John Reginald Holmes (1913-2010)
by Margaret Main
The first time I visited Reg in Ivy Cottage, I couldn't find the house! Once the car headlights were off, darkness, no lit windows. Had he died? Was I lost? No, Reg was saving electricity and listening to music in the light from the fire. It was a freezing night and he made me a hot toddy with honey and whiskey, very strong and wonderful.
What seems quite bizarre now is that at first, like most people, I saw him as a sweet little old man, an amiable elf, hospitable, naive and vulnerable, all alone in the forest. What a huge mistake that was! True, he was amiable and hospitable but not to everyone. As for vulnerable saws, axes the size of a child, shillelaghs, locks, bars, and a particularly cunning way of bolting the door from the outside, plus a firm belief in his own fighting ability, changed my view on that!
Secret places for keys and the grocery money except all his friends knew the places because he told them!
He loved to be visited so I'd ring him to tell him I was coming with his lunch to give him time to put his teeth in. Someone had given him a quilt (to add to the ancient blankets that looked suspiciously like YHA issue to me!). This quilt defeated him when it came to putting the cover on. When I arrived, he'd call from his bedroom window that I'd come just in time to help him put the cover on, cunningly having timed the procedure to coincide with me opening the gate! Looking back now I wonder if it was a clean cover or a dirty one that had got into a tangle in the night.
He did not believe in over-washing clothes, a fact that came to light when he was living at “Sunrise”. No amount of telling him he was paying to have his laundry done would persuade him. Clean clothes once a week was sufficient! But then Ivy Cottage had no washing machine and only a tiny hand basin in the kitchen.
He was fiercely independent I believe except that numerous people popped in to help him. Some would clean, some would feed, some took washing home, some chopped wood. He never asked me to feed him, but when I came with soup to heat up and brought my own pan (his were horrid!), he'd insist on checking the base to see if it were suitable for the Aga every damned time! Similarly he double checked that it was vegetarian every damned time!
Ah!, That Aga! He'd sit on top of it cross-legged like a Cornish pixie, gleefully recounting the latest successful outwitting of some unwary bureaucrat!
He loved to argue secure in the knowledge that he was right. He was anti-conventional medicine and boasted that he'd never had a headache in his life and he'd the blood pressure of a teenager. He used homeopathic medicines or vegetarian herbal remedies and gave fierce lectures on the side effects of conventional medicine, including in hospital when he informed the amused young doctor that “My body is a temple, pain is telling you something and, no, I am not having a pain killer!”
His tiny cottage seemed ordered and calm, clearly he was contented with his lot and this soothed me. His clothes all cast-offs except his ancient Harris tweed jacket were a haphazard assembly put on for warmth rather than beauty. He wore two pairs of socks (shades of the hiker) even in the terribly smart centrally heated “Sunrise of Mobberley”
Once when I visited him (after his appalling accident on his new scooter), he proudly showed me his dreadful bruising. I was horrified. “Why didn't the hospital keep you in?” I asked. “Because I told them I had someone to look after me at home!” he replied. ”But you don't! Why did you tell them that?” “I don't like sleeping with the windows shut!” He was 88.
I made his bed that day with him in it and retrieved a motley collection of socks and fruit! I also realised that the wall was damp and his bed was touching it though he never caught colds. “What about going to the loo? Isn't it difficult?” I said. “I use this bottle,” he replied. I paused and then stupidly said, “What do you do with it? You can't get downstairs easily.” “I throw it through the window,” he said, surprised I'd asked. I said, “Why don't you just pee through the window?” He was shocked. “There might be somebody coming to the door!”
In late summer, we'd pop potatoes in the Aga before going elderberry picking for my jam-making. We'd set off loaded with bags and two walking sticks, one to hook the branches down. He'd hide his key by the gate and we'd walk the route he regularly took alone when off to feed the swans. Sometimes he fell while hanging on to branches, rolled over and laughed while I panicked.
Everybody knew him and we'd often meet someone in a posh four-wheel drive. Always they'd stop to chat. He was totally at ease, a tough old cookie, at home in his beloved forest.
He was fiercely proud of his status as commoner with peat cutting rights and defended those rights, even when he'd left Ivy Cottage to live at “Sunrise”, insisting aggressively that he was to be collected early to attend a meeting with his MP, Mike Hall, when the Moss was threatened.
Though he never seemed lonely, as he aged, he began to use delaying tactics when I said I had to leave. He'd potter over to his shelves and select a special book and show me the articles about himself in his railway signalman days.
Just once, when he was over 90, I suggested that he wore an alarm button in case while alone he had an accident. He said he'd rather die. Foolishly I persisted, “But you could be lying in pain for days!” He drew his nose and chin together and said, “No!”
In the event, when he was 93, alone outside and chopping wood one bleak February day, he fell and broke his hip. He lay, he said, for half an hour before dragging himself painfully back into the house to dial 999.
I cherish one memory of him which illustrates perfectly how he lived. He had badly injured his arm and Jamie offered to take me over to Ivy Cottage. It was a hot sunny day and there was no reply to our knocking at the front door. Full of trepidation, we went round the back. There he was, clad in ancient shorts and sandals, seated on a wonky plastic chair in the raised area, difficult to climb to, behind the cottage. Folded beside his left arm was a decrepit mattress, now serving as an arm rest! He was basking in the sun. As I recall, it was his right arm he'd injured, but I've often wondered since how on earth he hauled the mattress up to his suntrap, using only one arm while simultaneously negotiating the bumpy twisting slope and, no, he had not put sunblock on!
He had been given some raw rhubarb which I tried to bake in the Aga with honey and brown sugar. After half an hour it still hadn't cooked so I retrieved it and stewed it in a pan on top of the stove. This all produced wicked taunting called from the garden about my inability to cook, though he was drinking tea I'd made (Lapsang souchong with honey and milk!) with Jamie outside. Women were for kitchens, quilt covers and general nurturing of Reg! Men were for the deeper things!
The fall which broke his hip took him away forever from Ivy Cottage. It nearly broke his heart too. Just before his release from a gruelling 5 weeks in hospital, he was assessed as being unfit to live alone at Ivy Cottage. A group of us took him to Frodsham to look at the home there because it was the best place in reach of his friends. We wheeled him into the gardens and he wept. Luz, his Irish friend, leaned over and said, “What is it, love? What don't you like about the place?” and all he said was, “It's not the place. It's the situation.”
Poor old love. The independent rascal was now just one more dependent old man except that he did manage to create a little havoc more than once in the elegant surroundings of the retirement homes. Just one example of his ability to cause havoc is the “quilt in the rockery” episode.
One day I had a phone call from Terry. “Don't panic. Reg has had a fall but he's ok.”
“In the rockery (at Sunrise).”
“What the hell was he doing in the rockery?”
“Retrieving his quilt!”
“I am going to lie down in a darkened room!”
Terry laughed and put the phone down. The next Monday over lunch at our house, I said to Reg, “How did your quilt get into the rockery?”
“I pushed it through the window (first floor).”
“I wanted to sunbathe.”
“Why didn't you ask someone to take it for you?”
“I didn't want to bother them. They're very busy.”
Bearing in mind he was walking with two sticks, “How did you plan to get it back upstairs to your room?”
“Oh, someone would have carried it. They're very helpful.”
We resumed our lunch in thoughtful silence.
Last Sunday, sadly clearing up in Ivy Cottage, Jamie unjammed a fireside cupboard door. There within were half a dozen brown paper bags, each containing a brick-sized lump of coal about the size to fit in a bicycle basket if one happened to cycle to work on the railways where steam trains passed whose drivers were given cups of tea by the signalman! That coal had been there for over 40 years!
That find had us all chuckling, and for a moment, Reg was there with us in the cottage in the forest.
He left a note in his will asking that his ashes be scattered half way up a beloved Welsh mountain. The Manchester rambler lives on!
These words by Jamie Anderson:
Reg was born on November 30th 1913. He believes that he was born out of wedlock in the house of a warder of Knutsford Jail. John Reginald Holmes is not his birth name. He was adopted by a dentist named Holmes who was a quaker, a pacifist and a vegetarian. When he left school at 14, Reg was apprenticed to a dental mechanic, but aged 15 he went on a holiday to Wales where he formed what would become a lifelong affection for the Welsh people, their culture and their mountains. He gave up being a dental mechanic and went to work on farms in Wales. He became immersed in Welsh culture, teaching himself Welsh and absorbing their music and song. He then travelled extensively in Ireland where he learned to speak Irish Gaelic. At this time he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and believed, in the words of one Irish rebel song, that small nations should be free. In 1934 he went for a walk through Europe and on his return was interviewed by British Intelligence. He informed them that the Nazis had hi-jacked all German folk music and that fascism was bloody dangerous. He suggested they take a good look at Spain.
He married Mabs and after war broke out, they set off to ride round Britain on a tandem. This seemed to him to be a reasonable way to deal with World War 2. He failed to answer his call-up papers and was called before a tribunal in Knutsford who told him that owing to circum-stances he was unaware of (and would remain so) he would not be suitable for service in any of Britain's military organisations. However, he spent an interesting war looking after German and Italian prisoners, and learning German and Italian as a by-product. He also collected their music and their songs.
In 1947 he went to live at Ivy Cottage in Flaxmere and this would be his home for the rest of his life. He was well known and respected in the district and earned his living as a signalman on the railway. Latterly one of his proud boasts was that he had collected his British Rail pen-sion for more years than he had worked for them!
He had a wide circle of friends: John Betjemen visited him in his signal box at Delamere; he carried on a correspondence with T E Lawrence (aircraftsman Shaw); and a friend he made in Germany in 1934 finished up working on the Manhattan Project in America.
He enjoyed hot tea, good Irish whiskey and conversation.
And I'll bloody miss him.
I first met Reg at the Appleton Thorn Folk Club some 25 or 30 years ago, a man with a long white beard who always wore wellies, which I eventually realised were part of his motor scooter gear. Later, I had a glimpse of his home when Northwich Folk Club members were invited to accompany him on a walk around the moss, and I first visited his cottage, crammed full of books and memories, with a peat fire burning in the grate, its dis-tinctive odour permeating the house. To gain entrance, you banged loudly on the door and waited while bolts were drawn and the blanket curtain was pulled back; the door then opened wide, and Reg would assure you of your welcome as you stepped past various instruments of warfare placed by the door in case of intruders. A variety of alcohols stood on a tray, awaiting visitors; Reg’s tea, made with water boiled on the Aga, was always topped up with a drop of something stronger. Reg enjoyed having people to the house to share an evening of music with him, and music stayed with him to the end; when his memory for everyday details began to fail, his store of tunes and songs withstood the storm and con-tinued to give him pleasure. Reg didn’t suffer fools gladly and loved to rise to the challenge of dealing with bureaucracy – his letters to the TV licence office being a fine example of this! A talented linguist, Reg cher-ished his memories of Germany, Italy, Ireland and Wales and maintained deep friendships with people of all ages and many nationalities. In recent years, his pleasures included sharing music, receiving letters and visits from friends and going on trips to Wales – until quite recently, he could give clear directions to out of the way places, albeit sometimes better suited to the bike rides of his younger days than to a car...
From Ailsa & John:
Time spent in Reg's company was always magical. It's impossible to sum up what Reg meant to us in a few words. He made us feel like we were part of his “family”. Reg was always interesting, had a wicked sense of humour and an eye for the ladies! We shared a love of a certain part of Wales, the culture and the music and have lovely memories of days spent there with him. It is hard to think of a world without Reg.
I have many great memories of sitting with Reg, listening to his stories, playing music together and getting to know the great character that he was. One thing that stands out in my mind was that he was a great re-specter of people's opinions and beliefs, even if he disagreed with them. We have enjoyed many long conversations about God, life, love and many more besides. I will miss him greatly.