A Bay full of stories

By David Gledhill, Marketing & Communications Lead

ONE of the joys of working for Ageing Well Torbay and the Torbay Community Development Trust is meeting some fantastic people.

Torbay boasts an incredibly diverse set of residents from long-established families to those attracted by the favourable climate and access to both the countryside and the sea.

It means there is a heady mix of can-do individuals with fantastic life stories to share and through 2019, I was lucky to spend time talking and interviewing just a handful of them.

And what stories they had to tell – from the former trawlerman who could talk for hours about his life on the ocean but had to be prompted to talk about his heroics as one of the Torbay lifeboat crew.

To Ken Gibbs, his time saving lives made up just one small part of his rich life at sea and the fact that one of his rescues involved waves cresting at more than 25 foot, was to him just another day at the office.

But it is not just the heroics that make people like Ken, now 87-years-old, endlessly interesting, it is their recollection of times past – hidden histories, of not just themselves, but of the Bay in which they live.

Ken can cast his memory back to the pre-war Brixham in a way that brings characters and landscapes back to life with vivid clarity – back to a time when the fishing port was two distinct areas – the greenfields of Cow Town and the quayside, better known as “Downalong.”

Luckily he was too young to go to war in 1939 but remembers the motor torpedo boats and gunboats using the harbour as their base, overlooked by the naval officers who had commandeered the Northcliffe Hotel up on the hill.

“I used to watch them go out and often come back in smashed up, but life in the town continued as close to normal as it could,” he recalled

So normal in fact, that when playing with friends near the War Memorial on the front, their game was only paused as they dived into the water to avoid the machine gun strafing German plane that flew over.

“You could hear the bullets hitting the water, but there was nothing you could do, so when it had passed, we just carried on,” he said.

He wasn’t the only resident of Brixham to come face to face with the Luftwaffe – as Margaret Earnshaw recalled of her early life in Mapperley, just outside Nottingham.

Firstly she and her family had a very lucky escape when they were bombed out of the family home and amazingly, she escaped death a second time as she walked back from school carrying her regulation gas mask.

Suddenly the air was rent with strafing bullets, and she looked up into the face of a German pilot: “I could see his face as clear as day as he pulled his oxygen mask to one side.”

But the plane, that minutes earlier had been strafing people stood in queues at the nearby Huntingdon Street Bus Station, then climbed back into the clouds and away.

And as incredible as that part of  Margaret’s story is, it pales when ranked against her life of facing down racist bullies wherever she encountered them in a Britain of the sixties and seventies that was intolerant of a single mum with children, let alone a single mum with children of West Indian and Ghanaian descent.

No surprise then, that the woman who fostered 24 children as well as giving birth to one of her own, is known to her friends and family as Lady Margaret, a moniker reinforced with the gift of a title to celebrate her 80th birthday, two years ago.

Ken and Margaret’s stories are by their very nature unique, but not unusual and here at Ageing Well we will continue to seek them out and celebrate them wherever we find them.

If you want to read more then drop us an email to ageingwell@torbaycdt.org.uk or call us on 01803 212638 and we will send you a copy of our newsletter (also available online)

But just as importantly, if you know someone with a story to tell, then please do let us know. Help us celebrate the Bay’s Hidden Histories and share the stories of our Hidden Heroes.