Sunday, 26 August 2012

Why Whitchurch?

Where have you been this summer? Scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef or snorkelling off Skegness? Watching the Olympics or sunning yourself somewhere where there’s been some sun?

I’ve watched some of the Olympics. I was one of the cynics it won over.  I’ve also been to the Lakes, went ‘Ape’ (did ‘Go Ape’ for the first time) and went kayaking. I am not the most ‘gainly’ of people. These things are not my natural milieu but I thoroughly enjoyed them. I also visited Dove Cottage, and paid my respects to the Wordsworths at their family plot in Grasmere church yard. I’ve been to the gardens at Woolerton Old Hall, the Arboretum at Quinta, The Potteries Museum (once again and always worthwhile) in Hanley.

I’ve also been to Whitchurch. That’s Whitchurch in Shropshire, not one of the 14 other places in England and Wales that bear the name.

Why Whitchurch? Well, my eldest went camping there with some of her pals. She seemed to like it. So, meandering about after visiting the gardens at Wollerton Old Hall, we thought we’d drop by and explore. I’ve been there before, of course, or at least, around its ring road a few times. I’ve even driven through it, just for a peek. But I’d never got out of my car to have a look round. It’s worth doing. Honest. Even if it’s just for half an hour, which is probably about how long it would take to see the place ...

Seriously, poor old over-looked Whitchurch is trying very hard to get itself noticed. It’s even declared itself to be a walker-friendly town, whatever that means. There are boot-print motifs on posters in shop and pub windows telling you how it suitable it is for walkers and hikers. I must admit, I’d never thought of Whitchurch as a walkers’ destination, but perhaps the posters with the boot-print motifs will convince the world otherwise.

'Frog he would a-Wooing go ...' Randolph Caldecott
It’s easy to scoff. The place is trying its hardest. The ‘Heritage Centre’ does its best with not a great deal to go on. A few Roman artefacts in a sand-pit from when it was Mediolanum, the settlement in the middle of the plain. An early fort and then a civilian settlement grew up half-way between Wroxeter (Viriconium) and Chester (Deva) and there’re a few clasps and potsherds to prove it. There are some interesting clock mechanisms – a foundry in the town built some hefty tower clocks – and a whole room devoted to Randolph Caldecott the Victorian children’s illustrator and Elgar’s contemporary the composer Sir EdwardGerman. I’d never heard of him, but my wife had. They even have an Edward German music festival centred on the rather quirky parish church, St Alkmund’s, an 18th century red sandstone pile on top of an early Norman foundation – the ‘white church’ from which the town derived its name.

A steep high street, some half-timbered houses, a few tempting looking pubs and that’s about it. Whitchurch, population 8,934, home to the wonderfully nick-named ‘Allbran All Stars’, among the founders of the Cheshire Football League before they joined the Mercian Regional Football League. It boasts a short section of the Llangollen canal, the grave of Sir John Talbot killed in the last engagement of the Hundred Years War and a railway station. Whitchurch was once the hub of a thriving branch-line before the Beeching cuts.

Was it worth stopping? Yes it was, because we need the Whitchurch’s of this world. We need the small market towns where nothing much happened, where no battles were fought and no-one of sufficient note was born to put the place on the tourist map. Sure, it’ll get a smattering of visitors, it may even get some hikers. There’ll also be people like us who’ve driven around the ring-road a few times but never stopped, who say each time we pass the place, ‘Your/my great-uncle Hal lived here once. I wonder why ...’ and who stop the car and take a look. Will we go back? Yes, we will, perhaps on the way back from the Welsh borders or passing by one languid afternoon. We’ll stop and see how it’s doing, whether they’ve re-printed the pamphlet in the Heritage Centre, ‘Whitchurch And The History of Cheese.’ We’ll be glad we stopped, glad that we could still walk or drive. Glad that we could return.