For more than a decade, local grandma Joan Ware has been beautifying her little corner of Devonport.
The 67-year-old is a born and bred Janner, so Janner in fact that she now only lives a stone’s throw from the flat she was born in, in Cornwall Street.
A child of the fifties, Joan was one of ten siblings brought up by her parents and aunt in a four-bedroom flat.
She speaks of Devonport with a fondness many will have forgotten and is doing her bit to bring a bit of magic back to the area.
The grandmother has been diligently transforming the communal planters in and around her street into nautical works of art.
Messy, overgrown bushes and plants have been replaced by intricately painted sailors, curated seaside scenes and inspirational poetry. But it’s not all rosy in this part of Plymouth.
Joan, who is modest to a fault, doesn’t know where her artistic flair came from.
“It’s always been in me, but I haven’t had no training or nothing,” she says in an affectionate accent that is unmistakably Plymothian.
“I’m just a housewife really,” she continued. “When the kids went to school I thought they’d be crying and missing me but they didn’t, so I became a classroom assistant for a few years, but I never did anything arty.
“I suppose I just like it. At Christmas I do the window and that, so it’s nice for people to look at.”
Joan has been living in the Gun Wharf development for the past 16 years since the area was revamped. Initially the council installed a series of planters around the houses but after a few years without proper maintenance Joan felt the urge to step in and take matters into her own hands.
“They were just in a real bad state,” she said. “Everything was overgrown and messed up and they were finding needles in there so I took it on myself really to take it all out and try again. Nobody has said anything, so I just do it.
“It’s for the people. I do it for other people to enjoy really, they’re walking around reading the little verses and that. Nearly everyday, except for when it’s raining, I’m out there.”
Sadly for the 67-year-old, who pays for a lot of the ornaments with her pension money, not everyone who comes by has an appreciation for the displays. Joan explains how a lot of her scenes get broken, stolen or damaged by people passing through.
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She said: “Twice I’ve taken it down because I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. Someone told me the other day that a bloke had ripped up five planters trying to find drugs. I went down in the rain and salvaged what I could of the plants but you think, ‘Why do I bother?’ I’ve seen adults try to take bits, kids take it and smash it, they don’t want it.
“I’ve stopped putting the nicer stuff out because I just can’t afford it.”
Fortunately there are others who enjoy the incredible art installations and don’t want to see them come to an end.
Joan recently featured in a post on local Facebook Group Plymouth Street Scenes after Plymouth resident Penny Samuels saw her out tending to the planters and shared her story.
The post has amassed almost 150 likes and praise for Joan’s can do attitude.
Penny Samuels, whose photos feature in this article, said she hugely admires the creative lady.
“When items are stolen, as they frequently are, she replaces them. When people allow their kids and dogs to damage them, she repairs or replaces them. The works brighten up the area and make people smile. They certainly brightened up my day no end,” she wrote in her post.
The Facebook group was what inspired me to track down Joan for myself and find out the story of the woman behind the selfless decorations.
Joan is a real salt of the earth character and a stalwart of Gun Wharf, who in her own words can usually be found ‘hanging out of the window having a fag’. Conversation with her flows naturally and she explains that her inspiration for the naval and sea-themed art work is because we’re near the dockyard.
“I still get excited now when the bleddy boats come in,” she laughs.
Joan has since received a card and a donation from Penny to help contribute to the cost of replacing or purchasing new items for the planters.
The Devonport legend who professed she actually ‘doesn’t like all this being famous’ admitted she was moved to tears by the gesture:
“What she wrote was beautiful. There’s not many people in this world these days that would do something like that
“I cried my eyes out, but then the next minute I got a bang on the window of someone telling me that man had knocked my planters out trying to find his drugs.
“That took the wind out of my sails you know.
“Yesterday I wasn’t going to do it anymore, my hackles were up and I thought, ‘I’m fed up with this.’
“But I don’t want it to go back to what it was. I’ve lived here all my life and Devonport’s got a hell of a bad reputation, but it’s not bad.”
Joan dedicated herself to this project after her husband died and says she will carry on ‘bit by bit’.
The grandmother also looks at the labour of love as something to make her grandchildren proud. She said: “I think they’re always going to know grandma did it.
“‘Grandma made that, grandma put that plant in’, it’s always going to be here I hope.”
Many of the items come from charity shops, while some of her neighbours will drop off bits of rope or a loose buoy if they stumble across it ready for Joan to decorate.
Although Joan has to think more carefully these days about what she can and can’t put in the planters, she is determined to carry on and make sure Devonport doesn’t get a bad rep.
“It’s home to me, to me it’s the way it is,” she says. “It’s what I’m used to and I won’t stop.”