Tulips’ Last Hurrah And A Gardening Legend

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What show-offs – the lot of them. But what a joyous display and just at the moment when most of the other tulips are fading. I spotted these yesterday on a chance visit to The Dingle, in the Quarry, Shrewsbury town’s lovely riverside park. This place was a popular haunt in my teenage years – for meeting up with friends and for the covert smoking of cigarettes. (Naughty us, polluting the place with Consulate smoke).

The Dingle was made out of an old stone quarry, and in many ways is very much a municipal garden with its regimental planting of bulbs and bedding plants. The bosky-dell setting works its magic though, and there was certainly no denying the cheeriness of the colour-scape under yesterday’s gloomy sky. BTW that’s St. Chad’s church in the background – in case you’re wondering. It is notable for having the country’s largest circular nave. Also Charles Darwin was christened there in 1809. Less notably, my Priory Girls Grammar School, along with the Priory Boys, used to traipse here every November for our founder’s day service. It goes without saying that the most exciting thing about the event to us girls was BOYS.

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But back to the gardens.

The Dingle’s formal layout was created by Britain’s first TV celebrity gardener, Percy Thrower. He was Shrewsbury Parks Superintendent from 1946-1974 and very much associated with the famous annual Shrewsbury Flower Show which is still held in the Quarry every August. As a fifties child I remember watching Percy on the BBC. My father was a great admirer, so I followed suit and held Mr. Thrower in high regard even if I didn’t need the gardening advice. At that stage I was into growing oak trees from acorns, and he didn’t seem to cover that particular topic. Mostly I learned to associate gardening with kindliness and a genial practicality, qualities that the sculpture in the next photo captures too. I was touched to find him smiling out over his creation. And that his collar and tie were just as I remembered them.

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I think he would be pleased that there has been no attempt to veer from  his original concept and ‘update’ the planting scheme. And although, in the main, this is not my style of gardening, I can still admire it. I could also see how much pleasure it was giving to people of all ages – a truly hidden haven since there is no view of the interior from the surrounding park. You have to step inside one of several gateways to ‘discover’ it.

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It makes me think: every person on the planet needs access to a garden – whether it be untouched wilderness, manicured parkland, cultivated arbour or even a window box. We need to keep in touch with the growing world that heals, soothes, inspires and nourishes us. Which also makes me think that good old Percy Thrower, who did so much to encourage everyone to garden and to appreciate plants was truly a bit of a hero. Please go and say hello to him if ever you are in Shrewsbury.

Jo’s Monday Walk If you haven’t yet joined Jo on one of her fabulous walks (and you never do know where she’ll be going next), then please put on your hiking boots and follow the link.

And here’s the answer, plus a bit of a scandal

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Earlier in the week I wondered what readers might make of this piece of public art, aka the ‘Shrewsbury Slinky’. Many of you picked up on the dinosaur bones, and the allusion to the double helix of DNA, both of which, we are told on the accompanying notice board, did indeed inform the thinking of the architectural designers, Pearce & Lal who conceived the structure. Some of you also guessed, or knew about the Charles Darwin connection.

Anyway, the work is called Quantum Leap, and as the explanatory board also states : “this geo-tectonic piece of sculpture has been designed through the influence of objects and materials central to the development of Darwin’s thought: rock, fossils, zoology…”

It was commissioned originally by Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council to commemorate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809, and to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species , both events well worth celebrating. The original cost to the public was expected to be around £200,000. But somehow, between the concept and its physical manifestation, things went awry on the costing front. More of which in a moment.

First, though, here is the man himself, sitting in his armchair outside the old Shrewsbury School, where as a youth he was student boarder. This more traditional tribute in bronze was unveiled in 1897:

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Here you can see the 1897 unveiling. By then the prestigious Shrewsbury School had moved to larger premises across the River Severn, and Darwin’s old school become the town museum and reference library. This photograph is from the Shropshire Museums collection.

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I don’t suppose many know that Charles Darwin was a Shropshire lad, born and brought up in Shrewsbury. If we picture him anywhere at all it is probably voyaging around the world on HMS Beagle (1831-1836), surrounded by a myriad of fascinating specimens, or else lost in deepest thought, unpicking thorny issues on his Thinking Path at Down House, Kent where he lived with his family for the last forty years of his life.

The Darwin family lived on The Mount in Shrewsbury. Darwin’s father was a doctor and financier, and also a free thinker. Charles’ paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, physician, natural philosopher, inventor and leading light of the Midlands Enlightenment. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, potter industrialist extraordinaire, and inventor. Both grandfathers were staunch slave trade abolitionists. Darwin thus grew up within the orbit of men for whom it was the norm to challenge and think outside the bounds of convention.

While his mother still lived, Charles and his siblings worshipped at Shrewsbury’s Unitarian Chapel. Charles also went to the preacher’s day school, and by an early age was already absorbed with his own natural history collections. But after Susannah Darwin’s death, Charles and his brother, Erasmus were sent off to board at Shrewsbury School. Later both would go to Edinburgh to study medicine, and Charles apparently spent the year of 1825 acting as apprentice to his father, and treating the poor people of Shropshire.

However, he found medicine dull, and seems to have spent his time in Edinburgh studying marine invertebrates and learning taxidermy from a freed slave called John Edmonstone, a man whose company he much enjoyed. An annoyed parent wisely chose not to press his son into the family profession, but sent him to Christ’s College Cambridge; he would get his degree and become an Anglican minister instead.

But once more Doctor Darwin’s plans for his son foundered. While at Cambridge, Charles continued to pursue his interest in natural history. When he graduated in 1831 he took the chance to embark on a ‘gap year’ to end all gap years, and set sail on HMS Beagle, travelling as the ship’s gentleman naturalist. The planned two year voyage turned into five. The rest, as they say, is history.

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And so back to Quantum Leap, a project that was indubitably inspired by the very best of intentions – to honour the life’s work of a native son. I’ve already mentioned the unsuitable setting, in a cramped little garden between the River Severn and the town’s busy inner ring road. It is not a part of the town where many visitors are likely to find themselves, or even wish to be. But perhaps my main objection is the material. Concrete seems such a rigidly dull substance with which to evoke structures from the natural world. I can also foresee it acquiring a slimy algal coat, which though admittedly a life form, is unlikely to add a life-enhancing effect from the viewer’s point of view. And given all the cuts in Local Authority funding, it seems unlikely that someone will be paid to come along and scrub the thing. Where would you begin?

I’m trying to think, too, what that magician of installation, Anish Kapoor, could do for it, if called on to do some remedial work. I’m imagining something in cast iron here, or in wrought iron, or polished steel. Or even wood. Or perhaps, as Marilyn Armstrong suggests in the comments on So what’s this all about?, people will just hate it so much it will be taken down. My own feeling is that it will simply be forgotten, and that is the worst outcome of all. So much for commemoration.

This brings me to the most shocking aspect of the project. As we headed into the unveiling year of 2009, Shropshire was becoming a Unitary Authority, and the Borough Council passing into obscurity. There followed various problems with the contractors assigned to construct the monument. Costs rocketed. There was a court case. According to press reports there was a chance for the Council to settle the bill when it hit £600,000. They declined. In the end the 2012 accounts revealed that the final cost had amounted to over £1,000,000. As one Labour councillor acidly pointed out, this was considerably more than the cost of Antony Gormley’s epic, acclaimed and truly colossal Gateshead landmark,  Angel of the North.

However you look at it, the final bill is staggering. In the face of austerity measures that have reduced some Shropshire residents to relying on Food Banks, and threatened so many social services, it is appalling to think of so much wasted money. But money aside, the whole enterprise now seems rather sad and silly. The original design concept for Quantum Leap has much to be said for it, but when it comes down to it, public art should serve the public who paid for it. It should be placed where everyone can enjoy it. It should be life-enhancing, spirit-raising, thought-provoking, a piece of wit or wisdom that becomes a point of attraction for locals and visitors alike. In other words, there should be returns on the investment, material and immaterial. It doesn’t of course mean that everyone has to like it. That would be too much to ask.

My other thought is that the town already has its monument to Charles Darwin. They got it right back in 1897. And although the statue might these days seem unadventurous, not to say a bit stuffy, it does at least show us the man – his intelligence, modesty and humanity – qualities that cannot be too highly valued. Not even the town’s incontinent pigeons detract from them. And so christened with bird lime he may be, but Charles Darwin looks a pretty decent old gent. His thinking changed the way we think. It took on superstition, and narrow-mindedness, and continues to challenge the scientific world to explore ever new ways to understand life on the planet. We Salopians can feel justly proud that he is one of ours.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

This is a follow up on my post for Paula’s Black & White Sunday theme of sculpture:  So What’s This All About?

So what’s this all about?

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I truly would like to feel more enthusiastic about this monumental piece of public art. I mean I can see it is interesting – in its way – and the more so with the application of some photo editing. This has at least relieved us of the sickly mud-brown colour. Also the cast concrete takes on a little more texture than seems apparent in the original. But perhaps the most serious problem with this sculpture is its setting – squeezed into a little triangle of municipal garden between Shrewsbury town’s inner ring road and the River Severn.

And so given that its siting was down to town councillors, and not to the artist whom they commissioned to do the work at great public expense, I tried approaching the work from different angles. As you can see, it is incredibly well made:

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I even tried including some human interest, but this next shot only added to the sense of crammed in-ness, with too many planters, and a poorly situated  explanatory panel:

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And so what do you think this work is commemorating? (I know that at least one person who reads this blog knows it person). Otherwise, all answers on a postcard to the secret WordPress post box.

Before I go, I will at least tell you that it is something very important, and relates to all of life on this planet, and that all may well be revealed in an upcoming post.

 copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Please also drop in on Black & White Sunday, where this week Paula’s theme is sculpture.

Origins of the Skyscraper: Historic Angles

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This detail comes from a building, which believe it or not, was THE proto-type for all our high-rise buildings. It is Bage’s Flax Mill, the world’s first iron-framed building, constructed in Shrewsbury, in the English Midlands in 1797. As with much invention, it was driven by a series of disasters, specifically the conflagration of several timber-framed textile factories. Cotton and flax dust is highly combustible, and these early factories were candle lit. The losses to the owners were considerable  (never mind the damage to the workers).  Fire resistant buildings were what they wanted. The techniques of this iron-framed brick clad mill were further adapted in the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire of 1871.

Shropshire Archives

For more on this and the grim story of the young flax mill workers who were employed here see my earlier post: Pattern for the Sky Scraper

 copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Undervalued in his home county? Great War Poet Wilfred Owen – a true Shropshire Lad 1893-1918

“It is fitting and sweet to die for one’s country” Horace, Ode III

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“Dulce et Decorum Est “ 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Wilfred Owen has been described as the greatest of the Great War poets.  He surely was, although in terms of the brutal brevity of his career,  it is a dubious honour. The young officer who wrote this poem  was killed  as he led his raiding party from the Manchester Regiment across the Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November 1918. At the time, he was twenty five years old and only four of his poems had been published. One week later the war ended. His mother received news of his death in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, just as bells of the county town’s churches were ringing out in joyous celebration of peace. It is hard to imagine the pain of that moment.

Owen, though, believed it was the duty of a poet to tell the truth, to show how it was for the men – this “Pity of War”. He did not have to return to the front after being treated for shell shock in Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917. But  it was while he was receiving treatment here that he met fellow  inmate, Siegfried Sassoon, who became his mentor, and encouraged the young poet to write of the cruel realities of war.

In August 1918  Owen chose to return to the front. In the following October  he won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line. And of course he did tell the truth, and in stark, excoriating detail.

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Wilfred Owen was born and spent his early childhood in Oswestry, Shropshire on the Welsh border, in a gracious villa, Plas Wilmot, owned by his maternal grandfather, Edward Shaw.  He was the eldest of four children. His father, Tom Owen, was a railway official, a job that took the family for a time to  Birkenhead on the Wirral in Cheshire.

Plas Wilmot, Owen’s birthplace. Photo: Oswestry Family and Local History Group

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In 1906 the Owens returned to Shropshire, this time to the county town of Shrewsbury where Wilfred attended Shrewsbury Technical School, now the Wakeman School. His last years of education were spent as a pupil-teacher as he struggled to study and win a scholarship to university. In this he failed, and although he won a place at Reading University his parents could not afford to send him. Instead, between 1913 and 1915 when he enlisted, he was went to work as a teacher in France.

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The Square in Shrewsbury c 1909

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The house of his birth is privately owned,  and it was only last year, after lobbying by civic groups and historians that it was also given a grade 2 listing by English Heritage; this amid fears of development on the site. In August this year the surrounding gardens were put up for sale with outlined planning permission for the building of seven detached houses on three sides of Owen’s former home. Many have urged that the house and its gardens should be left intact, hoping that one day there might be a museum here. For it is a sad fact that while Wilfred Owen is known of in Shropshire, he is given only scant commemoration.

Yet Wilfred Owen’s words speak to the whole world, for all humanity, a fact recognised at least in France where in the village of Ors, where Owen died,  they have commissioned Turner prize nominee, Simon Patterson, to transform La Maison Forestiere (The Forester’s House) into a wonderful place of contemplation and commemoration of Owen’s work. More than this, it is a place to acknowledge the futility of war. It was in this house on 31st October 1918 that Wilfred Owen wrote the last letter to his mother. A few days later he was dead, joining the millions of others lost in the vicious cull of youthful talent and potential.  Those of us who come after can only wonder if the full cost of this loss has even now been fully reckoned.

You can see more about La Maison Forestiere in the links below, and a brief biography in the short video at the end.

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La Maison Forestiere. Photo: Hektor Creative Commons

© 2013 Tish Farrell

FRIZZTEXT’S ‘UUU’ CHALLENGE

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