1929 - 2010

Dennis was born at Hawbush Farm, Stradishall, Suffolk in 1929, the youngest of ten children. Some years earlier his father had bought the 70 acre farm when a local estate was broken up. Dennis’s lifelong passion for farming and heavy horses was cemented as his father and grandfather not only farmed, but ran a timber haulage business, using horse-drawn timber wagons. He was immensely proud that his parents had managed to buy their own small farm and when, by various quirks of fate, running the farm fell to him, the upkeep of Hawbush became one of the main motivating forces in his life. It was a haven of traditional farming, hedges trimmed, ditches cleared by hand and crops  tended patiently.

In many ways a private man, Dennis’s jovial smile was nevertheless well known at village events. As a young man, he had been a keen cricketer. He was also a much sought-after partner at local dances. He pursued the hobby to a high standard, achieving a range of medals in ballroom dancing. Not until the 1970s, in middle-age, did Dennis become a bellringer. The bands at Stradishall and neighbouring Cowlinge had become very depleted and had joined together. Dennis was taught to ring at Cowlinge and thus began nearly forty years of loyal service to both towers. Only a couple of years after learning himself, he set about teaching a new band at Cowlinge. He maintained this enterprising approach, always looking out for potential recruits. Owing to tower problems, Stradishall bells became unringable for almost 20 years, but at Cowlinge there was always a healthy list of members. Dennis was a staunch supporter of The Suffolk Guild, and all his recruits joined. In 1976, I was invited into his first peal. Dennis had arranged a peal at Cowlinge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first peal on the bells. The 1976 peal was conducted by Walter Perry of Clare, who had helped with teaching recruits. Dennis rang only two peals, but he was ambitious to progress and went to St Mary’s in Newmarket to further his change-ringing. He rang 72 quarter peals, which he recorded meticulously. These included Bob Minor inside and the treble to Cambridge Minor. For Dennis, the farm always came first. The time he could commit to ringing for pleasure was limited, but he subscribed to The Ringing World and was always very interested in the wider Exercise.

To see Stradishall bells re-hung was a long-standing ambition. The tower was restored in the mid-1990’s and a quarter for Harvest Festival in 1997 was the first on the bells for 19 years. Early in that year, he had spearheaded fund-raising to have work done on the treble and fourth, but the bells were still very hard work. A complete re-hang was needed, and with the help of a fairly recent recruit, Adrian Lee, Dennis began to work towards this. Much local labour was provided, and the project came to fruition in 2007. The bells are now a characterful, easy-going five.

Dennis continued farming right up to the day of his death. He showed incredible resilience and a fiercely independent spirit. Since the death of his sister Mary in 1993, he had lived alone and had had to adapt to household chores. This he did with good humour. Cooking was done on a Calor gas ring. He claimed that boiled sausages and potatoes was one of his favourite weekday dinners, cooked in the same saucepan, of course, to save on washing-up; he was always eager to get back out onto the land. In the last few years, as well as suffering a heart attack, he became quite incapacitated by knee problems. He walked with crutches, but he would still clear ditches, joking that he hoped he didn’t get stuck at the bottom of one. Out for a drink with him a few years ago, someone asked if he had retired from farming yet. A polite, but emphatic, “No! We don’t retire, we just die off!” summed up the spirit of the man.

Dennis had always been very secretive about the date of his birthday. It took a while to ascertain that he would actually be 80 on 13th June 2009. A plan was hatched to ring a birthday peal at Stradishall, the first since the bells had been re-hung. Dennis was delighted that Adrian Lee was prepared to undergo intensive training, ringing his first peal only a month after his first quarter. Adrian and his wife, Tina, gave unwavering support to Dennis in the last years of his life, helping him to continue to live independently. At a post-peal party Adrian presented Dennis with a new television in recognition of the huge contribution he had made to local ringing. An antiquated set had been replaced so that Strictly Come Dancing could be enjoyed to the full.

It was with the 80th birthday celebrations fresh in our minds that we returned to Stradishall Church little over a year later for Dennis’s funeral on 6th September 2010. Despite his increasing frailty, his sudden death had come as a great shock. He did, however, die as he would have wished, at Hawbush, and he was buried next to his sister Mary in Stradishall churchyard. As the large congregation sang ‘We plough the fields and scatter’, the symbolism of harvest seemed appropriate for this man who lived and breathed farming.

Two quarter peals and a peal were rung in memory of Dennis, and I am sure that he would have been pleased with the achievements of his tutees, which are recorded in the footnotes.

CHRISTINE KNIGHT

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CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers