Having attended school in Shrewsbury during my early teenage years, I am no stranger to the Quarry, and spent my fair share of sunny afternoons playing frisbee in the park. A decade or so away from Shropshire however, and I forgot quite how lucky the people of Shrewsbury are to have such a beautiful expanse of, well, grass. Not to mention the gem that is the Dingle, a formal floral masterpiece nestled at the centre of the park.
The 29-acre parkland houses not only the Dingle, but children's play areas, the well-loved bandstand, multiple flower beds, majestic trees and paths galore, all framed by the picturesque River Severn. A quarry from the 16th century, the park was laid out as a recreational park on 15th January 1719, and has been Shrewsbury's main recreational site ever since. The Dingle was created by renowned gardener Percy Thrower during his twenty-eight years as Parks Superintendent, and is the most unexpected sunken paradise, complete with pools, fountains, alpine borders and vibrant flower beds.
Although summer was now well and truly over, with my coat staying firmly on as I interviewed the grounds team in their historic little office, the sun was trying its best, and the Quarry still had its glow as we walked around the familiar pathways.
The park, along with other historical and recreational sites throughout the town, is looked after by Shrewsbury Town Council, and the trio that make up the team at the Quarry are Mark Bowen, Pete Jenks and Jamie Cartwright. Mark, Amenity Space Team Leader, has worked here for thirty-five years, having started as an apprentice, and has "never escaped". Pete started on the Youth Training Scheme straight from school, and has been with the team for thirty-one years. Jamie has been at the facility for five years, having completed a two years apprenticeship before being taken on by the council. "We are all here straight from school, so we're pretty boring really!" says Mark. "Although I had a paper round, if you want to put that in as work history?" Pete laughs.
The team are a laugh and it is nice to see, throughout my time talking with them, that they are all on the same page and all know each other well. "We are a small organisation, so we have kept that family feel. Everybody knows one another and we all work well together," Mark says.
The council restructured about eighteen months ago, Mark tells me, and Team Leaders were introduced into the structure of the organisation. Helen Ball, the Town Clerk, is top of the pecking order, followed by Gary Farmer, who is the Operations Manager, then about five in middle management, followed by the Team Leaders. Mark is one of the Team Leaders: "It works really well, because, as well as stuff coming down, we can approach going up. If we have a problem, I would feel comfortable phoning up and going to see Helen. All of them are approachable, everything is nice and open."
Mark, Pete and Jamie are the core for the Quarry, but Mark also looks after the crematorium, the castle, the town centre and the nursery. "It's a massive job. At the end of the day, you've got to be committed and enjoy it. If you don't, it just wouldn't work," Mark says. The team are the "gardening side" for the Dingle and the Quarry, and have another member of staff to cut the grass, as well as somebody who comes in to do the litter and security on certain days of the week. A contractor comes in to remove the suckers from the lime trees, of which there are a fair few.
I ask Mark whether they have certain jobs or whether an all hands to the pump approach is preferred. "We know what we've got to do, so it's just mix and match really. We have got quite a good routine. First thing in the morning, we have to unlock, check for litter and see if any of the bins are overflowing from the day before; we do all that. One of us will go and do the Dingle, one of us will walk the main area, while the other one would jump on the Kawasaki Mule and go right down to Grey Friars and do all that area. Just a general mop up and making sure there is no mess before the general public get in."
Following this, the tasks depend on the time of year, and which one of the multitude of festivals and events the Quarry has coming up. Mark shows me a list of all the events for this year, on a few sheets of A4. The biggest festivals are the Flower Show, which welcomes around 50,000 people, the Food Festival with about 25,000 people, the Christmas Fair with around 12,000 visitors, and the Kids Festival with another 12,000 festival goers. On top of that are circuses, fairs, dog events, music concerts and even the odd Monster Truck event! I laugh at that and ask if they dread the monster trucks, "No! Monster trucks we don't dread, because they don't make a mess. They have all the right tyres, so they're okay. It's when the people who do the events get the Manatee cherry pickers on with the wrong tyres. When they turn, that makes the mess!"
The Christmas Festival last year was a huge learning curve, the trio tell me. It was the first one they had hosted and it resulted in large areas of the Quarry being fenced off due to the mess that had been created. "It was a wet season and, when the damage was done, we couldn't even get on there with machines for five or six weeks to do anything about it. It was just sitting there looking like an absolute mess." Jamie tells me, "Even when we did get on, we had to repair it all by hand. We sanded and turfed it. You just couldn't get a tractor on there."
"Sometimes, the organisers don't adapt to the weather conditions. If they took a bit more care ..." Pete says. "That's what we are finding trouble with. People aren't distinguishing between the rougher areas where they can get away with doing that and coming to a more prestigious park where we want to be there 365 days a year looking good." Meetings were had and lessons were learned all round, with the organisers paying for all the damage caused. Meanwhile, Mark and the team had to cope with the complaints they were constantly receiving from the public. This year, the festival is going ahead again, but with a few changes. Mainly, that car parking and storage will be on the hard standing, no matter what the weather, and the company putting the marquees up won't use machinery. "It's just a matter of working with the people that put on the events and making sure any issues are ironed out," Mark concludes.
The Flower Show organisers always seem to get it right, after many years of experience at the Quarry. "Years ago, we would have had to do most of the tidying up from the Flower Show, but we don't have to now. They're getting that spot on; this year was brilliant."
The Flower Show is the biggest event at the Quarry, and people from all over the UK come to see the amazing displays and soak up the atmosphere. For the boys, it is of high importance to get the Dingle, which is the council's showpiece, in top, awe-inspiring order. "A week before, we put a massive effort into the Dingle. We do bring extra people in sometimes, but it's mainly us three."
When talking about the Flower Show and their work on the Dingle, I pick up on how self-critical they all are of their work, despite all the awards that they win for the garden. In 2016, they won the Heart of England in Bloom Horticultural Excellence Award for the Dingle and a Gold Award in the Heart of England in Bloom Parks & Open Spaces Category.
"We will always say things aren't as good as we want them to be. We are always looking for the fault, the bad point or the weed. Whereas other people don't see that, and then, when we get to the Flower Show, we sit down on show days and look at it and think, 'No, actually, this is alright'," Jamie says. Pete agrees, "We thought we hadn't done that brilliantly this year. Sometimes, we are too critical of ourselves. We over-analyse things. It wasn't great weather when we were bedding out, but we tend to forget that everybody else is having the same problems as we are."
However Mark sees this as a benefit to the team, "Being critical, that's what makes you good. If you took us three out and put another three in, they may not be as critical and not do the same job."
The team sit down after the Flower Show and make their plans for the following year, "We see what we've got right or where we've gone wrong." Recently, they have been adding depth to the beds in the Dingle, "It's always looked nice, but it has always been quite flat. You've got the standing fuchsias and things like that, and then it goes right down to the basic plants. What we try to do is pack the beds more so that they are higher. The bed around the fountain has always been quite formal, and so we went for a little bit more informality there. We chose plants that will be spreading and scraggy and trailing, so they all mix together. That's worked well. Again, because it's higher, you are not coming in and just looking at the fountain sticking out of the middle. It's disguised it a bit."
The team are also implementing more sustainable planting. "On some of the outside beds where we used to have fuchsias as the bedding theme, we've now got some box plants that are there 24/7. We've got permanent features there and we just plant around them," Mark tells me.
"It's about things that we can put in that we may have classed as an annual before, but we can get an extra season out of them. Our concept is to always keep the wow factor, because we need it, but to do it as easily and as cheaply as we can. For example, we put grey cinerarias in because we were told they would last through a mild winter, so we left them in. They didn't last so well around town because they were more exposed but, in the Dingle, they were in two beds and did well, and they still look good now after two years."
"We are saving money on the bulbs too. We try and pick varieties that are going to be a bit cheaper so you've still got the bulbs, but are saving £50 on a thousand. If you do that on two or three thousand bulbs, it's money saved at the end of the day. If we do that across most of our sites then we save quite a bit. Also, if we save money on our mainstream, we can afford to get those extra things. Last year, for example, we got some agapanthus for the ceramic pots."
As well as sustainable planting, Mark and the team think about the ecological side of things a lot too, specifically when it comes to pollinators. "We don't really want to spray, unless we have to. We follow the guidelines carefully and we are more aware of when we spray. We spray early in the morning, before the pollinators are about, as it's better for the environment. We are going to be using slug pellets in a more environmentally friendly way. We used to chuck them everywhere and keep putting them down. But we don't do that now. We put as few down as we possibly can around the plants, just where we think there is a problem."
Although the soil hasn't been tested before, it seems that the results speak for themselves. "We've had a lot of people asking if the soil is from elsewhere. But, obviously, because it's been worked over the years, it's fantastic. If you go down two feet, its clay but, because the top surface has been regularly rotovated, it's pretty good," Jamie says. "It's lovely to work with because it's more like the consistency of flour."
"When we had Britain in Bloom here, we talked to one of the judges and said that, if we did test the soil, we'd be confident that ours would be one of the least toxic soils in the country for a park setting," Marks says.
"If we have aphids or suchlike, we will get a knife and try and scrape them off, instead of using a chemical, and things like that," Pete tells me. I was also pleasantly surprised when Jamie told me that the grass area hadn't been treated since he has worked here, and the others couldn't remember the last time anything was done to it.
So, they don't get problems with pests or diseases? "Do you mean us personally?" Mark jokes. "We don't really, to be fair. Although we did have one rabbit a couple of years ago, and we've had foxes recently, which doesn't concern us. The heron does bother us a bit, because it takes the fish, but that's just nature, isn't it?"
The team seem so relaxed, I wonder if the renowned floods from the River Severn can even stress them. "We get the river coming up every year at varying levels. One year it might only reach the tow path along the bottom. Then there are years when we will get the 'big one'," Pete explains. "If it floods badly, it will cover well over three quarters of the play area and work its way down through the park. It depends how it floods too. If it's a fast flood, it will take all the rubbish with it. If it's a slow one, we tend to find we have areas where it deposits the mess. But we know the areas. It can be a pain and take up time washing the seats off etc."
Keeping the park ranking highly on presentation is a huge priority for the team, and public feedback plays a large part in that. Although the vast majority of visitors give the lads great feedback, the complaints do not fall on deaf ears. "Years ago, the fountain colours were white and blue or white and green, as historically it had always been that way. But we hardly heard anybody say it was nice; they all told us that it was gaudy. So we went for a neutral cream and bronzy colour and, if it does get dirty, it doesn't matter because it will look antique. We haven't had a single complaint since. We had no problem with it and didn't even think about it as we had grown up with it but, if the visitors come in and say they don't like it, we pick up on these things and do something about it. We haven't painted it for about three years now."
"Because we are permanently based here, we get to know the regular people and they get to know us. If there is a problem, they know where to come, even if we are out and about. It is about being accessible and working together. We always make a point of speaking to the older people too. They come down most days and want a chat. Going back to us being a family-like organisation, the bigger organisations wouldn't bother, I don't think."
With the annual calendar of events that the Quarry has, as well as the competitions, general maintenance and gardening, I don't see how they could fit any more in, but I ask whether they have any projects planned. "We talk through a lot of things that we might do, but generally we don't get a chance. We just do a wish list," says Jamie. "All the rockery pools have got to be emptied and re-skimmed. There are three pools, and kids keep blocking up the pipes with leaves and stones, so we are going to put bigger pipes in, so we'll have to dig all of that out. Other than that, project-wise, we haven't really got a great deal lined up."
Not that the team will be resting any time soon: "Normally, before this Christmas festival, after the flower show things would die down a bit. Just with a circus in October or things like that. Then you could tidy up and get things sorted. But now, there is always something going on."
With such a large site, the three of them do a remarkable job of keeping on top of things. Pete says, "It's twenty-nine acres; it's a big site. But you can't worry about that. We've think of it as our garden, all those jobs that have got to be done."
Mark agrees, "We all know the job; we've been here long enough. We all just muddle through it and bluff it as we go!"
February/March: Once we get into the better weather, it will be things like repairing the dry stone walls. One year we built a new wall. This year we have to do the little pools in the rockery with the waterfalls.
We will be thinking about the summer display.
With some of the cuttings we will have taken in December, it's like a two tier system, like the heliotrope. They would stay in their pots and they are classed as the parent plant. Then, come the end of January/beginning of February, we push them on and they are the planters that we will be taking the cuttings off, and then we put them on our display. So we need to get about 4,000 of them.
March/April: Everything kicks into action. We will be taking cuttings, potting up, looking after the standard of our fuchsias for the show. Our greenhouse begins to slowly kick in. Again it would be tidying up.
Once spring comes, the spring display will begin to flower. Bulbs come and go, so we're taking bulbs out of the beds and replanting them. We replant them along the riverbank.
May: General bed maintenance comes to life at this time. Obviously people are out and about more, so there's more litter. The grass is growing strongly, so there's much more mowing.
June: Another month where we'd be straight down to the Dingle. The spring display will be finishing and we will be going into our summer display for the flower show and beyond.
Not doing anything else in depth.
July: A big catch up with shrub beds, especially as we are in competitions then, and we are judged in July.
We were struggling last summer because the splash park opened as we started our bedding. We were expected to be down there because we had to be doing bits and pieces. We didn't think we'd done enough for the judges, but we got there somehow.
General maintenance, keeping the park in top notch condition and preparing for the flower show.
August/September: August is the month of the Flower Show. Once that is over, there's a big sigh of relief.
We keep the containers going because people are still visiting and things are still looking good. We try to get the greenhouse stocked up with cuttings.
October: The swap over from summer bedding to spring bedding. Planting up all the spring bedding plants and all the bulbs. We do this not only in the Dingle but also the other beds we have around the park.
November: We check all the shrub beds, cutting back anything that needs it, and putting them to bed for the winter. Collecting leaves is a big task. We pot up all the cuttings that we've kept in our greenhouse. We do about 7,000 cuttings, so we keep an eye on them.
December/January: Hopefully, the park will be more or less tidy with less leaves knocking around. It depends on the weather but, if it's frosty, we will be keeping an eye on the paths. Then, during the worst of the weather, we might be painting seats and cleaning benches, giving the canteen a lick of paint and carrying out other maintenance jobs. We also edge all the paths.
Another winter job we do is to drain all the smaller pools down in the Dingle.
We'll spend time identifying new projects, come up with new ideas for sustainable planting and suchlike.