For the last fourteen years I have lived in Dubai, though Louise and I still have our main home in Bath where we were married. And yet, all these years later, Stoke Ferry is still an important part of my life. I spent my childhood and adolescence in the village and still regard Norfolk as home. While my parents were still alive I visited frequently. Doris, died in 1998 and George in 2002: they are buried in the Cemetery just inside the gate.
My father, George Coates, was born in the railway town of Crewe, the eldest of four sons. His father was a transport police officer, and as he gained promotion to Inspector, his family moved from Crewe to Stafford, Birmingham, Holyhead, Dublin and Leeds. George also started work on the railway, as a signalman. During WW2 this was considered a reserved occupation, as it was essential for the transportation of both goods and services personnel.
My mother, Doris, came from the village of Eyam in Derbyshire where her family had lived for many generations. Encouraged to further her education by her shoemaker father, she was the first non-grammar school pupil – and a girl at that – to be admitted to study at Goldsmith’s College in London, where she gained a First Class Teaching Certificate.
After the war, my father also took up teaching, which is how we moved to the School House in Stoke Ferry when he took up the post of Headmaster.
Born in Derby in 1945, the only child of George and Doris, I was seven years old when we moved here. My mother had been teaching infants, so from the age of three I was able to ‘sit in’ on her classes. I was the only child who could read and tell the time, which – I suppose – may have irritated my classmates.
After the family moved to Stoke Ferry, I joined Mr. Errington’s and then Mrs. Williamson’s junior classes in the village school. To avoid my dad and I being in the same class, even if on opposite sides of the desk, I was allowed to take the 11+ exams a year early and started Downham Grammar School as the youngest in the class. This usually provoked my competitive instincts to keep up with, or even outperform them. I played hockey for the school and was a member of the athletics team. And rather reluctantly played minor parts in school plays.
Being teachers, it is not surprising that my parents always gave the highest priority to education and encouraged me to consider all possibilities. A small setback was not obtaining a pass at Latin ‘O’ Level, which at that time was essential for doing a non-science course at almost all universities. I’d been disenchanted by our Latin teacher, whose use of the ruler had little to do with measuring. My dad – who knew no Latin – helped me to learn the set books by heart. I re-sat the exam and this time I passed.
So with decent ‘A’ Levels and after an extra term at school to prepare, I sat entrance exams for both Cambridge and Oxford. I was offered a place at Cambridge, but being offered a Minor Scholarship at Jesus College, Oxford, I chose the latter. Though less notable than my mother’s ‘journey’ to College in the 1920s, it was still a significant move from village school to Oxford.
I read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the degree course which has produced numerous politicians, including West Norfolk’s current MP. I enjoyed Oxford so much I didn’t want to leave, and stayed on happily for three more years to take a second degree. This involved research into Industrial Relations and was sponsored by British European Airways. It smoothed the transition from University to work, as well as igniting my love of travel.
But Oxford wasn’t all study! I was awarded a Blue in athletics for sprint events, competed for Oxford in the European Club Championships in Rome and for Oxford and Cambridge versus Harvard and Yale, in a televised event from White City. The Oxford sprint relay in which I ran second leg, set times in 1967 which have never been beaten by a British university or club team. Running on a cinder track, the best was the equivalent of 41.1 seconds for 4 x 100m (the women’s 4 x 100m in Rio in 2016 was won by the USA in 41.01 seconds, but we would have come second!)
Whilst at Oxford I was elected to leadership roles in OUAC (athletics) and the Broadcasting Society, and became a life member of the elite Vincent’s Club.
Since University, my career has focused on people management within organisations. I’ve worked for British Airways and for Hewlett Packard both in the UK and Northern Europe based in Amsterdam. I’ve worked in or owned a number of management consultancies in the UK and most recently in the Middle East during the past 14 years. In that time clients have included multinationals such as Audi, Porsche, Barclays and Mars, and national organisations including Qatar Foundation, Kuwait Petroleum, Dana Gas, Emirates Bank, ASDA, National Westminster Bank, and many others.
I met Louise when she applied for a graduate job in my department at Hewlett Packard in Bristol. We married several years later in the city of Bath where we still have our home. We have almost always worked together and for over ten years have run our own consulting company – Davos Consulting Group. Frequently asked how we manage to live, work and play together, the answer is that we fully understand each other’s work demands and know how to separate work from leisure. It works for us!
The experience of living abroad and travelling extensively produces many unusual, sometimes challenging or amusing experiences. I could (and maybe will, one day) write a book about living in the Middle East but as a flavour our experience of three weddings will show just how different things can be.
For the first, I was invited to an Emirati ‘man’s wedding’ of the son of one of my main clients, in Sharjah. Over 500 men gathered in the ballroom of a hotel, ate camel and rice – delicious, by the way – drank soft drinks, and listened to speeches (in Arabic, of course). It was all over in a couple of hours and I never met the bride (who wasn’t even in the country at that time).
The second was in Egypt, where we were both invited to the wedding (reception) of the son of a work associate. It was, apparently, a ‘small wedding’ with only about 2,000 guests. We turned up at the appointed hour of 9.00 pm, to find the groom’s mother still in her jeans helping with flower arrangements. She kindly explained that 9.00 pm actually meant that we should come back at about 11.00 pm (which we duly did, and even then we were amongst the first to arrive). Then, at about midnight, the bride and groom entered together, heralded by bagpipes and preceded by belly dancers. Over the next several hours successively more accomplished and famous belly dancers came with their own bands and performed, before moving on to their next gig. We toasted them with soft drinks, and waited patiently for food, which eventually was served at about 03.45 am. We failed to make it to the end!
The third was a Pakistani wedding in Dubai of a friend of ours from the theatre. This was a three-day event, a party hosted by the groom’s family, another hosted by the bride’s family and then a “relaxed” one. Two were held in elegant hotel ballrooms, the third outdoors on a balmy evening in December. We especially remember the be-jewelled bride being escorted to meet her groom under a colourful shade, held up by four similarly elaborately dressed friends, and the hours of “Bollywood” style dancing! The take-away gifts of brightly coloured glass bracelets were greatly admired by our friends back home.
Two of our three wonderful daughters, Anna and Vicki, have followed their grandparents into teaching careers, whilst Becky is a G.P. Anna especially has fond memories of Stoke Ferry from frequent visits to her grandparents. She has three lovely children, Joshua, Lucas and Faith.
Louise and I are currently moving back permanently from Dubai and ‘retiring’, a fluid term meaning that we will be doing less consulting work whilst still being involved in a wide range of activities.
My current important project is to republish my mother’s books, updating them with new information and images which were not available to her when she first wrote them 30-40 years ago. New versions of Tuppenny Rice and Treacle – Cottage Housekeeping 1900 – 1920 and Tunes on a Penny Whistle – a Derbyshire Childhood were published in book and e-form in January 2018.
Two more – Stoke Ferry – the Story of a Norfolk Village, and Breckland and Fens – Stories and Histories of Norfolk will be coming out soon.
Watch out for them!