Rae: the art of living and giving

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Rae Festing, British Empire Medal: youthful and inspirational

What perfect timing. The day I’d arranged to interview Rae Festing for my “Ryers Unwrapped” series was the very day that she received a letter from the Cabinet Office notifying her of the award of the British Empire Medal for her services to the community in Rye.

The BEM is awarded in recognition of dedication and hard work provided to the community. There can’t be many who have worked so tirelessly for the benefit of Rye – and she is still actively doing so, at the age of 84.

She will be invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party with others who have been honoured. Having attended a similar event, with a friend two years ago, she will be careful about her choice of footwear: “My dear, there are around 7,000 people and there aren’t 7,000 chairs. There’s a lot of standing around and high heels on grass don’t go – flat shoes are a must.”

There are few locals who haven’t been to one of Rae’s charity garden parties and been at the receiving end of her warmth and hospitality. Last year alone she had eight events in her garden, raising £6,000 for different charities. Unsuspecting visitors who have followed the signs down the passageway are amazed to find the lovely garden – an oasis just off the High Street.

Her positive attitude is refreshing: “I’ve had a wonderful life, trekked all over the world and had good health. I’m very privileged to have had this house and garden but I’m only a curator of them. The time will come for others to enjoy it.”

Rae’s parents moved to Rye in 1937. Her father ran a boat business – Sea Cruises – in Rock Channel, building lifeboats and motor torpedo boats. She went first to Rye Collegiate, a private school (now Rye Lodge), then, in 1943, Rye Grammar School. During World War II, she told me, many houses in Rye were taken over by Canadian troops; locals had to present visas to leave and return. The school was evacuated to Bedford and later returned to Rye College.

When her turn came to leave school, her careers adviser suggested not Oxford or Cambridge – the advice to her friends – but said: “You’ve got a brain Rae. Technical school will do you fine.” And it did. She embarked on a three-year course at what is now the Central School of Fashion in Barrett Street, London, living in different boarding houses and having a lot of fun. “I learnt design, fabrics, fitting. My dear, when you came out, you had done it all.” Rae is still an expert dressmaker and seamstress and only last month shortened the trousers of a neighbour in the High Street. An unusual community service but a valuable one.

With her brothers travelling around the world, Rae became restless and decided to go to Canada. She emigrated to Ottawa and worked her way up from dental receptionist to dental nurse and hygienist. It was there in 1959 that she met her future husband, Conrad, an English civil engineer. His expertise and desire to travel meant she saw different parts of the world. The exotic mix of furniture and artefacts in her home reflects their international travels.

A portrait by the artist Geoffery Bagley
A portrait by the artist Geoffery Bagley

The Festings eventually built a townhouse in Hampstead, on a plot of land Conrad had inherited from his family. They used to visit Rae’s mother in Rye each week and one day in 1984, after shopping for some bird seed, Rae came out of the pet shop and saw her husband waving a piece of paper, grinning at her from ear to ear. “This is going to be our new house,” he said and took her to see a seven-bedroom house with parts dating back to 1540 that had served as an Army HQ during the war.

They sold their house in Hampstead and moved to 11 High Street, which has remained Rae’s home ever since. The purchase price of £4,200 included what is now the HSBC bank, a coach house, a third of an acre garden, and a same size kitchen garden up to the wall abutting the car park opposite the police station.

In Rye, the Festings met Yorkshire-born artist Geoffrey Bagley, who had been hired as a graphic artist for the Wartime Information Board and National Film Board of Canada in Montreal. He, and his first wife, Mary, helped to start the Rye Museum and the Rye Society of Artists. Rae went on to model for him.

Rae’s community work has been extensive. In addition to the garden parties, she runs a lunch club for the over-65s at Rye’s Community Centre – just £4.50 for a two-course meal with drinks and frequently featuring Rae’s speciality, a fruit crumble. She buys all the food and prepares the meals with two helpers: “I stepped in 17 years ago to help and have been trying to offload it ever since.” If there are any willing helpers out there happy to cook lunch for about 23 people once a month, she would love to hear from you.

Every year in September, the Rye Arts Festival relies on her to provide B&B for some of the visiting performers. She relishes the mix of guests, who have ranged from Kanda Bongo Man – a group of African musicians with five different languages between them – and two Scottish musicians who serenaded her over breakfast! She has volunteered again this year to put up a group of performers. B&B is through word of mouth only, with regular visitors coming to play at the golf club.

Conrad was invited to join the Rye Conservation Society but he made only two meetings before he died, 17 years ago. Rae stepped in and took his place on the committee, where she still remains.

Asked about the changes she has seen in recent years, she replied: “Rye is a great place but so many houses are left empty by second home owners. Houses need love, heat and life. Also, people complain about lack of business but teashops shut at 5pm and it is impossible to get a taxi after that time. Rents on shops are also very high, which makes it difficult for businesses to survive.”

As the interview drew to a close, the telephone rang. It was a cold caller. I was then given a demonstration of Rae’s response: a loud whistle that she blows down the phone with great gusto. So if you value your hearing, be very careful when you phone her not to pause too long when she picks up the receiver!

It was a treat to talk to her. Her sense of humour, youthful outlook and enthusiasm for making the community a better place are inspirational.

Below: photos of Rae and husband Conrad and her garden

Photos: Dee Alsey

Image Credits: Rye News library .