The History of the Horti: Chapter 7

There must come a time when history ends and merges with the present day. When that happens there is no need to rely on archives of the past because we have the real time memories of those who have experienced the events of recent times.

It is true that sometimes ‘recollections may vary’ (as our late Queen once pointed out) so the more that memories are compared, discussed and filtered the better.

Part 1 of this history covered the first 54 years of the Horti’s existence, taking us up to the year 1990. You will now find that the events which have occurred in the 33 years since that date will be covered in a different way. This has involved talking to some of those who have been closely involved in the further development of the Horti over this more modern period and asking them to share their memories.

We have structured these conversations by asking a number of questions which encourage that recall and provoke a discussion of the highlights of more recent times, relating back to the earlier history where appropriate. As often happens when people are committed to a worthwhile enterprise, the thoughts and memories of one person can trigger off those of another, leading to an informative and engaging history of the period. We believe that this has happened in this case and we hope you enjoy reading this summary of that conversation.

To the Millenium and Beyond (in conversation with Serena Williams and Chris Hodges)

The Drivers of Change

The first 54 years of the Horti’s history sometimes resembled a rollercoaster. There were periods when there was limited innovation and concerns about the future, followed by bursts of energy which led to recovery and new successes. This was often associated with a new Chairman and the recruitment of committee members with a desire to bring about change. This happened in the 1950s when Roy Parker became Chairman and again in the 1970s when Tom Chapman took over.

The 1990s were different. There was significant innovation and change but this was not due to one Chairman. In fact Stephen Darville – remembered as a ‘larger than life’ character – stepped down at the beginning of the decade as described in Chapter 6 and the Chairman role was held by a number of different committee members during that decade.

The driving force of change in the 1990s was a number of relatively young people who joined the committee and brought in new energy and ideas, creating much synergy with those who were already there.

Among those mentioned in our conversations were Colette Bernard, Jean Bygate, Rick (Christopher) Williams, Chris and Gillie Mann, John and Margaret Kaye, Oliver Matthews and Vicky Hayes. In addition, Stephen Darville continued to serve on the committee for most of the decade and was still one of the driving forces on the Committee.

Serena and Chris are only left off this list because they were the ones producing it!

Pantomime as Catalyst

In Chapter 6 we saw the launch of the Pantomime in 1989 and this was to prove an important turning point for the Horti. It was successful as an event in itself, became a major fixture and changed the image of the Society more than any other single event. As Serena recalls

‘It spurred interest and led directly to a number of people joining the Committee’ (‘Including me’, added Chris who recalled his first performance as the ‘Little Bird’).

In addition to those mentioned in Chapter 6, valuable contributions to the Panto were made by Ted Michel who used his expertise to develop the scenery followed by Alistair MacDonald, a professional muralist.

‘We were blessed with so much talent’ was Serena’s comment. ‘And Vicky and Colette did a massive job as producers’.

The production involved lots of children, some of whom were to return years later and perform as adults. The Pantomime team even succeeded where the Village Show had failed to deliver; Avril Dankworth, one of the many celebrities mentioned in Part One who did not open the show, played the piano during an early panto production. Avril was a resident of Long Marston and contributed to the village in other ways, including raising funds for the Village Hall.

One reason why the continued success of the Pantomime was so important was that it provided a source of income that was not weather dependent, in contrast to most of the other activities. Thus it was able to subsidise the other events – like the Fireworks and the Carol Singing – in years when the weather was not kind.

Other Standout Innovations

It is not possible to include all the innovations that have taken place over the last thirty years but, in addition to the Pantomime, two other initiatives were mentioned as highlights during our conversation.

First was the Bonfire Party. We mentioned in Chapter 6 that this event was first introduced in 1989 with initial success but in the new millennium, it ran across a number of problems. It was tried on a number of locations but there were concerns about the noise, in particular the impact on animals.

‘Village politics were also involved’ commented Chris.

But the Committee did not give up and in 2022, after a gap of several years, it was decided to adopt a new approach, led by Chris and Dave Severs. The resurrected Bonfire Party had fewer bangs and a light display, with a musical accompaniment. The further attractions of a barbecue, mulled wine and lots of sweets for the children ensured a ‘massive turnout’ and lots of positive feedback. This initiative involved significant risk because, in addition to being weather dependent, it requires a substantial investment; therefore sufficient funds will have to be in place for this event to continue.

The second standout innovation to be mentioned was Club Paradiso. Chris and Gill Macdonald led a team that worked together on the launch of this initiative; it involves decorating the Village Hall and converting to a 1930s nightclub with a band and variety performances by local talent. It also involves a wide range of excellent cocktails – including the ‘Long Marston Fix’ and the ‘Gubblecote Glug’ – which sometimes had to be restricted to avoid alcohol poisoning! The event has no fixed date on the Calendar and is held every other year, maybe to provide time for recovery?

The leaflet below gives a good indication of the atmosphere created;

Serena singled out the Millenium Project as the innovation that made a major contribution to village life. The task of photographing every property in the village was quite a challenge and left a lasting legacy. Another successful part of the project was the production of an historic map of ‘ Long Marston Then and Now’.

The Fun Factor

The recollections of those who were part of the Horti in the 1990s reveal that it became more of a social club in which it was fun to be involved. There was a good mix of people and, in contrast to the early days, there was roughly a 50/50 split of men and women who all joined in together.

Serena commented:

‘Contrary to the culture of the time, everyone was equal. The women would drink pints with the men and take their share of lifting hay bales when preparing for the show; while the men did the cleaning and washing up. At meetings there were good debates with many strong characters who challenged each other; they often had polar opposite views and meetings would sometimes be loud and passionate. But afterwards we would all adjourn to the bar to drink our pints and enjoy each other’s company.’

There was also a good balance of larger than life characters like Stephen Darville and Rick Williams and those whom Serena describes as ‘worker bees’ who kept a low profile and got things done. She was happy to be in that kind of role herself, working on artwork for the Panto and helping to develop the show programmes and posters, all of which helped to raise the profile of these events.

It also helped that Simon Sturt, landlord of the Queens Head during its glorious ‘Curry Club’ days, was on the Committee and very much involved in many activities. He also encouraged the Committee to meet in the Queens Head bar and it was not unusual for other drinkers to join in the debates. However eventually the noise within the pub made the meetings more difficult to control and the move was made to the Village Hall.

‘We lost something when that happened’ was Serena’s comment.

Playing by the rules

Towards the end of our conversation we addressed the question of the rules applied to the horticultural competitions that are such an important part of the Village Show. When our research unearthed the rules of that first show in 1936, almost certainly developed by that formidable Headmaster Gordon Savage, the immediate assumption from a non-horticulturalist might be ‘that would never work these days’.

But the response from Chris and Serena was interesting. Serena said:

‘There have been a number of small changes over the years but the principles are much the same; you have to have clear rules which are properly enforced. People put a lot of effort into their entries and justifiably feel strongly if someone wins by breaking the rules. And ours are in line with the British Horticultural Society and it will be the same for any similar competition; the judges take it all very seriously with great care. I realise that it can sound draconian but it really is necessary.

The conversation about the rules led on to more memories of the above mentioned Simon Sturt. The story seemed to some extent to be in conflict with the seriousness of the rules, perhaps due to his popularity as Queens Head landlord and his sense of humour.

Simon somehow managed to exploit and make fun of the rules without upsetting anyone. He encouraged his drinking regulars to enter the competitions and looked for entries where the rules could be exploited; for example the brief to produce five cooked potatoes led to a wide variety of different interpretations and much hilarity when the entries were produced.

This episode helped to lighten the mood and also encouraged the Committee to look for cracks in the rules and specify requirements more carefully.

Why do we do it?

The conversation took a different turn when this question was posed;

‘Why give your time to the Horti and what do you get out of it?

Chris’s comment came first

‘It’s about the reward I get from sitting back after all the preparation work and watching other people having a good time. The feeling of satisfaction when an event comes together and there is positive feedback from those who have enjoyed the Show or the Fireworks or the Panto’.

Serena also emphasised again the social side and the positive feeling of working together;

‘It’s about members of the team all contributing in different ways towards a common end, helping others and the community’.

At this point the conversation turned towards the letter written by Stephen Darville when he stepped down as Chairman at the end of the 1980s, as described in Chapter 6. Stephen was lavish in his praise for the Horti but condemned the ‘gripers in the village’ and warned against the formation of factions.

Chris’s interpretation was this;

‘My take on this letter is that Stephen’s concern about factions was probably around the relationships with other village organisations, not within the Horti. Certainly this has never been an issue while I’ve been on the Committee. And Stephen was always encouraging us not to fall out with anyone, instead to build bridges and avoid conflict.’

Key Principles

One further point that came out of this discussion was a principle of the Horti which makes it different from many other ‘not for profit’ organisations. The Horti does not expect others to support its activities, a principle which increases the motivation of those involved. The aspiration – which has by and large been achieved over the years – is to make enough money to cover costs and then to donate any surplus to other organisations in the community which are in need of support. An example of this was about twenty years ago when the Horti supported Village News when it was in financial difficulty and in danger of closing down. Another example has been the significant support given to the pre-school over the years.

The Committee accepts that this principle is not without risk and has to be managed. This is because the flagship activity – the Village Show – is weather dependent and the same applies to two more annual events, the Bonfire Night and Christmas parties. It is not practical to insure for loss so the Committee has to make sure that there are enough funds in the bank to cover a rain affected event.

Fun times

At several points during our discussions, Serena and Chris diverted from the questions we had agreed to share anecdotes of times which produced much fun and enjoyment, though sometimes with an element of risk. These are the highlights:

Making Hay

One of the big challenges at the Village Show has always been to secure and transport enough hay bales to the Rec. There were two anecdotes here; Chris travelling too fast round a corner in his Land Rover and losing the total load off the trailer. The road through Gubblecote was blocked while the bales were recovered.

Another time the bales were being formed by a combine harvester with a Land Rover and trailer following behind to collect them . It was a windy day and the hay was blowing all round when one member – who shall be nameless – decided it was time to have a smoke! Immediate intervention by her colleagues was just in time to prevent a disaster.

Midnight Party

Chris recalls working late on the night before the show – not an unusual occurrence – and then, on the way home, meeting a crowd of other Horti workers on the road. A few drinks were shared, it was a warm night so they decided to have a spontaneous party out there in the middle of the road at midnight!

Tractor Fun

There was a time when the show included parades with carnival floats pulled by borrowed farm tractors which everyone enjoyed driving. This was in the 1990s when safety was not as high on the priority list as now but somehow everyone survived. The clearest memory was of Stephen Darville racing round the Rec pulling a trailer with children clinging on but enjoying every moment.

All Talk

When Chris welcomed well known journalist and TV celebrity Pippa Greenwood to the show (a rare example of successful celebrity recruitment!) he was, as Chairman of the Horticultural Society, obliged to show her around. Chris, who knows very little about horticulture at a technical level, was terrified that his lack of knowledge would be exposed so he talked continuously about everything but horticulture, so as to stop Pippa asking questions. He just made it!

Burning Issues

Rick Williams was a larger than life character, well known in the village, and a major contributor to Horti activities. He also brought much fun to the Horti and is sadly missed. He was a tree surgeon and was as fearless as you need to be for that profession. He was helping with fireworks at the Bonfire Party one year and afterwards decided to get rid of some fireworks that he assumed were spent. He was wrong about that and fireworks started banging and flying in all directions, towards his fellow helpers. Chris remembers Gillie Mann being caught in the firing line and finally being pulled away to safety.

Another story of playing with fire was when Chris and Rick were working one of the two hour shifts through the night before the show, to supervise the cooking of a whole pig. The fire was not going too well so they decided to get it going by throwing on a hay bale which then got out of control. Only desperate firefighting saved the pig!

What can we learn from the past?

This was the final question that Chris and Serena were asked to consider after reading the first six chapters. Both commented that it was remarkable how the history of the first 54 years showed that history often repeated itself, previous Committees often facing similar challenges to those being encountered today.

The most obvious common factor was the need to recruit new members who will provide renewed energy and fresh thinking. This is also necessary to ensure that the average age does not increase to too much as the Committee grow older together. This was seen as a problem in the 1970s before Tom Chapman came in to create new momentum and bring in members like Ted Michel and Mike Atkins to provide new skills and energy.

It seems that in the 1990s there was a similar transformation, not because of any one leader but because there was an influx of younger people with new energy and ideas, most of whose names are mentioned earlier in this chapter. Colette and Jean were mentioned as the best examples of leadership drive during this period. A major factor was the time and effort provided by female members who were full time Mums, which is less possible these days when both family partners are more likely to pursue careers outside the home.

Serena commented:

‘We now benefit in a similar way from retired members who are more able to give their time during the week.’

The other recurring theme in this discussion was the need to move the image of the Society from its original positioning of a Gardening Club – that organised the ‘Long Marston and Puttenham Horticultural Society Annual Exhibition’ in 1936 – into a society that provides a wide range of social activities for the village. This requires imagination and flexibility, avoiding tunnel vision and resistance to change. And this has to be done without losing the good will and reputation that has been established over the last eighty seven years. There is a need to build on this superb history, balancing the need to build on past strengths with new initiatives to benefit the community.

The change of the name to the Horti Village Society was an important rebranding and is one step in that direction. The continued success of the wide range of activities mentioned above is another. The third requirement is the recruitment of younger members with energy and new ideas who will contribute to the exciting future that lies ahead.

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The History of the Horti: Chapter 7

There must come a time when history ends and merges with the present day. When that happens there is no need to rely on archives of the past because we have the real time memories of those who have experienced the events of recent times.

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