A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 94
Note to reader: This post gets read a lot (by the standards of this blog) which is intriguing and I’d be pleased to know why. I’d appreciate it, if you could spare the time, if you would leave a note in the comments section saying what it was that brought you to this obscure chapter of a bike ride I made some years ago.
Shrewsbury is in a loop of the Severn; the river almost completely surrounds the centre of the town. This has helped shape the history as well as its urban geography. It has made it a Saxon stronghold, a capital for the princes of Powis, the site of a Norman Motte and Bailey and a prosperous wool town that controlled the communication routes out of mid-Wales.
It floods badly and often, but not so badly as would be the case if the bend in the river wasn’t an incised meander. This basically means that the river, though meandering through the Shropshire plain, is continuing to erode downwards; is not only dredging itself but is cutting its channel ever deeper. Eventually Shrewsbury may come to resemble Durham.
I find it quite attractive enough as it is, but it hasn’t been to all tastes. The theatre director Max Stafford-Clark brought his Recruiting Officer cast here in 1988 to show them where the play is set.
“It seems a backwater, a strange market hill town built on a bend in the river. The bridge into town is called English Bridge and the bridge out on the other side, to the west, is Welsh Bridge. It’s still a border town. Funny accents. Some distinctly Welsh, some very Birmingham and quite a lot of the English county bray.”
There is always a need for London based theatre folk to let everybody know just how much more cultured they are than we provincials. The description says a lot more about the director (who I greatly admire as a director) ‘s attitude to small town England than it does about Shrewsbury.
The play he was directing, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, is one of the few major works of literature to be set in the town. (See also some scenes from Howard’s End, a passing reference in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Millions, and the main setting for the excellent Brother Cadfael books of Ellis Peters). Farquhar begins the play by following the convention of the Restoration theatre (when there were essentially only two theatres in England and they were both in London) of making fun of characters from the provinces or the countryside.
“For Shrewsbury, me-thinks, and all your heads of shires, are the most irregular places for living: here we have smoke, scandal, affectation, and pretension; in short, everything to give the spleen and nothing to divert it.” (Melinda Act 1 scene 2)
He doesn’t sustain it. The playwright was obviously won over by the town, as anybody who spends more than a few hours here usually is. (Stafford-Clark and his cast had day returns from Euston and were glad to get back to the metropolis having had an “interesting” day out). As the play develops we find that the surface bumpkin-ness of some of the characters is drawn back to reveal sophisticated men and women who have a decency at heart that make them some of the most engaging characters in the literature of the period.
For a town that is the setting for a classic of the English stage, there is no resident professional theatre. In fact there is none in the whole of Shropshire. Shrewsbury theatre goers with a mind to catch a play have the choice of travelling for a minimum of an hour to get to the nearest professional stage at Stoke, Mold, Liverpool or Stratford, or enjoying some of the thriving amateur productions that are put on.
I’ve worked in both the professional and the amateur theatre and can say that you rarely have an amateur production that doesn’t have at least one actor who could cut it at the paid level. Similarly it is rare to go to a professional performance without wondering whether one or two of the cast wouldn’t have been better suited to something that required rather less ability to convince. Theatre critic James Agate once defined the difference between the two: “a professional is someone who can deliver the goods even when he doesn’t feel like it, whereas an amateur is someone who can’t even when he does.” It’s not an completely accurate description but there is some truth in it.
Shrewsbury’s very out of the way nature saved it the fate of many attractive English towns. It wasn’t targeted for bombing runs during the second world war and it wasn’t on the flight paths to the industrial towns of the North or the Midlands. Having survived this it has fallen foul to the second great wave of destruction of the twentieth century; the town planners of the 1960s and 70s.
All round the country we have to stare up at buildings that are a simple offence to the eye. The crime is almost always made worse by the demolition of fine buildings that had survived hundreds of years. Shrewsbury lost a number of superb properties during this period (and gained a few monstrosities); but retained enough to preserve it’s character. The centre still has narrow streets and a fine collection of period brick and half-timbered buildings. It would improve enormously if the council followed the example of Bath and others in banning lurid plastic shop signs from the town. At street level you can miss the beauty of the place, but, if you stand still and look up you are transported.
Because of the geography the town centre cannot expand, yet the planners have been able to keep the open spaces necessary for a truly attractive urban landscape. I’m sitting in the middle of the large grassy expanse of Quarry Park near the splendid church of St Chad’s. Below me is the river and beyond that the buildings and grounds of Shrewsbury School.
I never passed my eleven plus. I’ve been a comprehensive student and a teacher in comprehensive schools all my life. What I know of private schools is gleaned from literature or occasional jaunts with school cricket teams to get pummelled by a side coached by a county professional. Once, on arriving at a well known school in Devon, I was greeted by an unhealthily buoyant fellow in cricket whites and blazer with the words: “While your chaps get changed (un-necessary as the jeans and track suit bottoms they were wearing were their cricket clothes) how about a quick one in the staff bar?” Having heard rumours of the way things were conducted among the upper classes I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by ‘quick-one’ and declined. His team batted first and their opening batsmen each went on to score a century before the same two players bowled my team out for less than thirty. Our lads didn’t get much of a game but neither did nine of the players on their side. The coach was playing for Somerset the year after.
My knowledge of public school life is somewhat limited and my attitude to privilege is somewhat skewed towards the principles of equality of opportunity. I am however in awe of the list of former pupils of this school. I’d love to have the opportunity of hating and despising them; but I can’t. They include Willie Rushton and Michael Palin for a start, and in anyone’s list of people it is impossible to dislike, these two would come in the top ten. Add to that Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot and Christopher Booker, who with Rushden went on to run Private Eye for decades as well as contributing more widely to the great satire boom of the sixties. From the world of literature there’s Samuel Butler, Sir Philip Syney and Nevil Shute. From politics there are Julian Critchley and Michael Heseltine. From popular culture there is Nick Hancock, John Ravenscroft (better known as John Peel), and Tim Booth the singer from James. There’s even Dambuster’s actor and all round fine fellow, Richard Todd. And that’s before you bring on the biggest name. Shrewsbury School is the alma mater of none other than biologist and creator of the modern world, and, in some people’s eyes the man who killed God; Charles Darwin. And that’s a very selected list. The question remains as to whether the school was the making of these people or whether they were able to cream off the best recruits. Regardless of your position on private education, they must be doing something right.