Sidmouth says farewell to ‘larger than life’ Handel Bennett

PUBLISHED: 08:00 31 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:53 31 July 2020

Handel Bennett's funeral. Picture: Joan Bennett

Handel Bennett's funeral. Picture: Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett

Touching tributes have been paid to the well-known and much-loved Sidmouth man, the Reverend Handel Bennett, who has died at the age of 86.

Handel Bennett's funeral car, outside the Sid Vale Association headquarters. Picture: John WarrenHandel Bennett's funeral car, outside the Sid Vale Association headquarters. Picture: John Warren

He died at home on Friday, July 10, five days after his 62nd wedding anniversary.

The Reverend Handel Bennett was chairman and then president of the Sid Vale Association (SVA).

Members of the organisation have said he will be greatly missed, not only by the SVA but throughout the Sid Valley, as a significant and much-loved person in the area. Val Huntington, of SVA, said: “There have been many major contributors to the Sid Vale Association’s 175 year history, starting with John Carslake, at the founding of the then ‘Sidmouth Improvement Society’ in 1846, but it is a measure of Handel that we can mention him in the same breath as such characters for having had a transformative influence in the Sid Valley.

“It seems fitting that he became SVA chairman at the beginning of the new millennium, and he immediately showed great vision and drive, and almost limitless energy.

People came out to the street to pay tribute to Handel Bennett. Picture: Joan BennettPeople came out to the street to pay tribute to Handel Bennett. Picture: Joan Bennett

“He was proud of the achievements of the SVA and worked hard to ensure they would be maintained and developed.”

Val added that Handel was a man of vision, but he was also very hands-on and many will have fond memories of him, such as his leading the excursions for many years, always researching them thoroughly, providing an illuminating commentary during the coach drive and always arranging a cream tea.

Or, leading by example at the public demonstrations of concern about planned incursions into the green fields of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, when he himself would stand outside the council offices carrying a placard.

Val said: “It was during Handel’s time as chairman that Keith Owen came forward to transform the Association almost overnight with his £2.3million endowment, which forms the Keith Owen Fund, administered by the SVA.

Sidmouth residents pay tribute to Handel Bennett. Picture: Joan BennettSidmouth residents pay tribute to Handel Bennett. Picture: Joan Bennett

“The income from this fund has hugely benefited the life of so many in the Valley and Handel played a very important part in bringing that fund into being.

“Every grant made from the fund, whether to organisations benefiting young people, local sports, or whatever, recalls those days when Handel had long discussions with Keith to decide how the fund would operate in practice.

“He will certainly be missed, but his contribution will be an enduring one.”

Alan Darrant, the current President of the SVA, said: “I followed Handel as Chairman of the Sid Vale Association in 2011 when he stood down from the role and became President.

Handel Bennett. Ref shs 43 18TI 3684. Picture: Terry IfeHandel Bennett. Ref shs 43 18TI 3684. Picture: Terry Ife

“I would use the well-worn, ‘his was a hard act to follow’, but his was not an act, it was the real thing.

“He threw himself into the role with gusto so that it is hard to do full justice to him in few words.

“Perhaps something that sums him up well is one many people will remember him for: the ‘Valley of a Million Bulbs’.

“Handel had always remembered something Keith Owen had said to him, and one year decided that we should do something about it.

“He was the driving force behind the Keith Owen Fund, and behind the bulb initiative.

“We may not have planted one million – almost 700,000 - but by now they will have multiplied and there will be well over the seven figures.

“About £70,000 came from the fund to achieve the goal, about 10 pence for each daffodil, snowdrop, aconite, crocus and so on.

“However, I think the real value of the exercise was how it brought the whole community together: sports clubs, churches, youth organisations and many individuals became involved in digging and planting.

“Fortunately, it will continue to bring joy to many residents and visitors for years to come.

“There are many things I remember Handel for, and many, many people have reason to be grateful to him. My memories bring a smile to my face.”

Handel Bennett is also remembered fondly by Sidmouth Town Council.

Cllr Stuart Hughes said: “Handel was a one-off and nothing was too much trouble for him.

“He was one of the Sid Valley’s larger than life characters... he is going to be sadly missed, and my thoughts go out to his wife Joan and family.”

Council chairman Ian Barlow said the Revd Bennett had been ‘formidable’ in what he achieved, and was a ‘great asset’ to the town.

He said: “Certainly as a member of the community you couldn’t ask for better - someone who got involved and gave to the community, and we’ve all benefited from it and will continue to benefit from what he did for us.”

The Revd David Caporn, vicar of All Saints’ Church in Sidmouth and the St Mary and St Peter Church in Salcombe Regis, said: “I’d had the privilege of getting to know Handel and Joan over the last three years that I have been here.

“Handel was one of those larger than life characters, whose faith shone through all he said and did in the church and local community; indeed about 18 months ago he celebrated 60 years of ministry (no small feat) and at that time I commented that his was a ministry that had been characterised by grace, passion and an undimmed enthusiasm for the gospel.

“Over the years Handel and Joan have contributed hugely to the churches in the Sid Valley and Handel will be much missed.”

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