Not all of Shrewsbury is beautiful. Not all of Shrewsbury is elegant and refined. How could it be?
The town may be famous for being historic and attractive, but it is also a thriving, living, working place that has developed across a thousand years writes Phil Gillam.
It is a town which (like so many others) saw rapid and significant growth in the post-war period, and which, today, is made up of every kind of architecture (and every kind of people), the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So of course, just like any town of any size, we have our industrial areas, our sprawling housing estates, our 'problem' neighbourhoods, our retail parks and our factories and warehouses. And radiating outwards from our picture-postcard-lovely centre, there are plenty of examples of the bland and the non-descript, the plain and the dull, the grey and the forgettable.
And, let's be honest, no reasonable person could expect an entire town to be beautiful from tip to toe, north, south, east and west.
Then it really would be Trumpton (and not Shrewsbury) as several of my friends insist it is. I am also reminded of the old joke names of Standing Stillbury (Shrewsbury) and Concrete Hardening (Telford), but these of course are cartoon names. We know there is a lot more to Telford than concrete, and we also know that Shrewsbury does not stand still (a new cinema, new football stadium, new theatre – all within just a few years – and there are plenty of other exciting plans in the pipeline).
But – whatever growth and progress brings our way – that beating heart of Shrewsbury (the part that the tourists come to enjoy) should be kept as pleasing to the eye as possible. A few simple measures can ensure this is done: keeping historic buildings in a good state of repair, keeping everything clean and tidy, making sure unsympathetic development is not allowed to encroach. That sort of thing.
And one more simple measure. Let's just keep a careful eye on garish signs and colours that shout out at you from a hundred yards and smash through the aesthetics of a place.
These seem completely unnecessary to my way of thinking and can do much to ruin the look of a street.
There is a phrase much-used by conservationists, civic society activists, designers and architects: 'the power of place'.
Well, the power of place can be greatly diminished by brightly coloured and inappropriate signage.
When I was up town the other day, a few such signs screamed out at me. Sample, if you, will, the Computerama sign above a now defunct shop at the very start of Castle Gates. Ouch! It's ghastly. It's the visual equivalent of an AC/DC powerchord in a place where Elgar's Enigma Variations should provide the soundtrack. And since the shop itself is no longer trading, why can it not be made to disappear?
While on this subject, does anyone remember the hoo-ha that erupted a few years back about the frontage of dear old Woolworth's? The store on Castle Street had been there for decades and was as much a part of the fabric of Shrewsbury as Woolworth stores were in hundreds of towns across the country. But the council took exception to its bright red signage, saying it was wrong to have such dazzling colours in our historic town. Woolworth's conceded the point and replaced the frontage with a much more subtle design.
Now, I completely agreed with this. So how come other shops and businesses can now get away with it?
Oh yeah. And having brought up the subject of Woolworth's, some friends and I were talking the other day about the old Raven Hotel in Castle Street, the building which was replaced by Woolworth's in the early sixties. Now, I personally have no recollection of the Raven. I would have been but a toddler when it was dismantled. But pictures of the place are enough to convince me that Shrewsbury lost a real gem when it said goodbye to this amazing-looking hotel.
By all accounts, this had been one of Shrewsbury's principal inns for well over two centuries. And I was fascinated to learn that, during the 1950s, many showbiz stars appearing at the nearby Granada Theatre stayed there, including Lonnie Donegan, Frankie Vaughan, Norman Wisdom and even Laurel and Hardy. (Apparently, Oliver Hardy's wife had her jewellery stolen while staying at the hotel.)
Returning to my original point about garish shop signs, I grant you that, when it comes to the degradation of a town centre, inappropriately colourful signs are hardly comparable to the loss of a fine old building, but, in the end, it all comes down to the need to protect and cherish what we have.