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.

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.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostlagia

Paws for thought as City Dog’s Homes celebrates 30 years

Solo, our first dog, who came from the City Dog's Home at Bucknall.

Solo, our first dog, who came from the City Dogs’ Home at Bucknall.

I recall my dad’s reaction when my brother and I returned home with our first pet dog.

“It’s a bit big, isn’t it?” said the old man – with a customary lack of enthusiasm – as the nervous, black and white cross-breed sniffed around her new abode.

Of course, within five minutes dad was on all fours and making a huge fuss of the animal who I named Solo (after Star Wars character, Han, of course).

The year was 1989 and I remember vividly our trip to the City Dog’s Home in Bucknall. I wasn’t prepared for row upon row of kennels with pleading eyes or the incessant barking which assailed our ears.

In the end we chose Solo, who was two at the time, precisely because she was quiet and timid – standing as she did at the back of her pen, shaking.

She went on to live to the ripe old age of 15 and had many adventures.

One time mum inexplicably dropped a steaming hot joint of roast beef, straight out of the oven, on to the tiled floor of our kitchen.

Quick as a flash Solo snapped up the great chunk of meat in her jaws and ran off with it – curling up in her bed and snarling like a mad thing at anyone who went near her until she’d scoffed the lot.

That was Sunday lunch gone for a Burton.

After Solo died mum and dad got their current dog, Cobi, from the City Dogs’ Home too.

The place has actually been open for more than 30 years – helping to find homes for literally thousands of unwanted dogs.

During that time the one constant has been Vicki Phillips who is now the manageress of the privately-owned home.

Vicki, aged 63, lives close to the Brookhouse Lane site and for her and her four staff it is far more than a job.

She said: “You can’t help but become emotionally attached. It can be a very depressing job but it is always a very rewarding one too.

“It is nice knowing that you have provided a dog with a safe, warm environment.

“Then every time we re-home an animal it gives you a great sense of achievement and happiness.”

The City Dogs’ Home, which takes in all of the stray animals picked up by Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s wardens, opened its doors in 1982 not long after Longton Dogs’ Home closed.

Vicki worked at the Longton centre at then at the City Dogs’ Home as a kennel maid before moving in at Bucknall as resident manageress.

She recalls: “Back in the early days we didn’t have anywhere near the number of dogs we have now.

“We had space for perhaps 30 or so animals. The number of kennels has quadrupled since then and we never turn a dog away.

“In the Eighties we would get all sorts of breeds in – Shepherds were quite popular.

“Nowadays it is mainly cross-bred Staffies and this is really sad to see.”

On average the City Dogs’ Home is looking after anywhere between 80 and 100 animals.

It’s obviously a full-time job, 365 days of the year, and so on Christmas Day, for example, the staff will share the load of feeding and checking on the animals.

Vicki said: “These are difficult times and hard for us as a business.

“As well as the dogs brought in by the local authority we also have animals that come to us from their owners for a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes people have lost their job or their home or are downsizing to live in a flat and simply don’t have the room for a dog anymore or can’t afford to keep one.

“We are extremely grateful to the public who help us enormously throughout the year – particularly at Christmas time – with donations of food and bedding.”

Vicki, who used to have seven rescue dogs of her own but now only has a Poodle and Cavalier left, has the following words of advice for anyone considering taking on a dog.

She said: “It may be a cliche but having a dog really is a big responsiblility.

“People need to be aware of the commitment – not simply in terms of the financial cost but in terms of the time required to properly look after an animal.”

*Anyone who thinks they can offer a safe home to one of the animals at the City Dogs’ Home should contact Vicki on: 01782 304130.’

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

Brushing up on skills from a proud industrial heritage

‘You’d make a very good forger’, was what an expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London once told Tony Challiner.

An unusual compliment it may have been, but it summed up just how good a china painter this lad from Chell had become.

At the time, Tony had been given special access to a priceless, if somewhat time-worn clock once owned by Marie Antionette in order that he could copy its style and colouring. Not bad for a young man who, by his own admission, would go home ‘almost in tears’ every night when he first began his apprenticeship – convinced he wouldn’t make the grade.

Tony began his seven-year apprenticeship at Royal Doulton’s headquarters in Burslem at the age of 15 in 1957.

He was following a family tradition.

His auntie and uncle had both worked for Royal Doulton and his father, Ben Challiner, had also been a china painter at Nile Street and went on to become chairman of the Royal Doulton Arts Society.

Speaking to me at Burslem School of Art where he had been a student some five decades earlier, Tony recalled the early days of his apprenticeship.

He said: “I suppose I was always destined to become a china painter. I actually didn’t touch a figure for the first six months then when I did I thought I’d never get it right and would often go home really upset.

“As an apprentice I was everyone’s gofer – being sent to fetch turps and the like – but I made use of my time around the factory. I observed things, asked questions and learned about all aspects of pottery manufacture which, ultimately, helped me in my work.”

If you own a Royal Doulton figurine there’s a chance Tony painted it. Look for the initial ‘C’ near the backstamp or ‘TC’ for his work after he finished his apprenticeship.

Tony said: “I became something of a perfectionist. I’m from the ‘wash it off and start again’ school of thinking. If I feel something isn’t right I would rather start over.”

The 70-year-old worked in the pottery industry for 50 years – spending many years with Royal Doulton and Spode and also working for nine years in America for the Franklin Mint Co. before returning to his native North Staffordshire in 1988.

By that time, according to Tony, the landscape had changed.

He said: “I always felt that pottery manufacture and sale went in 15 year cycles. There were good and bad times depending on the state of the economy. In my opinion the best period for the industry was between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s.

“There simply was no recovery in the Eighties. It felt like all downhill from the mid-Seventies onwards.”

Tony explained that in its heyday Royal Doulton would have employed more than 500 painters and paintresses.

He said: “When I joined my ticket number was 4,071 so at that time Doulton’s were employing more than 4,000 people in the Mother Town.

“It’s hard to believe that all those jobs have gone and, of course, it really saddens me when I drive past the site of what was the factory in Nile Street and just see piles of bricks.”

Thankfully, Tony is helping to keep traditional skills alive through his work leading Burslem China Painters.

The group meets regularly at Burslem School of Art where Tony and other former china painters pass on their knowledge and expertise to those interested in an art which, if not dying, is certainly endangered.

Tony, who lives in Bucknall and used to teach pottery skills to students at Stoke-on-Trent College, said: “China painting is a skill that can be taught but obviously some people are more gifted than others because they are born with a degree of artistic ability and flair. We have around 12 members in the group and it’s nice for me to be able to pass on some of the things I’ve learned.

“Many people who worked in the pottery industry were messed about, made redundant and, I have to say, let down by bad management.

I’m one of the lucky ones because the pottery industry gave me a good career.”

The Burslem China Painters are staging an exhibition, entitled ‘Keeping The Skill Alive’ at Burslem School of Art and it runs until next weekend.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the group can contact Tony Challiner on 01782 274215.

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

Verity’s still radio Ga Ga 30 years after her debut on BBC Radio Stoke

Verity Williams, as she was, was seven the first time she rang in to BBC Radio Stoke.

She wanted the presenter – a certain Jack Ward – to play a song for her: Love Me For A Reason by The Osmonds.

However, Mr Ward – a firm favourite of Verity’s nan – was having none of it and instead treated her to The Old Rugged Cross.

Amazingly, she wasn’t put off for life and at the age of 14 it was her prowess with a pen that earned her a part-time job with the station in Cheapside, Hanley, in 1981.

Verity said: “I actually wanted a job working in a shop but I was too young so my nan suggested I wrote to Radio Stoke. She was an avid listener to Jack Ward.

“My handwriting was very neat, apparently, and the bosses at the station were obviously impressed because they let me go in on Saturdays and answer the telephones and write down music requests from listeners. There were no computers back then, of course.”

It was another local legend – Bruno Brookes – who really gave Verity the bug for radio.
She said: “Bruno was wonderful to work with – such a lovely man who had a great way with all the people he met.

“However, he had a bit of a problem with his time-keeping. He would always turn up a bit late for his show which meant I ended up opening up the station, handling the switch over from Radio Two, introducing the first couple of records, and holding the fort for him. I would have been about 15 at the time.”

Back then it was records too – none of this digital playlist mullarky which yours truly enjoyed the benefit of when I did my first two shows on BBC Radio Stoke at Easter.

Verity, surname now Hilton and aged 45 and living in Bucknall, explained: “All music was chosen by the listeners or the presenters. The lazy presenters would just use the pile of records left by their colleagues while others did proper research in the old gram library.”

This autonomy meant each show sounded different – depending on the preferences of the presenters and their audience.

Verity said: “When the music began to be chosen by computers this was certainly more efficient and made it easier to put shows together. But it also gave the station a very definite ‘sound’, as the same type of tunes were heard with more regularity.”

It was 1984 when Verity began working for BBC Radio Stoke full-time and she worked for the station on and off until 2000, as well as enjoying stints as a researcher for BBC Breakfast television and as the Beeb’s producer for the Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

She said: “In the 80s local radio really was all about the local audience. There were an awful lot of local people involved and there was a great sense of community.

“There wasn’t so much regional input into shows as there seems to be today. It was very much about what was happening locally.

“Even the local commercial station – Signal – was of the same mindset and they became a great rival for a time.”

Verity is perhaps best know for her work with partner Sam Plank – real name Terry Hilton – whom she went on to marry, but she also enjoyed working with many other well-known names such as the late Bill Humphreys and Mel Scholes, Grant Leighton – who now works in the U.S. – and my mate Pete Conway.

But what was it that made Sam Plank so special and so loved by locals that, at one time, one in three listeners to local radio in North Staffordshire was listening to his show?

Verity said: “I think the station bosses saw something in Sam back when he was working for the council and he would drop in and try to get publicity for various things.

“He was very chatty – a real people person. I remember once he was sent off down to London on a training course and they told him he should refer to the Stoke-on-Trent North MP as Ms Walley.

“Sam said: ‘If I start calling Joan ’Ms Walley’ then she’ll have to call me ‘Mr Plank’. Dunna be daft’.

“That, in a way, was his charm. He just wanted to talk to people – to hear about their lives. He would play daft games like asking listeners what was in his cup. He didn’t really want them to say what was in the cup – he just wanted them to ring in so he could have a chat with them.”

Technology may have changed local radio in the past 30 years, but nothing has diminished Verity’s enthusiasm for it.

She said: “I still love it. I still get a real buzz whenever I’m on air. It’s a great feeling and a real privilege.”