The Bridge Interviews
This month’s interviewee is a man who is right at the centre of Burford both in the sense that he has lived all his life in the same house in the High Street and in that he has a pivotal position in the town.
First, the house. In 2003 its history was investigated by the Victoria County History and by the wonders of dendrochronology it was found that the timbers were cut down in the spring of 1401 on a Tuesday.*
As at that time wood was used for building while still green, that dates the building to 14 years before Agincourt and the year after the death of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was originally one of the many inns of Burford, first known as the Novum Hospitium Angulare (the new pub on the corner) and then as The Crown, strategically located at the crossroads. It has a mention in the history books from when the Levellers were ambushed outside it by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1649.
In 1734 Nicholas Willett took a lease of the property to work as an apothecary, probably specialising in herbs with medical properties. It then became a pharmaceutical chemists and is now known as a pharmacy. It is reliably reported to be the oldest surviving pharmacy in England. There is one in Wales which is a little older.
The connection with the Reavley family begins with Cedric’s grandfather, Robert Reavley. He came from Jarrow and trained as a pharmaceutical chemist. He worked for a time for a soft drinks firm in India. On returning to England he settled in Burford in 1918, possibly because his wife Rachel had a brother in Cheltenham. At that time Jarrow was a prosperous place because of the thriving shipbuilding industry so it must have been a shock to arrive in Burford which was poor by comparison. (How things change). The house had one lavatory at the end of the garden and one tap located outside. That was a common arrangement at that time.
Robert had one son, Eric, who was educated at Burford Grammar School. Cedric’s mother, Sybil, came from Shipton-under-Wychwood. In the 1920s she was one of the first girls to attend the Grammar School, cycling six miles each way every day. On leaving school she decided to become a pharmacist and was apprenticed to Robert. As a result of working in the pharmacy she and Eric became fond of each other. In order to qualify she had to complete her studies at a college of pharmacy in London. Eric was concerned about her disappearing to the great city so he suggested that they should get married first. That was in 1935. After qualifying as a pharmacist Sybil returned to Burford and worked in the family business alongside Robert and Eric. Eric was unfit for military service for health reasons and was an air raid warden during the war, while Sybil was in the Red Cross.
Their older son, Nigel, was born in 1944 followed by twins, Cedric and Alison, in 1951. The twins were born at the old Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Like most families at that time they did not have a car so Sybil was driven there by Baden Vick, the owner of Vick’s Garage. Cedric remembers him as a big man in his special constable’s uniform directing the traffic on the bridge on bank holidays. Robert was a member of the parish council (as it then was) and for a time was its chairman. When telephones came to Burford there were originally four in Burford. The telephone exchange was placed in the pharmacy so their number was Burford 1. Later, as more houses were connected to the telephone and electricity networks, Robert was instrumental in insisting that the wires should go into the houses on the Hill at the back and should be buried. This vital decision ensured that the appearance of the Hill was preserved and was not swathed in cables. Robert was also on the council when the council houses were built in Frethern Close. He made sure that they had big enough gardens so that the occupants could be self-sufficient in vegetables. Robert died when Cedric was four. “I can just remember him” says Cedric.
Cedric and Alison went to Burford Primary School. Nigel had gone to a choir school at Southmoor near Abingdon and had thoroughly enjoyed it. Cedric was interested in music and was keen to develop this further so he followed Nigel to Southmoor and then to Bloxham School. There he learnt to play the organ and became interested in science. His parents suggested to him that, if he qualified as a pharmacist, he could in due course take over the business.
He spent the four years after leaving school studying for a degree at the London School of Pharmacy and doing the necessary year getting practical experience before becoming officially registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council. His father was not well by this stage so Cedric returned to Burford to help his mother both in the shop and in looking after his father who died in 1976. At the same time his sister obtained a job working in blood testing laboratory in Oxford but she was commuting between London and Oxford which she found very tiring. She therefore came back to Burford and also joined the team in the shop. Sadly she also had health problems and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1980 they arranged for an extension to be built at the rear of the house as the older part had many steps which were increasingly difficult for her to negotiate. The new part had fewer steps and was equipped with a lift. Alison died in 1991 aged just 40.
Cedric met Ruth through friends they had in common and through their shared interest in singing and other forms of music. They were married in 1991 and Lizzie was born in 1994 followed by David in 1995. Sybil lived long enough to attend her granddaughter’s baptism which was combined with a celebration of Sybil’s 80th birthday. She died a few weeks later. Lizzie is now a teacher at a school in Nottinghamshire. David has completed a music degree at Cambridge and is staying on there for a year’s internship at a church focussing on music.
The work of pharmacists has changed enormously in the course of Cedric’s career. “When I started much of the training was about how to mix ointments and creams. A lot of that went on here in the shop. We had to count out the number of capsules to go into a bottle and then hand write the label. Weights were in imperial measures with ounces and grains. Records were kept with carbon paper**. The first computers stored data on printed cards. Now tablets come in pre-packed boxes while computers are used to generate prescriptions and labels and keep records. Weights were changed to metric which was a shock for some people, similar to the change to decimal currency”.
Although most prescriptions are processed electronically, for some treatments Cedric still has to collect a hard copy from the surgery and this helps him to keep in touch with the staff there. He explains that GPs used to adopt a rather lordly manner with pharmacists but nowadays there is much more communication. “They consult me about types of drugs, sources and dosages”. Would he do the same job if he were starting again now? He hesitates. “It’s difficult to say. I’m glad my children are not going into it.” He is pleased to have worked in such a central role in the community he grew up in – virtually everyone in the town comes into contact with him at some stage. “Some of the people I have known all my life, and my parents knew their parents”. He doesn’t regret the changes that have taken place in the town during his lifetime. “There are vastly more visitors but they bring prosperity to the town and the High Street.” He wouldn’t welcome a bypass as he fears the town might go into a decline as has happened elsewhere.
Quite a few well-known people have been into the pharmacy over the years. Sybil told Cedric that the Mitford sisters used to ride to Burford and waited on horseback outside the pharmacy for someone to come out to serve them. Robert would do so but Sybil refused. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent once came in as more recently did an almost royal person, Mary Berry. Douglas Hurd was a regular and once bumped into the then US ambassador in the shop. Cedric makes a point of not obviously recognising celebrities as he reasons that they are here privately.
One of the many local people he recalls was Stuart Thomas who ran an electrical shop. “He would be called up by farmers to thaw out pipes carrying water to animals in their fields. He had a system for doing this by passing an electric current through the pipe to heat it. One very cold winter the oil in the pipe to the church waxed up and became blocked. Stuart ran electricity through it and it worked”. The health and safety lobby would doubtless have been unamused.
Music runs in both sides of the family. Sybil sang and played the piano, while Eric played the cello and was a founder member of both the Burford Orchestra and the Burford Singers. Ruth, Cedric and Lizzie have all sung with the Burford Singers.
The church is the other big part of Cedric’s life. He was baptised there and sang in the choir before and after university. He then agreed to become a temporary organist. “That lasted 20 years.” He was churchwarden when Richard Coombs was appointed vicar. “At the time the numbers of the congregation had dropped, the average age had increased and there was no Sunday School”. Several applicants on the short list seemed to be looking for an easy job before retirement but the selection panel felt a more radical approach was needed and they unanimously chose the 30-something new vicar. Later Richard suggested that Cedric could lead some of the services. Cedric felt the call to become more involved and Richard pointed out that, instead of becoming a lay reader, Cedric could undertake part-time training for ordination. This required attendance at courses at Oxford in the evenings and at weekends and writing essays in addition to running the pharmacy and being a father. “I discovered the benefits of early rising”. At the end of this he was ordained and became associate vicar.
A big change is coming soon as Cedric is in the process of selling the pharmacy to new owners who plan to take it over on 1 November. He doesn’t mind whether the name is changed or not. “People will still go on calling it Reavley’s for the next 50 years whatever happens.” He is not going to play any part in the business. He has no particular plans after that other than continuing his work for the church, and Ruth will continue with her job as clerk to the governors of Abingdon & Witney College.
Cedric thinks he is very lucky to have spent his life among the people and buildings of Burford. “However wonderful it is to go away, it is always a great joy to come home”. Prior to selling the pharmacy he has had work done to separate it from the house so that the shop will be a self-contained business. The man who has never moved house will go on living there.
*We made up the bit about Tuesday but the rest is true.
** For younger readers: a system of producing one or more copies of a document simultaneously when created with a typewriter or ballpoint pen. Paper coated with carbon was placed between sheets of ordinary paper. The expression “cc” on emails originated from carbon copies of letters.