I was keen to meet Brian Cox, not the astrophysics professor of television fame but someone far more down to earth. The Brian I wanted to meet was a retired priest whose sermon about his work as a Street Pastor in Southampton aroused my curiosity. He agreed to be interviewed and we met on a dark, cloudy day at St Faith’s Community Centre with no chance of seeing any stars! He’d brought with him a lengthy manuscript for me to borrow entitled For God’s Sake Let Me BE which he’d written on a sabbatical and which I found to be a refreshingly honest, challenging and forthright account of his life and experience as a church minister.
I warmed to Brian as soon as we met, partly because we shared a lot in common both having attended secondary modern schools and both having come from working class families (his great grandfather, grandfather, father and uncles were railway workers). Born at Eastleigh and raised with two sisters, Brian broke with the family tradition and, at 15, became apprenticed to a printing firm but continued to develop his interest in art at night school. He subsequently worked for other printing firms but, with changing times and modernisation, he experienced redundancy and after a chequered career, returned to the firm where he’d first been apprenticed but now as a Partner.
It was during this time, married to Lysbeth with two grown up children, Sadie and Andrew, that he was drawn to the priesthood being concerned about the people around him who were disabled, disaffected, disadvantaged and largely overlooked. After several setbacks he eventually gained a place on a part-time course at Salisbury Theological College, sold his house, gave up his job and became a curate at St. Peter’s church, Maybush. Southampton. From there he spent several years at Andover before returning to Southampton as rector of Christchurch, Freemantle where he eventually retired in 2014.
Always believing in action rather than words, this last period of his ministry gave him the chance to serve as he’d always wanted to serve in a practical way. The Street Pastor movement had long been established in London and other centres. Its creed was simple: Listening, Caring, Helping, a creed I suspect which exactly chimed with Brian’s view of what the church should be doing. Concerned with excessive alcohol and drug abuse on the city byways, the street pastors’ job was to be there, voluntarily, listening, caring and helping. With Southampton in need of such a service, a meeting was held which Brian attended and, after considerable administrative obstacles, led to a street pastors’ group being formed with Brian as one of its members.
Groups of five, on cold, winter nights, would be out in the city from 10 pm – 4 am scouring dark unlit side alleys looking for people in trouble and doing whatever they could to help, sometimes calling the paramedics or taking them to a place of safety and always leaving a contact card in their pockets for future help if required. It was, for Brian, a hands-on way of serving the church and offering aid where it was needed.
Since retiring from full-time ministry, among other activities he chairs Lee Art group, assists the ministry team at St. Faith’s and attends Gosport’s SHED (a group I hope to feature one day). I doubt that he’ll ever really retire. I hope he doesn’t. I’ve rarely met anyone who has given so much and from all I’ve learned of his work and passion for practical service, I’m certain he has more to give. As for his manuscript, I’d love to see it published. What I’ve written here gives only a glimpse of his views on the Church and his experience, with the support of his wife and family, in its service.
My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky. I couldn’t help thinking of Wordsworth’s poem as I listened to Jean Hedley telling me all about her love of nature and the outdoor environment which, along with art and painting, has been one of her lifelong passions and one which she and her late husband, Richard, have championed throughout their lives. Both were committee members on the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and keen to promote the value of outdoor education and conservation. Since Richard’s death Jean has continued to support the cause by setting up with her family the Richard Hedley Fund which supports posts for young graduates to work for the Trust developing and spreading their knowledge of conservation and the environment in Hampshire.
Jean, the youngest of three children, was born in Kent but moved with her family to Scotland at the age of three and was schooled in Glasgow. On leaving school she wasn’t sure whether to study art or work with children. She chose the latter and, after working as a nursery nurse in Glasgow, she moved to Newcastle to train as a teacher and stayed with her eldest married sister, Margaret, whose house adjoined the vicarage. It was during this period that the vicar invited her around to watch a prom concert on the television and there it was that she met a vicar’s son, Richard, which, so she told me, was the best thing to have happened in her entire life!
They eventually married and, both being teachers, moved to Hampshire with their first child when Richard secured a teaching post at Prices College. They immediately fell in love with the local countryside and the sea. Richard later met a member of the newly-formed Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust at Hill Head. He invited him back to the house and, as a result, he and Jean became members themselves. Over the years the family grew and Jean now has three children, six grandchildren and a great grandson who can be seen in the pictures on the wall in the photograph.
Throughout Jean’s teaching career she encouraged children to learn about and appreciate the outdoor world whilst continuing to work for the Wildlife Trust eventually taking over the chair. Among other things she organised fundraising activities including a dinner hosted by Lord Caernarvon at Downton Abbey. She was honoured for her work in conservation with an MBE at Windsor Castle where the Queen told her how much she liked Hampshire. She was also invited with other Trust members to meet Prince Charles and see his wildflower meadow at Highgrove.
None of this, however, is what Jean wanted me to focus on. Her main concern was for me to share and promote her love of nature and conservation. On the 1st and 2nd of April between 10 am and 4pm she will be holding a Wildlife & Wilderness Art Open Gallery at her house to raise money for the Wildlife Trust and Richard Hedley Fund when local artists will contribute their work. On May 16th there will be another fundraising event with a talk on Native Orchids at the Wallington Village Hall, Fareham. Please look out for these events and support them if you can.
Jean’s passion for wildlife was infectious. When I told her I once spotted a nest of hungry skylark chicks in the grass she looked thrilled and said, ‘Write about – share it!’ Sharing the message is clearly Jean’s life’s mission. When I left and walked home in a downpour I felt uplifted and found myself thinking My heart leaps up when I behold / The raindrops on my brolly. I can only hope that her work with Richard encourages others to love and care for wildlife as much as they have.
There’s a wise old saying that if you have only two pennies to spend, one should be spent on bread to keep you alive and the other on flowers to make life worth living. St. Faith’s church, like so many churches, is all the richer and brighter for having displays of flowers throughout the building and people who care enough to purchase, arrange and display them week after week and year after year.
Back in September 2013, I wrote about the Flower Festival marking the church’s 80th anniversary. Every corner and niche in the church was filled with flower displays on different themes ranging from the Garden of Eden to Air Sea Rescue. As well as delighting all who came, £3,000 was raised for the church and its work. Three years later, Margaret Hunt, the flower team’s chairperson (photographed in the middle of the back row, face half-hidden), invited me to one of their regular meetings to find out more about the flower team and its work the normal course of a year.
Until that meeting, my knowledge about the team was scanty to say the least. Sometimes during the week if I dropped into church, I might see two or three ladies snipping away or arranging blooms though I never took very much interest in what they were doing. My own flower-arranging skills are confined to hacking off stems and plonking the bunch of flowers, just as it comes, into a vase. I am also guilty of often attending a church service and leaving the building without having noticed what flowers were there. But, in mitigation, I am beginning to notice more and, since the meeting, appreciating the time and effort that goes into all of different displays around the church.
The meeting, like all good meetings, began with conversation, coffee and biscuits. I wasn’t sure what I’d be writing about but expected to list the names of the members and write a little about each one. The plan worked well at the start when only four people were present. Two had been members for just six months and the other two for longer than either cared to remember. But one by one, others turned up and when seventeen eventually arrived, I realised that even listing their names let alone writing something about each one would leave little room for anything else. So, I sat at one of the tables and gleaned what information I could from the meeting.
I learned that the full team of twenty is subdivided into five smaller teams, each working for two weeks at a time. As well as providing displays throughout the year for the Sunday services, the flower team plans and creates displays for the three main festivals, Easter, Harvest and Christmas. At this particular meeting for example, a collection of dried fir cones had been donated with Harvest (and Christmas Fayre decorations) in mind. As well as the main church festivals, the team also plans and provides displays for Armistice Sundays and other special occasions including weddings whenever requested.
Much of the meeting concerned itself with accounts, possible future purchases (mini clippers, flower oases, etcetera) and general discussions. But what I took from the meeting was sheer admiration for all that the flower team does and gives to the life of the church. If nothing else, I shall never again take for granted the time, creativity, effort and skill that each one of the team members gives. And I’d like to think I won’t be entering or leaving the building again without being fully aware of the flowers and noticing every display. And in the event of my ever becoming an expert flower-arranger, who knows, I might be the first of many men to join the team.