Robert Paul Wood
13th October 1953 – 31st December 2013
A tribute given at Robert’s funeral service held at Elstow Abbey on 22 January 2014, by Stephen Stanford.
One evening I was driving home with Robert’s Mum, Sylvia, and the Rev Stephen Smith after we had been making some initial arrangements for today. During our conversation Sylvia was contemplating how she would ever manage without Robert, and she commented how supportive and helpful Robert always was - always there when needed – and that as well as a son, he was her “best friend”. We thought how wonderful and how profound this was, because Robert was always there when needed, and he was indeed the best friend that any of us could have wished to have. And I think that is why most of us have come here today – to give thanks for his friendship and his life that, in various positive and memorable ways, has touched us all.
Robert (otherwise affectionately known as Bob or, in his younger days, Woody) was quiet and introverted, and his presence was seldom apparent, but not so the unfailing loyalty and support; to his family, to his friends, and to his work colleagues. And if for no other reason than this, his untimely passing will undoubtedly be a great sadness to all of us, and his physical presence amongst us will indeed be very sorely missed. A few days later I was shown a message from Philip Simpkins, Chief Executive of the Bedford Borough Council, where Robert worked in the library service. It was addressed to the staff there and read, “Colleagues have referred to Bob as ‘a very quiet and private person who was always there when you needed him, and unfailingly calm, friendly and helpful. What is clear is he will be greatly missed”
How familiar, and how wonderfully accurately that portrays him. Whether at work, at home, or in his social life, Robert was consistently the same; quiet, unassuming, often in the background; never saying much, but always there, steady as a rock - the calm in any storm.
Robert was born on Oct 13 1953 in Bedford to May and Cyril Wood. He had two older brothers, Chris and Richard (who sadly predeceased him in 2000). Sadly Robert’s mother passed away when he was just four years old, but Cyril met and married Sylvia, and so Robert was not only blessed with a new Mum, but also a sister Helen, and brother Philip. The family was completed when sister Coralie arrived, and they all enjoyed a happy and industrious childhood at 2 Moor Lane, which I recall was always a hive of fun and activity, much of that precipitated and encouraged by Sylvia. Whether it was newspaper rounds, distributing leaflets, making Christmas crackers, or preparing for the annual family camping holidays, there was always something going on.
I perhaps shouldn’t elaborate further on the Halloween party at Moor Lane when Robert and I, dressed as Arabs with blackened faces, were chased up the road by a barking dog, or the occasion that Sylvia, disguised as a gypsy, told our fortunes in a dark broom cupboard at Pearcey Road primary school, but I expect from this you will have a general impression!
I first met Robert in this Abbey, just a couple of feet from where I am standing, in the choir stalls behind me. We both sang in the choir under the indomitable choirmaster, Mr Taylor (otherwise known to us as Toots), when the Reverend Peter Hartley, was vicar here. The Elstow choir was a somewhat riotous organisation - a kind of substitute youth club for boys from the village (no girls in those days). In such company, Robert’s quiet and unassuming nature proved to be something of an asset, enabling him to fully participate in the action without drawing much attention or suspicion, and in the most part he managed to keep a clean sheet, avoiding the fines that were dished out to most of us for misdemeanours ranging from devouring fruit from the harvest festival display, to exploding fireworks in the ruins behind the church. It didn’t go unnoticed on me that this was a rather desirable attribute, and Robert and I soon became good friends (or perhaps I should say, partners in crime!). You will still find Robert’s name, along with my own, inscribed for posterity in the lead flashing on the tower roof!
Other memorable exploits of that period include the Easter Youth Pilgrimages to St Albans, where on several occasions the two of us set off after the Easter evensong and walked through the night, arriving in time to snatch a few hours sleep in the Abbey porch before the Wimpy bar opened and the Elstow coach party arrived! Robert always undertook such feats with ease, perhaps an early indication of his marathon running potential.
In those days, the fee for ringing the bells at weddings was ten shillings compared to that for singing in the choir which was only one and sixpence, and so, along with his elder brother Richard and a number of the other choristers, Robert, soon found his way into the bell tower, where he was taught to ring by late Bob Huckle and Martyn Marriott. It was not too long before I joined him in the tower, and then also the 15th Beds Scout Group; and so was cemented a lifelong and much valued friendship of approaching 50 years.
Robert must have been about ten or eleven at the time; three years older than I. We had attended the same primary school at Pearcey Road, from where Robert passed his eleven plus (one of the few in his year to do so) gaining a place at Pilgrim Grammar School, and to where I later followed him, (so too his sister Helen). We rode there on our bikes, three miles across Cardington Meadows and along Newnham and Polhill Avenues in all weathers. By this time Robert was passionate about bells and ringing and this was often our main topic of conversation along the way. We cycled to bell ringing practices most nights of the week, rushing home in the evenings to get homework done so that we could do so.
Saturday afternoons, especially in the summer, were often spent singing in the choir and ringing for weddings here – there were several most Saturdays, sometimes as many as four, this being financially quite lucrative. Afterwards Robert and I would often go over to the phone box that stood across the road by the bridge, to phone various ringers who might be persuaded to take us to any ringing meetings that were taking place in the area. Other times we made our way to Bedford and took a bus to whatever village the ringing was at, usually without much idea about the return bus times or how we would get home. We assumed that one of the adult ringers would bring us back, and mostly they did. So it was that by our mid teens, Robert and I had rung at most of the Bedfordshire churches with bells – about 80 in all. We also rang further afield, joining the various coach outings organised by local towers – the Kempston, Bromham, Goldington and Maulden outings were all favourites, so too the half term tower grabs organised by Malcolm and Shelagh Melville and Alan Collins.
By this time Robert was showing signs of being a very capable ringer, and largely as a result of this, we managed to negotiate our way into the band at St Paul’s Bedford. In those days St Paul’s was the Mecca of ringing in Bedfordshire and the surrounding area, with arguably some of the best Sunday service ringing in the country. It was not a place where many dared to cross the threshold – and certainly not the place where a couple of inexperienced young lads from a six bell tower down the road should show up uninvited on a Sunday morning!
Keith Fleming, one of the former Bedford ringers, in his tribute to Robert recalled a conversation that I had long since forgotten; He said “I remember overhearing a three way conversation between Woody, yourself and Stephen Ivin when you two were sounding out Steve as to the possibility of your joining the Bedford band back in the late 60s/early 70's. Typically Steve insisted that your first priority was to Sunday service ringing at Elstow and not to abandon the band there, just to get better ringing opportunities elsewhere!”
It occurs to me that Steve probably did not know Robert very well at this stage, because Robert’s sense of loyalty was such that it would never have occurred to him to abandon the ringing here. And indeed, he did not For five or six years, until I went away to college and Robert enthusiasm switched from ringing to running (more of which later), we cycled into Bedford on a Sunday morning and then dashed back to ring here, thus maintaining our loyalty to both places, and of course getting more ringing.
Robert’s ringing achievements of this period, between 1968 when he rang his first peal here at Elstow, and 1978 when he gave up ringing, are impressive by any standard, especially for someone of his age. His peals include many of London Major (including eight peals in a week in Leicestershire), London Royal (two versions), and Bristol Royal; all methods that at that time were considered to be complex, and they were not frequently rung to peals. He was also a member of the youngest band to have rung a full peal for the Bedfordshire Association, here at Elstow in October 1973.
Personally, I regard Robert as one of the best ringers (arguably the best ringer) to have originated from Bedfordshire in recent times. Not only was he very capable of learning and memorising the various complex patterns that ringers refer to as methods, and ringing them for long periods without error, he also possessed an excellent musical ear and sense of rhythm.
He had a rare ability to lift and improve an otherwise mediocre piece of ringing, and to bring others along with him. This he achieved, not in the more common and somewhat course manner of setting his own relentless rhythm and expecting others to go along with it, but more sensitively, with slight, almost unnoticeable, adjustments – a stretched backstroke hear, or a quick handstroke there, strategically placed to improve the overall effect and encourage others into the right place. Moreover he could do this from anywhere in the circle – he did not need to be ringing one of the heavier bells.
In this regard I have often considered how Robert’s approach in ringing was a reflection of his approach to life. He was not the strong forceful up front leader; rather the quiet unassuming contributor that instinctively knew what was needed, and could make the difference. And indeed he always did.
I and others will speak of Robert’s shy and retiring nature, so it may come as quite a surprise to some of you that for several years Robert enjoyed participating in Alan Bartram’s amateur dramatic group, mostly comprising members associated with this church (Elstow Sunday School Teachers and Friends), where he took his place in the chorus line in performances that ran for several nights, usually at the Addison Centre. Robert was also a promising pianist, giving occasional performances at school concerts and scout reviews.
I understand that in more recent times, he could also be quite a hit at family gatherings. On one occasion he appeared dressed as Henry the Eighth singing “Henry the Eighth I am I am”, and the rendition left on Helen’s karaoke machine was certainly not that of a novice to that particular form of entertainment.
On leaving Pilgrim Grammar School with a respectable collection of O levels, Robert joined the Great Ouse River Authority (based in Kimbolton Avenue) as a surveyor’s assistant, attending evening classes at what was then Mander College. He enjoyed the work much of which was outside, and I think he knew the location of every benchmark in the county from memory, but after 4 or 5 years Robert decided that this was not a job for life, and he moved to the Post Office and became a postman, eventually acquiring a HGV license and a driving job. His next and final move was in 1978 to what was then the Bedfordshire County Council library service, a position he retained in various guises until his untimely death. Jenny Poad, Head of Libraries has kindly sent me this wonderful tribute, and I can do no better than to read it to you as written. Jenny says,
“Bob worked for the Library Service since 1st May 1978. His first job was as the mobile library driver at Kempston, before he transferred to being our library delivery driver - a job which he has carried out superbly for many years.
Bob was a very familiar face to all the staff in the Library Service. Everyone was always really pleased to see him when he arrived with the deliveries and to collect whatever needed to be moved on. He provided the wheels that keep the service turning - without him, libraries wouldn't have got their new books, customer requests wouldn't be delivered to their local library, and many of the services library customers take for granted would have ground to a halt. He hardly ever missed a day or a delivery route. Come rain or shine he was always there when you needed him.
He was a lovely man - a very quiet and private person and unfailingly calm, friendly and helpful. He was kind and gentle and was never heard to complain about anything. "Going the extra mile" could have been a saying tailor-made for Bob; not only because of the thousands of miles he covered, but also because there appeared to be no limit to the lengths he would go to help. Whether it was moving chairs or tea urns between libraries for meetings, or carrying story book character costumes from library to library for children's events, he could always be relied on. He will be greatly missed”.
By about 1977, Robert’s interest in ringing had waned; the departure of several ringing friends from the area possibly being a contributory factor.
This was a time when he made several changes in his life; changing jobs to join the library service, acquiring his flat in Chaucer Road, and in the early 80s he joined the Bedford and County Athletic Club and took up running, becoming almost as dedicated to this as he had formally been to ringing. In addition to regular weekly running, Robert participated in a number of marathons and half marathons, both locally and further afield. These included the London Marathon which he ran a number of times, and marathons in the USA, France and Holland. He could run a marathon in a very creditable time of 3 hours or less – interestingly, about the same time as it takes to achieve a full peal of 5040 changes on a ring of bells!
Unfortunately I was unable to obtain a record or Robert’s running achievements, but he possessed a collection of 89 medals that he won for the marathons and half-marathons in which he participated, a tremendous achievement that was unknown to his family and friends until after his untimely death.
Richard Piron kindly sent me this tribute by Amanda Friman, a member of the Harriers, that I think characterises Robert perfectly
“Bob was part of a ten strong team of Bedford Harriers and Jog Swimmers that planned and completed a 270 mile run across Crete (west to east) over 11 days in 1990. Whilst we ran, ate and slept together (in the same room at least on several occasions) for two weeks, Bob was the quiet one. I remember him as a gentle and a very mild mannered man who never complained during what became a very tough challenge. On our first day we became lost on unmarked mountain trails and could have become seriously dehydrated. Not every village had a 'room' and one night we had to sleep inside and on the roof of a garage! Our legs and feet were seriously tired, insect bitten and blistered from running up steep mountains on uneven ground. Many of us were not always in the best of moods. However, Bob never moaned and was always a calming influence in times of tension. I hope this gives a flavour of the man. He was a lovely gentle human being”
Laurie Walshe also remembers Bob’s running days, with considerable affection.
“After joining Bedford & County Athletic Club in the early 1980s Bob became a founder member of Bedford Harriers in 1985. The club was formed in response to a growing interest in long distance road running stimulated by the London Marathon. The initial membership was a few dozen enthusiasts, but the club thrived over the years to become one of the largest athletic clubs in the region. Bob served on the club committee and was among an early group of enthusiasts who reportedly ran nine marathons in the course of a year; a very daunting achievement.
When not competing, he always assisted in the many activities associated with organising road races. Bob was rather shy and not inclined to boast about his achievements or put himself forward. Strenuous efforts were made by well-meaning match makers to set him up with one of the many nubile lady members; all to no avail. Bob continued to plough his own furrow in his own way.
I recall an occasion when I gave Bob a lift to a road race somewhere in Norfolk. It was a long and tortuous journey causing us to arrive rather late, leaving little time to warm up before the race. Bob made no comment at the time but when we got back into the car for the return journey he reached over to the back seat for my Road Atlas. This was his quiet way of informing me that there was a much shorter and quicker way of getting home. He was right!
A former member of the club spoke recently of Bob’s kindness on the only occasion she ran in a full marathon. Commemorative tee-shirts were awarded to the early finishers but she did not qualify. Realising how important the milestone of completing a marathon was to her, Bob immediately gave her his own tee-shirt. She still has that tee-shirt.” Robert’s running career came to an end in about 2007, when the medics advised that problems he experienced with his joints were aggravated by running.
And so it was that he made what for many of us was a very welcome return to ringing, rejoining the band at St Paul’s Bedford. Here, from a ringing perspective at least, he probably didn’t find too much of interest, and he later joined the band at All Saints Kempston, where for a short while he ably served as Ringing Master. After ringing at Kempston, and on route to visit Sylvia at Moor Lane, he also regularly supported the Sunday morning ringing here at Elstow, often completing the band of six and enabling us to ring something better and more interesting.
It is at such times and in such places he will be so sorely missed, the spare rope and just five bells ringing on the Sunday morning following his death being a poignant reminder of his untimely passing, and a cause for reflection. I am sure that Sylvia and the birds hovering round the bird table at Moor Lane will have missed him equally if not even more.
Robert served as Ringing Master of the Bedford District of the Bedfordshire Association and organised its annual striking competition on a number of occasions. Such positions of responsibility were not something that Robert particularly relished or found easy, he seldom if ever considered himself ahead of others, and would only take such roles in the knowledge that there was no one else willing or capable. In accepting, he was selflessly putting the needs and wishes of others before his own inhibitions. Notwithstanding this, he was invariably the best person for the job and always took the responsibility seriously and performed his duties admirably, as ever, making his contribution.
A tribute to a ringer, who spent so much of his time in the art, would not be complete without a few statistics, and I apologise to those of you who may not appreciate the technicalities. As I have previously suggested, a peal is the ringing equivalent of a marathon – the ringers must ring at least 5000 different mathematically arranged changes without repetition or error, and this typically takes around three hours without a break.
Robert rang a total of 225 peals, 165 of them for the Bedfordshire Association. He conducted just four. Although very capable, I think his preference was to avoid conducting, a task that was somewhat conflicting with his quiet and thoughtful personality. His first peal was here at Elstow (in 2 methods on 29 Oct 1968) and his last at Campton, just three days before he died on 28 December 2013. Robert’s leading peal towers were Bedford St Paul (29) followed by Henlow (18) and Elstow (16), although he rang peals in towers all over the country. His peals were with 305 different ringers, including Anthony Smith (110), Stephen Ivin (67), and myself (59) and in 101 different towers. For someone who took a 30 year break from ringing, this is quite an achievement.
So although we say our farewells to Robert, with considerable sadness, we do so with thanks for the privilege of having shared and enjoyed a part of our lives with him. We shall undoubtedly miss the kind and thoughtful son, brother, uncle and family friend who was always there. We shall miss the cheerful colleague happily delivering books to the library. We shall miss the steady almost infallible peal ringer, and the bell that no longer rings on a Sunday morning. And we shall miss the once fit and athletic man that made running marathons appear easy.
In a moment we shall sing the Ringer’s Hymn in which one of the verses ends. “befriending one another, a strong and steadfast band” Well it certainly was so while Robert was with us, and will be a little less so now that he is gone.
But in our sadness we should remember that God has taken him from us for greater things. So we shall not “peal in muffled sadness for loved ones laid to rest” but rather we shall ring the bells open in thanksgiving for his life and the time that he has spent with us.
The Christmas season has just ended, where we sang the carol “Ding Dong Merrily on High, the bells in heaven are Ringing”. Well’ they certainly will be now that Robert is there!
He has gone before us to join God’s family and that illustrious band of ringers in the sky (along with other dear friends who have not long since passed that way) where the ringing and the bells will be perfect, and there will be no false peals; and no doubt he will easily and painlessly run the heavenly courses, and ring them too.
But above all I imagine he will sit quietly in contemplation, watching over us without a word. So farewell good and faithful friend, it has been a wonderful privilege to know you, and may God keep you safe in the hope that we may one day ring in the same band again.
Robert’s funeral was held at Elstow Abbey on 22nd January 2014, a bright and unusually rain-free day, and was conducted by Revd Stephen Smith, himself a ringer. Over 150 of Robert’s family, work colleagues, and friends attended, with runners and ringers being well represented. The service included the Bunyan Hymn, the Ringer’s Hymn, and Abide with Me, suitably reflecting Robert’s life and interests, and the bells were rung open before and after the service in thanksgiving for his life. Following a private cremation, a very convivial reception was held at “The Park” where a collage of photographs and Robert’s collection of running medals were admired, possibly for the first time.
A shortened version of the above tribute was published in The Ringing World of 18th April 2014 (Pages 395/396).
Kempston, Beds Saturday, 10 May 2014 in 3hours 9minutes
A Peal of 5003 Grandsire Caters (Composed by John S Warboys)
1 Melvyn Potts
2 David A Potts
3 Anthony H Smith
4 Charlotte M Smith
5 David I Stanford
6 Timothy M D Stanford
7 Richard A Horne
8 Jonathan R Pawley
9 Andrew M Keech (C)
10 Stephen H Stanford
First on 10: 6
Dedicated to the memory of Anne Izzard and Robert Wood, ringers at this tower.
Also in memory of Canon Kenneth Habermehl, Vicar here 1965-1987.
Elstow, Beds Friday, 3 January 2014 in 42 minutes
A Quarter Peal of 1260 Plain Bob Doubles
1 Christopher Hartley
2 Jennifer S Thompson
3 Rosemary A Maddocks
4 Sarah-Louise Ward
5 Stephen H Stanford (C)
6 Richard J Hillson
In fond and affectionate memory of Robert P Wood (Woody) who very sadly passed away unexpectedly on 31 Dec 2013. Rung by some old friends.
Elstow, Beds Friday 3 January 2014 in 43 minutes
A Quarter Peal of 1260 Plain Bob Minor
1 Sarah-Louise Ward
Fondly remembering Robert Wood who learned to ring on these bells and regularly supported the ringing here. He will be greatly missed.
Other Peals rung in memory of Robert P Wood (at Campton, Clifton Beds, Sherborne, Eaton Socon, Henlow, Bedford [St.Paul], and Loughborough [Bell Foundry Campanile]) were published in The Ringing World of 18th April 2014 (Page 389)
Other Quarter Peals rung in memory of Robert P Wood (at Hitchin, Bromham Beds, Woburn Beds, Thornborough, and Godmanchester) were published in The Ringing World of 18th April 2014 (Page 396).