Wednesday, 4 December 2013


The sausages are on. The sandwich boxes are open on the work surface under the crystal chandeliers. The rolls are being buttered. The porridge should be in the oven for the B & B guests, but it isn’t yet.  Mae appears and collects her box.  She pulls on her blue duffle coat, dons her helmet, gets on her bike and sets off for school.  Charlie’s still in pyjamas, sneaking back to bed with a slice of toast for a bit more telly before he officially gets up.  Bethan will appear later, but she doesn’t have to be up as early as the other two, or as early as their mum, Sarah Hopper of Ferndell B & B.

Ferndell sits on the corner of Underdale Road, looking across the park towards the river, with the spires and towers of Shrewsbury town rising up in the middle distance.  It’s a fine old house with a lovely view, a light and airy kitchen and a lovely old Aga that, though this house doesn't need it, add that extra bit of 'heart'. 

I’m sitting tucked away in one of the window seats - a breakfast guest who’s trying to pretend that she's awake.  Sarah, on the other hand, is really awake. She has work surfaces cleared, table laid,  porridge now on, bacon on, and washing up packed away in the dish-washer. ‘Because these particular guests have been here so many times,' she says, 'it’s easy to slip into the habit of thinking it doesn’t matter because they’re friends. But it does matter.  Every single time it matters.’

As if the mention of guests has called them forth, suddenly we hear voices on the stairs.  The girls, as Sarah calls them, are talking to Sarah's oldest daughter, sixteen-year-old Bethan. Sarah slides the kettle onto the hob. The porridge comes out of the oven in its cast-iron pot. The bacon is cooked. The eggs are at the ready. The door opens and into the kitchen come sisters, Diane and Sandy, followed by Bethan who is ready to leave for college.  ‘Don’t you talk to boys.  They’re dangerous,’ says Diane.  ‘I don’t talk to boys. I’ve got a boyfriend,’ Bethan replies.  ‘Well, don’t talk to boys who aren’t your boyfriend,’ Diane jokes.

Diane knows what she's talking about, I'm guessing. She should do, she’s a mum herself.  No sooner have she and Sandy settled at the breakfast table, then daughter, Sarah [yes, another Sarah] comes through the door. On crutches.  Daughter Sarah has broken her leg. She fell downstairs [no, not at Ferndell], her leg’s in a brace and in a couple of weeks time it might need operating on. Even so, nothing is going to come between her - or indeed her mother and aunt - and shopping.

Shopping's what Ferndell's latest guests are here to do.   Christmas is only a month away. They live out in Wales where there's little access to shops.  They've left partners at home and taken  time off work to come to Shrewsbury in Sandy's van, which by tonight they will have packed.

Breakfast arrives at the table, along with tea and coffee. The food looks good, but whilst we're all eating the chatter scarcely stops.  Sandy laments the loss of Woolworths.  She’s been shopping in Shrewsbury for years and knows exactly what’s where, what's changed and what's new.  Diane and Daughter Sarah live in Denbigh, but Sandy lives out in wild Wales and it's these occasional shopping trips that keep her, Diane and Sarah in touch.  

Coming here on trips to Shrewsbury is a real treat for them.  It’s not just about the shopping.  It’s their chance to meet up, have a laugh and a bit of fun. ‘We do the same at Chatsworth,’ Sandy says.  ‘Three days at the County Fair. It's great. Life's so busy, we’d hardly see each other otherwise.'  

Once the Denbigh Three used to stay at the Shrewsbury Hotel, but since they’ve found Ferndell there's no way they'll go anywhere else.  ‘We love it here,’ says Diane.  ‘Can’t praise it highly enough.  We’re made to feel so welcome and at home.’

Ferndell Sarah beams. Plainly she's pleased to hear them say that.  She hovers in the background making toast, scrambling eggs, refilling tea and coffee pots.  You hardly notice what she’s doing, but it never stops.  I wish I could be that energetic first thing in the morning.  The Denbigh Three seem pretty energetic too – and that’s despite their big day yesterday.   ‘Do you know,’ announces Diane proudly, ‘We shopped for thirteen hours solid and only went round five shops.’

The Range at Harlscott is a big favourite of the Denbigh Three, and whilst they're out that way Tesco gets a look in too. Then, in the Darwin Centre [Shrewsbury town centre's biggest shopping mall], Poundland and Home Bargains are both a hit.  Best of all, however, down below the Darwin Centre in the multi-storey car park is Shopmobililty, where yesterday Sarah abandoned her crutches for a mobility scooter, which enabled her to shop all over the town centre.

‘It was wonderful down there,’ she says.  ‘The people were so helpful and all the scooters had names.  They sat me on them until I found one that felt right.  They’re a charity-based company, you know.  You pay just a small fee for a whole day out, and add whatever else you feel like as a donation.  You can even park your car down there.  Shopping with a broken leg couldn’t be made easier.’

Today the Denbigh Three are planning to hit Shrewsbury’s little shops.  They’ve done the Darwin Centre and the out-of-town retail units.  Now they’re looking forward to going up and down the passageways and alleys and visiting all the little independents for which Shrewsbury town centre is so well known.  Then tonight, when they’re all shopped out, they’ll head off to the cinema on Old Pott’s Way and enjoy a meal together too.

‘We do the same sort of thing every year,’ says Sandy.  ‘Last year we had a Chinese, but this year we're going to the Pizza Hut next to Sainsbury's. We hear good things about them in there.  I’m vegan, and not easy to feed.  But we hear they're good at talking through vegan options, so we'll give them a go.' 

Sandy is vegan for ethical reasons.  She has a great love of animals, as witnessed by her seven cats and six dogs.  Many of the dogs come from a rescue home in Cyprus.  Anybody else would return from their holiday weighed down with excess baggage, but Sandy came home from Cyprus with excess dogs.  Three of them, to be precise, signed for and due to be sent to her home address  over the following few months - not to say anything of another one who arrived later as a ‘present’ from the refuge.

Sandy works for a local authority.  Diane manages the agency European Lifestyle, which also comes under the auspices of the local authority, and supports individuals living in their own homes with mental health issues.

Daughter Sarah works in the same agency.  As a support care worker she goes into college with clients and gets involved in their interests and activities, including music and drama. This year she’ll be a fairy in the pantomime, so has just gone out and bought some fairy-lights. Next September she’ll be going to college to study to become a primary school teacher. I can just see her as a primary school teacher.

Daughter Sarah’s also a musician, singing, playing the guitar, writing her own material, loving the blues and jazz.  I can just see her doing that too.  There’s something about her – you can tell she’s got a great voice. Sometimes she performs with her dad, who’s a comedian and entertainer, well-known across Denbighshire.  Next week the two of them are putting on a gig to raise funds for the typhoon-struck Philippines. 

All too quickly the plates empty and the coffee and tea cups are drained.  It's been a great breakfast, but for the Denbigh Three, shopping lies ahead.  They get to their feet. Hats off to Daughter Sarah for facing the challenge.  I’ve been on crutches myself, and know how tricky having a broken leg can be.  

Hats off to all of them, facing the biggest shop of the year, Christmas done and dusted all in one go. And hats off to Ferndell Sarah too, who's quietly clearing up. Suddenly her guests are about to depart.  I take one last photograph and then that’s it, except that Diane pauses to stress that it’s not just Shrewsbury that brings them back, but Ferndell Sarah and her family.  ‘We could have ended up doing shopping trips in any one of a number of town,’ says Diane, ‘but Sarah, Stuart and their children make us feel like family. And Shrewsbury people in general are so friendly. When we come here we just feel at home.’

They’re gone. Front door shut. Revving of engine as van pulls away. Suddenly it’s quiet in the kitchen. Time for a fresh coffee.  Cake in the oven.  Breakfast cleared up. Sarah shows no sign of slowing down.  I’ve met her before on the river path on her bike. I know what a powerhouse of energy she can be. 

It's time to go as well, but before I do there are a couple of questions I want to ask, first of which is how Sarah got into the B & B business in the first place. Stuart’s parents ran one, she says. Then, one time when Stu's father became ill, she, Stuart and his sister stepped in to hold the fort.  It was a bit of a battle in the kitchen over who did what.  Sarah put herself front of house, talking to the guests, making them comfortable, taking their money when they left.  She was good at it. Being nice to people and making sure they had a good meal was right up her street.

Sarah understood what was needed. A house with kerb appeal helped.  So, she reckoned, did having one big table for all her guests to sit round rather than little tables dotted about.  ‘I sat like that once,’ she said. ‘It was at a B & B down in Bath.  There were US businessmen at that table, families with young kids and me, all round the one table.  It made for a lovely atmosphere.’

I want to know about the art classes that Ferndell’s been hosting recently.  Back in the summer Sarah invited two local painters, Roger Keeling and Louise Diggle, to put on an Open Studio.  Since then Louise has been running once-a-month beginner’s watercolour classes.  Every month the best work is framed and put up for sale amongst the other paintings round the house.  Any that sell go fifty percent to the artist, fifty percent to the Shrewsbury Hospice.  

‘People love it,’ Sarah says.  ‘We do it in the kitchen because it has such good light. The next one is tomorrow, December 5th. I’ve made some gift vouchers for the sessions next year.  The whole thing is light-hearted, simple and basic.  It’s a relaxed fun day.’

In addition, Sarah’s preparing for a wreath-making workshop with Joyce of Lulu Flowers.  From the end of November, things go quiet on the B & B front. Over the winter Sarah does what she can to use Ferndell in other ways.

Anything else, I wonder, before I leave.  There's the new website.  Sarah says, which has only been up and running for the last couple of weeks. Paul at Virtual Shropshire did it for Ferndell for at an astonishingly competitive price.  Sarah says she’d like to put out an occasional newsletter too, so that all her visitors and enquirers know how things are going at Ferndell and any changes that are taking place.

I get up to take a few photographs.  There’s a lot of stained glass in Sarah’s house, and some lovely gothic doors, lovingly stripped by Stuart, who stripped the beautiful oak staircase too.

I could ramble all over the house taking pictures of pictures, or of all the little nooks and crannies.  But Sarah's expecting the arrival of another visitor soon, and though she says to stay I’m fortified by coffee now, my energy levels are up and I’m ready to face the day.  

Thanks for breakfast, Sarah. That was great.  Thanks, too, for all the encouragement you’ve given me over the year.  A whole host of people have followed this blog, and told me they love it and encouraged me.  But you, tweeting as @ferndell-b&b, along with our mutual pal @shroppiemon have been the icing on my Shrewsbury cake.

 [Which reminds me - note to self – wasn’t I going to do a post on the recipe for the famous Shrewsbury Cake?]

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