On his ninetieth birthday in September 2019 I dedicated a tree to Bob Coles in the Woodland Trust’s Stoke Wood, the closest trust property to his home in Little Harrowden, Northamptonshire. My words for the certificate were To dear Bob, to celebrate your ninetieth birthday and a lifetime of campaigning for ramblers. With love from your admirer, Campaigner Kate. Bob’s son Mick had said he would like a tree because he loved woodlands.
I last saw Bob at the event organised by the Ramblers Northampton Group to dedicate a gate to former activist Maurice Tebbutt, a dear friend of Bob’s. We walked over the field and back together. I treasure that last memory of Bob—for he died suddenly the following week.
I have written about Bob a few times on this blog, most recently to celebrate his birthday. With his dogged defence of paths, access, trees and hedgerows in Northamptonshire he was a true stalwart who loved his countryside and knew so much about it. He was stubborn, indefatigable, tireless and determined but also the sweetest and most generous man with a delightful sense of humour. Nothing was too much trouble for him, whether it was banging in a waymark post (which earned him the sobriquet Posty Bob) or leading a protest walk. I recall interrupting his Sunday lunch to ask him immediately to check an access site for a journalist who was planning a story for the following day. Bob went at once and reported back.
It is planned to install a gate as a memorial to Bob on a footpath in Little Harrowden when I hope to say a few words in memory of Bob. Sadly, I could not be at his funeral at his beloved Little Harrowden church on 27 November. Mick has sent me his eulogy. I reproduce some of it here, as a beautiful tribute to a much-loved friend.
Some of Mick’s words
Dad was born in 1929 in Little Harrowden, the second child of Sidney and Gladys ‘Millie’ Coles. At the age of six and three quarters Dad joined the cub scouts, until he was allegedly thrown out. No reason was given but there is a good chance even then that it was for being unable to be quiet. He was also a keen ornithologist, and starting to learn his carpentry under the tutoring of his father who was also an extremely skilled craftsman. He was initially educated at the village school just behind this church where he met his lifelong friend, the recently-departed Harvey Buckby. Dad’s first job was as organ pumper in this church. He and his brother Geoff carved their initials into the back of the organ.
Growing up in the village was perfect for Dad. There were so few restrictions on children in those days and, along with his other friends, he enjoyed many adventures in the surrounding countryside. They knew every nook and cranny, where all the birds’ nests were and how to hide from farmers if necessary. The only rules were that he had always to be in sight of Orlingbury church tower and be back in time for tea. Dad loved football and was a very good goalkeeper playing for the village youth and adult sides as well as several Wellingborough teams and his station in the RAF.
His early teenage years coincided with the Second World War and the influx of evacuees from Walthamstow, which swelled the population of children in the village dramatically. Dad always recalled the fear in some of their faces when they first saw farm animals and realised this was where the food came from. What they lacked in countryside skills they evidently made up for in their ability to fight, as he found out on a few occasions.
He talked about the day a German plane was shot down between Finedon and Irthlingborough and he and his friends rushed to the crash site on their bikes to see what bounty they could get. He came home, to horrified looks from his parents, with a bandola of live ammunition slung over his shoulder. Grandad took this off him immediately, removed the detonation caps and gunpowder, and then allowed him to show it off around the village.
Dad ended up at the new technical college in Wellingborough where he continued his education while starting a carpentry apprenticeship with the builders, Browns of Wellingborough. His National Service was put off until he finished his City and Guilds in which he received high-level passes, after which he joined the RAF and was employed in the workshops and as goalkeeper for the station team. When he came to the end of his National Service he had been earmarked as having potential for officer training and was sent to see the station commander. He was not too keen on this course of action as he had other plans but he need not have worried because he was immediately discarded when he failed to identify the aircraft standing outside the main gate of the station.
He met his future wife Betty on 6 March 1946, in the annex of the ladies’ toilets at Wellingborough Technical College where they were both studying. (Mick spoke about Betty at her funeral in January 2019, about which I wrote here.) They were married in 1954 after Dad had qualified as a teacher.
Five years later they purchased the plot of land in Little Harrowden where they lived for the rest of their lives. Dad, with a little help from his father and friends, built his own house. Mum always reminded him, as we all did, that he had never finished it. It took him two years to build the house to a point where we could move in. He might have completed it quicker if he hadn’t spent many mornings delivering the papers for Nan and Grandad who owned the village shop. He also lost many Saturday afternoons being cajoled into playing football. Not only did he build the house but he also made most of the furniture and fittings.
Dad started his teaching career as a woodwork teacher at Stamford Road Boys’ School in Kettering before moving to the Westfield School in Wellingborough which then became Sir Christopher Hatton. He was a successful teacher and head of the craft department.
He retired at 55 and for him life was only just starting. He took up a role as tree warden on the parish council, was then encouraged to join full time and eventually followed in the footsteps of his mother and great uncle when he became chairman. He served the parish in many capacities for over 30 years. He was a governor of the school and a committee member for the village hall, and continued to be the go-to person for village history and facts up to the day he died.
However this was still not enough for Dad. After many years of walking all around Britain he became an active member of the Ramblers with which he held many roles including Northamptonshire Area publicity officer and latterly life president. He was always so proud of the Ramblers’ work and liked to think that he along with many friends helped to keep the footpath and bridleway network open. Some of the letters he wrote to the local press on countryside issues were legendary and he was always disgusted when they were edited. He was a popular, knowledgeable and kind leader of walks, always being generous with chocolate and other treats as the seasons dictated.
He was also a founding member of the Finedon Pocket Park which was the first to be opened in Northamptonshire. He spent many hours working with his fellow volunteers clearing walkways and building steps, stiles and bridges many of which are still going strong today.
Throughout his efforts Mum was always by his side and was overjoyed when as a reward for his unstinting dedication to the things he held dear he was made an MBE in 2007 for services to the community. This was undoubtedly Mum’s proudest day.
Mum and Dad were together for 73 years and married for 64. They lived in the village they loved, in their dream home for 56 years and shared so many good and bad times. Dad loved his life, and his greatest loves were Mum, his family and the village and he was a credit to them all.
Dad, we miss you more than words could express and decided to send your cap with you on the coffin in the hope that you won’t lose it this time. He was famous for leaving it in shops, pubs and anywhere else he went.
As Mum would say, be careful on those stairs, especially as they have added a few stiles especially for you.
A life very well lived. Bye bye Bobby.
Bob Coles, 19 September 1929 – 8 November 2019