September 10, 2023|

Ron Burt – Looking after St. Nicholas churchyard and other memories

Ron is in his eighties and has lived in Wickham since the age of three. He has always been involved with St. Nicholas Church, later looking after the churchyard and also reading lessons. Ron still opens the church each day.

Following the Canadian Pipe Band

During the war there was a Canadian pipe band based here, and on Sunday mornings they used to march down from the area of Hundred Acres. Us boys, we used to follow them, and  they stopped at the cross roads at the church which was quite different to what it is now. The pipe band would be there, and all the Canadians together with some of our army personnel would attend the church. When they came out at the end of the service the pipe band started up again and marched all the way up to Hundred Acres.  Well, us nippers used to follow them and when we reached Hundred Acres which was quite a long way for us, the chap that was waving the staff in front that did the controlling of the pipe band, would stop and say ‘Right, you boys, you’ve gone far enough. Turn round and go back home.’ All up Hundred Acres you had truck after truck, stationed after one another all the way up through there.

Drinking at the White Lion with the Rector

Now Colin George (Rector 1979-1986) seemed to be like one of the boys with us because he used to visit us in the White Lion pub, and he used to say  ‘Righto you lads, I’ve come into your house, now you can pay a visit to mine.’ So twelve of us at least used to go and have a beer up there and Colin used to join us.  It was a Christmas Eve and he said to us ‘Right you boys, get down the side there and don’t mess me up’ he said ‘Behave yourselves’ which we did of course.  So he appreciated the fact that we nippers joined him in his midnight service. That’s ten rectors that’s been associated with me through all these years.

Taking over the churchyard

In 1990 my son Malcolm was looking after the churchyard, and he was going to give up and asked me if I would like to take over, which I did. At that time, we just had an ordinary hand mower, so it was a lot of work to do really with the hand mower.   Joyce Johnson who used to be the verger at the church, often came out and I used to have a big old wooden wheelbarrow which I used to fill up with the cuttings and take it all down to the bottom. So Joyce used to help me.  I did the grounds and I was still doing it when they decided to have the remembrance garden put in.  Judy Lucas had a lot to do with that, and I do believe that the chap that made it and arranged it all was an American chap. So, in the meantime, Rookesbury had given extra land to the church because the graveyard was getting full up. Quite a decent stretch was given from Rookesbury farm so that we could carry on burials.  It was in Arnold’s time [Arnold Hirst was Rector 1988-2006] when they started to do internment ashes in there. I don’t know who was doing it before, but Arnold said ‘Can you take it over Ron because we don’t seem to be getting it quite right to start with’.  I said ‘I’ll see what I can do’. I used to do that with Joyce Johnson and then Joyce retired, but now I’m still doing it and I’m in my thirty second year. So since Arnold’s time I’m still doing internments and I’m now working with Jane Painter.  We are still running out of ground, sadly to say, so now, they are looking into Rookesbury estate to see what other ground they have so that we can carry on.

A local Traveller family funeral

I decided for the millennium that when I was working up at the church, I would take my recorder with me and would tape whatever happened throughout the whole year. They said that I would never do that, but I did and I stuck with it, so there are several incidents that were going on throughout the year in Wickham church which were all filmed – weddings and funerals. There was one massive funeral pf a local Traveller family and that is all recorded. They had to have loud speakers because there were so many people there. The Travellers on that day came from miles away. It was a march from the Wickham Square.  They had a horse and limousines, and there were at least eight of them going to the church.  You couldn’t move.  It was absolutely crowded.  This is the year of me taking the camcorder as well, so that funeral you will be able to see, and then you can go out and see the amount of flowers that were out there.  It must have cost quite a lot of money really to have them all put there, and it took quite a fair area.  So that was the year 2000 that we had the massive funeral with the travellers.

Helping the bereaved and reading in church

When I am working in the garden of remembrance, some people have asked me ‘Can you shut the mower off a minute?’ and they would like to talk to you.  The thing was, to let them do the talking and I listened as long as they are getting their feelings out which I think was rewarding for them. Often, they used to come back and have a little chat.  So I think it’s a job well worth doing and it’s surprising the amount of people that you do see and talk to.  So, working in the church is very satisfying. I’ve done readings for several funerals and also spoken about their lifetime.  I’ve done a double one there especially for my friend Peter Pink. I was honoured to be asked to do the reading when the bishop of Portsmouth arrived. I’ve done a reading  which I done from school…I was with Arnold [Hirst] and I got up and I read a piece out which I did when I was an eleven year old at school… So that was five times I done that [at the request of other local families for funerals]. It’s Matthew 6 v 19 to 34.

This article is based upon several interviews with Ron Burt by Margaret Edgeworth and Geoff Phillpotts.

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