On the festival trail in Oswestry

PUBLISHED: 00:32 29 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:08 20 February 2013

On the festival trail in Oswestry

On the festival trail in Oswestry

The town of Oswestry is determined not to be outgunned in the battle to establish itself as a premier arts, culture, food and drink destination for Shropshire. SARAH HART saddled up to meet aptly named John Waine, the man leading the charge

A mans gotta do what a mans gotta do! Oswestrys John Waine hasnt got a horse, a stetson or a gun-slinging reputation, but hes been shaking things up in this here frontier town.

Mention his name to the good folk who run businesses in Oswestry and most will retort what a great job hes doing to promote it, galvanise it and help make it a better place to live and visit.

Hes shuffling uncomfortably on the seat opposite me at the obvious cowboy puns and my dreadful comparisons with his famous namesake, the Hollywood movie legend John Wayne.

But, arguably, much the same as a John Wayne movie hero - although milder mannered, less of an ego and a satchel, instead of a rifle, slung over his shoulder - hes a character armed with fresh ideas and a go-getting attitude. He has big plans for Oswestry - a town most definitely on the way up Were sitting in the cheerful caf of Booka, Oswestrys swanky independent book shop that opened two years ago, and Johns predicting that one day outsiders will talk of Oswestry as they currently rave about Ludlow and within 10 years it will be a beacon market town of the UK.

Oswestry now has its own talked about food and drink festival, in part thanks to John as its director, and a respected literary festival that John founded two years ago, inspired by the memory of Oswestrys famous son, the wartime poet Wilfred Owen.

The Oswestry Festival of the Word, as its called, is enjoying its third annual run this March with a line up of poets, authors and performers that includes the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, the prolific crime writer Peter James and the best-selling American novelist Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

Despite its old fashioned reputation - now very much old hat - Oswestry is buzzing with energy and a wealth of creative people who have been doing their own bit over the last few years to make it a more lively, modern, cultured place to live and visit. Its long had a booming arts scene due to a plethora of artists living in the area and some good art galleries. The latest, The Willow Gallery, opened in October.

In recent years Oswestry has also nurtured a thriving music scene thanks to emerging young talented musicians, the opening of The Ironworks music theatre and arts venue thats transformed the nightlife of the town and the rapidly expanding summer music festival Osfest, now in its fourth year, attracting national headlining acts. Almost every town centre pub hosts gigs these days, and come the first weekend of December the town centre is transformed by lights, fun fairs, live bands, festive stalls and an ice rink for the Oswestry Christmas Live extravaganza.

A string of creative new shops and businesses have sprouted up including the national award-winning family-run brewery Stonehouse and the boutique Sissy Blu which brings the quality fashion labels Great Plains, Sandwich and White Stuff to the town. Booka has been a gust of fresh air.

In addition to the food and literary festivals John is making waves as the man behind TheBestofOswestry, a dynamic online marketing showcase promoting the town, its events and its leading independent businesses, to a wider audience. Almost everything you need to know about Oswestry is here, from reviews and news to blogs and features.

You can have the most fantastic business but its not going to survive if the town doesnt look good and theres no tourism or events bringing people in, says John.

You have to look at the town as an eco-system.

Hes been able to galvanize people and organisations from across the community to get them working together. Previously hed enjoyed a career as a coach working with individuals and businesses to help them achieve their potential.

I began wondering whether it was possible to coach a town, he says.

I saw that the same coaching principles that worked to change a person could also be applied to a town.

One of his first obstacles was to persuade local people to think about their town in a different way.

Typically, in coaching people dont see their own strengths. They are often taken for granted on an individual and a town level.

For an example, Oswestry Hill Fort is a stunning place and one of the best examples of its kind in Europe. Do people go up there? Sadly not. Do people know about it. Sadly not. Its a great example of a hidden talent. Another example is the music scene, swelling up from the grass roots, but we dont read about it in the tourist leaflets.

The worst person to ask about a town is a local. They love the town but see it in a very different way to visitors. We need to see Oswestry through the eyes of visitors.

Oswestry has huge strengths, he contends.

Just look at its landscape. Its a Welsh town in England. Its on the Marches. For many years it was a key town in the country because of its location as a gateway to Wales. Its beautifully positioned, sandwiched between the rolling Shropshire countryside and the wilds of Wales. We have so much to offer.

John has many fingers in different pies. His marketing role involves him working with many different organisations to raise Oswestrys profile and boost tourism. For an example, later this year, Oswestry will join 70 other British towns and villages as a Walkers Are Welcome Town demonstrating that it has something special to offer walkers. Its another way to bring in new people who will all spend money in the town.

A longer term goal is to achieve Beacon Town status with the Countryside Agency which would open up further grant funding opportunities for new regeneration initiatives. To qualify local businesses must demonstrate that they are working together to tackle certain problems in their community.

Oswestry staged its first food and drink festival four years ago, the idea of Yossi Gliksman, proprieter of Oswestrys premier cook shop Upstairs Downstairs, who is the festival chairman. The town already boasted the culinary credentials of two of Shropshires finest restaurants, The Walls and Sebastians, and new exciting food and drink companies had recently started up. Each year the festival gets bigger and better known,

Last year was the first time we had a lot of producers from Ludlow, comments John.

Swifts Bakery sold out of bread by 2pm the first day. One Shropshire meat producer said he sold more at Oswestry than he had sold at any food festival before more than Ludlow, more than Abergavenny. You have broken all my records he said.

Were now getting flooded with applications for exhibitors. Were getting people from as far as Nottingham and Plymouth. But were staying local. We want to help our local people grow their businesses.

Producers come from within a 30-mile radius. Stalls snake through the town filling the streets with wonderful aromas.

The festival has become an ideal launch pad for new products and businesses. Oswestry-based Coopers Gourmet Sausage Rolls sold 1,500 of their delicious meat pastries at their first festival.

Part of the festivals success, John believes, is that members of the public have free entry and the organisers want it to stay that way.

Johns idea for the literary festival came about after he read a moving book on Wilfred Owen by the Shropshire author Helen McPhail.

I really enjoyed it. It really got to me. Wilfred Owen was a really modern, inspiring young man. The fact that he was from Oswestry I thought should be marked in some way, he says.

And the timing was ripe. Booka, founded by owner Carrie Morris, had just opened and was running small poetry and author events; there were two other book stores in town and Oswestry Library had recently acquired a fabulous new extension with a performance area crying out to be used. There had also been a long history of poets and writers living in the area, from Medieval poets to the writer Barbara Pym, the poet RS Thomas and TV broadcaster and author Mavis Nicholson.

I told Helen I was thinking of organising a literary festival and would she consider coming and giving a talk on Wilfred Owen? She was president of the Wilfred Owen Association at the time. I invited her to visit, she came and said yes, John explains.

Previous guest speakers have included Angela Huth, author of Land Girls, Wilfred Owens biographer Dominic Hibberd and Owens nephew Peter Owen, president of the Wilfred Owen Asociation.

Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and brought up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during the First World War. At the time of his death just a week before the Armistice - he was unknown but has since become regarded as one of the greatest voices of the Great War. Verses from two of his most famous poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Futility, are inscribed on a memorial to Owen on the Broad Walk in Oswestry, overlooking St Oswalds Church where he was christened.

- For more details on Oswestry Festival of the Word visit www.oswestrylitfest.co.uk

- A new museum opens in The Guildhall, Oswestry, this month.

Whats on in Oswestry
Festival of the Word: Highlights

March 5 to 10: One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. The Attfield Theatre Companys production of Ken Keseys novel. 7.30pm, The Attfield Theatre (adults only). Tickets 6 Tel 01691 680222 email tickets@attfieldtheatre.co.uk

March 12: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again with chidrens author Frank Cottrell Boyce 3.30pm Oswestry Library (childrens event).

March 13: The Poetss Howl and OsWords magazine launch: Open mic event for Oswestrys budding poets and visitors to perform their own poems. 7.30pm The Ironworks, free entry (reserve a spot at info@oswestrylitfest.co.uk)

March 14: Kate Charles talks Barbara Pym and The Clergy. 2.30pm, The Willow Gallery, free entry. Reserve a seat on 01691 657575 or email info@oswestrylitfest.co.uk

March 14: Sunny Ormonde: An evening with The Archers and More. 7.30pm The Walls. Best known for her role as Lillian in The Archers Ormonde brings a performance of poetry and prose along with amusing anecdotes from her long TV, stage and radio career. Tickets 7 or 6 pre-booked. Booking office: Booka Bookshop,
Tel: 01691 6622444 or email info@oswestrylitfest.co.uk

March 15: Vanessa Diffenbaugh with Mandy Kirkby, The Language of Flowers. The acclaimed American novelists debut novel The Language of Flowers was an international best-seller. Mandy Kirkbys enchanting compendium book The Language of Flowers is tipped to be this springs Mothers Day. 2pm Oswestry Library. Tickets 4, booking office: Oswestry Library 01691 677388, email oswestry.library@shropshire.gov.uk

March 15: Suzannah Dunn, The Confession of Katherine Howard. The Shropshire author talks about her historical novels and her latest work, the fictitious portrayal of King Henry VIIs ill-fated teenage bride Katherine Howard. Cate Howell will also be talking about the Corbet Bed project. 7pm Oswestry Library. Tickets 3 from Oswestry Library. Book on 01691 677388 or email oswestry.library@shropshire.gov.uk

March 16: Storytime and Gruffalo Hunt. Storytime with the library team and The Gruffalo (childrens event). 2pm, Oswestry Library. Book to reserve on 01691 677388 or emailoswestry.library@shropshire.gov.uk

March 16: Matt Harvey, Wondermentalist (Arts Alive event). Radio 4 Saturday Lives Matt Harvey presents his one-man Edinburgh show of word play, performance poetry, poignancy and comedy. 7pm, Oswestry Library. Tickets: 7/4, family 23 from Oswestry Library on
01691 677388 or email oswestry.library@shropshire.gov.uk

March 17: An audience with Gillian Clarke, Welsh Poet Laureate. The Welsh poet laureate will talk about her varied life as a writer, teacher and playright. 7pm Peter Humphreys Centre, Oswestry School. Tickets: 10 from Booka Bookshop on01691 662244 or email mail@bookabookshop.co.uk

March 19:
A Lunch with David Nobbs (Creator of Reggie Perrin). The creator of one of the UKs best loved comic characters promises a hugely entertaining luncheon. 1pm The Walls Restaurant. Ticket 20, including lunch) Booking office: Booka. Tel 01691 662244 email

March 20: An Evening with Peter James (award-winning crime author). The crime novelist and creator of the award-winning DS Roy Grace crime series has been published in 34 languages. 7pm The Walls Restaurant. Tickets 10 pre-book 9 (includes wine and nibbles). Booking office: Booka. Tel 01691 662244 email mail@bookabookshop.co.uk

Visit www.oswestrylitfest.co.ukfor further information.

Other Oswestry events in 2012
April 20-22: The VW Bus Types Show, Oswestry Showground.

May 19-20: The Shropshire Truck Show, Oswestry Showground. One of the largest in the region.

May 30: Olympic torch arrives.

June 1-4: Osfest, Oswestry Showground. Billed as the biggest and best Shropshire festival, this years headlining acts include Razorlight and the Indie rock band Hard-FI. Weekend tickets from 65. For information and tickets visit www.osfest.co.uk.

June 2, 3, 4 and 5: Royal Jubilee celebrations.

July 7 and 8: Oswestry Food and Drink Festival, throughout the town. The best hand-picked food producers from Shropshire and the borders.

July 6 to 15: The Oswestry Games. A week of Olympic-style events, sporting and cultural.

July 20-22: Bluerock Summer Music Festival. A free music festival around the town.

August 4: Oswestry Show (127th year). Oswestry Showground. Agricultural show.

September 7-9: Oswestry Walking Festival.

For more info visit oswestryseason.co.uk.Download the Oswestry app for free.

Oswestry a beginners guide
Where North Shropshire meets Wales lies Oswestry, an ancient frontier town that has enjoyed many an odd skirmish between the Welsh and the English as they struggled for supremacy.

In 1400 one of these skirmishes nearly destroyed the town when fires raged as the Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyndwr led a rebellion against the English King Henry IV. The town became known as Pentrepoeth or hot village.

Today, although firmly in English hands, you can still hear and see the influences of Wales, from the accents on its streets to nearby place names. The parish church even conducted services in Welsh up until 1814.

The town is particularly noted for its many historic buildings that line its winding narrow streets and market squares, from the medieval timber-framed Llywd Mansion on Cross Street to the elegant, imposing Georgian town houses around St Oswalds Church.

Did you know?

- The Oswestry Iron Age Hillfort is said to be the birthplace of Queen Guinevere, Queen Consort of King Arthur.

- Oswestry is named after King Oswald of Northumbria, who died in AD 641. He was nailed to a tree after losing in battle to the pagan King of Mercia, Penda and thus the name Oswalds Tree was born.

- Its many famous sons include the war poet Wilfred Owen, who died in 1918 during the last few days of World War One, and footballer Alan Ball, who played in the 1966 World Cup winning England team.

Highlights by day: For keen walkers it has to be the long distance Offas Dyke footpath, which passes right through the area on its way from Prestatyn to Chepstow. While for history buffs there are the remaining earthworks from the Iron Age Fort and the romantic ruins of Whittington Castle in the nearby village.

Highlights by night: For entertainment it has to be The Ironworks with its regular calendar of events from concerts to comedy nights. The towns Guildhall also holds regular events and is home to The Attfield Theatre.

Word on the street: Douglas Robb, Headmaster of Oswestry School, pictured above, says: If there is one element which struck me above all others when we moved to Oswestry it is the sense of community. There is a real warmth and humour about the town, as well as a sense of history, and everyone is so friendly. We certainly have felt warmly welcomed wherever we have gone. From a purely selfish point of view the countryside is outstanding and I have been able to indulge my passion for shooting since being here.

The worst part of Oswestry is that, like so many other towns in the UK, it is suffering from matters beyond its control and some of its industry is clearly struggling; lets hope this is temporary and will recover as quickly as possible.

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