Marsha O’Mahony

In January 2022 I was commissioned by the Cathedral Quarter to deliver a reminiscence/digital archive project, based on the lives of those who had lived, worked, played, worshipped, shopped – or any other activity – on Westgate Street. We called it simply, ‘Westgate Stories’.

I was delighted to deliver the project on a street I know very, very well. Born in the county, I left in my early twenties to travel and study, and along the way ended up living in Tokyo, Sydney, Cooper Pedy, Hong Kong, and Aberdeen. However, I returned to the area some years ago and have loved getting to know Gloucester all over again. Westgate Street was the scene of many a teenage escapade, so this whole project has been a big trip down memory lane for me.

My work is all about capturing and recording stories from living memory and engaging with audiences who might ordinarily steer clear of ‘heritage’ projects. I felt it was important that these stories became as much part of the heritage landscape of Westgate Street as the Cathedral and medieval buildings already are. In a way, they add the rich human texture to the bricks and mortar.

A quote that has inspired me in a lot of my work, and particularly in Westgate Stories, is by Richard Ayers. He sums up perfectly what I was trying to achieve with Westgate Stories. He describes reminiscence as thus: “The poetry of the everyday, the literature of the streets, the subjective experiences and personal perspectives of the extraordinary ordinary people – not a substitute but an essential piece of any accurate record of human events.”

With this in mind, I set out to record the memories of the ‘ordinary’ that, in the retelling, become ‘extraordinary’. For example, the legend that was the Café Roma. It is very much part of the heritage experience for many of a certain age in Gloucester. “Every Saturday morning it was a race for the window seat at the Roma, where we would all sit watching the life of Westgate Street go by. The Roma is where I had my first ever cappuccino!” It was also the site of unusually peaceful Mod and Rocker encounters in the late 1960s, glaring at each other across the café, while sipping excellent coffee. Overseeing all of this was the formidable Tony Pelopida, who introduced ‘expresso culture’ to the city.

Further up the street was The Fleece, another institution in Gloucester, and architectural dream. We spoke to many who experienced all The Fleece had to offer: “The Fleece hotel with the very atmospheric Monk’s Retreat was one of my favourite haunts back in the late sixties, I was always told to watch out for the ghosts that frequented it! I don’t know about that, but the place was magical, with every glass of cider the boys started to look handsomer!”

The interviews inspired a series of gorgeous illustrative textile works, as part of Threads 2022, and were exhibited at different venues along Westgate Street.

I’m sure the interviews form mere snippets of what is yet to be recorded. Doubtless there are many, many more to be uncovered. Reminiscence sessions and oral history interviews are brilliantly democratising, liberating contributors as they become actors in constructing their history. We look forward to hearing many more memories of this wonderful street.

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