The Bridge Interviews
There is allegedly a Yorkshire saying: “Never do owt for nowt, and if tha does, allus do it fer thissen”. Burford is fortunate to have at least one much-travelled Yorkshireman who does a great deal for nowt and has provided a lot for the community in the process.
Peter Martin was born in Doncaster in what he calls The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. His father was a police officer and he has one brother, a retired electrical engineer. He was educated at the excellent Doncaster Grammar School where he took a strong interest in forming clubs and societies and in acting. When looking for a career in 1960 he wanted something with security and long-term prospects. He decided on insurance and had interviews with the Royal and Eagle Star. The Royal offered him £260 per year and Eagle Star £245 but he opted for the latter as he liked the people there better. He describes this as “The best decision in my life” (sorry, Pauline) and he stayed with the company for 37 years. At that stage the height of his ambition was to climb the ladder to work in the great city of Sheffield.
In fact his first move was to Huddersfield and then to Leeds. For a time he lived in a rented cottage in Holmfirth “similar to Norah Batty’s in Last of the Summer Wine.” After years of studying to become a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute, he took a strong interest in politics, rising to become vice chairman of the Yorkshire Young Conservatives. He describes this as “95% social and 5% political” and it was where he first enjoyed and showed an early aptitude for organising events such as discos on the moors and a tented Soul City as Nostell Priory. Politically, he recalled once having a discussion with the then foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home, about British policy towards the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. This was eye-opening as it gave him insight into how an apparently straightforward political issue could have many complex strands. Other responsibilities included canvassing. “The ladies of the local Conservative Association used to keep the more upmarket areas for themselves while the male YCs were sent to the less promising parts of town. I remember, after knocking twice on one door, a women shouted through the letter box back to me, ‘Not tonight, dearie, we’re being watched’. There was no note on the electoral register that this house was a brothel. She had obviously taken me for a punter.”
He met Pauline, who also came from Doncaster, through the YCs and their first home was at Barwick in Elmet near Leeds. They then moved to Wakefield in 1971, his first job as branch manager, where their son, Alexander, was born. This was the start of a very peripatetic life which must have made them experts at packing and unpacking. They then went to Hertford where daughter Laura arrived and after that to Finchley, then Northampton where Peter became area manager. Alexander is an IT specialist who lives in Leiden in the Netherlands and is currently working on a project in Switzerland. He is 6ft 9in. tall, so he blends in well with Dutchmen who are the tallest in the world, and has a son, William, who at the age of 15 years is already taller than Peter. Laura and her husband live in Southgate, north London, with two children, Sam and Freya. Laura is head of strategic partnerships at the Science Museum in South Kensington.
Peter’s next move in 1983 was to Edinburgh where he became manager for Scotland, the first Englishman to hold that post. He says that “coming from Yorkshire, I didn’t have a southern accent which apparently at that time was a business ‘no no’ to succeed north of the border”. (We challenged this point but it seems that Peter’s Yorkshire accent unconsciously strengthens the further north he travels). He fondly remembered his “state visits” to various branches where he would find flowers on the counter and the best china dusted down for the occasion. In one remote and rarely visited office he found growbags where each staff member had their own tomato plant and even mats under desks for their dogs to lie on. He recalls always having to check whether the road gates were open after snow on the road to Elgin and Aberdeen and flying to Shetland where the airport terminal at that time was a bungalow with passengers waiting for their flights in the sitting room. He also witnessed Jim MacColl of the Beechgrove Garden television show demonstrating how to plant cabbages in Shetland (i.e. “tie them to individual stakes to stop them blowing away”).
Next on the road was London H.O. where Peter became agency manager, responsible for the company’s network of agents and the business development of the UK branch network. This required a “colossal amount of travelling” as he got to know all the branch managers and appointed new ones. At this stage the family were living in Sevenoaks at the time when the 1987 ‘non-hurricane’, for which Michael Fish is perpetually remembered, swept across the country. Sevenoaks lost six of its symbolic oak trees. “The remaining one was quickly renamed by the media King Oak.”
At this point Peter and Pauline’s story begins to wend its way towards the Cotswolds. Peter was invited to study marketing at Cranfield University and at about the same time Eagle Star decided to decentralise its operations to Cheltenham. (He denies any personal responsibility for the “obscene” Eagle Tower which is such a blot on the Georgian townscape). He was appointed as the company’s first marketing and sales manager. “After a lifetime in sales development, understanding the principles of marketing felt as if I had completed the circle and gave me the opportunity to reposition our image in the marketplace.” He was based not in the notorious tower but at a new administrative head office at Bishop’s Cleeve. “It was designed by people who built shopping malls and it looked like one with a wide central walkway but with rows of desks instead of shops behind the glass fronts.” He and Pauline moved to Broadway.
In 1997 Peter was offered (very) early retirement. He seized this. Although he had loved working for Eagle Star for so many years, this gave him the opportunity to set up his own management consultancy with a parallel sales and marketing arm. “I was able to introduce training that capitalised on my long-held belief that fun is a powerful motive which should not be relegated to something people seek after work.” He attracted a range of clients from national companies like Boots and Post Office Counters to regional organisations and people trying to build up new businesses. This continued until he discovered that he had prostate cancer. He opted for immediate surgery. “The news quickly put life into context. Consequently I decided to wind up my business.”
Happily the cancer was caught before it had spread and he made a full recovery. He then decided to occupy himself with what had previously been a very small part of his business. This was an outplacement service for senior executives who had been made redundant, helping them transition to new roles. The management of the companies who dismissed them often had enough of a guilty conscience to pay for this sort of advice. “This was a particularly rewarding experience working with those whose confidence had been shattered and helping them to not only rebuild their lives and careers (e.g. by marketing their skills) but also in many cases to also achieve better positions than they had lost.” He continued with this work on a part- time basis until last year when he decided to finally retire and spend more time travelling and taking part in the community.
The Martins swapped Broadway for Burford eight years ago and immediately threw themselves into local activities. He says he didn’t do the same in Broadway simply because he was too busy working. Broadway’s loss has been Burford’s gain. He seems almost to be fizzing with ideas and initiatives. He made a big contribution to the Burford Festival, joining the organising committee and being in charge of stewarding arrangements for the 2017 festival and then marketing manager for the one last year. His work for the latter included setting up a new website through which tickets could be sold online and harnessing the power of social media to publicise the event. Although he will not be on the committee for the 2021 festival, he is very much looking forward to supporting Bill Riseboro, the new chairman, for example by again managing the social media, the images and some of the other channels of communication.
He also is chairman of the Burford Oil Syndicate and a member of the Warwick Hall Management Committee. He was vice chairman of The Arts Society Cotswolds but stepped down from that this March. His biggest role at the moment is chairman of the Burford and District Society which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. He points out that the objectives for which the society was set up include to “support the historic character of the built environment through the planning system, to stimulate public interest in the local area and to promote its cultural and artistic life”. To further these aims they have recently published a full colour laminated leaflet of Burford walks which is selling well. Other innovations have included a new logo for the society, its first website (https:// www.burfordanddistrictsociety.co.uk), Facebook and other social media pages and illustrated emails that the members can click on for more information. Looking ahead, inspired by seeing how well the whole town comes together for the Festival, he and the Committee are working on an intitiative which if successful would help to promote the entirety of our many societies, activities, organisations and churches to those considering living in or having recently moved to Burford and District. All this while continuing to provide a programme of talks, outings and social events.
How do he and Pauline relax? He mentions three things. The first is Normandy where they have a house deep in the countryside in the south of the region. They like to go there as often as possible to garden, walk, immerse themselves in the French way of life and recharge their batteries. The second is travel. “For many years we have tried to get to places before they become popular destinations e.g. Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev in the late sixties when I recall wearing Carnaby Street flares when visiting the Kremlin, and visiting Beijing, long before their economic boom, when the streets were packed with bicycles and a car was a rarity.”
The third is the Arts. “It is wonderful to be so near to Stratford upon Avon and to be able to stay at our daughter’s in London to catch up on exhibitions, museums and concerts. We are equally lucky to have a base in the Netherlands with its amazingly effective and inexpensive public transport that can get us into the Hague, Rotterdam or Amsterdam in such a short time. Although in December we declined to see the ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition in Leiden, (his home town); why? Because its next stop was to open at the Ashmolean in Oxford due to run until 7 June but temporarily closed because of Covid 19.
At the time of our interview Peter was busy reorganising a trip to Venice which had to be postponed because of the virus outbreak but no doubt many more travels will soon be coming up as well as more ideas for the benefit of the community in Burford.
“…this house was a brothel. She had obviously taken me for a punter.”