Emery Down: Life goes on

Show notes (summary)

Behind every village there are often intriguing stories to uncover. Peter Power, a trustee of Emery Down and Bank Village Hall, joins us to talk about all kinds of local connections from Alice in Wonderland to a notorious snake-catcher! He also paints an inspiring picture of contrast between village life, past and present and major historical events. His fascinating tales demonstrate how life goes on and the kind of joy that can be felt from being “a caretaker between generations past and generations to come.”

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 20

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Behind every village, church and community hall there are often intriguing stories to uncover. Since moving to the small village of Emery Down in the New Forest, Peter Power has been delving into the history of his local hall and the surrounding area and has found links to everything from Alice in Wonderland to a notorious snake catcher. Peter, who is a trustee and chair of Emery Down and Bank Village Hall, is also a highly experienced crisis management expert and so has a few thoughts to share around recent events too. Thanks for joining me on the show today Peter.

Peter Power 00:48
It’s a pleasure Johnny.

Johnny Thomson 00:49
Okay, and so I’ve mentioned the village you live in and how you’ve become part of the community there. So let’s just start with you telling me about your move to Emery Down a few years back and why you became involved with a village hall there?

Peter Power 01:04
Well, if we go back I suppose about 20 years, my wife and I we were living then in the middle of London and in a very strange and fascinating area called Pimlico.

Johnny Thomson 01:14

Peter Power 01:15
Which is just on the banks of the Thames there. And that in itself, strangely enough, had a village like feel to it and oddly enough it became part of a film called Passport to Pimlico many years ago. Anyway, we decided to move down here principally because my two sons, who were quite young, we’re not far away. So that was pretty good. And secondly, well the New Forest, everyone seems to know it, everyone’s got their fondest of memories. It has that sort of cosy mythology about it almost, you know, parents, grandparents generations before, we’re here, they camped here and there’s a bit of a Enid Blyton about the whole place.

Johnny Thomson 01:53

Peter Power 01:53
So yeah, we were very happy to move here, we started off just down the road in a place called Bartley, which is a very short move just from the bottom of the M3, where I discovered by coincidence the chap who built the house happened to be a friend of my great, great, great grandfather, although I didn’t know that at the time. But my wife’s got very green fingers, she particularly wanted a garden, her own garden and so we moved just up the road to Emery Down about 12 years ago, frankly, haven’t looked back since.

Johnny Thomson 02:26
Yeah and as I say you’re now chair of the village hall as well, so how and why did you get involved with that side of things?

Peter Power 02:35
To be honest, Johnny, I’m not too sure. I’d become a trustee at the village hall some years ago, because I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and someone said, look, you know, do you want to come and be a trustee? They probably thought I had something to contribute. But I, of course, I said yes. And and the hall was then ran on pretty old fashioned lines, you might say in those days, nothing was automated. Of course it was before proper use had been made of the Internet and so on. But it seemed like something I felt naturally keen to do. And when you start to get involved in, you become a trustee in particular of something of a hundred, or nearly 100 years old village hall sits here, as it has done for generations in this village, it gets under your skin, you really feel for something. And then you think about often the amount of christenings, weddings and birthdays and God knows what has happened here over the years. And you can almost feel it in the building, there’s a huge amount of oak in our building, and we’ll talk in a minute about how it came to be built. But I’m reminded sometimes when I walk around the hall, very often on my own actually, and may help to put a few decorations up or take them down at events, you see little reminders going back way before way before the Second World War, for example, of things that have happened there. How, for example in World War Two, in particular, because it was actually opened in 1927, a great many dances were held there for numerous troops who were marshalled in the New Forest ahead of D-Day. And of course all these young men, many from Canada in particular around here, had no idea whether they’d ever come back to any form of normality, and a great many did of course, lose their lives. So apart from a queue to be baptised at the local Baptist Church, just down the road in Emery Down, a lot of dances were held here. And we were very lucky that film crew was here not long ago and we recreated one of these events for a film that they were making. And it was great fun to get a glimpse into what it looked like, because the hall needed very little alteration to take it back to what it was in the early 30s. But when you get involved in something like that, it has a rich history in more ways than one, it becomes a joy and you really feel you’re just a caretaker between generations past and generations to come.

Johnny Thomson 04:58
Okay, so tell me about the begginings, the very earliest days then, around what 100 years ago?

Peter Power 05:04
Yeah, if we go back to actually strange enough, to 1897 by coincidence to Canada, an organisation sprang up there actually called the Women’s Institute. The Women’s Institute was eponymously about women and doing a lot of good deeds. Various things for charity and so on. They wanted to set up something in rural communities during World War One, for example, a lot of support from women in rural communities with social activities that help produce more food, and so on in very difficult times during that particular war. Now, about 50 local women had enrolled in the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Institute in October 1920. And I have to say at this point, I’m indebted to a lady called Angela Trend and her colleague Sara Hall, who live in Emery Down who’ve done a huge amount of research on this. They are two of our local historians and thanks to them we know so much. But in 1920, a number of ladies met and decided we need a proper place to actually meet and along came two interesting people Mary and Charlotte Chamberlin, whose uncle Joseph was then the pioneering mayor of Birmingham and actually, well Mary and Charlotte Chamberlain they bought a small piece of land here in the village and they were very generous in that sense, and particularly wanted to make a sort of arts and crafts style hall. And they turned to a local builder by the name of Joseph Payne. Now it was eventually opened in 1927 and it had a sort of, it had a ladies cloakroom of some size and it talked about tea and cakes being supplied, and all those good things. But the interesting thing in particular that people don’t know really is the first President of the Women’s Institute was Alice Hargreaves. Now Alice Hargreaves, originally when she was a little girl was Alice Liddell and she, without doubt, was the inspiration for actually Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, The Reverend Charles Dodgson, lived at Oxford University. And Alice Liddell, her father, was a Dean of Christchurch College in Oxford, so there was a direct connection between the two. And I understand it that, I think they were on a boat, possibly on the River Thames, where Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, came up with a story where he structured it around Alice and imagined her as a little girl, as she was then, disappearing down rabbit holes and all that sort of thing. And she begged him to actually repeat the story and then asked him, surely, Uncle Charles or Uncle Lewis, you can actually turn it into a book. He hadn’t thought about it, but he did. And of course, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass became extremely famous book. And Alice herself stayed in the area, she in due course married Reginald Hargreaves and they actually had three boys, actually married in 1880. And what’s interesting, of the three boys Alan and Leopold both perished in the First World War along with a huge number of young men in this village, and of course right across the country. And her two sons are commemorated in the lychgate to the village church nearby and people often look at it and have no idea these were the sons, the real sons are the real Alice in Wonderland. And I wonder sometimes whether there’s a connection between Alice’s father, who as I said was Dean of Christ Church, because the church here is referred to as Christ Church. And one of my other roles is to look after the fabric of that church. So I’ve come to know the church as well as the hall, relatively well. And so it was for the Women’s Institute for a long time. But then in 1997 sadly, the Women’s Institute closed and then people move may have started to wonder well what we’re going to do with the hall? Shall we use it for housing or whatever? Fortunately for us, the two ladies Charlotte and Mary Chamberlain, created what we call a Deed of Gift transferring all ownership in the event of the demise of the Women’s Institute to trustees and for those trustees henceforth to make sure the hall is there for good and proper community purposes. And that’s what it does today. That’s our mantra and that is one of the things that I think makes this hall particularly attractive. So it has an interesting background and sometimes we have people who want to come along and recreate Mad Hatter’s tea parties and all those sorts of things, and it’s great. I just love the fact that we have so many people. We’re taking bookings now way up to 2023 and so on and it will always be the same for as long as we can keep it as a community environment, we will always have different parties, different celebrations. Everything from an animal osteopath, who has now booked it for several years, to other people, flower arranging. Because there’s so much oak in it, a lot of people who have a great passion for trees, bearing in mind this is the New Forest, love holding sort of yoga type classes here, and there is a little garden next door which we’re quite proud of that people love, in particular for wedding celebrations. So that’s how it operates. That’s what it is. That’s it’s background and myself and five other trustees are responsible for it.

Johnny Thomson 10:34
And how wonderful that those people who, who really started everything off had the foresight to ensure that the main purpose of the hall was preserved for everyone in the future in that way with that Deed of Gift.

Peter Power 10:47
Yes, I think we;re very fortunate that two women, Mary and Charlotte Chamberlain, a) were decent enough to buy the plot of land and make sure this very solid and attractive building was built and b) that the ensured in perpetuity, it would exist for the function that it was designed for, albeit not the Women’s Institute, but something akin to it, which is community activities.

Johnny Thomson 11:10
Yeah. Now tell me a bit about this local character, Peter, the snake catcher, Brusher Mills. I know you’ve looked into it. Yeah, it would be great for you to share a little bit of information about him as well?

I guess Johnny, I’m a repository for completely useless knowledge when it comes to looking back at these things. But the village itself, there are three critical components that make it particularly attractive apart from the people who live here, of course. We have an excellent village pub, just up the road to the village church and just down the road from the village hall. And these three physical entities along with things like the arms houses, which were built by the same individual who created the church, an actual, an admiral in the Royal Navy by name of Boultbee, who did particular work when the slave trade was stopped, trying to stop anybody trying to keep that going. Boultbee lived here, he amassed a certain level of wealth and through him, for example, the church was built and the arms houses were built and he’s commemorated in the church. In the church itself, we have stones for example, and I’ll say why I’m mentioning this in a moment to someone called Moses Blake, and he was sexton of the church for 50 years. And then his daughter became sexton for 50 years, and she was the first in the country to be a lady sexton, which essentially looked after the church, dug the graves and so on. Now, pretty much close to Moses Blake’s plaque we have information on the church wall about somebody called Brusher Mills. Brusher Mills, actually was born and raised as a child, of course in a small cottage next to where Moses Blake lives in a village called Sil… in a little road called Silver Street, which is the Latin that they tell me for the road to the woods, and that’s where I live as well. And that’s where I am at the moment speaking to you. Brusher Mills was born in a small house but in due course went to live actually in the woods and actually created more than one perhaps small dwelling, small thatched areas almost like a wigwam I think from Red Indian times. But essentially what he did, while other people were making charcoal, there’s a great industry of charcoal burning and collecting and the burning of charcoal, for example the cottage next door to me is Charcoal Cottage, and it’s almost preserved as it was when the time when they were burning wood for charcoal. But Mills decided the best thing you could do was become a snake catcher. And he was registered as a snake catcher and the last snake catcher in the whole of the British Isles. And a lot of people would find him in the forest and sit down with him, he’d make them a cup of tea from whatever he was brewing in his funny little wigwam and chat away to them. And he became so proficient at one time, if I remember rightly, he was catching snakes and actually selling them to London Zoo. Now he would walk around and chat to anybody and so on and people would speak to him. And there’s even a pub down the road called the Snake Catcher and named after him. And in due course he became an old man and died. But what I found interesting is another little feature of Silver Street. It has the old post office, telephone kiosk from the days when nobody had a telephone apart from the one British Telecom one, in a classic K6 telephone red kiosk. Well it had fallen into disrepute, it’s covered in ivy and a few of us got together and repaired it. British Telecom sold it to the local parish council for £1 and we’ve converted it into a very healthy bookshop and point of information for the very high number of tourists and travellers and visitors who come to Emery Down And they often stop up there and sign a little book about who they are, and so on. It’s great to read what people write, including the remarkable number of Brusher Mills’, ancestors… sorry, progeny years after his death. A surprising number of them went to Australia. Now whether they went there as part of Her Majesty’s pleasure, I’m not sure. But several people have written in there that they are descendants and they’ve come back to look for where Great Uncle Brusher used to live. And I find that most intriguing. So there are all sorts of things, but it’s sort of, for many of us, me in particular, these rather quirky little things that make the village go round. But it’s not one that just sits there as if it’s on a sort of chocolate box cover. It is a living, breathing village where people come and go and sell houses and new people come in at a reasonably healthy rate. And back to the hall, that’s one reason why we do hold events. And certainly one just a few weeks ago, specifically, to bring together the new people from the village, along with those have lived there for generations. That’s, as soon as COVID had stopped, to do something like that was the right thing to do. And it certainly is.

Johnny Thomson 16:13
Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned COVID there. It’s clear that the you know, the history there has got under your skin. And we are of course living in a moment of history ourselves right now. And I guess, as someone who, as I mentioned earlier, has made crisis management their profession for many years, these must also be very interesting times now for you?

Peter Power 16:34
Yes, they are. I find myself now, giving advice to the rulers of would you believe Abu Dhabi out in the Middle East on such issues, because they dealt with COVID quite successfully strange enough, but because they’re a very wealthy country and managed to vaccinate a lot of their people. But before that, I had been helping other organisations around the world. And I was very fortunate.

Johnny Thomson 16:57
Yeah, I’m fascinated to know Peter with, you know, with your two separate heads on one at one, one of a crisis management expert and the other as chair of a village hall, what the key lessons we could all learn from this from a community perspective?

Peter Power 17:16
The interesting thing for me, it’s almost a clash isn’t it? I mean, for a great number of years I was at Scotland Yard and I was very much involved in things like counterterrorism in the days when the IRA were letting off bombs almost weekly in London and elsewhere in the mainland. And even then, I was responsible in a place called Potters Bar in North London, for a period, for a Parents Teachers Association. And they contrast during the day of dealing with horrific scenes of explosions, and all the things that people might imagine happen when people die in such tragic circumstances. And in the evening, talking about whether Mrs Tiddlewinks was making enough mince pies or something or other, it had a sobering effect. And in a way, I think that’s here because life in the village hall, as I was saying earlier, that goes on more or less unchanged for generations. It’s an interesting contrast between the hurly burly and sometimes tragic world of crisis management. And it’s that contrast, which I find quite fascinating. For someone who read sociology, read that at that university, it is something that always fascinates me. So it’s not necessarily I’m not, I don’t think I’m one of the trustees, simply because it’s some sort of therapy. But I just love that contrast that elsewhere in the world dramas happen much more frequently than in Emery Down. But a lot of people living here, of course, don’t earn their living from the land as times gone by. And they themselves are engaged in all sorts of occupations, some, some nearby, some in Hampshire, some in London. So that’s what makes it I think, a relatively healthy and thriving community and very eclectic as well. I like the idea of different people from different professions, different outlooks as well. It just makes it sort of more or less work. And long make it do so.

Johnny Thomson 19:12
Yeah, interesting Peter. I like the picture of contrast that you, you paint there. It’s almost a case of yeah, we’ve been through a terrible time, but village halls and community activity just demonstrates that life, life goes on, in essence. And we see that of course from the history as well that you’ve that you’ve looked at previously, and in the wonderful legacy that the WI left for you in the village. So it kind of all comes together. Wonderful, wonderful stuff!

Well, I think so. And I think my colleague trustees think so. I certainly have a strong sense that as I said before, we inherited the expectation, requirement to keep this hall going in perpetuity to hand it on to others trustees and other trustees will hand it on to further trustees for God knows how long, and I hope it’s going to be for as long as possible. But when we have endured, as everybody has, the the the sweeping pestilence of COVID as the people did here, and we’ve had people perish in the village as a result of that, and rather like the First World War, you might say, you know not a family was left untouched, somebody knew somebody, somebody was very ill somebody perhaps died. It just reminds me that the ebb and flow of catastrophes, crises will always be the case. And I’m reminded of that also, I think it was in 1921 when the lychgate to the church, remember I mentioned this is the war memorial to, also to the village. But on a photograph, everybody came together, and they all wearing their Sunday best, obviously a black and white photograph in those days, and people had to try and keep still while the cameraman did his best. But the sadness for me, there are lots and lots of women there and so few young men. And you’ve only got to look at the inscriptions for a relatively small village, just how many perished on the battlefields of World War One, including, of course, two of the children of the real Alice in Wonderland. And so when you do get major problems like COVID, they’re not quite as unusual as you might think.

Johnny Thomson 21:27
Yeah, yeah. Brilliant. Well, thanks for joining me toda, Peter. It’s been absolutely fascinating hearing about Emery Down and the history of the hall and the local area there. And thanks also for your insight around the pandemic. And if you’re village hall out there, wherever you’re based, also has a rich and fascinating history. Why not come on the show yourself and tell us all about it, as Peter has? I’d really love to hear from him because apart from anything, I think it’s important to document the contribution that halls often make to their local communities, both in the past and now of course. And I imagine that’s something you would agree with Peter?

Peter Power 22:06
Very much so. I’m very much aware that ours isn’t a unique hall. I’m sure others around the country have equally and possibly even more interesting backgrounds and heritage and I think village halls are part of the fabric of this country. I really do.

Johnny Thomson 22:21
Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, so please get in touch and tell us more stories. And thanks again, Peter.

Peter Power 22:29
It’s a pleasure.

Johnny Thomson 22:30
And that’s all folks for this episode. Please keep getting your entries in for our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition everyone, as you could win £1,000 for your village hall and £500 for yourself. There’s information about the competition on our website. And thanks as ever to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for supporting our podcast and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster, who also help make our podcast possible and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. I’ll be posting some links to our homepage as always, particularly one to the Emery Down and Bank Village Hall website, so you can look at what is a really fascinating building there as well. And other than that, you’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages. And to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.