Steve Bassam, now Baron Bassam of Brighton, is Labour’s chief whip in the House of Lords. But his first taste of political campaigning was during his many summer trips to Bishop’s Castle. He reminisces here about the town he visited in the 1950s and 1960s, and the impression it made upon him

Bishop's Castle - a town to remember

HouseBishop’s Castle in the 1950s and 60s holds a special affection for me. As a child I visited the small, unspoiled town most summers. It was always an eagerly awaited holiday.

My family’s connection with Bishop’s Castle was one result of the massive impact the war had on peoples’ lives. My mother Enid grew up in Whitby, and during the early part of the war the nearby north Yorkshire moors were used by the army for tank training. Her family’s Primitive Methodist Church created a befriending scheme for fellow methodists who found themselves away from home. Bill Jarvis – a Bishop’s Castle man – was a tank driver trainee and was befriended by the Bassam family. From that link, a family friendship developed which has grown over the ensuing 70 years. My mother told me of a particularly wonderful welcoming Christmas she and her father shared with the Jarvis family in the early 1940s. She fell in love with Bishops Castle and its charms as a result.

trio

Steven, with Gaynor (left) and Gwyneth Jarvis on a day trip to the coast

For me, a visit to the Jarvis home of The Rhos (all Bill and Flossie’s properties were named the same) in Salop Street was full of childish treats – plenty of visits to sweet shops, a toy shop, the recreation ground to play football, or cricket in the garden of the Cottage Hospital, home of the Cadwallader family.

The Jarvis family seemed exotic. They owned the town’s only coffee bar which was the centre of a busy social scene. I can picture now the froth and steam from the espresso machine, and the orders for chips shouted around the busy counter. There was Glynn with his sports car parked outside Bill and Flossie’s grocery store next door, and Gwyneth or Gaynor Jarvis entertaining their young friends and suitors. Later, after the coffee shop years, Bill and Flossie gave up the struggle to make the grocery shop pay and moved enterprisingly into antiques.

As a child this all had a romance to it, not least because Bill and Flossie appeared to be the centre of civic life in Bishop’s Castle. Indeed it seemed for a while that Bill was the hereditary Mayor of this smallest of borough councils, forever opening fetes and old people’s homes. Certainly they knew everyone. I loved the small town gossip that came with the council too. Bill clearly had political rivals – Dr Penney comes to mind. I fancied he was never Bill’s equal. While the good doctor must have had the surgery as his informal recruiting ground, Bill had his shop – and of course the Three Tuns.

I have a vivid memory of the cattle market and market days. This brought much needed business into the town, filled the pubs and increased trade in the shops. Many farmers spent long hours in the pubs closest to the market and didn’t venture far from the bar. Others used the time to get provisions from the useful hardware and supply stores. Bishop’s Castle definitely took on a busier air on market day.

Bill Jarvis must have welcomed them because he had a big delivery round to the farms around the area. I know this because occasionally he used to seat me in his old blue Austin van and let me join him on his round. How exciting it was to tour up long bumpy lanes to remote farmsteads, met mostly by farmers’ wives who happily supplied Bill with tea and occasionally something a bit stronger to help him on his way. The round took most of a day, or so it seemed to me.

Bishops Castle in the 50s and 60s seemed very self-sufficient. It had useful shops like grocery stores, a hardware shop, a haberdashery, a bakery or perhaps even two, an outfitters, a chemist, two or three banks. At one point it even boasted a small cinema. When I visit the town now it still has a few of these useful shops left –  along with the fanciful and basically tourist outlets.

But if you look at post cards and pictures from the period, you can see Bishop’s Castle always prided itself on being more than just a place to live. It is the embodiment of a thriving community – and a place with a certain pride about itself.

I suspect that when in the early 1970s local government was reorganised, Bishop’s Castle was rather cross about it, because the small town lost a big chunk of its independence and the ability to run things for itself. I do recall Bill Jarvis, a stoutly independent minded person, decrying the county council and district councils because they knew nothing about Bishops Castle. I have a feeling that town preferred it that way.

In the 1980s I became a councillor myself and ended up running Brighton and then the unitary Brighton and Hove City council. The Jarvis family were sort of impressed by this, but Bill never quite grasped the scale of what we had to do. Truly he believed in being close to the local electorate, and regularly met and talked to them in the Three Tuns public house over the road from The Rhos. I confess that apart from admiring the beer I also admired his capacity for engaging with his voters. I’m guessing canvassing for votes wasn’t something he much needed to do.

wedding

Gwyneth’s wedding day, with a self-conscious-looking young Bassam on the far left

As I grew older my visits to Bishop’s Castle became less frequent and more for formal family occasions. Gwyneth and Gaynor Jarvis were married in the town. Gwyneth in 1969 and Gaynor in 1974, and I recall being an usher at these major social events. Looking smart (always a struggle when a teenager) sat uneasily with my emerging hippy look, but I certainly remember the wild wedding celebrations, with much beer drinking and dancing into the night. Bishop’s Castle took it all in its stride despite being at the time outwardly a stern Methodist enclave that you might think frowned on such merriment.

Bill Jarvis seemed to represent well the nature of the town. It was a hard working community that knew what is was there for. Its shops and community functioned well, providing homes and jobs that tested people’s skills and earned them respect for what they did.

Bishop’s Castle has the lasting benefit of being attractive as a small town sitting in the lovely Shropshire countryside close to the Welsh border. It is rightly proud of its independence and of being different among communities that have a resilience and strength, gathered from their long history.

I’m grateful for the fun and adventure Bishop’s Castle gave me as a child,  and for the lifelong happiness I have had from being befriended by Bill Jarvis’s family.

Read an interview with Steve Bassam in The House magazine

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  1 comment for “Steve Bassam, now Baron Bassam of Brighton, is Labour’s chief whip in the House of Lords. But his first taste of political campaigning was during his many summer trips to Bishop’s Castle. He reminisces here about the town he visited in the 1950s and 1960s, and the impression it made upon him

  1. Karen Bavastock
    June 29, 2014 at 22:08

    This is a wonderful story to read. thoroughly enjoyed it and made me think also of Mr and Mrs Jarvis. Lovely people and great ambassadors for the town. I think Bishops Castle becomes home for so many, maybe for just a while or maybe forever, but the memories of our lovely town certainly stay with people.

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