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Feather's Miscellany: A Tale Of Two Towns

“Britain has such a wide variety of dialects, cultures and architecture that I thought I’d make a change from writing stories about my home town, Keighley, and pen an article about the town where I’ve lived and worked since 1969, Shrewsbury, and where I now live very happily in retirement. It contrasts greatly with my home town in the north of England, once part of a Viking empire which has left its mark on the area to this day in speech and in other ways. You could say that Keighley sits in the Anglo-Norse part of England in the North, whereas Shrewsbury is in the Anglo-Saxon part in the Midlands,’’ writes John Waddington-Feather.

They say that Yorkshire folk who live out of the county love Yorkshire more than when they lived in it, and there’s some truth in that. Living away from it you see it through a mist of nostalgia; you see none of its faults, only its beauty and strengths. Those who live in Yorkshire are always planning trips away from it; whereas those who live out of it are constantly thinking about their next visit there. Birth roots go deep.

But I’m not now going to write about Keighley about which I have written much and will write more, but about Shrewsbury and Shropshire, where I’ve spent my middle-age and where I’m quietly drifting into old age. I say “quietly” for the climate and landscape are gentle compared with those of Keighley and there’s little noise among its rural acres.

When I hear the daily weather forecast on my telly, Shrewsbury some 200 miles further south of Keighley is often several degrees warmer than my home town perched high on the wet and windy Pennines. However, in winter Shrewsbury can be much colder than Keighley at night. Shropshire is renowned for its frost and is sometimes the coldest spot in Britain in winter. The reason for this is that it’s often blessed with clear skies which give much daytime sunshine but cold and frosty nights. This winter, 2010 -11, the temperatures plummeted to minus 20 degrees Centigrade some nights.

Shropshire can be roughly divided in two: a plain to the north and hill country to the south, with Shrewsbury built in the middle on a bend in the River Severn. It is an ancient county town and one of the great differences between Keighley and Shrewsbury is the buildings. Keighley was built in the nineteenth century largely from millstone grit which is a dull grey colour when it oxidises or is covered by decades of soot and smoke from mill chimneys and houses. In parts of the town efforts have been made to sand-blast the buildings, which leaves them looking like light-coloured Cotswold cottages for a while, but as the stonework oxidises they return to their old dark colouring. Combine that with weeks of rain in winter and Keighley looks very dour under grey skies.

Yet Keighley is not a drab town; far from it. Its Victorian and Edwardian architects produced some fine streets and buildings in the centre of town, and in the 1930s some pleasant suburbs were built. Now that many of the mills and workshops have closed down, Keighley is a clean town and a very pleasant place to live, placed as it is at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales with some outstanding moors on the heights surrounding it. Once up there, there’s not a mill chimney in sight.

Shrewsbury by contrast is surrounded by rich farmland and the largest stock market in the county is situated there serving mid-Wales as well the county itself. It has little industry but many retail outlets and a largish financial section. Its buildings are either black and white half-timbered or constructed from a mellow, subdued, red brick. The half-timbered houses are mainly Tudor though some are much older; and standing at the west of the town is a crescent of beautiful 18th century Georgian houses built of brown limestone in the neo-classical style.

Both Keighley and Shrewsbury reflect the periods in history when they were built, and I’ve been very privileged to be born and raised in one and live and work in the other for over forty years, as a teacher at the Wakeman School and as a chaplain at Prestfelde School..

In Shrewsbury the Normans left their mark when they built a fortress there and raised high walls all round the town inside the loop of the river. In the motte of their castle, the famous architect, Thomas Telford, plonked a gazebo in the 19th century when he redesigned the castle as a dwelling place for the Member of Parliament. The castle now houses a military museum.

One of Shrewsbury’s M.P.s was Benjamin Disraeli who gave his electioneering speeches from the balcony of the Lion Hotel, a stage-coach hostelry in the middle of the town. The roar of traffic would drown him today – perhaps no bad thing for a politician! It was the same balcony from which Dickens read extracts from his books having travelled there by stage-coach from London initially. Inside the Lion Hotel is a splendid Adam ball-room and musicians’ balcony which in the past hosted celebrities like Jenny Lindt, the operatic soprano, and Paganini, the violinist.

In the centre of town is a collection of beautiful mediaeval churches: St Mary’s, St Jukian’s and St Alkmund’s, erected within yards of each other by various woollen guilds to vaunt their wealth. Just beyond English Bridge, is the Abbey Church built by the Benedictines and dismantled during the Reformation except for the nave which is still used as a church and for organ recitals and symphony concerts by the town’s well patronised orchestra. On the Town Walls is another beautiful church is St Chad’s, built in the 18th century in the neo-classical style and not far away is the small 19th century Roman Catholic cathedral designed by Pugin, 19th century architect of the Houses of Parliament.

I could go on at great length about the historic buildings in Shrewsbury: the column erected to Lord Hill, one of Wellington’s commanders in the Peninsular War; the library, once the Grammar School attended by Darwin whose statue sits outside it; The Square, with its own statue of Clive of India and the lovely 21st century theatre which stands on the banks of the river and hosts international ballet, symphony concerts and drama productions. Indeed, arts festivals and events are a strong feature of Shrewsbury throughout the year.

One ancient building in which I found my vocation as a priest is Shrewsbury’s 18th century prison. Its imposing gatehouse is constructed in the classical style and its high walls are well built to keep wrong-doers in and everybody else out. The gatehouse was designed by Haycock with some help from the engineer and architect Telford, whose works abound around the county, including the great road from London to Holyhead which runs through the town. The prison was built under the influence of the Lord Howard, the prison reformer, a bust of whom stands above the main gates looking benignly down on all those entering. Up to the 1960s, when capital punishment was abolished, some inmates never came out and some were hanged in public in the 19th century outside the gates, when the town had a public holiday to watch the executions. The prurient lot would crowd round the scaffold with food sellers, buskers and their ilk in attendance to watch the gruesome act.

After meeting kindly ex-prisoners on the Greyhound buses I travelled on, in a long journey right across America and Canada during a month-long trip in the summer of 1969, I decided I’d become a prison visitor at the early age of 36 and applied to the Governor of the prison. He accepted me and during one of my visits I was told by an inmate I ought to be a priest. I took his advice and was ordained into the Anglican Church but continued teaching in school and visiting prison each week in the evenings as a volunteer chaplain. I retired after 40 years’ ministry in 2010 – the Governor at the retirement party commenting he was giving it “for the longest-serving rogue in Shrewsbury prison.”

So there you have it, the tale of two very different towns which moulded my life and enabled me to live it more fully and more richly for well over three score years and ten.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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