Fond memories of Pets’ Corner, the railway and a shire horse called Bob

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

I read with sadness this week the news that Bucknall Park is being plagued by anti-social behaviour.

The problem is so bad that residents are banding together to form an action group to restore the attraction to something like its former glory.

One of the Potteries’ smaller green oases, it doesn’t boast the grand architecture or landscaping of the likes of Burslem Park.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, that it is any less important to those living nearby.

What Bucknall Park did have when I was growing up was Finney Gardens which later became the City Farm attraction.

The City Farm closed on Sunday, March 6, 2011 due to city council cutbacks.

Over the years it had grown to become a popular and much-loved facility which attracted around 90,000 visitors each year.

It boasted a sensory garden and the farm itself was home to a large range of animals – from llamas, sheep, goats, cows, ducks, chipmunks and chickens, to rabbits, ferrets and rare KuneKune pigs.

There were also aviaries containing finches and cockatiels.

The history of the City Farm can be traced back to 1972 when a former police building adjacent to Bucknall Park became vacant.

Thanks to the vision and hard work of George Baker and his team from the Stoke-on-Trent City Parks Department derelict land and old buildings at Finney Gardens were tidied up and made safe.

A lady then rang to ask whether or not a suitable home could be found to house a pair of peacocks.

They became the first residents at Finney Gardens and were soon followed by a goat with no horns called William, an abandoned donkey called Jenny, and some ducks, geese, budgies and cockatiels.

The Pets’ Corner, as it was then known, was born.

The Sentinel’s paper archives reveal that by 1975 councillors were considering plans to expand the attraction by erecting fencing to keep grazing animals safe.

In 1978 one of the most popular attractions – Bob the shire horse – joined the fold.

For the next 17 years gave pleasure to generations of youngsters by giving them rides around the attraction – ably assisted by Turk the white shire horse.

As our nan and grandad lived in Bentilee, my brother and I were among them.

When Bob had to be put down in August 1995 children left flowers, letters and pictures at Bob’s empty horse box.

One read: “I’m sorry you died. We used to see a lot of you. I hope you are in the sky. You must miss us.”

By the beginning of the 1980s, thanks in no small part to Bob’s arrival, Finney Gardens’ Pets’ Corner was a well established favourite with families – with the nearby pub on Bucknall Road an added incentive for mums, dads and grandparents like mine.

A miniature railway was added which came into its own on hot summer days and when Santa Claus visited the attraction.

During its hey-day, Finney Gardens was home to dwarf goats, pot-bellied pigs and even a retired racehorse and plenty of animals were born there – including, in April 1985, a Shetland Pony foal to proud mum Minnie.

Sadly, Pets’ Corner is no more but perhaps a little of George Baker’s magic will rub off on families living near to Bucknall Park and they can reclaim this little jewel for future generations.

I wish them all the best.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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Why Tom’s still fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Love him or hate him, you couldn’t possibly ignore him. That may well be Tom Brennan’s epitaph.

But that would be too simplistic and do a huge disservice to a man who, at the age of 79, remains as fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent as he was when first elected a councillor almost 40 years ago.

What’s more, Tom is that rare beast: A councillor who can look back on his unblemished period of office with a mixture of pride and satisfaction – having gifted the people of the Potteries some tremendous benefits.

Born in 1933, there was little to suggest the lad taught mainly by nuns at St. Joseph’s RC School in Burslem was destined for a career in politics.

Having learned his trade as a painter and decorator, Tom completed three years’ service with the Irish Guards.

He went on to work in the building trade before taking a job, like other members of his family before him, with the very Catholic-orientated Michelin tyre firm.

It was there that Tom, who became a shop steward, met the likes of local politicians Leon and Stan Bate who suggested he join the local Labour party. Within 18 months he was elected as a councillor at the then acceptable age of 40.

Tom, who lives in Bucknall with his wife Elaine, recalls: “It was a real culture shock to me. Suddenly I was in a position to be able to represent all of these people in my area.

“I was very proud. I did a four-year college course, paid for by the Labour party, which trained us to be good councillors and schooled us in the art of politics.

“I finished it and even received a certificate signed by Jim Callaghan (who went on to become Prime Minister in 1976).

“I was full of enthusiasm and remember attending my first meeting up at Hanley Town Hall.

“Jim Westwood was leader of the Labour group back then and when I stuck my hand up at the end of the meeting to ask about national policies he made it very clear to me that the local party ruled the roost in Stoke-on-Trent and they didn’t listen to national politicians.

“I wasn’t downhearted by this. When you’ve done three years with the Guards and been a drill instructor you learn to cope with shouting and bawling and how to give it back.”

This refusal to be intimidated and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer was to serve Tom well over the next 21 years as a serving councillor.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards, organised by The Sentinel and now in its 38th year, was Tom’s brainchild.

A talented athlete in his youth, he was also the key player in the creation of Northwood Stadium.

Tom remembers: “Under the ‘any other business’ section of a meeting of the parks and recreation committee I stuck my hand up and asked why Stoke-on-Trent didn’t have a running track like other cities.

“The chairman at the time was Joe Monks-Neil. You have to bear in mind that, back then, the chairmen of council committees were all-powerful. It’s not like that these days.

“Joe asked me who I thought I was to be asking a question like that. He said the council had more important issues to think about like slum clearance and land reclamation.

“But I wouldn’t let it lie and I just kept niggling away.

“I got myself onto the Northwood Management Committee and worked to help bring together the various councils and funding bodies who stumped up about £4.5 million to pay for the stadium.”

More than a decade later, in 1985, Northwood Stadium was officially opened and Tom’s involvement in its creation is now acknowledged there with a plaque.

Tom looks back on his time as a councillor with great fondness and a real sense of achievement.

He said: “Elaine did a terrific job of bringing up our two children and I am very proud of them all.

“Crucially she supported me every step of the way through my endeavours as a councillor and there were times she barely saw me.

“Elaine just knew it was something I was very passionate about. I still am.”

Something which Mrs Brennan was able to play a full role in, however, was Tom’s period of office as the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (1982/3).

He is now the second oldest surviving Lord Mayor of the city.

Tom recalls: “I was tremendously proud to represent the city. I think we attended more than 1,700 engagements that year. These included a visit to London at the request of the Lord Mayor of London along with all the other civic heads and an audience with Pope John Paul II.”

When Tom heard earlier this year that, as part of cutbacks, the city council was looking at doing away with the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor and its associated costs he was horrified.

He said: “I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself: ‘Where do they get these mad ideas from?’ I am a Labour man through and through – a socialist and proud. But having served as the Queen’s representative I understand the importance of such roles – the distinction of having a Lord Mayor – and I will defend the idea to my dying day.”

Tom believes the role of councillors has changed since his day and that their power and influence has waned somewhat.

He said: “I don’t believe that councillors in 2012 have the same opportunities and wield the same power as they did 30 years ago.

“That’s a good and bad thing, I suppose, and I dare say getting something like Northwood Stadium would be beyond modern-day councillors and I feel sorry for them in away.”

However, Tom says that even with the changes and knowing what he knows now, he would happily start over as a councillor tomorrow.

He said: “You never stop caring. You never stop wanting to help people. It gets in your blood.”

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The final flight of Spitfire RW 388 – a piece of our city’s heritage

We Stokies have fond memories of 1986 because of the National Garden Festival which transformed a huge area of derelict land in the heart of the Potteries.

But it was also the year that an iconic piece of our heritage was unveiled at its new home after 20-odd years in a ‘greenhouse’.

The city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, RW 388, was gifted to the people of Stoke-on-Trent by the RAF in 1972 as an acknowledgment that Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell had been born in the city and received all of his education here.

Since that time it had been on display inside a huge glass hangar on Bethesda Street where generations of children – including me – gawped at its magnificence.

But on October 27, 1985, under cover of darkness RW 388 was carefully winched out of its glass hangar before being carried at lamppost height to the foot of Unity House where one of the largest cranes in the country took over the operation.

It soared over the museum at around 8.30am before being eased into blocks inside the courtyard of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery so that construction work could begin on a purpose-built gallery to house the classic fighter aircraft.

The cost of the project, to transfer the plane and create its new home ahead of the public opening of the gallery in the Spring of 1986, was put at around £89,000.

However the city’s taxpayers only had to find £40,000 as the remainder was covered by grants.
RW 388 never actually saw combat during the Second World War.

It was built in 1945 at Castle Bromwich and was first used as a training aircraft and then later for towing targets so that Royal Navy ships could practice accurately aiming their guns.

After that she was used as part of a gate display at two RAF bases – RAF Benson and RAF Andover.

This exposure to the elements for an aircraft only build to last a few years goes some way to explaining the deterioration of RW 388 as it approaches its 68th birthday.

Having said that, the city’s Spitfire is unusual in that it is not your typical mixed bag for an aircraft of its age.

It is estimated that around 85 per cent of RW 388 is original – just as it was when it rolled off the production line in Birmingham all those years ago.

That being the case, the city’s Spitfire is rather special – and remains a major attraction at a venue which also boasts the world-renowned Staffordshire Hoard and a fabulous collection of locally-made ceramics.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched to raise tens of thousands of pounds to conserve and ultimately restore RW 388 to pristine condition.

This will involve a major fund-raising event at the King’s Hall in Stoke on Friday, October 19, which will be compered by yours truly.

It is a project I am very proud to be associated with – one which will help to preserve an important piece of our heritage.

That the man who designed the aircraft which helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain came from our neck of the woods is something we should continue to celebrate – even as the generation which remembers those dark days leaves us.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund should visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

The day Live Aid rocked our world

Thirteen was a pretty good age to be when the biggest concert in the history of the world was staged.

I had discovered music two years before when I was given my first record player for Christmas and got my first album (Status Quo – Twelve Gold Bars).

After that I had built up a collection of 30 or so singles ranging from Paul Young’s Love Of The Common People to King’s Love And Pride. Enough said.

As well as regular trips to Lotus Records up Hanley, like most people back then I relied on Radio One’s Sunday chart countdown and Top Of The Pops for my musical fix.

Then at 12 noon on July 13, 1985, a charitable phenomenon quite literally rocked the world.

Unless you were around at the time of Live Aid then it is difficult to appreciate the sheer scale and impact of the dual concert staged at Wembley Stadium and across The Pond at the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia.

Indeed, in comparison the Live 8 concerts – staged some thirty years later – felt like Live Aid light. They were simply duller reinventions for a new audience.

Back in 1985 the dual concert was all anyone was talking about.

Live Aid was a televisual first and one of the largest satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time.

Against all odds, a relatively minor punk rock artist managed to bring together a multitude of genuine superstars who performed at the same time in front of an estimated audience of 1.9 billion people in more than 150 countries.

Bob Geldof was that man – or Sir Bob, as he is now.

The scruffy and irreverent lead singer of Irish band The Boomtown Rats had been incredibly moved by BBC reporter Michael Buerk’s of the 1984 famine in Ethopia.

This led him to pick up the phone and call Ultravox lead singer Midge Ure and together they co-wrote the massive number one hit single Do They Know Its Christmas?

The Band Aid track, sung for free by a collection of British and Irish musicians, became the fastest-selling single ever in the UK and raised a staggering £8 million for the famine relief effort.

Overwhelmed by the public response, Geldof then set about organising a concert of epic proportions.

Although most of us were completely unaware of the logistics at the time, the Live Aid concert brought together TV networks ranging from the BBC in the UK to ABC and MTV in the U.S. as well as numerous channels on the continent.

It was also broadcast live on the radio in a technical accomplishment which, for its time, was quite remarkable.

The list of performers – with a few notable exceptions – read like a who’s who of the music world.

It’s like a snapshot of the mid-Eighties music scene and, looking at it, I defy anyone to tell me that the Nineties or Noughties were richer and possessed more talent.

At Wembley the Coldstream Guards band opened the show with a royal salute before veteran rockers Status Quo kicked us off with the very appropriate Rockin’ All Over The World.

Elvis Costello sang The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love and U2 established themselves as one of the great with an energetic set in which lead singer Bono leapt into the crowd to dance with a girl who he thought was being crushed by the throng.

Other artists included Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Alison Moyet, Dire Straits, Elton John, Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Adam Ant, The Style Council, Bryan Ferry, The Who, Nik Kershaw, Sting, Sade and Bob Geldof himself who sang I Don’t Like Mondays with The Rats.

Phil Collins was unique in that he preformed on both stages – using a Concorde to make it to the U.S. show in time.

But, for me, the stand-out performance of the show was Queen’s astonishing set.

Genius frontman Freddie Mercury held the entire crowd of 72,000 in the palm of his hand during Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are The Champions – while the rest of us sang along at home.

It’s little wonder to me that various artists, music industry executives and journalists voted it the greatest live performance in the history of rock music.

Artists on the stage in front of 100,000 people in Philadelphia included The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Black Sabbath, Run D.M.C., Reo Speedwagon, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, The Beach Boys, Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Madonna, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Thompson Twins, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppellin, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Lionel Richie.

All the while the music was playing 300 phone lines were being staffed by BBC personnel – allowing us to make donations to the Live Aid cause.

At one point, the yet-to-be Sir Bob, interrupted BBC presenter David Hepworth as he attempted to give out the address for potential donations.

Pumped up by Queen’s performance, Geldoff shouted: “F*ck the address, let’s get the (telephone) numbers!”

After his outburst the rate of donations rose to £300 per second.

It was estimated that Live Aid ultimately raised around £150 million for famine relief in Africa.

It was certainly the ‘Woodstock’ of my youth – even though I don’t even know anyone who was actually there!

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia