Oswestry in bloom
PUBLISHED: 12:22 21 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:44 20 February 2013
The annual Britain in Bloom contest attracts hundreds of entries from towns and villages across the country, all vying desperately to land one of the coveted "best in category" awards
The annual Britain in Bloom contest attracts hundreds of entries from towns and villages across the country, all vying desperately to land one of the coveted best in category awards. Sarah Hartmet the inspirational team hoping that Oswestry can soon claim he highest floral accolade going.
Displaysof beautiful flowers transform a town and few places do it better than Oswestry, which for the past six years has notched up a clutch of gold awards in the prestigious Heart of England in Bloom competition.
Judging for the much-heralded contest has been taking place in towns and villages across Shropshire over the past few weeks.
This year Betty Gull, Oswestrys bloom impresario, has her sights set on the most sought-after and elusive title, Best in Category. That puts it up against the likes of Stratford upon Avon, Royal Leamington Spa, Malvern and Warwick in the Large Town category.
Weve come within a whisker a couple of times. Its what Im aiming for this year. We got it once and well do it again, says Betty, sitting behind a pile of papers and a lengthy to-do list.
The night before judges from Heart of England swoop on Oswestry, with their clipboards and hawk eyes, to appraise the towns horticultural efforts, little is left to chance.
Betty and a band of volunteers, who have worked tirelessly for months on end to make sure the place looks spick, span and blooming lovely, mobilise for last minute checks. They scan the routes the judges will follow for overlooked weeds, drooping plants, dog mess, litter, anything unsightly or out of place. Theyre not unknown to stretch a discreet arm over a wall to pluck a weed from a private garden. Yet despite the most meticulous of preparations, things dont always go to plan.
Betty can look back now and laugh about one particular jaw-dropping incident, but at the time she was mortified.
One year the overall winner of our own Oswestry in Bloom gardens competition had produced a really outstanding garden with an unusual combination of plants. So, of course, it had to be shown to the Heart of England judges, she says.
The night before we drove the route and everything was absolutely immaculate, and the owner was a man who would weed the pavement as well. One of our employees passed the garden on their way to work, on the morning of the judging, and everything was fine, immaculate.
A few hours later we arrived with the judges. We couldnt believe our eyes. Right in front of the house was parked a dreadful, old, broken-down car. What none of us knew was that the sons hobby was doing up old cars.
The judges were appalled to see it there on our route and they had to include it in their report. It was our own fault, they said - we should have checked the night before!
On another occasion, we were doing very well indeed and we were all very happy until we got to Festival Square. The old Shropshire County Council had had responsibility for the Square. Wed had suspicions that their weed killer wasnt strong enough, but theyd been insistent that our staff shouldnt go there.
When we arrived the judges were very cross and I couldnt understand why one was really cross, and then I looked down at my feet and between the pavings there was green. We got gold on that occasion, but it could have cost us best in category!
Oswestry won that accolade back in 2005 when it was in the Town category. It moved up to Large Town the following year, making the task more difficult.
The undoubted jewel in Oswestrys horticultural crown is its central Cae Glas Park with its magnificent, multi-coloured, ornamental displays. Throughout the town hanging baskets, tubs and window boxes overflow with colour and fluttering flower heads. Street furniture is freshly painted, pavements uncluttered and practically litter free. Civic pride in the place is palpable.
Coordination of the towns Heart of England efforts and the Oswestry in Bloom competition falls to an Oswestry in Bloom Committee, a seven-strong panel of volunteer horticultural enthusiasts, a few council officers and the manager of the local Sainsburys store. Hundreds of townsfolk, school children and businesses also do their bit to turn their own gardens into horticultural wonders, spruce up unattractive industrial estates, beautify their schools and generally make the place look smarter and cheerful.
A big impact has been made by Sainsburys manager Steve Tranter and his dirt-busting team of 20 Sainsburys staff, whove helped to clean up the town by blitzing graffiti and fly-posters, litter-picking, painting and weed busting.
It all started when a community-spirited member of staff came to me with the suggestion that we clean up graffiti that had become a real problem in the town, he says, also pointing out that New York has a similar group.
It encourages people to take more pride in their environment. If theres litter lying about people are more inclined to drop it.
Staff volunteer their time, and theyve been behind a successful initiative inviting local businesses to sponsor cigarette stands outside their premises to keep cigarette butts off the pavement.
Its a rewarding feeling for us when the town looks good. You get a real sense of pride, says Steve.
Environmental responsibility and community involvement have been key components of the nationwide Britain in Bloom contest, of which Heart of England is a regional element, since it launched in the 1960s borrowing an idea from Charles de Gaulles Fleurissement de France, a make France more beautiful campaign.
The huge benefit of entering the contest, according to Betty, chair of the Oswestry in Bloom committee, has been regeneration. Once scruffy and tired areas have been transformed.
When we started in 2001 Oswestry was like a once loved old shoe, muses the five-times Oswestry mayor and councillor for 35 years.
We loved it, but it was a bit down at heel and had seen better days. But bit-by-bit things were done to smarten it up. People coming in probably think it looks a little old fashioned, but thats a good selling point. Its attracting visitors and theyre enjoying the flowers and lovely places.
And all thats good for business too
Many improvements have been brought about thanks to a detailed annual street survey instigated by Oswestry in Bloom committee member Lawrence Burton, a savvy retired sales and marketing director.
Each year areas of the town are surveyed and photographs taken of vandalism, litter problems, graffiti, broken fences or street furniture, general scruffiness. The town council or Shropshire Council are called to sort them out. If theyre not responsible or cant act fast enough, Steves dirt busters jump to the rescue.
Lawrence was awarded an MBE for his many years chairmanship of a European and international standards committee for the ceramics industry. He has used those gentle diplomatic skills and eye for standards to encourage businesses to spruce up industrial estates and business parks. Many businesses sponsor flower tubs in the town.
The Oswestry in Bloom contest inspires many residents, businesses and schools to get planting and take greater pride in their environment with prizes up for grabs in 13 categories. Shropshire celebrity gardener Margaret Thrower performs a two-day judging marathon of over 100 entries.
You can get a street that looks miserable. Then somebody moves in whos good at gardening, they win an award and it encourages other people to do up their gardens as well. Theres a ripple effect, and slowly but surely the street becomes transformed, Betty explains.
Oswestrys allotments too have undergone a transformation under the watch of Oswestry in Bloom committee member John Brooks, an award-winning amateur garden designer.
Once plots stood overgrown and empty. Now theres a long waiting for them. They look neat and pretty because standards are kept up and John, a retired Eton teacher, has introduced some flower planting to inject colour. For the last two years his Shrewsbury Flower Show garden entries for Oswestry in Bloom have won gold medals. Hes looking for a repeat of the success this year with a show garden purposely designed for a granny to easily maintain.
The job of deciding the colour scheme and which plants to use for the park and over 300 town centre tubs and handing baskets falls to Betty, a keen plants woman.
I dont use white flowers. They cant really be seen from a distance, she says.
I like to have variations throughout the town and a lot of warm colours and purples. Ive used a lot of golden yellows this year. The brick of the buildings also has to be taken into consideration. Oswestry is basically Ruabon red, so I dont choose much in the way of orange or pillar box red. We want shades that the background colour will enhance.
The judges spend just two-and-a-half hours in Oswestry, so the timings along the routes that they take have to be spot on.
Whatever they say or do, you end up without any knowledge what so ever of how youve done. You only find out at the awards ceremony, says Betty.
Nationally Britain in Bloom attracts 1,350 entries from small villages to large cities each year. Theyre judged in 18 regional competitions. Of those 70 reach the annual UK finals.
Heart of England in Bloom judging took place in Oswestry on July 20. All Shropshire entries will find out how theyve done at the nail-biting awards ceremony in Wolverhampton on September 15.