The highlight of Mrs. Burns' year was undoubtedly the Bishop's Castle Agricultural Show. She was once, as she never tired of telling me President of the local branch of the Farmers Union. Mrs. Burns, though, was a surprising agriculturalist as she didn't have a farm. She actually lived in the town of Bishop's Castle itself next door to my friend Phil which is how I came to know her. She did, however, have a large field just outside the town on which she kept a few sheep and cattle. Even up to the year of her death she was exhibiting stock at the show and winning prizes - though I fancy the show's committee had virtually established a special category restricted to stock emanating from Mrs. Burns' field.
I came to know Mrs. Burns well enough in her final years for her to invite me in to her house. It was startlingly primitive - like its owner, it belonged more to the last century than this one. What made Mrs. Burns' house even more unusual though were the pictures she hung on her walls. They were pictures of bulls. Pictures which she had cut out of some farmer's journal. They were not her bulls, she had probably never even seen them, but through the intermediary services of an AI man her own cows had borne their progeny and thus they were well deserving of a place on her walls.
Well, poor old Mrs. Burns has gone now but the Agricultural Show continues of course, and whilst I was in Bishop's Castle last week the event was taking place, so I went along. I gained the strong impression the organisers were struggling somewhat to get people to submit exhibits. Competitions for producing the biggest onion I'd come across before, of course, but not one for finding the biggest dock leaf. There was also one for the best arrangement of leaves on a plate. For the pleasure of viewing such productions as these I paid £2.50.
Bishop's Castle lies in south Shropshire on the English-Welsh border. Sadly there is no longer a castle there - that has long gone. It was however quite a massive structure and there was much of it left even three hundred years ago. But then it disappeared. It seems to have been heavily plundered, all of it gone in to the building of the town itself over the centuries. About a thousand people live in the town now. The bishop the town's name alludes to, was the bishop of Hereford - back in the twelfth century it would seem bishops had more than just ecclesiastical duties.
To say Bishop's Castle is a quiet place would convey a greater degree of freneticism than actually pertains. When I was departing from Bishop's Castle on a Saturday morning standing at the top of the town (the town is sited on a steep hill) I'm fairly sure I heard the bus I was waiting for start its engine some several hundred yards away at the bottom of the town as there was just no other sound to be heard.
Such a degree of tranquillity is rare and for this alone the town would be worth staying in but it has so much more than this. South Shropshire is a beer drinkers Valhalla. Recently I was asked to recommend some goods pubs to visit in Cumbria and I was hard pressed to think of any. In "the Castle", as the locals call it, there are six pubs and I would recommend three of them to anyone: all of them serve real ale - in fact two of them brew their own.
Quietness and drink - what more could one ask for? Something to read I would aver and here too the town is far from lacking in good provision. It provides as well for the reader as it does for the imbiber - there are four second hand bookshops in the town. Rooting around in them is like delving in to the past, a snap shot of past obsessions. I tend to buy scores of second hand books more because I think them worthy artifacts rather than because I actually want to read them.
Peace, quiet, a good pint and a good book to ponder is this the full extent of the town's virtues? - there is yet even more. The town is immersed, drowned in quintessential English countryside (or what one would like to think is such), narrow, country lanes with thick hedgerows weaving through a quilted patchwork of fields. However quintessential England is relatively flat whereas south Shropshire is hilly - but these are rounded gentle hills not rugged as they are in the north of England, overlain with a pattern of fields. Gaining the tops of these hills one can obtain some remarkable vistas that go on for miles.
England perfected it may be but astonishingly it is almost devoid of tourists. I find this paucity difficult to account for but maybe it is due to Wales being so near - anyone likely to travel to south Shropshire is probably attracted to travel yet further in to Wales. Tourists can easily destroy a place but Bishop's Castle is certainly in need of a few more. In the five years or so that I've known the town four or five ventures have started, including three of the bookshops I've mentioned, and their survival seems rather tenuous.
In my last evening in the town, however, sitting in the Castle Hotel, I became aware of yet another new development which could, who knows, give the town the added economic buoyancy it needs. A group of affluent continentals were talking around a table: Italian, French, Polish, Ukrainian and German. There could be only one explanation; they were attending a language school - I learnt it was based in a village close by. So perhaps in the years to come the town will become the haunt of wealthy Europeans getting to grips with the south Salopian accent and conversing about silage and milking with characters like old Mrs. Burns.
Two hundred years ago Bishop's Castle had a very unusual source of income: elections. The town was a rotten borough. Though having less than a hundred electors for much of its history the town was represented by two members of parliament. Electors turned a pretty penny by accepting bribes, anything between six and twenty eight pounds: this seems little in today's reckoning but I would guess in the eighteenth century it was more than most people earned in a year. The last contested election was in 1820 by then the electorate had grown to 174. There were four candidates and each candidate received 84 votes. The returning officer decided to send all four candidates to Parliament. Ah yes, the town had more enthralling contests those days than just seeing who could find the biggest dock leaf.