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John's vin-tastic idea had grape expectations

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

A little over 50 years ago an ambitious scheme was launched which, had it borne fruit, would have put Bridgnorth on the map as a leading British wine-producing area.

More than 450 grape vines were planted in February 1968 on the slopes of the town's picturesque Castle Walk. And the early signs were promising.

This was long before the successful Halfpenny Green vineyard was founded a few miles away which really has put the area on the wine-producing map.

The man behind the late 1960s plan was a 41-year-old Bridgnorth engineer, Mr John Furness, of East Castle Street.

Helped by Mr Rex Wolverton, of Oldbury Wells, Bridgnorth, he had transformed about an acre of the overgrown and disused terraced gardens into a vineyard.

Mr Furness was confident that his venture would succeed, and was eagerly awaiting October 1969, when he expected to be able to harvest his first crop of grapes – although in the event he was to be disappointed.

"I am expecting about a ton of grapes with each vine yielding 2lb to 6lb of fruit," he said in the autumn of 1968.

Mr Furness, who had been making his own wine for the previous eight years, was trying out two methods of growing to see which could give the best early ripening of the grapes.

One system, the Guyot, was a low hedge with grapes close to the ground. The other was where the fruit ripened on wired posts.

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He had planted two types of vine, for making white and red wine, and toyed with the idea of naming them after characters in Camelot – Vin King Arthur, Guinevere, and Red Lancelot.

Mr Furness claimed the River Severn, which his vineyard overlooked, would be a great asset.

"The river water evaporates and condenses and this helps during the early ripening period," he said.

Mr Furness had had expert advice from a Professor Becker, head of the Wine Research Centre at Geisenheim in Germany, which he visited in 1967 on a tour of the vineyards there.

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He added: "I have already got my own crushing equipment – a 100-year-old cider press which I got from a Mrs Garbett of Ditton Priors."

The press was kept in a cave under the Castle Walk. And Mr Furness was not short of bottles. His friends had collected them by the score.

"I have an old bottling machine and if I can standardise the size of the bottles it will give me a chance to set up the machine," he said.

Mr Furness was offering to give 100 gallons of his wine free to the town and said he would like to see Bridgnorth sponsoring a summer wine festival with ox-roasting in the street, brass band contests and other organisations taking part.

So what happened? Getting the vines established was a slow process, although year on year he was able to get more and more grapes, and by the summer of 1972 he had been able to bottle about 25 gallons of his own brand of vin ordinaire.

However, that season had been poor after a setback due to the weather, and Mr Furness was finding it increasingly difficult to find time to tend to his vines, as he had a full time job as a maintenance engineer.

He remained confident that in time he would be able to move into full-time wine production. If you know that that happened, do let us know – but we suspect that the dream was never realised.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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