularly good year for them, I wonder, or is it just that I’m noticing them more for some reason? I ask Joyce of Lulu Flowers, and she reckons it’s a good year, courtesy of all that rain.  I’m in her shop now, having a cup of tea, and it’s not just roses I can smell - it’s sweet peas too, and stock, sweet william and peonies. 

Joyce’s shop is full of smells, and on every side of me are beautiful blooms, velvet-red roses and snow-white ones, bright green shamrock crysanthemums, and pink, strangely plastic-looking anthurriums,  sweet-smelling freesias, flame-coloured Peruvian lilies - which Joyce describes as good ‘doers’, whatever that means - then stocks, huge pink peonies and a tumbling cascade of tiny purple flowers called lisianthus.

Joyce has had Lulu Flowers for five years now.  She sells vintage items as well as flowers - household items mostly, and they obviously bring in the trade because in the sort time it takes to drink my first cup of tea a couple of customers have come in for conversations with Joyce, either wanting to sell her or buy vintage items. 

Joyce came to floristry from working for a wholesaler importing carnations, and to that from gardening, and to gardening as an antidote to her life as a biker chick.  You think you know people, but so often you don’t.  I’ve been coming into Joyce’s shop since she took it on, but I’ve never seen the biker in her.  Yet here we are discussing Norton Commandos and Kawasaki ZL1000 [the Eliminator, in case you’re interested] and the bikes she and husband Terry keep in their enormous garage but no longer take out on the road. 

Joyce left Shrewsbury when she was young, thinking it had nothing to keep her here.  In her day she’s been a member of the all-girl bike group, the Amazons, and a biker rock chick in one of the big biker gangs.  Terry was in a biker gang as well, too, though he's not any more.  He’s a Shrewsbury man, but it was biking that brought him and Joyce together.

What happens to bikers when they give up the bikes, I want to know [buying flower shops, you have to admit, isn’t the first thing that comes to mind].  Joyce says she bought a nippy little Mazda - the RX8 - a bit like a go-kart is how she describes it.  ‘It has a rotary engine, massive horse-power and small CC,’ Joyce says.  'You had to know how to drive it.'  The last time Terry took it out, he succeeded in writing it off, putting on a performance of almost theatrical scale, skidding on the old A5 and ending up [though not ending up, if you see what I mean] in the cemetery, perched on a bank above a row of graves.

I thought I’d come in for a nice chat about roses, and here I am talking about engines, accidents and graves. And that’s the quiet part of Joyce’s life.  I’m beginning to get the feeling she has quite a story to tell.  Certainly, she admits, she had a tumultuous decade during her biker days, awash with accidents, injury and ill-health.  All of this started with her mother’s death when she was eighteen. It was that that loosened her connection with Shrewsbury.

Joyce is a Shrewsbury girl from a Shropshire and predominantly Shrewsbury background, and it means everything to her to have returned to her roots.  Her mum grew up in Astley, near Hadnall, and worked for Silhouette.  Her dad lived in Belle Vue.  His memories included cycling up Wyle Cop as a bakers’ boy, and working at the Lion Hotel as a hotel porter.  Joyce’s nan worked at the Gala bingo hall just down the road from where we are now, and her grandfather was a train driver in the days of steam.  Typically of Shrewsbury, she and Terry discovered when they got together that his dad had worked on the steam trains too – as stoker to Joyce’s grandfather. But then that's Shrewsbury for you. It’s a town whose roots go deep and wide.

Joyce first heard rumours on the Shrewsbury grapevine that Lulu Flowers might up for sale. Her father had died and she’d come into an inheritance. Suddenly it seemed to her that a floristry shop was just what she wanted.  Not only that, but an ex-colleague and talented florist, Sherlie Haycox [who has been at Lulu Flowers ever since] was looking for work too.

There was a magic moment when these things all came together.  Joyce describes it now as going mad. The shop came up, and she bought it.  She might have been to floristry college, but she’d no experience of running a business. However, she knew what she wanted, and  she knew that working for herself would suit a strong-willed person like herself, who had never been much good at taking instructions and liked to do things her own way. Liked following her gut instincts too.

‘I wanted to create a shop that in some way reflected me,’ Joyce says.  ‘I’m a very English girl at heart, I love the countryside on the outskirts of Shrewsbury and I wanted my shop to be English, flowery, natural and, I guess, feminine.  But I wanted to mix things up a bit as well. I’m not a person who likes to keep things simple, and Lulu Flowers had a vintage side as well, and that mix is why I went for it.’ 

Back in those days, Lulu Flowers was situated in School Gardens, tucked away behind Castle Gates.  Now it’s on Castle Street in a prime position just down from Marks & Spencer's on the other side of the road.  ‘When I come back from being away,’ Joyce says, ‘I'm overwhelmed with how pretty my shop is, and absolutely thrilled at what I’ve achieved.  When I’m here all the time, though, I wish that I was tidier. I’ve always got a hundred jobs to do,  and I’m always busy and it shows.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I like every day being different, and in a shop like this it is.’

I wander around the shop.  Behind the counter are an assortment of clipboards full of notes, scissors, pots, bows, raffia and rolls of celophane. Then mixed up with the flowers and plants is an assortment of vintage stuff - pretty tea and coffee sets, old ornamental vases, pots and jugs, original paintings and interesting-looking old photographs.  There’s a series of cigarette cards mounted and hanging in one window - the History of Naval Dress, I see as I look closer - and a dolls’ house in the other, made by John Davies of Shrewsbury, bids accepted for charity, and it’s reached the £200 mark so far.

There are also a number of bird boxes dotted about.  I notice a bat box, an owl box and a fancy-bird feeding observatory. These are made by the company E.G. Wildhouse, run by Edward Giles, ex of Shrewsbury School, who has spent his university college holidays making them. They're lovely things. The bird-feeding observatory has a camera set into its tiny slate roof so that back in the comfort of home, it's possible to watch what’s going on in the bird-feeding world.

And Joyce's world, I wonder. What does she do when she’s not in the shop?  She and Terry have a place in Criccieth, she says.  She loves going down there, loves the beach and the open sky.  She’s always loved that sense of sky above her head.  She’s done a bit of travelling in her time – Australia, the Far East, New York.  When she came back to Shrewsbury from New York, she couldn’t get over how close the sky was. She feels in touch with the natural world here. And that’s important to Joyce.

On her counter, I notice a note to self about Saturday flowers.  Every week one of her customers has flowers sent to her mother, who lives in a nursing home.  That’s a nice idea, Joyce and I agree.  Another nice idea is Lonely Bouquet Day when florists not just in the UK but right across the world, from California to Singapore, not leaving out the Scilly Isles, Yorkshire and, of course, Shrewsbury, leave bouquets around their towns, to be picked up by whoever finds them.  Joyce did this last Saturday, which was International Lonely Bouquet Day.  Flowers  free to a good home were left outside the library, the Old Market Hall and even on the outskirts of town.  I hope I can make you smile, and you will please take me home, announced the docket with the bouquet, and there was a Facebook link in case  people wanted to photo their bouquets in their own homes and share them around.   

Joyce is full of stories. Some of them are of hard times.  What she went through in her biker days would set your hair on end. She describes Terry as her rescuer, who came to bring her home when things got bad.  She’s a Shrewsbury lass through and through, and it’s entirely fitting that she’s created her business in the heart of a town to which her family have been connected for generations.  

Joyce is great with words, by which I don’t mean that she talks a lot [which she’s certainly capable of doing] but that she uses exactly the right words to get across what she wants to say. She’s forthright and honest and can’t help but tell a thing as it is. Honesty’s my affliction, is how she puts it, and later, talking about the human scale of things here in Shrewsbury, and about the town rooting her and keeping her safe, she talks about the river holding everything in a fixed hug.

If you’ve ever seen a map of Shrewsbury, wrapped around by the River Severn, you’ll know what Joyce means.  And if you live here you’ll know.  Suddenly I find myself back to La Vie en Rose again, which is where I began.  I’ve come a long way round, but here we are.  When he takes me in his embrace, I see life as through rose-tinted spectacles, sings Edith Piaf [probably terrible translation but best I can do].  And you can hear her sing it, if you want.  Watch her face as she sings it in this really lovely clip. Watch her hands.  HERE’S THE LINK.   


HERE'S the Lulu Flowers Facebook page
HERE'S the Lulu Flowers website


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