Casting light on two towns


The BBC lit up the sky above Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall, between the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, to celebrate VE (Victory in Europe) Day 70 years on. But Rye stayed in the dark. Winchelsea did celebrate however. And one of its veterans even managed to shake hands with Prince Charles after jumping out of his “pushchair”.

But, while Winchelsea’s beacon blazed away, it was all quiet on the eastern front in Rye without even a spark or a whiff of smoke in remembrance. Rye’s beacon, which has been used for special occasions before and can be found on top of the hill to the right, as the Udimore Road leaves town past Valley Park, had been judged not fit for purpose.

Indeed, there is some uncertainty about who actually owns it, or indeed whether it is within Rye’s boundaries, says Town Clerk Richard Farhall and it is now overgrown and not in the best of condition. So the Bonfire Society, which has used it to light celebratory flames in the past, warned against its use.

Also Colonel Anthony Kimber from the British Legion said there did not “seem to be much of an appetite” in Rye for a VE Day celebration, though Winchelsea’s residents munched their way through a street party – and did light their beacon. Winchelsea Mayor John Spencer (an honorary post as Winchelsea does not have an elected council like Rye) describes the ceremony below:

“To celebrate 70 years of peace in Europe a small group of residents decided to prepare our beacon for firing, which meant obtaining permission from those involved in farming in the area around the beacon, including the National Trust, and climbing into the beacon to place the wood and straw bale in the middle of the metal basket. Quite a tall order literally, when you consider the average age of our intrepid volunteers.

“At 9pm on the anniversary a procession of 50-60 adults and children formed up at the New Hall and were then led by a quality bagpiper across several fields to the beacon. Winchelsea’s Rector, myself and two immaculately turned out Sea Cadets followed, trying desperately to keep in step and at the beacon we were met by David Merrifield (Senior), a veteran of World War Two, and his son of the same name, to complete the advance party.

“We next saw David Merrifield Senior, 48 hours later on BBC1 in the March Past in London, where he got out of his wheelchair and shook Prince Charles’ hand, very unexpectedly.

[Editorial note : ‘Bob’ Merrifield (90), as he was known, was an engineer with 151 Squadron in the RAF, and is usually confined to what he refers to as his “pushchair”. He was being pushed past Prince Charles on Horse Guards Parade when he suddenly jumped up and out to greet the Prince].

“After the Rector, Canon Robin Whitehead, had read out the ‘Tribute’ at the beacon, the national anthem was sung. The Mayor then did as he had been told and gave the order ‘to fire the Beast’. (The Mayor still does not understand the significance of the wording of this command). At 9.32pm precisely the flames started in the Beacon and burnt beautifully for one hour as the amazing setting of the sun up the Brede valley gave way to night. A very successful, evocative way to remember VE Day, 70 years on.

“But there is now the tidying up to do and later on the repainting of the Beacon. I will not be there as I have not got the courage to watch any more work so high up on the ‘Beast’ but a huge thanks to the few courageous mountaineers and Mason Palmer, who set up this celebration for the community.”

Additional information from John Spencer, Mayor of Winchelsea Photo: Mr M de Smith

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