Owen Hillier is the oldest living person born in Nunney and served on the parish council, community association and many other village bodies for decades.
Visit Nunney interviewed Owen Hillier ahead of a tree planting ceremony in recognition of the lifelong contribution Fred Lestrange and he have made to Nunney village life and the wider community.
It turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion of both current developments and things that have changed in Nunney over the years.
Owen Hillier was born in Horn Street and brought up in Nunney. Before the War his father ran the Social Club, which stood where the SPAR is now.
On the outbreak of war Owen signed up for the RAF, where he served in the RAF police. He served all over Europe, ending up in Paris at the end of the war.
Although in the RAF, he did very little flying. On leave he would come back to Nunney, where his parents took in evacuee children, and he sang in the church choir.
He worked for the local authority for 35 years, in Frome. The planning authority at the time was Somerset County Council, but they had a regional office in Radstock.
Rural District Council
There was no Mendip District Council yet. Owen worked for the Frome Urban District Council. There were two authorities: the Urban District Council and the Rural District Council. The Rural District Council was for places like Nunney and other villages around Frome.
“In a lot of people’s opinion it was not a very good authority,” Owen explains. “I can say that since I worked for them. Frome was on the periphery of Wiltshire and Somerset. There was another county authority formed, called Avon. You’ll have heard of the Avon & Somerset Police. Avon disappeared, and then it became Bath & Northeast Somerset.”
The planning authority before 1974 was Somerset County Council, with a regional office in Radstock. Mendip District Council came into being in 1974, when Edward Heath was Prime Minister. It became the planning authority.
“I was on the parish council for 20 years,” Owen says. “It seemed that whenever the parish council said yes, Mendip would go the other way – generally. And if it was the other way, same thing.”
The first council housing in Nunney was up Sunny Hill, between Berry Hill and Dallimore Mead. “I remember them being built, by a firm called Mortimer & Sons who came from Midsomer Norton,” Owen says, before quickly adding, “You may think that’s rubbish – and perhaps it is.”
He can remember an astonishing amount of details, for someone who freely admits that his memory isn’t what it used to be. He certainly remembers when the first housing estate was built in Nunney in the 1950s.
“The headmaster at the school called Arthur Baker. He became a Rural District Councillor as well as being headmaster. He was – what shall I say – the inspiration for getting the houses there. They were built in two sections.”
“He was looking after his own ends really, because it would preserve the school and the more pupils in the school his salary was increased.”
“Then they built the second lot. They also built some affordable housing at Pookfield. They were houses that were built for people who were born in Nunney or had relatives in Nunney. There was another reason, but I can’t think of it now.”
“These applications came before the parish council and the parish council sort of decided who would live in these houses. Largely people who were born in Nunney or had relatives in Nunney. Then, after that, Berry Hill was built at some stage.”
“The council houses always had the reputation that they were jerry-built. But the houses at Sunny Hill were built very well. All are now privately-owned, as is – more or less – Berry Hill.”
How does he feel about current plans to build up to 100 new houses at Green Pits Lane in Nunney? “Personally, I’m for it because it will preserve the school if nothing else,” he says. “But whether or not the facilities have been gone into? By that I mean sewage to start with.”
The next Nunney anecdote is never far away when talking to Owen Hillier. Our conversation is littered with fascinating stories of Nunney past.
“Years ago there was a Barnard septic tank at the back of the castle which used to take care of the village,” he recounts. “Every so often there would be a horse and cart – or a couple of horses and carts – that would skim off the top and take it to various fields where it was scattered.”
“They used to come out… if you stand by the garage next to the duck flats opposite the church, there is an opening – or there used to be – where the horse and cart would come out, through the river and from there to wherever they would deposit it. Then there was a sewage works built, down the combe of the Nunney Brook.”
Returning to the subject, he adds: “Now, whether this has been gone into? For if they are going to build 100 houses, there’s going to be a lot of hard standing. The water has got to go somewhere.”
“Furthermore, will the sewage facilities available now be able to take it? I understand that sewage from Trudoxhill and Witham Friary is all pumped to Nunney Catch. From there it goes through a pipe to the sewage works. Suppose more houses were built in Witham or Trudoxhill – which is quite possible – is the sewage plant going to be able to take it?”
Parish councillor Jeremy Gaunt is present at our interview and points out, “Barratt Homes have very cleverly asked Wessex Water whether the existing sewage plant is capable of taking potentially another 500 people. Wessex Water have said, ‘Yes, the plant capable of doing that.'”
“What Barratt Homes has failed to ask – quite deliberately in my opinion – is if the drain from Nunney Catch to the sewage plant is capable of coping. That’s a 7 inch drain.”
Owen Hillier says, “Years ago – you won’t remember -, on the other side of the road that runs from the Theobald Arms (that used to be the main road) there used to be a high level tank.”
“We used to get our water not from Bristol Water – they weren’t around -, but from the Duke of Somerset’s estate at Gare Hill. That water was a very soft water. What we have now is quite hard. That was a header tank and the water used to go down to the village by gravity.”
Number of new houses
How do both men feel about the proposed number of new houses – 100, rather than the 24 Nunney Parish Council had in mind?
Jeremy Gaunt says, “Well, the parish council feels it’s far too much. We pushed for some housing in the first place. But when push came to shove Barratt Homes said they were going for 100 and wouldn’t accept any less.”
“Regrettably, we were forced into a position of having either 100 or none. So we voted for none. We wanted 20-30. We thought 100 was too much and would put too much pressure on the sewage facilities and the run-off. They’re proposing shallow ponds. We said: ‘what will happen when they are full?’ ‘They will overflow,’ they said.”
Owen also notes, “The other thing of course is access. There would have to be some other means of access, for if you have 100 houses you’re going to have at least another 100 cars.”
Barratt Homes’ application for outline planning permission bases the estimated number of cars on an average of 1.5 vehicles per household.
“They’re probably right,” Owen says. “So there’s sewage, water and also the access. Hopefully having houses like that up there will help preserve the SPAR village shop in the Market Place.”
How did the parish council feel about the Flowerfield and later Glebelands developments?
Owen points out that he wasn’t on the parish council at the time. “I would have thought they would have said: ‘Yes, let’s do it’. Keeping the school going was one consideration.”
“Years ago Marston, Whatley and Chantry all had a school. When they closed, all these children from those schools came to Nunney. Now you have school transport, but they had to walk in all winds and weather. Just imagine…”
“The church rooms, next to Castlebrook House, used to be the school. When it was hundred years since the opening of the new school – now Nunney First School – in 1996 I wrote a booklet on it.”
“Castlebrook House is the wrong name really; it was previously called Maudsley House. When the Dayman-Johns came here, they renamed it Castlebrook – because of… well, the castle and the brook.”
“The church rooms were the school. The headmaster had a communicating door between him and the school, so that he didn’t get wet when it was raining. Pupils may have boarded there too; I don’t know.”
There are huge floor plans of the church rooms and Castlebrook House in the Somerset County Archives in Taunton. They show that the boys’ classroom was on the ground floor in Castlebrook.
Eight boys from Whatley attending school here around 1840 boarded in Nunney, because it was considered too far to walk every day.
“They could well have been boarding in Castlebrook as well,” Owen comments. “So that was the school. An extension was put on at the back in 1870. The new, current school opened in 1896.”
“After the school moved to the current building, the church rooms became the village hall. It was used for all sorts of things: plays, travelling cinemas, musical evenings… It had an upstairs and a downstairs.”
“It was the Sunday School. Also, when we had work done in the church it became the temporary church. People would be having a dance or a whist drive on a Saturday night, and then they had to convert it into a church for Sunday,” Owen says.
“The church was funding it and people paid for using it. But it became a liability. So it was sold, under John Pescott, who was Rector here before John Hodder – not that many years ago.”
“It was sold for over £16,000 and this money was invested in the Central Board of Finance. We get an interest on it every quarter. I have just finished as the Treasurer, but before I finished I transferred £12,000 from that account to the Church Roof account. So now there’s about £8,000 still in the account, from interest,” he adds.
When the new estates were built in the 1950s and 1960s people said that it completely split the village. It is an argument you hear again now, about the proposed new housing at Green Pits Lane.
“It still does. It still splits the village,” Owen stresses. “Some people are community-minded up there, as you’ll probably know. But there are others who want particularly little to do with anything that goes on in the village, at the village hall or the village fair. You don’t get very much help from them.”
“When I was in the community association, we were always trying to get people to help us. The answer was always: ‘What’s in it for me?'”
Jeremy adds, “The one time you do get everyone together is when they are proposing these new homes. It has united the village like nothing ever before.”
We ask Owen about reports of problems with youths when the new estates were built. Young people who had recently moved to Nunney were hanging around in the Market Place because there was nothing for them to do.
“Well, you say nothing to do…,” he replies. “Years and years ago the bridge was this sort of congregating place, particularly on a nice evening and on Saturdays and Sundays. There would be a few that would gather there.”
“Youth clubs had been started in the village. They took place in the church rooms. The person who started the youth club was a chap called Wilfred Carr. He lived behind the Post Office, where Mrs De Planta lived. He was the manager of Boots the chemist in Frome.”
“He started a youth club and he would get abuse – probably from people on the estate. So it finished.”
“I was a Treasurer of the youth club in Frome. We used to have a mini-bus taking kids from Nunney down to it. You had a lot of facilities and it was open seven days a week. At the holidays there would be all sorts of things happening.”
“Meryl Cousins’ father Bernard was a marvelous youth leader. We had all sorts of things up there: miniature car racing… you name it, it was there. But that too has now… not shut, but it’s the YMCA now. I think they pulled down the old place.”
“There used to be a Parish Club – a social club – in Nunney, where the SPAR is now located. I lived there, since my father ran it. It went on from about 1922 until the late 1930s.”
“Cars became more prevalent. There was no bar in the place. So most people went to Frome. When the war started, some soldiers were accommodated in the club room. Then it closed.”
“David Bird’s grandfather’s shop was on the corner of Castle Street, where the café is now. The premises still belong to David’s sister, Margaret. The Bird family used to live where Mrs Jane Rose lives [between the current Castle Kitchen café and the former post office, ed.]. Then they moved to where they are now.”
How has the character of Nunney changed over the years? “I remember it without any council houses. Therefore you had….” He pauses. “Well, you can picture what you see now. Council houses brought more people to the village, but it was like a separate village out there.”
He explains that traditionally people didn’t move in or out of Nunney. “People were born here, stayed here and died here,” he adds. “Where Sawmill Cottages are, there was a wheelwright – Russell’s. They were painters and decorators, coffin-makers, a forge and also undertakers.”
“They used to come through the village with a hearse, like you see in Royal Wootton Bassett – when they bring the bodies back from Afghanistan. People would draw the curtains as a mark of respect. All the men in the street would take their hat off. You don’t get that today, do you?” he says.
But how did housing developments in the Fifties and Sixties change Nunney?
“They brought different people here. It broadened the outlook of us villagers. It’s obviously been good because new ideas have come. But until the Nunney Community Association started, the church was the focal point. In fact, there was the church, the Wesleyan Chapel in Castle Street and the Primitive Methodist Chapel behind Horn Street.”
“You would get three families walking down to the Market Place together and then they would hive off. My father and mother would go to church, two would go to Wesleyan Chapel and the other ones went off to the Primitive Methodists.”
“Alongside the Primitive Methodist Chapel there were a couple of houses. Then there was a track going up to them, with houses on the right hand side. It is possible that they were all knocked down under the Slum Clearance Act in the 1930s.”
“At one point there were houses all the way down Horn Street on the side of the river. They were mainly council houses and were up for demolition. That didn’t happen, because people went in and started improving them.”
“There were houses where the vegetable garden is that belongs to Penny’s Mill. They are gone. But I remember when Penny’s Mill was still a working mill.”
“Where Caroline Toll now lives, there were people who owned the mill called Gifford. William Gifford played the organ in church. Percy Clough was the vicar. My father was a gardener to the Clough family for somewhere in the region of seventy years. He served both his father and Percy Clough.”
Percy Clough followed his father, who previously worked in Manchester, as vicar of Nunney. He was held in great affection by the village and was the natural choice of chairman of all sorts of committees. He was vicar throughout the Second World War and chaired the committee set up to help the village prepare for a German invasion.
“Percy also played the organ sometimes, when the organist didn’t turn up. He was a very clever chap. We had a harmonium in the church rooms, for services and things like that. He put a microphone in there to make it sound like a theatre organ.”
“If ever a saint walked in this village, Percy Clough was it. The church doors were never locked; in fact, he never used to lock his own door. Often he would go into the church and find a tramp – or somebody from the road – asleep on a pew. He would take a cassock and cover them. He would also go into old people’s houses to rake out the coal fire and light it for them.”
“Percy Clough was an avid photographer, who used to develop his own pictures. Do you remember cars used to have those running boards on the side? Well, Percy once strapped himself to the running board of a car at the Old Rectory, holding a cine camera, and filmed the whole journey going from here to Frome. I wonder where all of that material is now.”
“He was a very good chap. He looked after Nunney and Trudoxhill – not lots of parishes like you get now. But then Whatley had its own church. All the villages did; Cloford had a church, Wanstrow… and then suddenly the diocese decided – either moneywise or I don’t know – to amalgamate them.”
“They are always short of money, of course,” Jeremy points out. “Which is one reason why they are looking to sell land for housing development.”
“There is a theory that after the diocese agreed with Nunney Parish Council that 100 houses was too many, that they are now pushing for 100 houses because it means a lot more money for them.”
Owen adds, “Years ago, the rector Clough would get a tithe from the rent of the glebe [land in Nunney owned by the Church of England, ed. from the farmers. It all goes into central funds nowadays. We’ve been saying that if the sale does go through, Nunney Church ought to get some of it.”
“That’s very much up to the diocese,” Jeremy says. “Indeed it is,” Owen responds, “But I think that the Parochial Parish Council really needs to go to town with it and insist that we ought to get some – particularly because of the roof. I’m not going to see it; the roof is not going to be done in my lifetime.”
Some people have written to the planning officer to claim that new housing development would damage our heritage. Owen has seen houses being built all over the village over the years. Was heritage ever a consideration in past decades?
“No, not to my knowledge,” Owen says. “Fulwell Lane is comparatively new. There was a house further along, which was to do with a farm – Fulwell Farm. In fact, that’s still there and run by Pete Masters.”
“There were two houses built on Castle Hill as tenant houses for Manor Farm, where Lady Pickthorn now lives. I think the farmer who was there at that time thought he owned it – in fact, quite a number of people thought he owned it -, but he didn’t. I think it was owned by a Coleman, of Coleman’s Quarries.”
“Once these two houses were built, a Mr Ellis came along and got permission to built two houses on either side. He didn’t build the bungalow where Peggy Bird lives, I believe. He was after more land at the back of that to build, but I think Lord Watson bought it so that he couldn’t build.”
“Part of that land was offered to the church as an additional cemetery. That was before we had the burial ground on Ridgeway Lane. The problem was that if you start to dig you quickly hit solid rock. So it didn’t materialise.”
“These houses here where I live [on Frome Road, ed.] were built on allotments. We moved here in 1960 and were the first people to live in this house. But they were all decently built.”
Owen Hillier has been involved in countless events, meetings, clubs and community organisations. He is only just retiring as Treasurer of Nunney Church but is still a trustee of the Turner and Harris charitable trusts, two centuries-old charities set up to benefit local education and newly-weds in Nunney.
He is the embodiment of oral history in the village and seems eager to share as much of his memories as he can muster.
As we round off the interview he veers up and says, “There used to be a cricket field up the road, just beyond where you’ve got the second bend. There’s a flat field and that was Nunney cricket field for years and years.”
“The captain of the cricket team was called Holly. The Hollys lived in what later became Sally McCarney’s house on Castle Hill and they owned all the other houses around there on Castle Street.”
“We even put a pavilion – or a hut – on the cricket field. It was used for cricket and football. Rob Walker [the legendary racing team owner and Lord of the Manor, who lived at Nunney Court for over half a century, ed.) bought us our cricket outfits, bats and such,” he adds.
“We revived Nunney Street Fayre in 1975. Stan Smith – then Chairman of Nunney Parish Council -, Fred Lestrange, a chap called Bill Adams and I were coming out of the church rooms and we suddenly had this idea.”
“The village of High Littleton, near Clutton, wanted to start a community association. Stan, Fred and I went over there to see them. They never even offered us a cup of tea. That was unusual in those days, because wherever you went people would always offer you a cup of tea,” he points out. “We had an event at Rockfield House that raised about £90 and that started us up.”
“Then we had a bright idea of Carols in the Castle. The Frome Town Band used to go up to the estates, everybody would have a torch and they would come down with the band in front. To stand at the castle gates and watch them come down was a wonderful sight.”
“It got very crowded. One lady had a fur coat on and some of the fat of one candle went all the way down her coat, which didn’t help her very much. Now you can’t have candles and torches anymore because of health and safety.”
As we conclude the interview, Owen says: “If you have any further questions, do let me know. I have lived in Nunney longer than anyone else.”
“Even longer than…” we say, thinking of a certain Nunney resident on Primrose Hill. “He was born in Mells!” Owen roars. “He’s a newcomer. I’m not the oldest person in the village, but I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest person still around to have been born here.”
He is still chuckling as we leave the house.
On Saturday 17 May at 11am two trees will be planted in Old Quarry Gardens, Castle Hill, to mark the remarkable years of service to the village and wider community by Owen Hillier and Fred Lestrange. Click here for details.