Kenneth Bird, a Rye volunteer


Many of you know Kenneth Bird, a modest man who, over the years has given so much of his time, energy and experience to making Rye a better place to live and work. He has set up or been involved in many different organisations and with his wife Margaret have both worn so many different hats, enough to make any respectable milliner jealous.

Kenneth explains his and Margaret’s journey into the life of the Rye community over the last 35 years:

“I first came to Rye aged 15 on my bicycle. It was literally a flying visit because we were on our way to Germany on a school trip, down the Rhine from Cologne and all the way to Munich, avoiding the autobahns.

“We had stopped briefly for refreshments on the Strand and I remember looking up Mermaid Street and being told it was the prettiest street in the world. It would be another 35 years until I saw it again.

“In 1987, Margaret, my wife, and I had just found our future home in Market Street, a house dating from the 15th century and one of the 10 oldest buildings in Rye. It was the evening after the big storm in October when trees were down and the electricity cables cut and the street lights were out all over town. The Mermaid Hotel had gas cooking, the only restaurant to be serving dinner, so we walked in the magical twilight past the church and down the cobbled street that I had once looked up all those years ago.

“Once again Rye had succeeded in exerting its drawing influence, its pull on the affections on those who had once known the town and moved away. Margaret had spent three happy years at Rye Grammar School in the 1950s, so it was a sort of homecoming for her. I instantly fell in love with the street and roofscapes of this hilltop town.

“But before we moved in, we had a house to sell in rural Essex, a six bedroomed farmhouse with a smallholding of five acres, four being ancient meadow land plus one acre of garden, where we planted fruit trees and grew our own vegetables. For years we had a registered herd of one Jersey house cow, later crossed with an Aberdeen Angus (courtesy of the bull in the bowler hat), to provide us a pail of milk twice a day in season. Each morning I milked her by hand before changing to go to the office and then in the evening, when it was children’s story time in our Essex barn.

“Later, we kept sheep, led by Mrs Jacob our favourite unpredictable character, tossing her horned head. Our children went to the local comprehensive school and Margaret learnt the arts of pottery and silver-smithing in addition to the weaving of our own grown wool. I had weekday employment as company secretary and legal adviser to a plc chemical company, for over nearly 30 years.

“It was a lot to leave behind, but it was past time too. Our backs were suffering from tending the sheep, the garden with its 100 yard thorn hedge that needed trimming, and having to replace the tiles that flew off the barn roof with every gale. The children had flown the nest and we would only rattle around in a place that had grown too large for us.

“We arrived in Rye gradually, while the house was being made ready. I still had my job in Harlow and at the London office, so for the first few years I was week-ending only in Rye. But that was enough to cast around for a retirement occupation that would more than keep me busy. I was rapidly inducted into the Rye Conservation Society, eventually serving as executive secretary for 10 years, whilst Margaret became curator of Rye Museum and then of the Shipwreck Heritage Museum at Rock-a-Nore in Hastings.

“Fully retired at 60, my volunteering life really took off, and our dining room became the hub for new projects and activities. There at that table was formed the Rye Film Club, the Marsh Link Action Group, the Friends of Rye Library, the Rye Fund in 2008 and then in 2013, Rye News. I had imagined that putting willing people and ideas together, I could gently leave it to others to to get them going, but not a bit of it. Once involved, I served on all these different committees for a long time, enjoying, as they say, every other minute.

“After seven or eight years with the conservation society, I was appointed a trustee for the Sussex Heritage Trust, which covers the whole of Sussex. This was a fascinating experience with one of the highlights being the judging of the annual entries for the prestigious Sussex Heritage Awards. Another great opportunity was leading the conservation project at the ruined St Helen’s Church, Ore in Hastings. We submitted and won a £500,000 bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“We formed working groups of architects, archaeologists (professional and amateur), environmental advisers from Natural England. We enlisted the nearby Friary Gardeners and reached out to local schools and residents. The project was successfully completed and the site handed over to Hastings Borough Council under a previously negotiated agreement.

“Working on Rye News was a very different and rewarding challenge. Following the launch in the Milligan theatre at Rye College, a wonderful group of people came together to produce our online community newspaper. It always amazes me how much expertise exists in Rye in almost any field you can think of; journalism was no exception and we got off to a flying start, fuelled by the enthusiasm of volunteers. Managing a voluntary organisation is like running any other business but without the discipline imposed by the pay packet. You can keep the ship on course and plan future exciting developments, but members of the team come and go. Suddenly someone resigns or threatens to, generally for good personal reasons but sometimes as a result of a ‘hissy fit’ that seems to erupt out of the blue. I have enjoyed this real life challenge of holding the team together, We have had some fun, which is why we do it…

Margaret and Kenneth Bird

“How else do I spend my time? I am fortunate to have a wonderful long-suffering companion in Margaret. Together we have enjoyed the open air, walking on the beach with our border collie or through the many woodland areas around Rye. For many years we served as occasional volunteers at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Our love of nature was nourished by joining the Iden Natural History Society and the Friends of Great Dixter. We enjoy supporting many environmental and educational charities and set an annual budget for our philanthropy efforts.

“We do not own a television, so reading and listening to classical music occupies much of our leisure time. We have been keen participants at the Peasmarsh Chamber Music Festival ever since its inauguration 25 years ago, and the Rye festival provides further feasts. Then there is always our tiny town garden that needs constant attention and TLC, much more Margaret’s province then mine. I am the big-footed ‘wheel-barrow wallah’, readier to answer the call for help, than to discern what needs to be done. I really prefer trees to flowers!

“Like many long-married couples, we are contented communing in silence, exchanging thoughts and ideas as they occur. The space that silence provides is a source of great nourishment and insight as my membership of the Quaker Society of Friends has proven. I have long had an interest in the history of ideas in moulding previous civilisations and right up to the present day. One of the courses run by the WEA was given over to philosophy. When our lecturer retired to the West Country, a group of us decided to continue as a DIY group, known as The Biscuit Club for some strange reason. The group is still going strong more that 10 years later.

“Yet another outlet for thought and meditation is provided by the Reflective Group. Five or six of us meet monthly to reflect on topics that one or other of us may bring to put before the meeting; not exciting perhaps, but well, reflective.

“No longer able to roam the countryside, I spend quite a few hours sitting at the computer. Keeping the little grey cells active, I play computer chess once per week as well as having a live competitor on another evening, when the honours are fairly evenly matched.

“This account of the last 30 or so years that we have been living in Rye would not be complete without acknowledging the important treasure we enjoy in our family.
Our three children are all rounded individuals in their own right and happily married.
We feel ourselves blessed and fortunate indeed. The issues of growing old and bearing with the pains that age inflicts are ameliorated if not avoided by knowing that we have a loving family to give us their support.

“Rye has given us a homecoming, what more could you ask?”

Image Credits: Col Everett .

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  1. I fell in love with Rye many years ago through reading E.F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia and becoming a member ofthe E. F. Benson Society. I have visited this enchanting town several times, although the journey from Lancashire has become increasinlgly difficult. Your story fascinated me. I had been a member of Eccles The Society of Friends while living in Manchester but sadly the nearest meeting is too far to attend regularly now that I live in Blackpool to be near my only daughter.
    I now attend our wonderful Anglo Catholic church just round the corner from my seaside flat.
    Than you for your dedication to Rye and a trip down memory lane


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