Tewkesbury - Speedboats and abject poverty
By Alan Russell
The first part of my walk around Tewkesbury started from the car park at the rear of the Tudor House Hotel and down to a narrow road named Back of Avon which hugs the bank of the Mill Avon.
About one hundred yards in front me was a cream two storey building that forced Back of Avon away from its towpath position next to Mill Avon but only for a few yards. On the side of the cream building facing me was a wrought iron staircase festooned with balloons that were flopping in the breeze and had logos on them that could only say ‘HPY BTDY’ as the rest of the letters were lost in ever deepening folds of the slowly deflating balloons.
On the side of the house that I walked by was a brown wooden sign advertising ‘W A Shakespeare’. Thinking this might be some connection with the great bard I stopped and read the fading white words beneath this name.
On the groundfloor of this house is a boat building workshop which when I was there looked to be in commercial hibernation. The sign explained that W A Shakespeare designed and built high performance speedboats in this workshop on the banks of a quiet millstream. W A Shakespeare’s claim to fame and justification for the brown sign was that two of his speedboats featured in a boat chase sequence through the canals of Amsterdam in the 1970’s movie ‘Puppet On A Chain’. The hero’s boat was a small daffodil yellow speedboat. For speedboat geeks the model was a 13.5 foot Shakespeare Sportsman ski boat. The villain drove a larger white boat. Apparently this was filmed without special effects or trick photography and the two pilots really did let rip with their boats along the canals.
I am not so sure that the claim about special effects is 100% true. The villain driving the white boat was wearing a white suit and a white hat that could best be described as the result of a Stetson copulating with a fedora. The brim of the ‘stetdora’, like the balloons on the staircase, was a bit floppy and not once in the close ups of the villain did this brim flap about in the breeze unlike the blond fringe of the hero that was windswept throughout the whole chase making him look ‘cool’. Anyway, that is the connection between Mill Avon and the wide screen.
Sadly W A Shakespeare died in 1971 on Lake Windermere in the Lake District testing one of his designs just after the movie was made.
Tewkesbury is famous for its narrow alleyways and my fist view of one of these alleys was near to W A Shakespeare’s workshop.
Leading away to my left and towards the high street is ‘Clark’s Alley’. This alley can be no more than four feet wide and the cobbled surface is ribbed with protruding cobbles placed about the length of a step apart. The brick walls were painted white and as a lot of buildings that faced on to this alley had been demolished daylight broke into its narrow confines.
This was not what it was like in the past. There would have been three or four storey tenement houses probably no more than ten feet wide all along both sides of this alley that blocked out the sunshine. They were not built for one family unlike the houses of the rich facing on to the High Street. They were built to house as many people as possible from the growing population of the town. Usually one family of five or six people would live in one squalid room. With no drainage the alley was the only place for sewerage to go. I guess the protruding cobbles were put there to give people a grip for their feet as they walked through the slime and stench.
An inspector from The Board of Health in 1841 wrote ‘The town’s population was stationary, the mortality rate unusually high and the sanitary conditions appalling’.
There are ten of these alleys or lanes surviving today and the health inspector’s report of 1841 must have applied to all of them.
Like the vague genetic origins of the villain’s hat, the Mill Avon has an unconfirmed past. No one can verify with 100% confidence that it was cut and filled with water to power the mills in year such and such. Best guesses are that it was cut in the 12th century. In the 15th century it was thought to have been built for defensive purposes as barrier between the town and marauding Vikings attacking the town from the nearby River Avon. Whatever its history be it powering mills, defending the town or seeing speedboats floated on its waters Mill Avon is well and truly retired in the 21st century with its natural pedestrian current only disturbed by waterfowl and the occasional canal boat passing through.
Time for lunch overlooking the Mill Avon and the derelict buildings of the old mill.