Obituary: The Suffolk man whose potatoes wowed the Queen Mother
PUBLISHED: 19:10 20 August 2019 | UPDATED: 00:24 22 August 2019
School gardener, who has died at 89, was awarded the MBE for his tireless work for the village and service to horticulture
Niece Alison started it. Her regular Christmas present to Uncle Peter was a big diary, and from 1958 until the mid-1990s he penned succinct daily entries about his life. He wrote as he enjoyed his elevenses (at 10am!) - tea from the flask he brought from home and a slice of his wife's cake. The lines tell us what he was planting in the garden where he worked; what he'd caught in the beloved rivers he knew like the back of his hand.
Doing justice to him really requires as many pages as he covered with his handwriting, year after year, before his breaks ended and it was time to return to the flowerbeds and vegetable patches.
Peter Page wasn't one of life's boisterous and flashy characters, but a character he most certainly was. And his life was vibrant and rewarding.
From the age of 14, he spent more than half a century tending the headmaster's garden at a high-profile Suffolk school. He was a harbourmaster for about six decades. And he was an untiring supporter of the Royal British Legion - caring for the local war memorial well into his 80s and acting as a door-to-door collector for the Poppy Appeal for 33 years.
Peter didn't seek praise or the limelight, but his efforts were recognised when he received the MBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. The decoration honoured his service to both horticulture and the community.
There's a catalogue of memories, but perhaps what means most are the sentiments in cards sent to his family. They invariably remember Peter Page as an incredibly helpful and lovely man. There can be no better tribute.
Nazi plane spells trouble
Peter was born on the Shotley peninsula in October, 1929 - on a farm at Beaumont Hall, Harkstead. His father and uncles were horsemen on the farm.
When he was six weeks old, parents Phyllis and Albert moved the family to Alton Green Cottages in Lower Holbrook, where he grew up. Peter, who had three sisters and a brother, was out on the River Stour from the age of eight or nine.
Meanwhile, it was quite a walk to the village primary school (about one and a half miles) and later to what was then called the area school (high school). "I think they got up to high jinks as they got older, on the way home. Scrumping…" says Peter's son Simon.
One scrape that landed the schoolboy in a bit of bother came in October, 1940, after a Nazi bomber crashed into the mud off Erwarton Ness. The crew had bailed out long before, landing in faraway Salisbury.
The Luftwaffe's downed Dornier was a magnet to boys like 11-year-old Peter. He said in 2004: "Three of us lads went along to see it in the morning and we picked up some shell casings.
"I got in terrible trouble, though. The police found out and I had to take all that I had and hand them in. I can remember it well. I'd never seen a plane that close before and I haven't seen a military plane that close again since."
Son Simon remembers hearing that the pals had been messing about with their finds at a house in Holbrook. A worried local saw them and alerted the authorities. Hence the summons to the headmaster's room, where a policeman awaited.
The boys were warned not to pick up such objects again, as it was a risky practice. That was no exaggeration. At another time, some local lads were apparently killed when they put bullets in a vice and tried to get out the explosive element.
Even grew grapes
Peter left school at 14 and in January, 1944, started work as "the boy" in the headmaster's garden at the Royal Hospital School.
The school had opened in 1712 - not then in Suffolk but as part of Greenwich Hospital in London. Its aim was to allow boys from seafaring backgrounds to learn arithmetic and navigation.
As the number of pupils grew, more space was needed. In 1933 it moved to a purpose-built campus, complete with 200 acres of countryside, at Holbrook.
Peter had some experience of gardening. It was something he'd studied at senior school and his children still have his "Garden Diary" from 1942-43, with its neat entries and botanical drawings.
He started as an apprentice, essentially, to old Mr Marjoram - taking over as "the gardener" when the incumbent retired at the tail end of the 1950s.
The headmaster's house - part of the school grounds - had a walled garden, kitchen garden, an area at the front, and a rose garden. There was also a crinkle-crankle wall.
"Everything was dug by hand and weeded by hand; hedges were clipped by hand," says Simon. "The only power tool he used was a really old lawnmower, which probably dated from about 1936."
Apart from some help one day a week, it was all down to Peter.
"Each day, around half-past nine, quarter to 10, he would go to the back door, see the cook or the headmaster's wife, and find out what vegetables they wanted for the day.
"He would then go and get them. He grew the lot: cabbage, cauliflower, broad beans, runner beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber…
"For one headmaster he even used to grow tobacco and dry it, and the headmaster sent it away to be turned into stuff for his pipe.
"There was a fruit cage with raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants. He grew strawberries. Everything was done properly. He'd get manure delivered. He created his own compost. And provided cut flowers for the chapel at the Royal Hospital School.
"One headmaster's wife wanted to grow grapes, and so he learned and perfected that skill. He always said that while he was the headmaster's gardener, his boss was really the headmaster's wife! He had good relationships with the wives."
Peter's daughter Hazel says: "His gardens were immaculate. Even the vegetable gardens. There was not a weed in sight. Straight rows."
No electricity supply
"He was one of the last of a generation," reckons Simon.
It's not so long ago, really, but sounds a world away - particularly when you hear that Peter's shed didn't have an electricity supply.
It was offered, but he was happy with his bench against the one window. When it got too dark on winter afternoons… well, it was time to call a halt.
"At the end of the day he always took his tools back to the standpipe, washed them clean and dried them - and each had its own place in the shed."
Had Peter always dreamed of being a professional gardener? Well, Simon has an inkling his dad had wanted to be a shipwright. Peter had grown up on the river and by the age of 14 was mending his own craft.
It seems he was set to be apprenticed to a boatbuilder at Pin Mill, but for some reason it didn't happen. When the vacancy arose at the Royal Hospital School, he went there. It was a major local employer and his father was the gamekeeper.
Hitler's plan for the school
At 18, Peter was called up for national service, which he did from 1948 to 1950. He was a driver in the Royal Corps of Signals. He impressed during training - so much so that the Army wanted him to stay and learn to be an instructor; but the teenager wanted to widen his horizons. He was posted to Germany and was based near Dusseldorf for 15 or 16 months.
Hazel remembers her father talking about that time; about how it was so soon after the war.
"They would meet and socialise with German people. He said it was a good thing; but all those deaths, and all that fighting… and then, just a couple of years later, people of his age - British and German - were just trying to get along and get on with their lives."
Simon says his dad told a story about one of his mates marrying a local girl in Germany. At the reception, he sat next to someone from the German air force and they chatted about where Peter lived.
"Ah, the Royal Hospital School. We were told not to bomb that," said the air force man. The reasons? First, it had been a striking visual landmark for Nazi bombers heading for London. Second, Hitler had earmarked the capacious school as accommodation for troops after a successful invasion of England…
"Somewhere, Dad had an aerial photograph of the school, provided by this German fellow. How true that is, we don't know. But he dined out on that story!"
It wasn't just peas and pansies that caught Peter's eye at the Royal Hospital School. The infirmary was next to the headmaster's garden and working there was a nurse. Their paths crossed.
Doris, who had trained in Colchester, hailed from Ipswich and was the daughter of a painter and decorator. She and Peter married in April, 1955, at All Saints Church in Chevallier Street, Ipswich.
There was some kerfuffle about Peter's suit. He'd ordered one from John Collier, but it didn't arrive very quickly and Simon thinks the groom had to go down on the morning of the wedding to pick it up.
Happily, everything went off all right. The couple made their home at Fir Tree Cottages, just outside the village, and then moved to The Lodge at the school once Peter became the main man tending the headmaster's garden.
For Simon and Hazel it was idyllic. They essentially had the run of the grounds during the holidays and learned to swim in the school pool.
Peter tended not to allow horticulture to dominate his free time. "He used to get nagged about the garden at home!" laughs Simon. "He'd have paved it over if he could, but Mum wanted roses. He did nice hanging baskets and troughs and things."
Tended land, loved water
"Gardening was his job, and he was blinking good at it, but his first love was being out on the river and catching fish, and just being down the creek," says Simon of his father.
"Kingfisher" was the boat he had the longest. It was his pride and joy - forever known as "Dad's boat". It used to be a wooden lifeboat for a ship. In the early 1960s, Peter converted the hull, put a cabin on it and fitted it out.
He'd trawl for Dover sole and other flatfish. He'd longline-fish for skate and bass, and used nets to catch mullet. And then there were eels.
Peter adapted a traditional Dutch design and made probably 100 eel traps. He'd go off on Friday and Saturday nights and set those in the River Stour or Orwell - sometimes in the Deben and Walton Backwaters. The following day he'd be up at 4.30am or 5am to haul them in.
The catches were sent, alive, to London. Peter had purpose-made wooden eel trunks, with drainage holes and ice. His children helped with preparations.
A local chap would take the eels in his estate car or van to Ipswich railway station, where they'd be sent on to London's Billingsgate Market. A merchant would sell them, and Peter would get a cheque a few days later.
The eel incident
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When the children were young, the family didn't have a phone at home.
One evening, in the 1960s, a chap who ran a little village shop came down the road and said they needed to take another box to Ipswich station "because the box you had is split and all the eels are escaping".
So off they went, to find eels all over the platform. The children caught them and put them in a spare box - in time for the train to London.
"They were actually easier to catch, because the platform was dusty and the eels got drier and were less slippery," says Simon. "I must have been nine or 10 and you (Hazel) would have been five or six. Passengers on the platform watched this little girl running around, picking these eels up!"
Later, fish merchant Richard Haward, from West Mersea, would often take Peter's eels to Billingsgate. Eventually, Richard said the prices being fetched in London weren't now so good and that he could get better in Holland.
"By then Dad had got a car and we used to meet Richard Haward's lorry at Horsley Cross on the A120 and load the eels onto his truck, which would then go on the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and up to the Dutch market," recalls Simon.
"Talk about taking coals to Newcastle… The Dutch were the masters at catching eels. Fyke nets were designed by the Dutch, but Dad adapted his own design."
Peter made a tidy sum from his fishing, which supplemented his wages as a gardener. He was often too busy working to go on holiday, though there were some family holidays, including to Belgium. Not that the children felt short-changed, for they spent what we'd nowadays call "quality time" with their father.
"When dad was on the river, we were on the river," explains Hazel.
Peter sailed mainly on the Stour (known in the family as "our river"). The Orwell was "the other river". Sometimes he'd go round to the Walton Backwaters and, if he had a week off, he might fish in the Deben.
"On winter evenings, Mum would be there knitting and Dad would be either making a trawl net from scratch or repairing nets. All his nets were made by hand," says Simon.
The Queen Mother and the spuds
The Queen Mother opened Holbrook's fire station in 1967 and went on to open buildings at the Royal Hospital School.
The RHS hosted a big lunch, in a marquee on the lawn outside the headmaster's house. Caterers brought everything for the occasion, apart from potatoes, says Simon. "The potatoes to be served with the salad lunch were from the headmaster's garden. Dad's potatoes.
"The caterers insisted the potatoes be of a certain size, so he had to dig up twice as many as he needed to be sure of getting the number the head chef had specified.
"That morning he got up early, dug them up; fine. Dad always maintained that he was told afterwards, by the caterers, 'Potatoes were lovely, Peter. We put two on each plate and the Queen Mother said "These potatoes are lovely; are there any more?"'
"Dad dined out on that story as well!" says Hazel.
Sir Harry, and Captain Blood
Peter made wreaths in winter. He'd take donations for them and give the money to the Royal British Legion. He was a staunch supporter.
"I've got a feeling he ended up as president of the branch in Holbrook," says Simon. "He certainly tended the war memorial in Holbrook. I think he started doing that when he got married, and did it until he was 83 or 84. So you could probably say that for 50-odd years he looked after the war memorial."
Peter was shown doing so in 1988, on Sir Harry Secombe's Highway TV series.
It wasn't the only time he was captured on camera. The East Anglian Film Archive has a piece on Holbrook village, made in 1986. Peter is shown at the Royal Hospital School, pushing a wheelbarrow containing a huge pumpkin. He's also filmed fishing in Holbrook Creek.
His children say their dad didn't seek the limelight, but was always ready to share his historical knowledge of the area and stories of the river.
For instance: The Stour was for several years dredged for sand and gravel that was taken to Calais to build the Channel Tunnel. Simon remembers going with his dad on an exciting 24-hour round trip to France on a dredger when he was nine or 10.
"He would help out with the village hall. He had his own set of skittles, which would come out for occasions such as the village fete, where they'd be the centrepiece of the British Legion stand. He did that right up to his 80s." Then there was "maybe eight years on the parish council".
And Captain Blood. This is a Holbrook tradition, which sees families gathering on the shore one afternoon a year and waiting for pirate Captain Blood to arrive by boat. He then sets about finding his buried treasure. There are also dinghy races and lots of fun.
Peter helped organise the event, providing the vessel for Captain Blood and arranging for a flotilla of dinghies to be strung together and towed behind the pirate's boat.
Peter received the MBE in the 1995 New Year's honours list. It recognised his long service to horticulture and the village of Holbrook.
The letter about the accolade had come the previous November, and at Christmas Peter couldn't resist telling his family that "there might be an announcement", and swearing them to secrecy.
He later went to Buckingham Palace and was presented with the award by Prince Charles. "He was very proud," says Simon.
The following year, 1996, he retired from the garden. Peter had worked at the Royal Hospital School for 52 years and had served all the headmasters at Holbrook up until that date - six or seven of them.
It was, genuinely, the end of an era.
A callous act
Peter and Doris were able to stay on at The Lodge. They celebrated their golden wedding in 2005, but, sadly, Doris died the following January.
A few months later, Peter was the victim of some despicable behaviour when a burglar broke into his home one Sunday morning before Easter, while he was at the Methodist chapel.
The raider not only stole the MBE but Doris's engagement ring and a brooch presented to her for 35 years' service to the Poppy Appeal.
A sad and angry Peter said then: "If I was told someone was hard up and wanted a few pounds I would be the first one to give them some. These sorts of things are not valuable - they are only valuable to the person they belong to."
He added: "The medals can be replaced but my wife's jewellery cannot. She had all sorts in there, including a locket I gave her before we were married."
The haul included Peter's medal from the Royal Horticultural Society for 40 years' service and a First World War medal that belonged to his grandfather.
Although the original items have never been found, nor the culprit, there was something of a happy ending. Simon managed to get a replacement MBE medal. It was presented to his father at the Royal Hospital School speech day that summer - by vice-admiral Adrian Johns.
A delighted Peter said: "I knew it was going to be replaced but I didn't know when. When I lost the MBE, I had been saying to people that it wouldn't be the same one that Prince Charles pinned on me at Buckingham Palace. Now I've written to the headmaster, saying I shall appreciate this one equally as much because another senior naval officer presented it to me at the school I earned it at."
Peter lived at The Lodge until 2010. Being snowed in during a bad winter had made him think he ought to move into the heart of the village.
The family got him a bungalow behind The Compasses inn. Living in the same close was widow Hilda Cleeve. "They just clicked," says Simon, and became firm companions. "Both their fathers had been horsemen."
They enjoyed life, going on four or five Galloway Travel coach tours a year and relishing lunches and tea-and-chat gatherings across the Shotley peninsula.
Peter even joined the Mothers' Union. He used to take Hilda to meetings and wait in the car. That's daft, thought the group. Why don't you come and join us?
He also often ate at the high school, where older folk were regularly invited to have lunch with pupils. "The head said he loved Peter coming in. He entertained the children with stories about his life and Holbrook," says Simon.
A son of the Stour
We ought to finish with the river and the creek. As Simon says: "That was his 'home'. The garden was where he 'worked'."
There are some light-hearted stories, such as the time he helped train a group of women who wanted to become a rowing crew.
He'd been retired a fair old time, but helped their dream come true. The crew of the Gallister Maid (the name of the women's boat) went on to enjoy many great times on the water, including taking part four times in The Great River Race on the Thames, billed as "London's River Marathon".
There's a tale about a training row to Wrabness, with Peter coxing. It was such a hot day that the ladies decided spontaneously to have a cooling swim… in bras and knickers. Peter was said to have stayed resolutely at his post in the boat, in tweed jacket, and made no comment!
The water was a constant for Peter. He was reportedly harbourmaster at Holbrook Creek for 60-odd years, keeping a weather eye on the boats moored in the river and on the foreshore - maybe 40 at any one time.
He knew the creek, river and boat-owners - knew the Stour from boyhood. He'd post the tide-tables on the noticeboard and generally keep the operation shipshape, without making a song and dance. Peter even put out the withies/beacons to mark the channel along the river.
If it was windy, he'd bike down to check things were all right.
When he stopped being harbourmaster, he was given a key in perpetuity, so he could go down to the water's edge whenever he wanted. "He loved to look at the water and watch what was going on," says daughter-in-law Kate.
Hazel says: "It's amazing to look back on his life. But, also, as you say, much has changed in Dad's generation - from growing up in a house with no running water to FaceTiming his grandchildren. To be part of a village and community like Holbrook is real testament to what that life is like.
"Simon and I are just so grateful for being able to grow up here and be a part of a place like this."
Her brother adds: "Anybody who's had a boat in Holbrook Bay or Holbrook Creek over the last 50 years will know Peter Page. He was a man who helped people. He's been a key figure in Holbrook life."
This final comment from Simon perhaps sums up the deep impact of his father. "Even when I was the chairman of Holbrook Parish Council, I was still, to many people, 'Peter's boy'."
* Peter Page, who had developed Alzheimer's in his later years, died in Ipswich Hospital at the age of 89. He leaves Simon and Hazel; their spouses Kate and Greg; grandchildren Matthew, Emma and Steven; and companion Hilda.
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