Thursday, 1 December 2011

It’s too early to be so festive!

I HAVE a reputation in the office of being a bit curmudgeonly in the run-up to Christmas. This is the result of 40 years of almost impossible deadlines and as far as I am concerned Christmas does not start until the last edition has gone to press.

So it’s usually Christmas Eve before I start thinking about buying some presents and in the past this has presented a few problems.

One Christmas in particular sticks in my memory. I was editor of the Sidmouth Herald at the time and I went into the office in East Street to clear my desk. It was my intention to do my Christmas shopping, have a nice lunch and then go home to wrap up the presents whilst listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas collection.

But I’m afraid I made one fatal mistake of taking a stroll down Old Fore Street and past the Anchor Inn, where I was a frequent visitor. Just as I was passing the front door Danny Gauntlett and Johnny Owen, from Sidmouth Football Club, invited me in for a “quick” Christmas drink. I thought it would be churlish to decline their kind invitation but stressed it would have to be “just the one” as I had a lot of shopping to do.

Four hours later I emerged from The Anchor, slightly unsteady, blinking into the December
twilight with most of Sidmouth shops about to close for the Christmas holiday.

I have no recollection what I bought or how much I spent. But I clearly remember the sheer panic of realising it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I was facing the embarassment of going home to my parents for Christmas Day with no presents. It was a lesson learned!

Any rate, as I was saying, I’m usually a bit grumpy about this time of year - but I have to admit I really got into the spirit of Christmas much earlier than usual on Saturday, one of our busiest times of the year reporting-wise, when I had eight jobs to cover. I gave Francesca the day off as it was her graduation ball at Southampton.

By 10.30 am I had three jobs in the camera having visited the FORCE Christmas coffee morning in Colyton, Colyford Village Hall’s Christmas fair and a similar event at Axminster Hospital organised by the League of Friends.

By the time I arrived at the hospital Mervyn Symes had the Christmas carols at full blast and there was a real jovial atmosphere and lots of happy faces.

I went back over the Dorset border to cover more Christmas events, including the switching on of the festive lights in Lyme (go and see them), finishing up having a drink with Geoff Baker, Paul McCartney’s former PR man who once worked for me as a reporter and is always good company.

I’m now looking forward to the Festive Friday Christmas evening in Axminster on December 9th and have promised myself that although we have to get out another 52 editions (honest) before Christmas Eve, this year I’m going to be full of festive cheer.

IN this job you come across many people who do so much in their community - but they run a mile when I turn up with my camera.

Octogenarian Phil Pitman is one of those. In 40 years or more of covering local events I have never been able to persuade Phil to have her photo taken.

But on Saturday I finally got her, being hugged by the matron at Axminster Hospital where Phil was running the League of Friends cake stall. There was only one place that picture could go - on the front page. Phil will never forgive me.

Why our hospitals are the envy of the civilised world...

THE National Health service, despite being the envy of the civilised world, comes in for a lot of stick. But when you are ill you quickly realise that our NHS is one of the great institutions and treasures of our land.

No one likes going to hospital but we are lucky in East Devon to have four community facilities in Sidmouth, Honiton, Seaton and Axminster in which the standard of care is exemplary.

There have been many changes and threats to these establishments over the years but they continue to play such an important role in improving the quality of life in East Devon.

And much work goes on in the community to support our local hospitals - no more so than in Axminster where the League of Friends have raised an incredible £3 million over the past ten years to improve facilities for patients.

Much of that money emanates from bequests but the level of support that comes from the friends means that they are continually fundraising.

Saturday’s Christmas Fair was typical of the hard work that sees volunteers and hospital staff come together to ensure that patients continue to receive the very best in care and comfort.

Moving on through the darkness

SIGHT is perhaps our most valuable sense and this was dramatically brought home to me during a recent visit to my optician.

I’d already had to cope with my glasses being taken away for cleaning ahead of my sight test, so navigating to the examination room was slightly awkward.

Everything was out of focus... then suddenly everything was pitch black!

Apparently a rarely used piece of equipment had been plugged in and it had promptly cut electricity to the entire premises.

If I was a bit taken aback to be plunged suddenly into total darkness then so was my optician who rapidly found himself exploring the world of DIY as he fumbled for a torch and scrabbled around in a cupboard behind me until he was able to locate the master switch and restore the lights.

Just goes to show how much people take their sight for granted until suddenly they have to cope without it and it also shows how much optical technology has advanced.

My first sight test more than 40 years ago consisted of a series of boards about the size of a paperback book each covered in spots. Within those spots was concealed a number. How many of them you could see apparently determined how your eyes were. We’ve come a long way.

Hope yet, for the rest of us

PEOPLE find themselves having to do a lot of home maintenance during their lives, so it can be reassuring to get advice from the experts.

It is their example we try to follow, whether our efforts are good, bad or indifferent, and it might be anything from repairs, to electrics, plumbing, carpentry or simply buying the right tool for the job.

So I have to say that I found it difficult not to laugh during a recent visit to B&Q in Weymouth, surely one of jewels in the DIY crown and the sort of place you’d expect to be on top of its game.

But I spotted a horrible mistake they’d made almost immediately. That doesn’t make me a super expert or some genius at DIY. Anyone could have spotted it.

The embarrassing fact was that part of the store sign had gone missing and staff must have been too busy to replace it, that or the relevant letter hadn’t been delivered yet, so it was quite amusing to see a national DIY chain seemingly unable to practice its own philosophy. There’s hope yet for the rest of us!

No more mutant zombie snowmen

CHRISTMAS is getting closer and closer and panic buying is starting to set in.

Electrical goods, clothes, cosmetics, DVDs and CDs are really starting to move, but the items which are the current red hot buys are candied peel and cherries for Christmas cakes.

I had a hugely successful stab at this last year, getting ten out of ten for my cake and nought out of ten for my artistic snowmen which some members of the family thought looked like mutant zombies.

This year I just haven’t had the time and so we’ve bought a lovely home-made iced Christmas cake from a local bazaar.

It’s perhaps just as well really because you have to be ruthless to go out and get cake ingredients because that sort of shopping is not for the faint hearted and you need a sharp elbow and a long reach if you are not to be trampled underfoot in the rush for sought after fruit.

My family said there was another advantage to buying a cake this year. There was no chance of my mutant zombies putting them off what they were trying to eat.

Sat nav consigned to the bin!

A WEYMOUTH man found himself caught between a rock and a hard place when he went on a shopping trip which took him into the countryside just outside Yeovil.

Road signs in that rural location were rare to non-existent and, keen to get home without being marooned, he turned to modern technology and the satellite navigation facility on his mobile phone.

His trip then began to introduce him to parts of this country he had never seen before culminating in a roundabout.

A sign on it indicated one exit for Dorchester but his sat nav indicated a different exit for the way home.

Indecision was solved by the weight of traffic behind him and he decided to follow his sat nav’s advice - only to end up some time later on the road to Sherborne!

This did not amuse the driver who had to hack his way home as best he could and considerably later than he’d planned.

I understand that the sat nav had been violently switched off some miles from home and the fuming driver has no plans to use it again any time soon!

Event of the Week

Now for the streaking Santa

EVENT of The Week is elevated to the top of the column this week, for the first time ever.

The reason? Quite simply because the switching on of Lyme’s Christmas lights on Saturday evening, proceeded by the lantern workshop and parade, was such a marvellous event.

It was 11 years ago that Barbara Austin, the First Lady of Lyme, decided something had to be done about Lyme’s pathetic Christmas illumnations.

She formed a committee, started raising money and persuaded the town and district councils to give generous donations.

Since then, Lyme has had, arguably, the best Christmas lights for miles around with the switching-on ceremonies attracting hundreds of visitors to the town.

For hundreds, now read thousands. I can’t remember too many occasions when I have seen more people in Broad Street than there were on Saturday evening.

And it was absolute bedlam at the Baptist Church where 70 children took part in the lantern making competition, twice as many as the previous highest number.

With the Majorettes giving some stunning displays as they marched down Broad Sreet, followed by their new troupe members and cute mascots, the fire engine in attendance and Father Christmas distributing sweets to the kids in the crowd, it all made for a very special atmosphere.

As soon as the parade was over, I posted a tweet on the success of the event and received a number back from people outside of the town commenting on how Lyme was one of the few places left with such a special community atmosphere.

I’ll drink to that. In fact, I did afterwards in a packed Royal Lion with Geoff Baker and his partner Gill Newton, an enjoyable hour during which we discussed some crazy ideas for attracting more people to Lyme over the Christmas period.

I’m not sure Geoff’s idea of a streaking Santa race down Broad Street will meet with wide approval - but it would certainly attract the crowds!

The cost of this year’s lights came to around £6,500 and it becomes increasingly more difficult to raise that sort of money, year in, year out. The town and district councils give generous grants but Barbara and her team still have to fundraise throughout the year.

The last year has been a very difficult one for Barabra, health-wise, but with sterling support from people like Judith Pothecary, Alan and Lynn Vian, and a few others, the money was raised.

I’m notoriously curmudgeonly in the run up to Christmas, the result of 40 years of impossible deadlines.

I don’t start thinking about Christmas until the last edition goes to press (and that’s usually the day before Christmas Eve), but I must admit to be in a surprisingly festive mood on Saturday, having covered eight events during the day, including St Michael’s Christmas bazaar earlier in the day where there was a lovely atmosphere.

Lyme traders, led by town councillor Rikey Austin, are now about to embark on the organisation of late-night shopping events on the four Fridays leading up to Christmas, the final one (December 23rd) being on the same night as the Rotary Club’s Christmas Carols Around The Tree, my favourite Lyme Christmas event.

It is doubtful these will attract anywhere near the numbers we saw on Saturday but I hope their efforts will be worthwhile and will add to the overall seasonal spirit in the town.

MY admiration for the Royal British Legion is well known to regular readers of this column and I’m pleased to report that the Lyme branch is in fine fettle, despite declining Legion numbers nationwide.

It was interesting to hear long-serving President Cecil Quick recall at last week’s annual meeting how Lyme was judged the third best branch in the country back in the 1960s, urging his members to keep working hard to maintain their reputation as one of the most active branches in the country.

It was also good to see that Poppy Appeal organiser Sylvia Marlar received the coveted Jack Loveridge Trophy for her services to the branch over the past year.

The Legion, of course, is working all year to support our Armed Forces, not just at Remembrancetide.

You no longer need to have served in the British Forces to be a Legion member these days.

It costs just £13 to be a member of the Lyme branch, a relatively inexpensive way of supporting the Royal British Legion in all they do.

Update on the battle to save Lyme from the sea

THE creeping cliffs of Lyme Regis still loom large in the work of West Dorset District Council’s engineering department.

I went along to last week’s meeting of the Coastal Forum when district engineer Nick Browning, a good friend of Lyme Regis over the years, gave an update of phase four of the ongoing coastal protection scheme to protect Lyme from the ravages of the sea.

The meeting also saw the return of a familiar face - former district engineer Geoff Davies, who now works for a firm of consultants advising the district council on the plans to stabilise the East Cliff area of Lyme.

The £20 million-plus scheme to build a new seawall and stabilise the eastern cliffs is deemed necessary to prevent that whole area from falling into the sea, including the disappearance of Charmouth Road, over the next 50 years.

Government funding is crucial to the whole scheme and a decision on this is expected next March. If favourable (the alternative does not bear thinking about), work will start in 2013 and should be completed within two years. Nail-biting times.

60 SECONDS: Neville Causley

LANDLORD of the Hunters Lodge Inn, Neville Causley, has been running the pub and restaurant between Lyme Regis and Axminster for eight years with wife Sarah, who also runs the Karizma Majorettes. The couple have two young sons, Jake and Harvey.

Neville has been a member of Lyme Regis Lifeboat Crew since he was 18. He also organises the annual charity Santa sleigh, which tours the streets of Lyme Regis every Christmas, bringing much excitement to local children, and which is this year celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Here, Neville talks about why he loves the festive season and how he would like to see Lyme Regis developed in the future.

WHAT do you enjoy about running The Hunters Lodge Inn?
It is truly different to a normal job, it is a way of life. We have had some testing years, but we have achieved a great deal in that time. We have put an enormous amount of effort (and all of our money!) into this venture. I am a very “hands-on” landlord and always have somebody to talk to. It is very hard work, and involves long hours, but is also very rewarding to hear so many good comments about the food, and the welcoming atmosphere here at the pub. I am proud of what we have achieved.

WHAT do you like about living in the Lyme Regis areas?
I have spent my whole life within a seven-mile radius of Lyme Regis. It provides good schools for our children and I love being around the sea - it has a calming effect on me. There is a good community spirit in Lyme Regis, something that my parents encouraged me to acknowledge from a young age. Lyme is lucky to have a lot of willing people who give up their time to help others. Like any small town, it has its faults, but there are a lot worse places that you could be living in.

WHAT would you change or add to the town?
Affordable housing would be top of my list of improvements for Lyme. We were lucky that we had some savings to start us on our housing ladder, but many young people who wish to stay here are forced to either rent or live with their parents. Although I know it’s a controversial subject, and I realise it is dear to a lot of people, I would sell off the Marine Theatre and like to see it redeveloped into a state of the art Jurassic Heritage/Visitor/Educational Centre. As it stands at the moment, it seems to be in need of such huge scale modernisation which I would imagine would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

WHY did you start organising the Santa Sleigh?
I moved to Seaton for two years. Whilst we were there we had a visit from Santa’s sleigh run by the local Lions Club. My wife and I decided that when we moved back to Lyme we would start a similar thing. One of our friends told us of a disused sleigh from a carnival float which we could have on a housing estate in Honiton. We went to get it, and contacted Virgil Turner (Lyme’s Mr Christmas) got some of the lifeboat crew and friends together and took Santa and his sleigh out for five nights. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I don’t have so much time on my hands now, so Santa has to complete his visit over two evenings!

WHAT do you enjoy about it?
I love the Christmas atmosphere. Wherever we go, around every street, children’s faces light up with smiles and happiness (and grown-ups too!), and to top it off we raise some money to help somebody else. I strongly believe that helping somebody else is one of the best feelings in the world.

WHAT are you looking forward to this Christmas?
A day off! And some quality time with my family.

WHY did you join the lifeboat crew?
I remember as a child hearing the maroons, and watching the lifeboat go out from our loft window, shouting to my parents “the lifeboat is going out!” It is something that I wanted to do from an early age. I remember nervously peering around the old boathouse door being greeted by Paul Wason and Jim Thomas and being welcomed in for my first training session, and I’ve been there ever since.

WHAT would you do if you won the Lottery?
I’m sure we would have a few holidays to places we would like to go. I would buy my wife a car, and Harvey a camper van, as he is always going on about them! I would also start a zoo up for Jake, who is very passionate about animals, and then we would set up a charity of some description, as there is such a huge difference that could be made with the sums of money people win nowadays.