Tom Williamson - Church and Chapel
To be a pilgrim
I am Tom Williamson. I was born at Beckingham near Gainsborough where my father was the recently-appointed headmaster of the local primary school. We lived in the school house next door to the school, which brought many benefits such as riding my trike round the playground when all the children had gone home and being able to sneak into some of the lessons the ones you liked, not sums! The school is still operating but the house is a private house now.
I was nearly six when the war started and I remember going into the cellar of the farm-house across the road, we thought that we would be safe there. We heard the first bombs of our war falling on the marshes at Gainsborough, horrible, whistling, whining things that terrified me. At Gainsborough there were Marshall's who made tractors but converted to making tanks, and Rose's who made machines for sweet-wrapping and they converted to making guns, I think. Gainsborough was targeted many times during the war. Lord Haw-Haw (the propagandist who broadcast from Germany) said that after one raid, when they dropped a thousand incendiaries, they had burned Gainsborough to the ground. In fact what they had burned to the ground was Gringley Wood, just up the hill from Beckingham. About the last thing they did was to fly over the town and machine gun it and some half a dozen people were killed.
Just before the end of the war, my father was appointed head of a school at Worksop. It was very difficult to find a house in those days and my parents had to rent one in Retford and my father travelled to his school by bus or train each day. We didn't have a car in those days because petrol was still strictly rationed although we did have one before the war, a 1934 Morris 8. Once my mother, father, brother, myself and my grandmamma went to Snowdonia in Wales in this little Morris 8 and the poor car broke down! The second car we had was a Morris 10 which was rather luxurious but at the beginning of the war, father sold that to the local doctor. He went to the market in Gainsborough and bought himself a bike instead and half a dozen ducklings at the same time. We were a bit self-sufficient in those days. We had two pigs as well (my job was to muck them out on a Saturday morning) and hens. Also my father was a fanatical gardener. The pigs were kept on the premises of a retired farmer who was always in a stitherum because one of the Ministry of Agriculture people would come along sometimes, kill one of the hens and open its crop. If he found corn in it, he was for the high jump. Corn was precious food for the civilian population not hens! So Mr Meredith (known to us as Merrylegs) was always in a bit of a worry about that. All the farming fraternity seemed to be afraid of being caught out over something or other. Some people called Bell had a daughter called Esme who used to bring me super tomatoes this was when she was about fourteen. The local policemen got caught doing nefarious things involving hens. He got himself trapped somehow but nothing came of it because Mr Bell himself was also deeply involved in the black market.
I started at what was then King Edward V1 Grammar School for Boys, Retford, Junior Department when I was nine and moved up later to the Big School. This was quite a shock to one used to a small village school. We had a teacher who was called Tash who taught us everything. Whatever he had to teach us he taught us in the morning and in the afternoon it was football or cross country or something like that. It was a fairly idyllic life when you got used to it. For a while I travelled from Beckingham to school in Retford until we moved and I had to catch the 7.30 bus every morning. Of course after we had moved to Retford it was a quarter of an hourrs walk. After three years we moved on to Worksop.
We lived on an unmade-up avenue called Sunnyside which was next to Beech Avenue where a certain young damsel was growing up. I didn't know that then but I married her later. Father was the head of the school which was then called Crown Street and now called Sandylands - if it still exists. The pupils stayed until they were fifteen and as it was the mining area of Worksop some of them were very tough indeed. But father came from a mining community so he knew all about it. The chap before him was getting elderly and would lock himself in his office against irate fathers coming up which they did sometimes. My father would not have gone down at all well these days. He had a loud voice and a cane, not used as far as I know but it sat on top of a cupboard as a warning. Things came to a head when one of the boys hit the deputy, a lady teacher, and broke her false teeth. It caused a great furore but father did not let it go any further. These days there would have been headlines in the local paper. When the boy's father came up and threatened my father with fisticuffs, father agreed to the match, but the other fellow backed down. That was the end of that. Father used to take our out-grown clothes for some of the boys who had just about nothing. One day he took one boy into his office and told the boy to take his clothes off and to put our old ones on. Maggots fell out of his clothes! This was in the 1940s.
I had one brother named Richard who became a public prosecutor. He lived near Scunthorpe and was on the founding staff of the Crown Prosecution Service. They made an awful pigs ear of it. It took a long time to settle down. These Government-organised things always have such a lot of red-tape. Of course the Church is just as bad although it is forty years later.
Retford Grammar School took boys from the surrounding districts. I was in the first year of the 11-plus exam and in the last year of the old School Certificate. When I was sixteen, father asked me what I wanted to do and I didn't know. I wanted to stay on at school really but he declared that if I didn't know what I wanted to do I had got to leave. He seemed to think that I liked playing around with nuts and bolts so he arranged an engineering apprenticeship for me with W.J.J.Jenkins, a local firm. Great prospects, he said. He himself had wanted to be a lace designer but the lace industry in Nottingham was dying so he turned his hand to teaching. Jenkins made bits of machinery for gas works. The town gas works finished when the North Sea natural gas came in. This was a shame really because one of the by-products of the old gas works was this beautiful treacly creosote, like tar. You could go to the gas works and buy it. If you slapped it on something it stayed on forever. This was in the 1960s. But you can't do that now. You buy this funny stuff in tins that they call creosote but it is just like water really. Anyway the EEC have banned it now.
Now I had to travel the other way on, from Worksop to Retford. I started in the works and did all the tedious menial jobs that no grown up fellow would do. This was in September 1950. Slave labour for the first six months was my apprenticeship. Then I moved on to working on the boards which was laying the drawing plans on these boards and marking out them out with chalk, plucking a chalk string for the straight lines and hand-drawing for the curves. Having the plans drawn out on the floor, you got some idea of what the thing was going to be like. Problems could then be recognised and dealt with before the next stage was reached.
I next moved on to the drawing office tracing plans but, after two years at this firm, I decided that this was not really me at all. I felt dissatisfied and heading in a direction I didn't particularly want to take. The upshot was that I decided I wanted to seek ordination. The whole family had always gone to church. Some of my earliest memories were of my father singing the bass part very loudly. He sang bass to everything, if he didn't know it he made it up. We were going to St John's Church at Worksop at this time, evangelical it would be called today. The curate was called Basil Howell, who had been in the Army, and he took the Youth Club there. As far as young folks were concerned he was a jolly good bloke, very much on the ball. I would imagine it was largely his personality that brought my decision on. I had to tell my parents of course and so I went to my mother first and said I have something I have got to talk to you about. She thought Oh goodness, he's got that girl pregnant!! However this was not so. I was expecting a large resistance from father but it did not come. If that was what I wanted to do, then OK.
I was eighteen by now and I had to get various references when the vicar of St John's put me forward for CACTM (the Central Advisory Council for Training for the Ministry). This was held at the Bishop's Palace at Guildford. It was all a bit much at the age of eighteen and having had very little experience of the world (or of the Church) to be interviewed by a leading industrialist, a professor (of what I remember not) an Archdeacon and the secretary of C.A.C.T.M. as it was then. There was a group of applicants collected there because they wanted to see us acting and reacting with each other. I suppose they were looking for someone who could rub along with his fellow creatures, who was possessed of reasonable intelligence and, I don't know really. No way did they tell you what they were looking for. We had a series of interviews. The professor bloke produced a newspaper for me. The Korean War was on at the time and he asked me what my feelings were about this and what did I think about wars in general? Goodness knows what I said because I don't know now what I feel about wars. I feel that war is wrong but then there are various evils have to be faced and it may involve armed resistance. So as with most things in my life, I am ambivalent. Anyway, I was amazed when I was told that I had been recommended for training. There were two conditions. I had immediately to go and do my National Service and then to undergo training at an approved college.
I was in the Royal Air Force for my National Service, first of all at Cannock Chase at a place called Hednesford which was said to have been a First World War prisoner-or-war camp. Whether that was true or not, it felt like it, with wooden huts and very cold. We did eleven weeks square-bashing and skiving and one of the last things you did was to go through the trade aptitude tests. On the notice board were all the things you could do. As I would only stay in for National Service air crew was out except for navigation which involved maths so that was not for me. I chose the Motor Transport Section but was asked if I could play the piano. I replied in the affirmative and so the answer came back that I should be a typist. So off I went to Hereford where they trained the SAS and typists. It was very boring learning to type and the corporal in charge was as bored as we were. We had to type to a gramophone record and keep in time to the music. Being able to type has proved very useful even in this age of the computer as long as you get a QWERTY keyboard.
Then on to Manby, in North Lincolnshire, which was then the Royal Air Force Flying College and existed largely to retrain piston-engined pilots to jets. There were things that were top-secret but any spy could read my typing for nothing! I did get some time in playing rugby and having a few trips on aeroplanes. We were called POMS potential officer material because we had all been to grammar school. I was interviewed by the Commanding Officer and asked it if I would be staying on in the Air Force. I said I was going to be a clergyman in the Church of England. He said that he thought I would make a better airman than an officer and I was dismissed. I achieved the dizzy heights of Senior Aircraftsman.
At the end of my time it was discovered that I had not done fire picket nor education. Education was learning about what was happening in the world. Fire picket meant going around the place at night to make sure everywhere was safe. We had these large torches we flashed around which could be very embarrassing especially on dance nights. I remember finding a gate unlatched. I flashed the torch to be hailed with Have you seen enough then?? I said, Oh well lock the gate when you finished please.. The only member of our flight who was sent into a dangerous spot was a mother's boy who went home at every opportunity and they sent him to the Canal Zone when there was that trouble with the Egyptians taking over the Suez Canal.
National Service was a good experience actually although at the time you got fed up with it. You learned a little bit about the world and how to carry a bit of paper round all day looking busy. Seriously, I do think that National Service had its benefits. One thing it teaches you is to get a bit of order in your life whether you like it or not, the square-bashing and so on. It teaches self-discipline, how to cope with situations you don't particularly like, - it is no use howling because no-one is listening and it teaches you to get on with blokes in your billet. We had three floors with about twenty chaps to each floor. In a way it was like being in an enlarged family, coming from all over the country and from all walks of life. I think it would be a good thing for the young men and women of today for perhaps a year or eighteen months. It would help them to grow up. I was at college from 1954 to 1958. Again through Basil Howell I got a potential place at St Peter's Hall, Oxford, but I had to have Latin. I tried to pass Responsions Latin by means of a correspondence school during my time in the Air Force but I gave up after two hopeless attempts. So it became obvious that I was not going to Oxford. Everybody did Latin at my school for the first year but then you had to choose between Latin or German and I thought at least German was a living language. So I did French and German.
By now the family had moved to Sutton Bridge. The clergyman there, known as doughnut, had been to King's College, London. He was Ernest Knight who had been a baker previously. He wrote on my behalf to the Dean at King's, Eric Abbott, (who later became the Dean of Westminster), who asked me to go for an interview. Ernest Knight kindly drove me down in his little old Ford. When the time came I was ushered into the Dean's presence and he talked to me. At one moment he asked me if I knew what crozier was and a mitre. I was so over-awed by the occasion I could not tell him what they were. What he was looking for was to see if I had ambition which was not a good thing in the Church. Anyway he said that I would be all right and that he would be happy to have me at King's.
I think that 60 of us went in which was a large number it would be an enormous number now - and 48 of us came out at the other end. I found the course hard to start with because it had been a long time since I read a book seriously and I had to learn Greek from scratch. I went on the Bachelor of Divinity Course to start with but it was beyond me, I couldn't cope with it. I was down-graded to AKC Associate of King's College. We were mainly of a sort, ex-Grammar School boys, most of whom had stayed into the sixth form although there were a few who had not even got their School Certificate. We had all done National Service. We had one who had been a Sergeant in the Army, another had been a Commander in the Navy and one who had been a company secretary in one of the big oil companies. Your vocation was being tested all the time. The life was quite rigorous for those lads who lived all the time in Vincent Square but half a dozen of us were sent to place called King's College Hall which was on Denmark Hill, which was a hostel for all sorts, engineers, lawyers, the lot. This was an experiment to see how we would fit in - which we did with great alacrity. After two years we had to move back into college which was rather more concentrated. The final year was a sort of pastoral year learning how to apply what you had learned and how to be a parson. We went to Warminster in Wiltshire which was marvellous. It is lovely country down there. We all had a church to which we were attached in pairs. I went to Heytesbury.
I got married about this time and I had to ask permission of my Bishop, who was Bishop Barry of Southwell. In those days Bishops were walking on a very different plane from you. It was My Lord, all the time and in a letter you ended Your obedient servant.. Now it is almost Dear Bish - almost but not quite. You had to have your Bishop's permission to get married if you were under 28 years. After that you could just get on with it. So I had to trot across to the House of Lord's to meet Bishop Barry. He was very nice and agreed to my request. All the lads back at college had a lot of fun out of me on this occasion. Lorna and I got married at the end of 1957.
After three wonderful years in the Strand at college and one blissful year of pastoral training under John Townroe at Warminster, I was on the ecclesiastical market. More interviews followed, this time with the Bishop of Southwell. I had had a grant from the Southwell Diocese and this entailed me coming back to serve in the Diocese but as a matter of fact there was no vacancy and I ended up going to a place called Winshill near Burton-on-Trent, in the Diocese of Derby.
The Ordination Retreat was held at Breadsall Mount, the home of the Bishop of Derby, at that time the well-known scholar A.E.J.Rawlinson. We were supposed to keep the silence during the period of the retreat but the Bishop certainly didn't. He would prowl round the house shouting for his wife whom he called Cuckoo.. He was a very warm-hearted man and his ordination address reflected the wealth of his experience as a Diocesan Bishop. Unfortunately at this stage I can only remember one piece of advice he gave us. We should not be wealthy and it would always be necessary to keep our finances in order. If we were fortunate to have children we should never be tempted to love the Baby Austin more than the baby. Well, there we were. After a memorable service in Derby Cathedral, clothed in the robes we were already becoming accustomed to wear including the stole worn deacon fashion that is diagonally - and having sworn various vows to various people ( the Queen and Bishops and so on) I was ready to begin work at Winsall.
I cannot say that that the following three years were the happiest of my life. Relationships with the vicar deteriorated to the point that he threatened to prevent my being ordained as a priest a year later. I suppose I was set against going there in the first place but I did feel that he was very much concerned with keeping me in my place. Also the Bishop of Derby retired causing a vacancy for a while just at the time for me to have been ordained in Derby Cathedral. Thus I was ordained in Bakewell Parish Church by a chap called George Sinker who was an assistant Bishop but had been a Bishop in India.
The people of Winshill were great. Most of them worked in the local industry, brewing. As relationships with the vicar didn't improve, when I received an invitation to go and work with the vicar of Herne Hill in London I decided to look into the matter further. This brought me into conflict with the new Bishop of Derby (Bishop Rawlinson having retired by this time). During a three-hour interview to which I had been recalled from holiday, I tried to explain the reasons for wanting to leave Winshill but he merely hissed But you are a liar, you are a liar!! He said that I should stay where I was and finish my three years. Then he would think about a move in the diocese. I had no choice but to accept the verdict but I made up my mind to leave Derby as soon as I could.
At this stage I was almost ready to give up but thankfully my parents had moved to Sutterton in Lincolnshire and my father had been persuaded to be the treasurer of the church there. A word in the ear of Canon Goodworth led to an interview with Bishop Kenneth Riches and a few weeks later I was asked to go and meet Jack Bishop at North Hykeham. We were sorry to leave the people at Winshill but now I was to be the first curate at North Hykeham. We were given a new house on one of the estates which were being built by Barkers and next door to us, on ground given by the builder; a dual purpose hall was to be built.
What a change! Jack and his wife were very good to us in so many ways and the job, though hard graft with its disappointments at times, was interesting. It was at Hykeham that I received real training which I believe still provides the basis for much of my pastoral thinking today. Jack taught me all that I ever learned about the practical things of being a parson how to handle the PCC (Parochial Parish Council) for instance. To my mind the main rules are to know what you are up to, to have your own aims and objectives, to share them with the PCC and hope that they will share them with you. If you give them good enough reasons they mostly will. Of course always the most difficult thing to talk about is money and how to raise it and how to get people to give, and to want to give. Jack instilled in me the principles of Christian Stewardship which are that all things come from God - time, talents and possessions, and you should be acting as a good steward of these things which are all given to you by God, on loan as it were, they are not yours. Time isn't yours, possessions aren't yours, they are gifts from God. So how do you use them? You have to pick the right proportion of what to give back to God in terms of time, possessions and talents.
This, I think, is what I mean by Christian Stewardship. At each parish I was in, I tried to get this message across. Certainly I feel I was successful up to a point. Giving was improved. People thought about giving time to God by doing things like running the Youth Club or visiting the sick or being a good neighbour, whatever was the need. I don't think this attitude is universal throughout the Church, and I don't think that the Church is moving nearer to it either. As for what is going to happen to the Church, I have come to the conclusion that God alone knows. Things are at cross-roads, I am sure they are. But it is at crossroads where things happen and I think that if you have any faith at all, you have to believe that the Church is going to go on by the Church I mean Christ's body here on earth but not perhaps as we recognise it now.
Three years passed and eventually Jack wrote to the Bishop to say that he thought I was ready to take charge of a parish on my own. Did I want to work in the town or the country?? the Bishop asked. I had no hesitation in replying, the country, having been born and reared in the country. Eventually I was asked to go and meet the churchwardens at Leasingham. Arrangements were made and we met the lady warden on the front step of the Rectory. Why, asked our second son, Hugh, does that lady have a drop of water on the end of her nose?? Not the best start but fortunately she was deaf and just beamed. The other churchwarden, Tommy Lawson, was about eighty but still working and we didn't meet him until later. I owe a great debt of gratitude to a gentleman who in fact lay the firm foundation of anything sensible that happened at Leasingham to begin with. He rejoiced in the name of Ewart Membury and he was the treasurer and hugely particular in everything he did. He and his wife were seen as rather reclusive but they made us very welcome and provided much wise counsel over the years. His great hobby was doing things with wood.. We had on one occasion permission to remove a Yew Tree by the church gate to make room for a notice board. None of this timber was wasted, not even the root. Mr Membury took this and cleaned it up and mounted it on a plinth. He treated it in such a way as to bring out the grain and then presented it to us. It now stands as a base to a lamp just inside our front door.
The Bridge-playing ladies rather regretted the replacement of the fine old gentleman Rector with this young scruff Williamson but that situation mellowed over the sixteen years we served in that parish. It was during our time here that our four children grew up. They didn't realise it but they were a most useful tool in making contacts. Contacts with other children meant contact with parents and at least a hope of them joining the church community. We had a church school at Leasingham and in the usual manner I was Clerk and Chairman to the Managers what blissful days in the educational world! The building was too small and rotting Victorian in style but with the help of Joe Godber, our good constituency M.P. we eventually received a good modern building which I hope is still serving well. We also managed to renovate the Bishop's Alms houses which housed three ladies of retirement age.. Only one came to church and hers was the coldest house of all. We had many humourous dealings with Mr Norman Power, the solicitor at Peake, Snow and Jeudwine who dealt with the affairs of the almshouses. He also drew wonderful cartoons and once wrote to me when I had been appointed Rural Dean of Lafford and said that he had detected the smoke rising from the almshouse chimneys signifying my appointment (a le Pope).
Shortage of money and clergy was beginning to tell. I don't think it has ever been different. I was asked to take Cranwell village into my care which was really no great burden. I had originally had a little church at Brauncewell which was closed because of lack of people, Cranwell merely replaced that. The key man at Cranwell was Harold Ison, a true saint, the son of a clergyman and a most dedicated Christian.
By this time I was Rural Dean of Lafford and I was fairly well acquainted with most of the church people in the Deanery. I must just recall with affection the Deanery Synod Secretary, Harold Brittain with whom I shared many moments of hilarious fun under the guise of writing up the minutes or arranging agendas or some other excuse.
I was also privileged to spend some months as stand-in chaplain to the Aerial Erectors School at R.A.F. Digby. I don't think the lads learnt much from me but we got free passes to the swimming pool there. I also spent some time as chaplain to the Sleaford Air Cadets where I honed my table-tennis skills with the C.O. from time to time.
By now Rebecca had achieved a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Richard the oldest boy was well into his apprenticeship at Ruston Gas Turbines, Hugh was at Manchester University and Jeremy was finishing at Leatherhead. It seemed to be the time to move on to others if not to me. It was a great wrench to leave Leasingham.
We moved a short distance, in miles that is. Billinghay is eight or nine miles east of Leasingham but it has a particular history as a fenland island. I was eased and squeezed into that parish by Bishop Hawker and John Taylor. These two gentlemen were friends and fellow workers in the Church of England Men's Society. Bishop Hawker was the chairman and John Chairman of the East Region. John was a good friend and support and indeed there were some good and friendly people in the parish. But there was so much contention into which from time to time one was drawn. They told you with pride that anybody crossing the Skirth Bridge into the village was likely to be treated like the enemy. Any football team having the temerity to oppose the Billinghay team would bear the scars of the encounter for evermore. I learnt a good deal about the vagaries of farming and from the farming families we received much generosity.
Relationships with non-conformists (I'm not too sure what the current politically correct word is) were good on the whole, better than they were between themselves. Two Methodist Chapels were still there, the Primitive and the Wesleyan. I believe that such arrangements were supposed to have ceased in 1932 but it is only in recent years that the state of the building and lack of support has caused the Primitive Church on the High Street to close. The Baptists were across the road from the Church and were Strict and Particular.. They did however join in Ecumenical events such as Christian Aid Week. Again in this village we had a Church School, again housed for the main part in a rotting Victorian building. The whole arrangement of Church and Hall and School had been well-thought out in days gone by but renewal was a desperate necessity. Eventually the new school was built on the Secondary Modern campus a fair step from the Church.
There were two highlights of an international nature during our stay at Billinghay. The first came through the connection with the Church of England Men's Society. There had been many moves over the years to heal the rift between German and English Christians, particularly the men who had fought in the war. Cuthbert Bardsley had been Bishop of Coventry during the post-war years and also Chairman of the Men's Society. The connection with the equivalent German organisation Mannerwerkk, of the Lutheran Church from the Diocese of Brunswick, grew over the years and exchange visits were made. We were privileged to go on two of these and, partly because they were made whilst Germany was still divided, proved most interesting if not somewhat threatening and disturbing. We were taken on one of the visits to Berlin before the Wall came down and conducted by one or two of their representatives on the underground train to East Berlin. It was an experience never to be forgotten. We had already been told never to smile at the countless number of guards who had been totally depersonalised in training but we were quite scared when one of our conductors was taken away to be strip searched. The authorities knew he was a Christian and treated him like this every time he travelled that way. When we finally arrived in East Berlin we were taken to one of the Christian Colleges which was still allowed to exist and were able to talk to young people who displayed such courage in acknowledging their faith. Lorna formed a friendship with Solweg, a nurse, who told us tales of the hypocrisy of the communist leaders they came to be treated in the Christian hospital where she worked rather than a state hospital because the treatment was so much better. It is a friendship which still lasts. When we had to return to West Berlin at the end of the day a small group, including Solweg, were allowed to accompany us as far as the entrance to the underground station. The goodbyes were heartbreaking and tears were shed. The story has a happier ending as at some time later when we were staying at the castle at Bad Hartzburg, Marlene, our hostess who had been so kind to us, took us across what had been the border to visit Solweg and her family in their new-found freedom. Things were still very hard for them. Apparently the whole street thought that Solweg and family had been visited by royalty because we had gone in Marlenees Mercedes.
We had return visits from them also and on one occasion when we were trying to find hosts for them a certain local man approached me and asked me why ever we wanted to have such people to visit us. He had been a farmer in the war, or at least connected to the land, and had had to cart German POWs round to various farms and decided he didn't like them. It was one of the few times I lost my temper and I am sure that my reaction would have been far more productive if I had kept my cool and reasoned with him. As I sit and think about those visits I recall being taken to a church in West Berlin where I had to preach. It isn't so much the preaching I remember as the fact that we were told that there had been a prison opposite the church where the first Jews had been imprisoned at the beginning of the Nazi era. It is the feelings that such stories generate that cut into the inmost memory, stories of the desperate attempts to escape to the West at the beginning of the communist oppression by jumping to death from high flats and what it was like to flee from the Russian tanks as they arrived to take over East Berlin by force. Stories too of what life was like in Ballon during the war and the brutalities committed by the German forces commemorated by the immense lists of names on memorials over an inscription such as Killed by the German brutality.. I suppose that it is all this which made people like the Prime Minister at the time, Ted Heath, into ardent Europeans in the hope that working together in co-operation would prevent such events in the future. So far it seems to have worked.
The second highlight came when twinning was all the rage in Lincolnshire. Our local councillors were very hesitant but after a timorous start by the parish council, I was asked to be President of the Committee which was preparing to twin with the village of Ballon near Le Mans in the department of Le Sarthe in France. We made some good friends there especially Michelle and Joel Saedler. Michelle, who has now retired, was a teacher at the local secondary school and Joel who died a few years ago, was a peripatetic teacher of poetry and was himself a poet. The hospitality was unbounded and extended to the loan of their flat near Chamonix and overlooked Mont Blanc. One outstanding memory was a supposedly more formal occasion, a dinner party at the home of a local fireman. The meal started at about 7pm and ended after an uncomfortable number of courses each interspersed with alcoholic beverage, sometime just before midnight. They also came to stay with us at the Billinghay vicarage. I think we had seven guests one of whom was their Roman Catholic Priest, a most warm and wonderful man and also a farmer who was used to getting up early and went round the garden crowing like a cockerel to wake us all up.
One Friday night there was a phone call from Christopher Lawrence, Archdeacon of Stowe and member of the Cathedral Chapter. Would I like to go and look at Gosberton which was in the patronage of the Dean and Chapter? Well, we weren't too sure but yes, I would go and look. It was a pouring wet evening, almost designed to put one off a positive appreciation. I suppose that if you donnt believe in the guidance of the Spirit then it wouldnnt make sense but we both had a very strong feeling that this is where we should be. We had spent seven and a half years in Billinghay and in spite of the fact that the countryside is so flat, it felt like uphill all the way. The wheels turned and it was here at the induction into the living of Gosberton that we first met Bill Ind, Bishop of Grantham then (just) and now Bishop of Truro. I was his first induction and the Archdeacon was Ronald Milner, it being his last before he went to be Bishop of Burnley. I suppose it was Ronald Milner who in large part sold the place to us. He was so enthusiastic and took a great deal of time to explain to us that there would be a new house and we would have a small input in its planning.
When we moved there, we moved to a small cul-de-sac, Lila Drive. Once again we found ourselves amongst good neighbours, an Irish nurse and a Liverpudlian nurse whose husbands were both sea-farers and eventually captains. The new vicarage was just cross the Manor Field from the Church. We saw some of the most breath-taking sunsets here and always enjoyed the house in spite of the burglary which brought us home from Blackheath one morning at 5 a.m. We had some interesting moments there, thanks in part to a professional car thief who lived in a block of flats at the bottom of our garden. We had the Police in the house at one stage setting up an observation post in a bedroom to no effect.
Church life at Gosberton had its own momentum. It carried you along and things were possible there which you could only dream about elsewhere. There was however one major problem. In one corner of the churchyard was a small wooden hall. This had a very shaky roof and eventually we no longer dared to allow the Sunday school and other meetings to meet there. There was much heart-searching and pocket-searching after which it was decided that with self-help and help from friendly builders we could build a new hall. Plans were drawn up and eventually passed. Based upon the amazing and fantastic enthusiasm of Tony Sheppard progress was made. The building was eventually completed and, in spite of a few remaining doubters, rapidly became used by not only the Church but by the community at large. One major event which has been held is the annual Flower Festival and meals are provided in the hall. There is always so much hard work put into this including the provision of refreshments and the hall is a major factor here.
The Church itself is a lovely building, very spacious, made even more so by the not altogether popular removal of the side aisle pews, not at first any way. Stewardship schemes have always underpinned the work although there are always other things happening which help to boost funds. Somehow it proved possible to have events which were fun and enjoyable and which also produced funds. Yet again Fred Taylor has arranged the collection and sale of paper with the help of John Dennis and other stalwarts. For many years the bell ringing team has served not only Gosberton but other surrounding villages from time to time too. Ecumenical relationships are good and church and chapels (Methodist and Baptist) help each other out in difficult times.
There is one personal memory of that time which lasts. It was in 1994 that the Bishop invited me to accept the canonry and prebendal stall of Lafford in the Greater Chapter of the Cathedral which duly occurred in the most memorable service and following procedures. This I felt to be a great honour and I still wear my blue cassock with pride, now of course as a canon emeritus. Two or three years before my retirement I was asked to take on the parishes of Gosberton Clough and Quadring. The parishes were already working together on a lay ministry scheme and the farming communities were well known to each other. The extension took place very painlessly although the problems were multiplied. Perhaps the chief of these was the sudden discovery of the potential collapse of the church building at Clough. A great deal of interest was aroused because the building had been designed by Ninian Comper. He had been a friend of the incumbent of Gosberton at the turn of the 20th century and had presumably worked on that basis. I think indefatigable is the word which describes the work of Mary Burton who ploughed on through every conceivable difficulty together with the wardens and several others who did not often grace the walls. There it now stands, a beautiful little building restored to its place at the spiritual centre of that part of Fenland.
We spent eleven very happy years in that part of the world. When it came the time to retire it was quite heartbreak, akin to saying goodbye to one's family. What a privilege it has been to share the high points and low points, the delights and desperations, the service and worship of God and to witness the love and goodness of so many people.
But it hasn't come to an end in our retirement. We have found new purpose, help to give, things to do, people to know. The worship and the caring and the sharing go on and I believe always will, though the surroundings may change.