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28 October 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South: Monday October 2, 2006

Augustus John

Augustus John
Augustus John's statue at Fordingbridge

He painted models, marchionesses and even the Queen Mother.

But when Augustus John arrived in the quiet Hampshire town of Fordingbridge in 1927 – it wasn’t clear whether he was more famous for his art – or his love life.

It was rumoured that he’d fathered 100 children.

Son Tristan de Vere Cole says, "I was his last bastard – or so Augustus thought..."

Tristan and his mother were painted frequently by the artist at his studios near his home.

Valerie Stewart was still a schoolgirl when Augustus asked her to model for him.

"I don’t usually mention it," she says, "there are still people in Fordingbridge who grimace at his name".

Rude portraits

John Shering – himself a huge figure in the town – gave Inside Out an interview before he died.

"I was a fireman when Augustus John’s studio caught fire.

Tristan de Vere Cole
Tristan de Vere Cole - believed to be one of Augustus John's children

"There were so many rude pictures, only married firemen were allowed to go."

There was a tussle about erecting a memorial to Augustus John.

"He was a great artist," said John Shering, "but Fordingbridge people didn’t see it that way."

Now, in the museum John Shering started, there’s a section on the artist – and one of his later portraits.

But Fordingbridge still has mixed feelings about its most famous resident.

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Allotments - a cure for the blues

Robin Shelton on allotment
Down at the allotment - helping to fight off depression

Allotment therapy - could going green banish the blues?

Father of two Robin Shelton was suffering from depression, but discovered a cure for the blues by growing his greens.

He's also written a book all about it.

Inside Out meets Robin in Twyford just outside Winchester in Hampshire.

Back to nature

Nature shows a knack of just getting on with life, something mere homo sapiens can find inspirational, particularly when we’ve been struggling to cope.

For Robin Shelton, he stumbled by chance upon the therapy the allotment could give, and also found inspiration to write a book which was then published.

"The first day I started digging, I started writing", Robin says.

"I got to a point where with the allotment and the book, if I'd stopped one the other would have suffered. They did sustain each other to the point I thought, I can’t stop."

Robin Shelton
Banishing the blues with the greens - Robert Shelton

Much of the book features advice on life and on gardening from Twyford old timers, Ted and Les.

Says Les, "We knew he was writing a book, he took the mickey out of me."

But it was all in very good humour, Robin Shelton called Les 'Ken' in the book, and if you read 'Alloted Time' after seeing this film, it's not hard to spot Les.

Dealing with depression

Robin speaks candidly in the film about coming to terms with depression and a period in his life when, as his younger son Dylan says, all he wanted to do was hide under a duvet.

The allotment taught him how "things want to live, they want to survive".

"'I actually had depression… it’s almost like seeing life through frosted glass… you can see on the other side and how you want to behave but you can’t," says Robin.

Dylan Shelton says, "the allotment made him a little bit happier."

Allotment therapy

There are 70,000 allotments working their magic across England, many with a waiting list for plots.

Ted is the grandfather of the allotment.

Legend has it, he's the best gardener in Twyford.

Ted and Les
The old school - Ted and Les with 'nature's Prozac'

His advice to Robin, which also appears as a theme in Robin's book, is ditch the pills, gardening is nature's Prozac.

Robin thinks it’s about independence and regaining control on a small part of life.

But he's not unaware of changes in his mood:

"I still get periods of being unpleasantly unhappy – but it’s fewer and far between…it’s just the way I am, ignore it".

Nine-year-old Dylan seems to have it sussed, "What I’d like him to do now is keep on writing books... and growing plants and flowers... 'cos I think that’ll just keep on making him a happier man."

"Watering peas in june – there’s nothing better. It’s a brilliant experience – fantastic"

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Rogue landlord

Closure order
Closure order at 39 Norfolk Crescent

Inside Out investigates rogue landlord Christopher Mincham who has been caught on camera illegally renting out flats which have been closed by the authorities.

Two men died in a fire in his building on Hayling Island in 2004, but despite the deaths Mr Mincham has refused to install a properly working fire alarm.

Danger to tenants

Havant Borough Council closed number 39 Norfolk Crescent in July because of the danger to tenants.

But just under a month later, Inside Out secretly filmed Mr Mincham showing prospective tenants around the dangerous flats.

Now Havant Borough Council has vowed to stop Mr Mincham from continuing to flout the law and putting lives in danger.

Councillor David Collins, the council’s executive member for the environment, said, "Showing people around to rent a property that has a closure order on it is wrong.

"As such, our other partners, the fire service particularly, and the police, will be consulted and the relevant action will be taken.

"We have tried our very best to make the property safe and as such Mr Mincham has resisted us all down the line in so much as he hasn’t put a fire alarm system in yet."

Lack of safety precautions

In August 2004, tenants Tony Handley, 37, and Nigel Claridge, 57, died when a fire broke out on a landing in the seafront flats which did not have a working fire alarm.

Returning an open verdict at their inquests in January 2006, Coroner David Horsley heavily criticised the continued lack of fire safety precautions and called for the flats to be closed.

He said that conditions in the flats were still the same as when the fire broke out, and that Mr Mincham had failed to co-operate with the authorities in carrying out the needed safety work.

Christopher Mincham
Caught on camera - Christopher Mincham at Norfolk Crescent

Inside Out took a leading independent fire safety expert around the building while it was still open to give his verdict.

Colin Todd, Managing Director of an independent fire safety consultancy, found there was still no working fire alarm and that a large amount of combustible material had been left lying around.

"It falls far short of what we would expect for houses of multiple occupation," he said.

Havant Borough Council had been trying to close the building down since the inquest but a legal challenge by Mr Mincham - a disgraced former Tory councillor who has had numerous run-ins with the courts and the authorities - delayed the closure by six months.

Finally in July 2006, the closure notice was served, and Mr Mincham was banned from renting out the flats.

But weeks later an advert appeared in the local paper offering a flat to rent that appeared to be suspiciously like one of his.

Undercover visit

A visit by undercover reporters found the flat was indeed in number 39, where the numbers on the door had been switched to 93.

Fire alarm at Norfolk Crescent
35 Norfolk Crescent - no working fire alarm

Mr Mincham offered to let out the flat despite the closure order – and despite the fact that a working fire alarm had still not been installed.

On seeing the BBC’s footage, the council vowed to make sure that Mr Mincham is stopped from putting any more lives in danger in the future.

Mr Mincham, whose flats at number 35 Norfolk Crescent have also now been closed, insisted that his properties were in good condition and that he has been persecuted by the council.

He also accused Inside Out of stealing a fire alarm and deliberately scattering clothing around the building to make it look more dramatic.

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