An important event in the town’s annual calendar - the most important event, some might say – is the good ol’ Shrewsbury Carnation & Gooseberry Show, as it used to be called back in 1836 when the first Show was held in the Frankwell area of town.
In 1857, the 'gooseberries and carnations' bit was dropped and the Show became known as ‘The Flower Show’. It was held in a marquee in the town centre and by 1874 was making a profit of one shilling and ten pence [about 10p today]. In 1881, the entertainment is recorded as including Bon Bon the tightrope walker with his 150ft long tightrope, standing at 40 feet above the ground.
The Flower Show continued yearly until the First World War. Its revival in 1920 was attended by people from across the UK. By the Second World War, it was being held in the Quarry, Shrewsbury’s main park. Except for the years when the Quarry was dug over for allotments as part of Shrewsbury’s war effort, it’s been there ever since.
And now here we are again – August, and it’s Flower Show time. All the usual pageantry of military band and Mayor and entourage has taken place, and down at the Quarry gates, people are jostling to get in to the strains of a steel band playing ‘You Are My Sunshine’.
There’s a sameness about the Flower Show. Same marquees, same trophies, same sorts of events, same showground, same time of year, heralding the end of summer with the evenings closing in and the skies dark enough for fireworks by 9.45pm. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the biggest events of its type in the UK - until recently its longest-running - Shrewsbury’s Flower Show is an institution.
It’s also a great place for meeting people. Before I’m even through the gates I bump into Karen Higgins of The Big Busk. Then, inside the Showground, the first person I meet is Bill Morris, who used to be a Town Councillor, and is the person who first told me about the Shrewsbury Fragment [something I’ve yet to write about but, believe me, you’ll be fascinated when I do].
Then the next person I meet is Helen Ball, Town Clerk, in a big pink flowery hat that looks very fetching. Then down the central avenue of the Quarry, amongst its cheek-by-jowl stalls and hospitality suites, I find my old friend, the artist Penny Timmis, and some of her paintings.
We stop to chat in the Brewin Dolphin hospitality suite, where the paintings are hanging, then I leave Penny holding court and head down to the river. Here I find that railway tracks have been lain, and the oldest still working narrow-gauge steam engine is huffing up and down. There’s a real mix of stuff down here - fluffy toys, garden furniture, a distant voice attempting to sell the Light n’ Easy Eco Deluxe Steam Mop [‘I’ll be honest with you,’ the sales patter goes], even a stall promoting Orthotic Works, whatever they might be, and another one selling Gnu Airers. What are they?
When I get hungry [which hasn't happened yet] there are stalls selling everything from carvery and grill to a mountain of meringues. In the Food Marquee, a TV chef is demonstrating how to cook before a capacity audience, but I don’t stay, lured away by the irresistible sound of a male voice choir performing Men of Harlech on the bandstand outside.
By the bandstand I meet my Welsh friend, Dai, who’s no mean singer himself. Then I’m off again, heading for the main marquees, which are what the Show is all about. In the first of them I encounter the smoothest potatoes I’ve ever seen in my life, followed by the biggest onions and carrots so exquisitely tapered that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been sculpted. These are competition-class vegetables.
And these are the trophies waiting to be won.
I walk past cabbages that look like green elephants with waggling ears, cauliflowers with white hearts as big as dining-plates and gooseberries as big as apples, I swear [well, maybe crabapples].
After them I find rows of flowers, and fruit & vegetables, arranged in displays.
Some of the marquees celebrate what local gardeners and gardening clubs have produced, others showcase what the market leaders in the horticultural industry have to show. Between the marquees I find a series of small gardens, my favourite being this one by the Dingle Nurseries near Welshpool.
I come across a scarecrow competition, where the best man, most definitely I reckon, has won.
...a riot of sarracenias [a fancy word for carnivorous plants]...
...and a display of different types of bougainvillea. People go on about the Dingle in the Quarry being a riot of colour, but this riot of softer, more subtle hues is more my cup of tea.
The day wends on. I stop to watch a falcon settle on a man’s wrist. I linger by the showground where white-helmeted motorbike riders have recently come off. It’s show-jumping time. Riders on twitchy horses are limbering up, awaiting their turns. ‘It’s Tim Davies on Salome II,’ a voice announces over the sound system, to be greeted by a smattering of polite applause. ‘Smack on the time,' I hear as I walk away. 'That’s a clean round…. Tim Davies on Salome II… leading by five seconds ex-act-ly…’
In the evening, I’m back again. Bellowhead’s playing, and the arena is divided in two. Either you’re sitting beneath your blanket behind the arena's outer rim looking as if the cold is getting to you, or you’re on the hallowed turf, bobbing up and down, waving your arms in the air as the bass goes through you, connecting you to everybody else.
Bellowhead’s an eleven-piece outfit of electric-folk musicians belting out traditional tunes and numbers of their own with a mix of fiddles, big-band brass and lots of attitude. Definitely the best fun’s to be had right in front of the stage within breathing distance of the band. These boys and girls certainly know how to work a crowd.
Eventually they’re gone, however, and people move back behind the barriers. The sky darkens, the spotlights come on and the marching band reappears, creating a sea of red and gold against the green of the turf. It plays all the old numbers that come out every year, and people are instantly out of their seats, on their feet and singing along. 'Land of Hope And Glory'. 'Jerusalem'. 'Rule Britannia'. 'Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' [Land of My Father’s to anyone non-Welsh - I love it that at this Flower Show, here in the Northern Marches between England and Wales, we respect the Welsh Anthem as well as the English one].
And then here it comes, of course, 'God Save The Queen', after which it’s time for the bands to march away - and for the fireworks to begin.
What can I say about the fireworks? Even more than the Flower Show, they’re a Shrewsbury institution. Never mind the 50,000 people who over two days will be watching from inside the Show – on the bridges, in pub gardens all over town, on the far shore of the River Severn, and up on Beck’s Field with its view of fireworks reflected in the water [and of smoke drifting away between the trees], it’s party time.
Everybody in Shrewsbury loves the two nights of the Flower Show when the Reverend Ron Lancaster’s Kimbolton Fireworks [they of London’s New Year celebrations and many of our royal pageants] illuminate our town. For a moment in time we’re all lit up, faces raised before a night sky full of exploding stars - little kids again, gasping and wowing as the band plays Holst’s Planets [Mars, I think], Bizet’s Carmen, the William Tell Overture and Porgy and Bess, fireworks going off in time to them, carefully choreographed, bang, bang, bang.
Then it’s darkness again. For fifteen dazzling minutes we’ve been drawn together by a bit of magic, courtesy of gunpowder and fire. Now we draw apart again, heading for the exits, the Flower Show over for another year. At the main gate, a lone piper pipes us out to Scotland the Brave. The man at the gate says, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Goodnight’ to everyone passing him by, as if each us had been his own personal guest. A typical Shrewsbury touch, that.
At the bottom of Claremont Bank, a fleet of Park & Ride buses are waiting to carry people away. You’d never think so many people could just disappear, but they do. Like the smoke between the trees they’re suddenly gone, and then Shrewsbury falls quiet, nothing left but to clear up those abandoned marquees.