Feature: Why Handel finds Sidmouth a special place

Handel Bennett of the SVA in Sidmouth. Ref shs 8656-47-14TI Picture: Terry Ife

Handel Bennett of the SVA in Sidmouth. Ref shs 8656-47-14TI Picture: Terry Ife - Credit: Archant

What a pleasure to share with you my love for this wonderful town. The ‘Wow’ factor is made up of many parts. Others have already written with enthusiasm of its obvious delights. The wind and sunshine on the sea, the tidal beaches revealing, and concealing, shingle and sand. The coastal heights promising picturesque panoramas; and 60 miles of rural walks compacted into a valley only six miles long. Secluded by natural boundaries of green uplands and azure-blue sea, how did this ‘Shangri-La’ become the ‘Pearl of East Devon’?

Handel Bennett of the SVA in Sidmouth. Ref shs 8659-47-14TI Picture: Terry Ife

Handel Bennett of the SVA in Sidmouth. Ref shs 8659-47-14TI Picture: Terry Ife - Credit: Archant

My Sidmouth is a peaceful place, awaiting discovery by the worn and weary, after a lifetime of hard work. Sitting on the Esplanade, my wife Joan observed: “This is a place of the active elderly.” So we did what many have done before, we retired here, in 1999. The first voluntary organisation we both joined was the Sid Vale Association (SVA), of which we are still members. This was established in 1846, as the ‘Sidmouth Improvement Society’, because in-comers wanted to attract relatives to visit the new resort.

Much of the care lavished on the conservation of regency buildings, parks and gardens, and the protection for this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to prevent urban over-development, is due to the early efforts by the SVA. Its teams and committees continue today, securing and maintaining land for public benefit, reviewing planning applications, monitoring footpaths and the river, and gathering local history through the work of the museum, and its guided town walks and publications.

The late Keith Owen shared our love for Sidmouth so much he left both a bequest to the SVA to ensure their work continues, and a vision of a ‘Valley of a Million Bulbs’. Along with many local volunteers, I enjoyed planting bulbs for three years, and what a delight they are to our community in springtime!

My Sidmouth is a place visitors and residents come back to, year after year. When we arrived we learnt there were more than 300 clubs and associations actively sustaining minds and muscles. We were impressed by the welcome from busy church congregations. We revelled in the award-winning displays by the Sidmouth in Bloom team; and walking through local areas maintained by the National Trust or the Friends of the Byes, etc. Local youngsters join activities in scouting and the surf life-saving club, and in other youth groups. This speaks well of the resident community’s involvement.

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My Sidmouth hosts the folk festival, which attracts many thousands from across Britain, and from overseas. 2017 was its 63rd year. The festival also encourages the children of Sidmouth schools to learn the folk dances, songs, musical instruments, and craft making. In this way, folk music is kept alive, and ensures a great sense of joie de vivre in folk week.

I love strolling through ‘the sound of music in the air’ that I associate with the finest folk festival in England. Sidmouth is becoming a festival town as more festivals are arranged to celebrate literature, the Sea Fest, science and walking. The marvellous Sidmouth Regatta is another happy summertime feature; and we are blessed with a feast of musical and choral concerts performed in the parish church.

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My Sidmouth is a community always ready to look out for others. How ready we are to help one another, perhaps assisting someone who has had a ‘giddy spell’, by summoning medical aid. One day I accidentally dropped my diary in a busy street, and found it four hours later on the top of a nearby gatepost! Nobody knew it was mine, but it had safely stayed until I found it. That’s care and respect for individuals in the community.

My Sidmouth is a place of leisurely action. A special place – that makes love to us individually; and which people in turn, come to love. This speaks from the heart in this very special place. n

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