Saturday, 28 September 2013

A Birthday Present To Myself

I’ve written a lot over the last nine months about other people, other Shrewsbury lives, other facets of Shrewsbury’s 2013.  This time though, because yesterday was my birthday and it was one of those dates that has a sense of significance about it, I’ve decided to write about myself. I hope this isn’t too self-indulgent of me, but here I go:

Q. So, what’s it like, Pauline, having a birthday in Shrewsbury?
A. So far so good.  Thanks for asking.

Q. Is that all – can’t you say a bit more?
A. Like what? What more do you want to know?

Q. Well, how many Shrewsbury birthdays have you had - in other words, how long have you lived here? What brought you to Shrewsbury? How old are you? Why do you write about Shrewsbury?  What else do you write? How have you spent your day? Why the sudden decision to do a post on yourself? Why…

A. Whoa there - like they say on the Caribbean island of Caye Caulker - GO SLOW! Here are a few answers.  I hope they’ll do:

HOW LONG HAVE I LIVED IN SHREWSBURY? Sixteen years next month, though before that I lived in Worthen for a further twenty-four, moving there from London, which is where I was born.

WHAT BROUGHT ME TO SHREWSBURY?  A mixture of things.  Back in the days when I lived in London, I remember driving home through Shropshire from a weekend in north Wales and thinking how much I preferred Shropshire’s green rolling hills to the more dramatic mountains of the Snowdonia range.  I’d felt enclosed amongst the mountains, spectacular though they were, but the more open views of Shropshire and its softer hues enchanted me.

Again, a summer spent on a farm in Worcestershire, within striking distance of Ludlow, warmed me towards the rural life, in particular the Marches region on the border of Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. My husband and I brought up our family of five children in Worthen, and loved our life out there.  What brought us to Shrewsbury, though, was a recognition that the family was growing up and that the patterns of our lives were changing. My husband was commuting too far for comfort by train every day. Our children’s lives were very Shrewsbury-based. Worthen, sadly, was no longer ‘working’, much as we loved it there. In addition, a very special house in Shrewsbury town centre was on the market at a price we could afford.  It was the house as much as anything that brought us here.  I love living where I do.

HOW OLD AM I?  A few months ago, the film company R & A Collaborations made a film[] about me to celebrate the relaunch as an e-book of my novel, 'Telling the Sea'. Seen in close-up on the beach, lit by sea-light, the lines were all there, plain to see on my face, and I felt affection for them. I felt as if I’d earned them. They were as much a part of my life as the books I’ve written, the children I’ve raised and the husband who today put himself in my good books by buying me an ice-cream making machine.  I’ll never stretch and tuck and lipo-suck and dye. I’m proud of who I am – and I’m proud of my age. I’m still running round, bright-eyed at the world around me, ears pricked up at sixty-five.

WHY DO I WRITE ABOUT SHREWSBURY? A year ago, my daughter Beulah lent me a book called ‘The Gift’ by the writer Lewis Hyde.  It explored the concept of giving from early days to the present age, looking at the value and purpose of gifts in differing cultures around the world.  Time and again, as I read, I found the idea cropping up of giving back to the source that has nurtured one’s gift [be it food on the table, or the ability to write, paint or make music etc], thereby ensuring the fertility of that gift and its enrichment and continuance.

I was thinking about this one night, returning to Shrewsbury by train after a day visiting publishing friends in London.  I arrived in town late at night and began to walk up Castle Gates. The air was fresh and crisp.  It had been raining and the streets and pavements shone.  The sky was clear though - no more clouds, and ahead of me I could see the great bulk of the library and, after that, the Darwin statue in the library garden. Where else would I ever want to live?  Words and phrases rolled through my head.  My Shrewsbury… Tonight in Shrewsbury… My Tonight in Shrewsbury… and out of them an idea was born.

SO, WHAT ELSE HAVE I WRITTEN? Eleven published novels for children and young adults, one of which won the Smarties Book Prize, and the latest of which was set in the jungles of Belize, which I visited a few years ago courtesy of an Arts Council grant. Also some poetry, a few short stories, a blog and a lifetime’s worth of what I think of as ‘bits and pieces’.  Some of my novels are set in Shropshire, a couple in Shrewsbury. A few have come out as ebooks, a couple of which have been reissued by me, If you want to know more about my books, go to my website. Here’s the link:

 WHY TODAY HAVE I DECIDED TO WRITE ABOUT MYSELF?  Despite the ‘my’ in the title of this blog, the intention has always been to shine the light fair and square on Shrewsbury.  That’s still an objective I adhere to, but I do live in Shrewsbury too; I’m a part of whatever our town is all about in the year 2013, and so I reckon this has its place. You could also say this is a bit of a birthday present to myself. 

The highlights have been family, old friends, vanilla ice-cream and the Golden Cross.  Probably in that order.  Oh, and good books too.

Q. So, Pauline, you had a good day?
A. Yes.

Q. Is that all you’re going to say?
A. That’s all I’m going to say.

Q. Couldn't we just have a couple more pics?
A. Here's me trekking in the Belizean jungle [and feeling very hot], and underneath it me, aged three, all those years ago, telling stories to the big kids next door.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Hugh Owen and John Brickdale Blakeway

Meet Hugh and John. Owen and Blakemore. The Reverends Owen and Blakemore, my new best friends.  I met them in Candle Lane Books, which is where I also, years ago now, bumped into those other good friends, Georgina Jackson & Charlotte Burne. Thanks to Burne’s ‘Shropshire Folk-Lore’, my writing life has been enlivened by all sorts of fascinating Shropshire characters, including Wild Edric, the highwayman Humphrey Kynaston and Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn.  And thanks to Jackson’s ‘Shropshire Word-Book’ [one of the first dictionaries of the vernacular, interestingly], I’ve been able to converse with @Shroppiemon [another post, another day] on Twitter using Old Shropshire, which, believe me, is no mean feat.

The friends one makes through books are friends for life. Now Owen and Blakeway have joined that happy number, their ‘History of Shrewsbury’ taking pride of place upon my desk. Two hefty, glorious volumes which, like Burne and Jackson, I’m hoping will enrich my writing – and tweeting - life. There’s no doubt that they’ll enrich My Tonight From Shrewsbury too.   

Here's a painting by Philip Corbet of Hugh Owen and John Blakeway, taken from the collection of Ludlow Library & Museum Resource Centre.  John Blakeway was born in Shrewsbury in 1765 and educated at Shrewsbury School, Westminster School and Oriel College, Oxford. He was called to the bar in 1789, but after a career change entered the Church of England and in 1794 was presented to St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, where he became their vicar upon the death of his uncle. In 1807 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Nineteen years later, he died at the Council House, Shrewsbury, and was buried in St. Mary's Church, where a monument, executed by John Carline, was erected to his memory.

Hugh Owen was the son of a Shrewsbury physician. He was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, and became vicar of St Julian’s in Shrewsbury in 1791. During his ecclesiastical career he also became Prebendaries in Salisbury and Lichfield Cathedrals and vicar of Bampton Oxfordshire. In addition he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Mayor of Shrewsbury and, after the death of his friend, the Reverend John Blakeway, vicar of St Mary's.  

Like Blakeway, Owen produced and contributed to a number of publications, in his case some anonymously.  The History of Shrewsbury, for both men, was a major work. It was published in 1825, and that 1825 first-edition copy is what I have sitting on my desk.   

Expect a fair amount of history dotted around my posts over the next few months.  Owen and Blakemore are an oft-quoted authority on the history of the Shrewsbury.  Whenever  I read anything to do with our town's history, their names are always in the  footnotes. There are modern facsimile copies of their 'History of Shrewsbury' [one notable American version with snow-capped peaks on the cover, as if Shrewsbury was in the Alps]. But to have the original version sitting on my shelf is so exciting that I can scarcely contain myself. 

From Roman times until the early Victorian period Owen and Blakemore have covered it all.  Here, for example, is an engraved facsimile of the script on the Pillar of Eliseg, regarded in 1824 as the only authentic memorial to the kings of Old Powis, who reigned in Shrewsbury in the middle centuries of the first millenium.  Archbishop Usher had a perfect facsimile copy apparently, and it is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The column itself was destroyed during the English Civil War. To have come across this copy in the 'History of Shrewsbury' is to unearth a small treasure.

But it’s only the first of many treasures.  Slowly, backing themselves up with careful research, Owen and Blakeway wend their way through the centuries. Here’s our town in the days of Canute, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, in the days of Edmund Ironside [which is of particular interest to me because I have Edmund’s portrait in stained glass hanging in my window].  Here's Shrewsbury as described in the Domesday Book. Here's the impact Henry II had on our town, and here's a copy, engraved in facsimile, of his son, Richard the Lionheart’s charter to the burgesses of Shrewsbury. 

This, again, is a bit of a treasure. It’s dated three months after the royal Coeur de Lion’s return to England from fighting in the Crusades [a brief return, as it turned out].  It grants the town of Salopesbiri to be ‘holden by the burgesses thereof’ for forty marks of silver in annual rent. 

But this isn't the only charter in the book. I find another, Henry III’s this time, revealing the conditions under which freedom should be granted to slaves, or ‘natives’ as the charter refers to them:  ‘If any native of any person shall remain in the said borough [ie Shrewsbury], and hold himself in the said gild and hanse, and in lot and scot with the said burgesses for one year and one day without challenge [ie. without being claimed by his lord]: he may not be again demanded by his lord if he freely continue in the said borough.’

And I thought slavery was something that happened elsewhere, predominantly the southern states of the USA.  Well, it happened in Shrewsbury too.  

Moving on through the book, I find this. How many of you watched 'The White Queen' on television recently?  Well, according to Owen and Blakeway, Edward IV, then as Earl of March, happened to be spending his Christmas in Shrewsbury when his father died, after which [give or take a battle or two] he ascended to the English throne. Here’s Owen and Blakeway's description of his effect upon our town:  ‘It is easy to conceive the powerful effect which the presence of the heir of the crown, with a brilliant court, may have produced upon the opulence and civilization of Shrewsbury, by imparting to it somewhat of the consequence of a second capital.  Hardly surprising, therefore, that Edward’s IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen herself, was sent to Shrewsbury to be delivered of their second child, named appropriately Richard Shrewsbury [later to be murdered, one of the famous Princes in the Tower].

There’s more and more like this, all fascinating stuff.  I haven’t got to the Tudors yet, or the town’s part in the English Civil War, or the Jacobean period when the town’s medieval street plan was added to by a spate of new-build Georgian houses. Owen and Blakeway’s History is a big book in every sense.  Well, it’s two books actually, one volume on the history of the town, the other on its ecclesiastical history.  They set Shrewsbury in a national setting, which is fascinating to discover.  But they’re rich in local detail too – as you’re going to discover over the next few months.

The volumes are rich in illustrations too.  I thought I’d leave you with a few. Interesting how recognisable they are if you know Shrewsbury today:

Castle Gates - Shrewsbury Coffeehouse on right

High Street - Starbucks on right, Costa on left

Continuing the coffeehouse theme, old St Nicholas's church [Now Seremity] with Shrewsbury School [now the library] in the background

Butcher Row

The old Welch [Owen & Blakeway's spelling, not mine] Bridge

Rowley's House

St Julian's & St Alkmund's, looking up Fish Street

The last remaining Norman arch in Shrewsbury Castle. Is it still there now? Go and find out.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Phil Gillam Double Interview

We arranged to meet on Thursday. Then we changed it.  Monday. I even mailed to check I had the right time and place. Then I promptly forgot and carried on with my life, Thursday lodged firmly in my brain.  Monday evening, and an email from Phil arrived saying he’d waited in the Boathouse pub, nursing his drink, but no prize-winning children’s author had turned up. Was I all right? Embarrassment. You can imagine it. Tuesday, and we tried again - same time, same place, both of us there this time, one of us apologetic, the other gracious.

It was billed by me as the Phil Gillam/Pauline Fisk double interview.  He’d ‘do’ me for his column in the Chronicle. I’d ‘do’ him for My Tonight. Throughout the year, I’ve enjoyed Phil’s column and sometimes I bump into him on Twitter.  Now here was the man himself, tall, smiling, slightly self-depricating, a fairly laid-back sort of chap who, after thirty years in journalism, had had more to contend with than being stood up.  

So, Mr Gillam, where do we begin, and who goes first? Phil wanted to know about my writing life and where it had begun. I, in return, wanted to know about his life as a journalist for the Midlands News Association, for whom Phil works as one of five Editors, running ten newspaper titles across the region [including the Shrewsbury Chronicle]. 

Phil said that for him it all began in Shrewsbury. He was born in Springfield and grew up in Castlefields, where he went to the Lancastrian School [yes, the same Lancastrian School that was designed by Charles Bage of Flaxmill Maltings fame]. As a child he was aware that he lived in an interesting area that was rich in history. He caught the writing bug early, and so did his brother. ‘We spent our time making up comic magazines populated with super-heroes,’ said Phil.  ‘It wasn’t particularly that we were good at art, but the stories had us in their grip.’ 

A couple of years ago, Phil’s brother self-published his first children’s novel.  For him and Phil, the love of writing is as strong as ever.  ‘It’s something I can’t leave alone,’ said Phil. ‘I’m not a particularly practical person, not that hot on DIY, which is a shame for my wife, Carol. I’d rather spend my time writing.’

Phil belongs to that lucky generation of young people who went straight into a newspaper from school.  Fresh from Shrewsbury Technical College, the Midland News Association put him through five months of intensive training.  They took on twelve trainees a year, Phil said. Afterwards he began his life in journalism at the Shrewsbury Chronicle.

‘It was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee,’ Phil recalled.  ‘I certainly had my fill of buntings. There was a female reporter who did weddings, and my job was to do obituaries.’

From there Phil went to the Sunday Independent in Devon, then on Yorkshire’s Hull Times, in which city he and Carol met. He returned to the Midlands to work on the Staffordshire Newsletter, then came home to Shropshire in 1988, spending sixteen years on the Shropshire Star, both in features and on the news desk.  After that, Phil had a seven year stint on the Wolverhampton Express and Star before taking up his present position, Editor of Market Drayton's and Newport’s Advertisers, just a couple of years ago. 

Over the years, Phil has interviewed everybody from Neil Kinnock to Michael Heseltine, Joan Collins to Jimmy Tarbuck. What was Collins like, I wanted to know.  Frosty, Phil replied. And Tarbuck? Naked but for his underpants, Phil said. He was doing his show, it was the interval, he was in his dressing-room and he was running with sweat. 

And on the subject of sweat, Phil had also interviewed Tony Blair.  Blair had just made a speech and the sweat was pouring off him.  This was not long before he became Prime Minister, when he was still regarded as something of a hero. He’d got on the stage, taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. That had impressed. Back in those days, politicians didn’t do that.  

During the miners’ strike Phil interviewed Neil Kinnock.  He’d covered a meeting at which Kinnock had been speaking. When it finished, Kinnock swept through to the back of the hall and Phil and his photographer followed him. They ended up sharing a few whiskies.  Phil got his interview.

Another time Phil found himself huddled in the back of a car with Roy Hattersley.  It was the mid-eighties.  The world seemed more politicized then, Phil said.  Hatterley had given a good speech and as he left somebody asked Phil if he fancied coming along too and grabbing the chance of an interview – which he did.

What was the best thing about being a features writer, I wanted to know. Going into people’s homes, Phil said. Seeing their books on the shelves, their pictures on the walls, having time and space to bring those things into the feature.  It had also been great to do unusual things like flying in a jet fighter, or going to sea with the RNLI.

Phil and his wife, Carol, have three sons, David, Tom and Alex. David spends much of his time these days in New York, though his company is based in Bristol.  He’s a graphic designer. Tom’s area of interest is the charity sector; until recently he worked for the Red Cross. Alex is just off to Cardiff University to study Physics and Maths.  Theirs had always been a noisy house, Phil said. It was going to be strange to have all three boys gone.

When my own children left home, I found extra time freed up for writing. Maybe Phil was hoping for the same. Being a writer, he said, and being a journalist were two different things.  One was work whilst the other, more than just a hobby, was a labour of love.  Over the years, Phil has started and abandoned a number of writing projects, including a novel for teenagers. Recently, however, he's brought out his first novel, joining the growing trend of authors who’ve abandoned traditional publishing for doing it themselves. 

The book’s called ‘Shrewsbury Station Just After Six’.  It’s available on Amazon [where you really can look inside, unlike here] and in Pengwern Books [ if you want to reserve a copy]. ‘Happiness. What exactly is that?’ runs the byline. ‘Finding happiness is not always as easy as it seems.’

People who’ve read the book, and know Phil, say that it has his voice all over it. He hopes to write a series of novels set in Shrewsbury, possibly following the fortunes of the same group of characters. I tell him I’m thinking of setting my next book in Shrewsbury too, and he laughingly says we could be the start of the next Bloomsbury.

I’m not so sure about that, but there definitely is something about the Shrewsbury air that makes one want to be creative. A week or so ago, selling books out at the Battlefields 1403 Farmshop and Visitor Centre, Phil came across Linda Edwards doing the same with her lovely ‘Sunny Side of the Street in Shrewsbury’ tea cloths and mugs.  Our town is full of creative people like Phil and Linda. And it’s a town people want to know about. A woman came up to Phil at Battlefields and picked up his book.  ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for,’ she said.  ‘Do you know Shrewsbury?’ said Phil. ‘No,’ she said. But she bought the book.

In his life as a journalist, Phil’s love of Shrewsbury is plain to see.  He once ran a column entitled ‘Down Your Street’, which had him knocking on doors all over Shrewsbury, getting himself invited in to talk to people about their neighbourhood. 

In his Chronicle column, too, Phil is always banging the Shrewsbury drum. He wouldn’t want our town turned into a museum piece, and he’s keen to see us make the most of what we have, which means no more old buildings being knocked down. ‘Who in their right mind came up with the idea of getting rid of the Raven Hotel and replacing it with the building that’s there now?’ he said.  We can’t allow that to happen again. That’s why I think we need to save The Stew.’

For a while, Phil and I had been agreeing on Twitter about The Stew on Frankwell Quay, an eighteenth century merchant’s house and warehouse with a medieval history.  Now here was our chance to do so in the flesh. Phil said Shrewsbury had as many fine buildings as Chester, maybe even more, but it didn’t sell itself enough. ‘It’s a gorgeous place,’ Phil said. ‘The other day I was crossing Kingsland Bridge, and I just stopped and stared.  I couldn’t move on. The view was just breathtaking.’

Somewhere on my camera, I knew, I had a photo of the view from Kingsland Bridge.  When I returned home, I dug it out.  Here it is. What do you think? Beat this for an entrance to a town.  

Monday, 9 September 2013

Shrewsbury's Flaxmill Maltings

A year in the life of our town can’t not include [double negative, I know] Shrewsbury's Flaxmill Maltings.  Its location out at Ditherington is slightly outside the boundary of this blog, but it’s such an important building, of international significance, that it would be a crime against Shrewsbury not to include it.  Especially as, equipped with a hard hat, I visited it yesterday.

The Flaxmill Maltings was having an Open Weekend, providing a last chance to see it before multi-million pound redevelopment work begins.  In particular, I wanted to see the South Silo before it’s blown up. A laser show was on in the main body of the Silo, with music, dancing and fluid light.  The Silo’s stairs were open to the public, so it was possible to climb to the top floor and view the spires of Shrewsbury and the outskirts of town. 

The windows at the top were netted and barred, but it was still a good view.  My companion complained all the way upstairs and down again about the Silo being blown up on the thin excuse of concrete cancer. This was easily treatable, he said, and the Silo should be turned into flats, their rents helping pay for the upkeep of the rest of the Flaxmill Maltings. To many people, however, the Silo is just a massive concrete box taking up land that could be put to better use. It may be part of the Flaxmill Maltings complex, but has nothing like the merit of the other buildings on site.

The history of the Flaxmill Maltings is an interesting one. In 1796, two Shrewsbury men, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, joined forces with John Marshall of Leeds to construct a flaxmill.  After extensive tests on the structural properties of iron, Charles Bage [recognized as one of the pioneers of structural engineering], designed them an entirely new type of mill.  Mills at that time were highly dangerous, built of brick and stone, with wooden floors. The dust from the spinning process, along with the volatility of lubricants for machinery and the use of candlelight to work by meant that it was easy for them to burn down. Charles Bage’s Flaxmill, however, built of brick and iron, was completely fireproof.

The Flaxmill was built at a time when the woollen trade in Shrewsbury was in decline, which meant that as well as offering good transport links and a ready market for the mill’s products, Shrewsbury also was able to offer the new enterprise skilled workers.  The building remained a mill for over a hundred years. In 1897 it was adapted by William Jones Maltsters, for use as a maltings, and it remained a maltings until the company’s bankruptcy in 1934.  In World War II the building was used as a barracks, but in 1948 it was taken on as a maltings again by Ansells. So it remained until 1987, which means that, more likely than not, there are people in our town who remember working there.

The value of the Flaxmill Maltings, however, isn’t just its history, or the fact that it’s an attractive building, which would enhance its surroundings if restored.  Its value lies in its innovative design - and that in turn owes everything to its iron frame.  

The Main Mill, which now faces regeneration, is the oldest iron-framed building in the world. This means that New York and every other city that has ever put up a skyscraper owes a debt of gratitude to the Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings, still standing here in Shrewsbury 217 years after it was first conceived, courtesy of its iron frame. Not only that, but together with the Cross Mill and Warehouse, the complex has three of the ten oldest iron-framed buildings in the world, and the design of the Flaxmill by Charles Bage is of international significance for its use of structural engineering within building design.

In other words, every way you look at it, the Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings is of international importance. The site in its entirety is a virtually complete surviving example of a major textile mill, and the Cross Mill is believed to be the only surviving example of a hackling shop built for a textile mill.

Interestingly, John Marshall of Leeds is the person who purchased the rights to the flax-spinning machine when it was first invented, bringing cutting-edge manufacturing technology to Shrewsbury.  And as well as designing the Flaxmill and playing his part in the history of structural engineering, Charles Bage also became Mayor of Shrewsbury. Both were important men in their day.  

Here in Shrewsbury, the fight has been on for years to save the Flaxmill Maltings. Open Weekends like the one I’ve just been to have been held to raise public awareness.  The history of the building has been celebrated with spinners in costume weaving flax. Exhibitions have been put on. Tours around the building have been available.  This last weekend alone has had guided tours, a family trail and family activities, a film room, live music, a photography exhibition and installation, flax demonstrations and an interpretation and discovery area.

It might have been raining, and the building might have been swathed in scaffolding, but there was a distinct buzz about the place. Smiles were on the faces of the volunteers, and the Heritage Lottery logo – proudly places everywhere - was smiling too.  Back in July, the Heritage Lottery fund granted Shrewsbury £12.8 for the Flaxmill Malting’s regeneration. After years of struggling to save it, the future of this world class site, an important part of Shrewsbury life and a first-class tourist asset too, is now assured. 


Work will start on the Flaxmill Maltings almost straight away, with a view to the site being open to business and the public by April 2016.  The injection of cash will pay for the Flaxmill’s first phase of redevelopment, which will also see the Kiln, Dye and Stove House, and offices and stables, being restored. This will be a major project, one that Shrewsbury is rightly excited about.  Last autumn, whilst in Toronto, I visited the Distillery District, a part of that very modern city’s preserved past. Housed in a massive old distillery and accompanying outbuildings and warehouses are craft shops, high-end jewellers, boutiques, bars, restaurants and exhibition spaces.  This is a quality destination full of interest and charm, away from Toronto’s skyscrapers and reminiscent of the city’s industrial past. People flock to it. They love it. If you’re coming to Toronto, you’ve got to see it, they say.

And the same could go for the Flaxmill Maltings. People could flock to it as well, locals and tourists alike, making it not only a commercial destination, but a significant destination on the tourist trail around the British Isles. Shrewsbury is a great destination anyway, with a wealth of old buildings, beautiful riverside parkland, quiet squares, old shuts and passageways and a wealthy of tiny, independent shops. A massive amount of work has gone into saving the Flaxmill Maltings and securing Lottery funding. Now we need to be imaginative in terms of putting the site to good use, casting our net wide, looking to other places who’ve gone before us, and learning from them.   

If you’d like to get involved in the future of Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings as one of its Friends, here’s the link:

If you’d like to visit the website for the Flaxmill Maltings, here’s the link:

Friday, 6 September 2013

C.R. Birch & Son

I’ve been shopping in Birch’s since the week I first became a home owner.  I’d bought a cottage out at Worthen in need of repair, with a large, sprawling garden. It was to Birch's I came for hammers, nails, buckets, brooms, paraffin and garden tools. I was a young woman then, without any children, and now I’m a grandmother. It’s thirty-seven since I first shopped in Birch’s, and to me it hasn’t changed a bit. But that’s not how Margaruite Birch tells it. 

‘The day the cattle market closed,’ she said, ‘everything changed, the whole town - and that included Birch’s. Tuesday was always the big day. The highlight of the week. There’d be coach loads of people coming in from the country. The town would be heaving. We had the exit to the market opposite our shop. The farmers wives would come in and leave their baskets with us, then go off up Pride Hill to enjoy themselves. At the end of the day, they’d collect their baskets and go round the back of the Raven Hotel to be meet up with their husbands and get a lift back home.'

Back in those days, C.R. Birch & Son primarily served the farming community. It sold TVO [tractor vaporizing oil, to you and me], diesel and paraffin. Its tanker went around the farms. In the shop at the bottom of Roushill, it sold hay forks, pig troughs, soft soap in buckets, mothballs [for keeping mice out of the combine harvesters and protecting the leather seats of vintage cars] brummocks [look ‘em up on Google if you don’t know] and thistle podgers.  It also sold leather horse gear and saddlery.

Charlie Birch bred champion trotting horses. In the Birch’s inner sanctum, at the back of the shop, the walls are dotted with photographs of Charlie and his horses.  His favourite, Countess Dewey, became Champion of Great Britain for three years, 1933-35, and over twenty years later, in 1957, Charlie won the GB championship with Miss Azoff on a trotting race-course near Edinburgh. For many years, the magnificent silver cup he brought home with him resided in the front of the shop for Birch’s customers to see.

Charlie, known in the family as Pop, started C.R. Birch & Son in 1909 – in other words a staggering 104 years ago - renting what had been the blacksmith’s business of Messrs John and Thomas Jones [which in its turn went back to the early 1800s at least] and turning it into a shop.  Interestingly, the shop stands on the site of the old town wall, one half on what would have been one side of the wall, the other half of the shop on the other.  

By 1922, so successful was Charlie’s business that he was able to buy the property outright, and it’s remained in the family ever since. His sons Richard and Gordon joined him in the business. When Charlie died in 1959, Gordon continued with it until his own unexpected death, at the age of 52, in 1972.

‘Charlie was my father-in-law,’ Margaruite said.  ‘I married into the family and Gordon and I had two sons, Peter and Christopher. Gordon ran the business with the help of Arthur Dixon, Pop’s half brother, who had worked alongside him for many years. The business didn’t feature domestic hardwear and garden products, like it does now, until the Sixties when the cattle market and auction yard moved to their new site at Harlescott, taking the farming community with it.  Gordon was a wonderful man. Wonderful. After he’d gone I took over the business.’

Gordon would be proud of what Margaruite has achieved, still working in the shop forty-one years later, and so would Pop.  Margaruite said that, at first, working in Birch’s was a matter of being thrown in at the deep end.  ‘There I was with Peter and Christopher,’ she said,  ‘knowing next to nothing about running a business.  But the boys came in with me as they finished college, first Peter and then Christopher. And the customers were wonderful.  I don’t know what I would have done without them. Particularly the old farmers - they knew where everything was, and they told me. And then, of course, there was Freda.’

According to Margaruite, Freda Middle is an ‘honourary Birch’.  She came straight from school in Bishop’s Castle in 1960, and works in Birch’s to this day.  There was a sense of harmony about the business, she, Freda and Peter all agreed, and it was to do with how well they all knew each other, and knew the business.

‘We have some wonderful memories,’ said Margaruite.  ‘Like the time a pig got out of the market and came rushing through the shop.  It crossed Smithfield Road, leapt into the river, swam across it - which is how I know that pigs can swim - and tried to get away across the grazing fields of Frankwell.  I’ll never forget the drovers chasing after it.  There was no footbridge then, so they had to go round by the Welsh Bridge.  That wasn’t the only time, either, that we had animals in the shop.  It happened a number of times.’

While Margaruite was talking, a little man came into the shop and asked for a glass of water. Peter fetched him one.  They shared a few words about the weather. The man drained his glass. ‘Do you feel better for that?’ Peter said.  The man nodded and left, Peter extracting the glass from him on the way out.  ‘He comes in sometimes for chocolates,’ Margaruite said. ‘I don’t think he has a clue where he is. But then over the years we’ve seen so many funny people. Only the other week we had a man come in asking for a chamber pot.  We didn’t have one, and he’d already tried Rackhams with no success.  His bladder was weak, he said, and his feet didn’t work, so we sold him a bucket with a lid.  It would hold more than a chamber pot, we said.’

Margaruite’s a great mimic.  When she tells a story, you can hear the voices as she remembers them.  Like the man who had a mouse come for breakfast every day, grapes and digestive biscuits.  He was a very nice mouse, the man said, but now he was bringing his family with him and plainly the man couldn’t feed them all. They had to go. Could Birch’s help?

Margaruite has a stack of mouse stories. They all seem to involve people of kind disposition towards the little creatures cosied up in their homes. Take Mr Kershaw of School Gardens, who couldn’t bear to kill the mouse that visited his balcony, so wanted a trap to catch it humanely.  Every day he caught it, removed it as far as the greenery and tipped it out, but then next day there would be another mouse until finally, he admitted to Freda, he was overrun. ‘Have you considered that it might be the same mouse?’ suggested Freda.  The man hadn’t, but next time he caught a mouse he branded it with a dash of paint.  The next time they saw him, he was in a real temper. 'That mouse!  I've caught it forty-five times!' he said.

Then there was the lady, very Welsh, who rang up with a problem.  ‘Oh, Mr Birch,  have you got a piece of wood, 36” x 4”, for the bottom of my bedroom door?’ ‘Do you want a draught excluder?’ asked Christopher. ‘No,’ said she. ‘I’ll tell you what it is.  I was in bed and I felt a wriggling on my back.  I turned over, and it was still there. I got out of bed, and a mouse shot out of my nightie.  Well, I don’t want to kill it.  It has a right to life.  That’s why I want the wood.  To stop it coming back.’  Result:  Christopher drove out to nail wood to bottom of bedroom door.

Driving out to attend to people’s needs seemed to be part and parcel of Birch’s service to its customers.  ‘There was an old couple by the name of Minshall,’ Margaruite said. ‘He was blind and she was dizzy, but they mostly got along all right.'  One time, though, they phoned the shop in a bit of a state. Where’s the lad, they wanted to know.  'We need him, see.' Why did they need him, Margaruite asked. They were locked out of their house, they said.  They wanted him to break in.  But he mustn’t break the glass. And he didn’t. ‘The lad’ undid a latch and squeezed in through a window. All part of the Birch’s service.

‘We miss the old farmers,’ Margaruite said.  ‘For a few years after the market closed, the wives still came in leaving their baskets at the shop. This continued until the older generation had gone. We miss the equine business too. When Pop started Birch’s he used to make cart greases, and embrocation for the horses.  You’d see him in the shop cleaning harnesses. We sold all sorts of riding equipment, both for working horses and leisure ones. Pop’s red, white and blue halters were for full-sized horses, red striped ones for cobs and blue ones for ponies. Some of them are still hanging up in the back of the shop to this day, but the riding schools started selling cheaper gear from India and China and mostly we gave up.’

Back in those days, the area up from Birches towards the Mardol and Pride Hill was a buzzing hive of activity. Next door to Birches, where the new flats are now, stood a maltings. Then there was the Queen’s Hotel, whose large car park was packed on market days. Then up Roushill Bank was Mr Ryden, the saddler. Then there was the brush factory, then the corn people selling seed to the farmers.  Then there were the two pubs, the Sun and the Horshoes on opposite corners. The actors from the theatre [now the Granada Bingo] used to stay at the Horseshoes. Their shows were wonderful, Margaruite said, and the theatre had a wonderful restaurant. But now all of that was gone. So much was gone, she said.

‘I remember the blind man who used to sit outside the row of cottages up Roushill,’ Margaruite said, ‘making wicker baskets. Back in those days, I remember Bythell’s Passage coming out on Pride Hill next to Mac Fisheries.  That got knocked down, like the Old Mint.  And I remember standing on Pride Hill, looking all the way down the Seventy Steps towards the river at the bottom. Then, with the building of the Darwin Shopping Centre, the Seventy Steps went too.’

We both agreed that nobody in their right mind would want to go down the current covered walkway with its nasty blind corners, that replaced the Seventy Steps. ‘I’ll tell you one thing that hasn’t changed though,’ Margaruite said, ‘and that’s the river. It still floods.’

C.R. Birch & Son sits right in the middle of what was once flood plain marshland. Today there are flood defenses guarding Frankwell Quay, but none on the town side of the river. ‘Everything has to go upstairs,’ Margaruite said. ‘It’s a tried and tested routine. We hose the place down afterwards and wait for it to dry, then everything comes down again.’

When Gordon died, he left behind a file on flooding compiled by Pop, detailing the best procedure for avoiding damage.  This perfectly highlights the continuity that is one of Birch’s great strengths.  When Margaruite and her boys took on the business, they found cupboards and files full of fastidious notes, including Pop’s accounting system, which was easy to pick up.

What did Birch’s have to offer that its modern out-of-town superstore competitors couldn’t provide? That’s what I asked Margaruite, and for a moment she seemed stumped. ‘Nothing really,’ she said at first.  Then, haltingly, ‘Well, it’s probably us.  The service we give.  People come to Birch’s because we offer service.  They come because of us.’

I’ve got to tell you something about Margaruite. A few years ago, on a research trip to Belize, I visited the indigenous Kekchi-Mayan people and stayed in one of their villages. One memorable night, the Alcalde [village elder] came visiting, and by candle-light, with the jungle croaking and whistling outside, I heard the story of how he’d founded the village.

That man had the demeanour of royalty. You listened to what he said, and gave him respect.  Nowhere else had I come across a person who ever made me feel quite like that.  But sitting in Birch’s inner sanctum, listening to Margaruite Birch’s account of the long history of Birch’s, and her life in Shrewsbury and all the changes she has seen, I felt it again.  Would it be stretching a point too far to say that this quiet, friendly, smiling lady is Shrewsbury royalty?  I think not.