New book puts the spotlight on Fakenham ‘characters’

Raymond Monbiot with a copy of his latest book
Raymond Monbiot with a copy of his latest book
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A Burnham Market author whose varied career has brought him in touch with people from all walks of life has just published his fifth book in a series that lifts a corner on the histories of some of the more interesting people who live or work in Fakenham.

Raymond Monbiot’s Characters of Fakenham follows The Burnhams’ Book of Characters and Memories, Characters of North Norfolk, More Characters of North Norfolk and Retirement is for Younger People.

He is well qualified to understand what makes those he interviews tick for in his time he has dealt with everyone from Queens to commoners. He has known not only the drudgery of humping sacks in a Joe Lyons warehouse but also trained as a pastry chef making, among other things, cakes for Buckingham Palace garden parties and fruit scones, by hand, for the Queen Mother’s breakfast.

His varied and upwardly mobile career in the food industry, before retirement, culminated as chairman of Campbell’s Soup in the UK.

He had hobnobbed with every Conservative party leader from Churchill onwards, was a deputy-chairman of the party for several years and is an MBE and a CBE but turned down a peerage in 2010. Those lofty heights did not prevent him from his current mundane task of handling traffic management at the Burnhams annual Flower Show and Carnival. He is well-versed in an understanding of the full spectrum of what makes people tick.

Now coming up to his eightieth birthday he is as active as ever. An early job as an English teacher and a contributor for many years to the food industry’s trade press have honed his writing skills in a manner that engages the reader.

“It was a friend, Bridgitte Doughty, who suggested a book of Fakenham. She gave me some names and I added some I already knew,” he said. “Each of those in the book in their own way is special and all have impressive stories to tell.”

Most the reader will not know personally but will recognise from the book’s photographs. One such is Denise Pearson. Even in this computer age who has not shopped for paper and envelopes, needed something photo-copied or required paper clips, sticky tape or the many other things bought in a stationers such as Paper Clip, in Bridge Street? Hers has been the familiar face to greet customers for some 20 years.

That’s the public face behind someone who was born in Great Massingham but lived most of her life in Fakenham. There may be nothing special in selling a ball-point pen but what could be more exciting than diving in Egypt or holidaying in places as far apart as the Dominican Republic, The Gambia, Cyprus and the United States.

Or the reader can take the chance to delve into the many skills of David Hunter, chief executive and clerk of the course at Fakenham, who has not only been responsible for major developments at the racecourse but, for 13 years, was closely involved with Britain’s Paralympic equestrian team.

Or they can learn more of the Benbows, Gerald, Nigel and Denise, who own the greengrocers and fruiterers in the Market place ... or Gordon and Brenda Turner who developed the Garden Centre ... or Jean Seppings who sells home-made cakes on Fakenham Market ... or Will Parker, whose family have operated from the clockmakers’ shop in Norwich Street since 1890.

The curtain is lifted on Bill Jordan - whose family founded Jordan’s Cereals which can be found in every major food outlet in the country - and his wife Debs, who was born in Ringstead. In 2007 they bought the world-renowned waterfowl haven, Pensthorpe Natural Park, from Bill Makins who founded it in 1988.

The book is full of remarkable people - some unsung - who make or have made a difference to Fakenham. One such is the former rector, Rev Adrian Bell, who revitalised the parish church. But in this book he is not profiled but mentioned in the introduction.

On his arrival he found the church doors chained up and a parish newsletter, The Beacon, with an ailing 300-strong readership. When he left 13 years later in June 2014 the circulation had grown to 10,000 and visitor numbers had risen from almost nil to 50,000 a year. Services apart, some of the multitude of activities and organisations the church now hosts includes many charities, a weekly art group, a monthly craft market, parent and toddler services, an annual horticultural show and an innovative Christmas Tree festival that has been copied by churches well beyond the boundaries of Norfolk.

“Those in the book are some of the people who represent the throbbing heart of Fakenham. There are also a number of prominent people who are not in the book,” said Mr Monbiot. “There was no space so perhaps there is a second book.”

That hints at no reduction in his enthusiasm for wanting to set down on paper what makes people tick despite the soon advent of his eighth decade of life. But then one of his earlier books, Retirement is for Younger People, tackled head-on the lie that life ends at 65. In that book one couple featured were still delivering Meals on Wheels at the age of 86.

Raymond Monbiot’s Characters of Fakenham costs £7.95 and can be bought from local outlets or Raymond Monbiot Books, Eastgate House, Burnham Market, PE31 8HH.