Retiring president of Sid Vale Association recalls the ‘million pound’ phone call

PUBLISHED: 12:15 19 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:12 19 April 2018

The Keith Owen daffodil

The Keith Owen daffodil


It was a phone call you never forget. A man rang up Handel Bennett out of the blue and offered to donate ‘rather a lot’ to the Sid Vale Association.

Rev Handel Bennett, retiring president of Sid Vale AssociationRev Handel Bennett, retiring president of Sid Vale Association

That ‘rather a lot’ turned out to be £2.3 million and an investment fund that will be helping good causes in the Sidmouth area in perpetuity, as well as funding the now world famous idea to ‘plant a valley of a million bulbs’.

Handel, 84, this month steps down as President of the Association after seven years in the post. He remembers well going round to meet Keith Owen, a retired investment consultant, who was dying of cancer. At that time he said he wanted to leave a million pounds. It turned out to be more than twice as much.

“I gasped,” he said. “To use the vernacular I was ‘gob-smacked’. I said to him, I don’t know how we’re going to spend all that money. Wouldn’t you like to share it with other charities?”

But Keith Owen was adamant that the SVA were the best ones to be custodians of the fund. Now £150,000 a year is available to voluntary organisations in the Sid Valley.

Rev Handel Bennett, retiring president of Sid Vale AssociationRev Handel Bennett, retiring president of Sid Vale Association

Back then, in 2007, Handel was chairman and had written in the annual report that the SVA should become less reactive and more proactive. The report was open on the table at Mr Owen’s home. It must be one of the most influential chairman’s reports of all time.

“We are very fortunate in having a group of people wishing to volunteer their skills from all sorts of walks of life,” he said.

He is particularly proud of the way the Association has been able to buy land that can be saved for the enjoyment of the people who live in the town and visit it, including Peaselands Knapp, now a nature reserve.

Handel has been an ordained Anglican priest for 35 years and still takes services. He also used to work for a travel company. His wife Joan and he will be celebrating their Diamond wedding anniversary this July. The couple have three children and two grandchildren.

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