UP CLOSE with Simon Pearce: Woolverstone parish chairman, teacher, author and friend of the village

  Posted: 16.09.21 at 08:04 by Amber Markwell

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Nub News’ Amber Markwell gets UP CLOSE with Simon Pearce on Woolverstone and how being a villager inspired him to write his novel.

Simon Pearce was drawn to the peninsula and to Mary Alice through sequential coincidences.

Originally from the West Country, he has not always been local to the peninsula. In fact, how he arrived in Woolverstone was by mere chance, thanks to the recommendation of someone he admired.

He said: “I have lived here since 1980 and it was a complete accident that I ended up here. I was doing my education certificate in Cambridge and Anthony Adams, who was the lead English educator, came to me on a November morning and he said, “there’s a job you’d be interested in.”

“I hadn’t even done my teaching practice at the time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a teacher. I respected him immensely and I came down here for an interview. Suddenly I had a job before I had even done the training which was a bit strange.”

“I arrived here and lived initially at the Hall. For ten years I worked there and was around the stairs and in the cellars and just fell in love with the place.”

Simon then went on to be an English teacher at Woolverstone Hall when it was a boys’ school until it’s closure.

Woolverstone parish chairman Simon Pearce representing the village at a planning hearing (Picture credit: Nub News)

Simon, who is also chair of the parish council, is a keen supporter of the Friends of Woolverstone group, that fund-raise through a range of actives, including vintage car shows and art exhibitions.

It may have been chance that he ended up in Woolverstone, but it was the beauty of the place that made him stay.

“From the first moment I saw the River Orwell and came up through the village, I just thought “what a wonderful place.”

“It’s a place that has a certain magnetism and I think if you talk to people across the peninsula, a lot of the people who’ve been here either generational, their families go back three or four generations, or they are people who’ve come here and probably won’t move. It is a delightful part of the country.

“The boys’ school closed in 1990 so I found work somewhere else but stayed living in Woolverstone. You build up a relationship with a village, you get to know people then you start reading and finding out about the past

Simon (in yellow tabard) helping at a Friends of Woolverstone vintage car event (Picture credit: Nub News)

It was in another matter of chance that Simon met a relative of the very woman who would inspire him to write her story.

“In 2015, I was working in the churchyard because it had got a bit overgrown. I happened to come across Mary Alice’s great-grandson, Anthony Spender, who had come to the churchyard to see the brasses on the wall inside the church of Hamilton Hugh, who was his great-uncle.

“He didn’t know that there was another memorial around the corner outside the church which was to the little infant Mary Constance who had died on the Red Sea. I was able to take him round and show him that and we started chatting.

“Then he started telling me about his great-grandma. I thought, “there is something to find out here.””

Simon believes that Mary Alice and the Berners family still has a strong connection to Woolverstone to this day, through direct and shared memories.

Simon Pearce loving life in Woolverstone with his dog (Picture credit: Simon Pearce)

He said: “There are people alive in Woolverstone today that were here when John Anstruther Berners, Mary Alice’s brother, was the squire. They knew he was a bit miserable and knew he drank a little bit.”

He believes that the unchanging nature of the village lends itself to the memory of Mary Alice and his descriptions of it, as if the village is suspended in time.

“I hope what the book’s done is give a little bit of context to our village. When you come through Woolverstone, you would come through which is essentially the same cottages that Mary Alice would have seen.

“You could turn into the gatehouse and go down the driveway that Mary Alice would’ve gone down. You could see the church in front of you, exactly as she would have seen it. So you can enter the village in her eyes and in her world which I think is extraordinary.

Simon’s future writing plans are firmly rooted in Woolverstone and with the memory of Mary Alice still in mind.

The Astonishing Story of Mary Alice Berners

“My next project is going to be about writing about the story of the gardener who was at Woolverstone Hall, William Messenger who was hired in 1895. In a sense, he was a contemporary of Mary Alice.

“He would’ve been running the gardens when she was there and we know she knew him because he appears in the tableau - his name is in the list of characters. He must have been quite close to the family too to be allowed to take part with family members in the tableau.

“He stayed with the hall until 1937 and his granddaughter is still alive and lives in Chelmondiston.

“So my next task is to start working with her and trying to put together a short life of William Messenger. I want to catch that while I can catch her memories as well.

“When Mary Berners, Mary Alice’s mother, died, William Messenger is part of the cortege that brought the coffin over the hall to the church onto the bier which is still there today.

“There are so many things that connect us still to those people.”

Simon is holding a talk about his book on Friday September 24 More details here...

Read part two of Amber's UP CLOSE with Simon Pearce tomorrow.

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