A few months ago we were approached by Gill Greenhalgh who was asking about whether we would like a donation from the soon to be disbanded St Margaret's Women's Group. Various discussions then took place about a suitable memorial in the village for what was a very well respected organisation who had done a great deal for the village over many years.
Our head gardener, Sue Backhouse and the team then came up with a super idea which was pitched to the remaining members of the group thus:
"This is a donation to remember the St Margaret's Women's Group in some tangible form to the benefit of the village. As it is a women's group, it would be pertinent to reference a woman who has had a major impact not only on Rottingdean, but on the wider community. Gertrude Jekyll designed the planting scheme for The Grange in conjunction with Lutyen's architectural improvements, but also was, and is, a major influence on the world of horticulture. Indeed her work has defined the character of English gardens worldwide. Therefore combining Jekyll and the St Margaret's Women's Group in one living memorial for the village seems fitting. Whilst we have followed Jekyll's planting scheme in the courtyard at The Grange, we have never had the opportunity of building a Jekyll bed from scratch. The barn beds in the top garden would provide a suitable site. Sadly these beds have been under-developed, despite their prime position. Originally the beds were dominated by a sycamore surrounded by a scattered brick path. We simply relaid the bricks to remove trip hazards and concentrated on the climbing roses. The sycamore was subsequently felled by the council, leaving a dominant stump. But now the stump is rotting away, giving us the opportunity of developing the beds into this living memorial to the group, based on Jekyll's style. If we had the donation, we would lift the brick path and scroll top edging, re-shaping the two barn beds into one half moon shape, surrounded by the relaid edging then brick path. The bed would be planted in true Jekyll style, herbaceous planting flowing from climbing roses at the back to low ground level annuals at the front, thus using Jekyll's (and Lutyen's) style of juxtapositioning stone textures with architectural and cascading plants. In memory of St Margaret's Women's Group the plants used would bear the names of past members, especially those of its leaders e.g. Sheila Grant - Tulipa Clusiana Sheila, Sheila's Perfume Rose, Vera Devlin - Verbena Vera, Lavender Vera. A small plaque could be attached to the adjacent wall detailing the group and its dates, thereby allowing the memory of the group to continue to the enjoyment of Grange garden visitors."
This idea was universally accepted and a fitting tribute and memorial to the group and we are pleased to say that the work was recently completed and can be seen in The Grange garden today.
In order to enhance the understanding of the St Margaret's Women's group further we then asked Gill if it was possible to send us through a history of the group as we thought our members would be interested in reading some more about it:
History of Women’s Group
St. Margaret Women’s Group first started at Young Wives in the late 1980s when The Cottage was first purchased for community events when Keith Richards was our village vicar. Founder Members were Thelma Cooper, Anne Cousins, Sheila Grant, and Eileen Winchcombe. Once their children were growing up and they felt they could not call themselves Young Wives anymore, they changed their name to St. Margaret Women’s Group and have met regularly once a month ever since.
Catherine, Lois, and I have been involved with the Group since the early 1990s and have helped over the years when a new committee was formed every three years. Thelma, Shelia, Sally Hindall and then Vera Devlin were at the helm during the 1990s, and then Catherine, Lois and I took over in January 2009 and have run the Group until the pandemic prevented us meeting.
We do not have a membership fee, and just charged £2 (which gradually increased from £1 over the years) per person to cover Speaker, rent, coffee or tea and biscuits.
We are basically a social group for all ladies in the village and surrounding area, and arrange speakers on a whole spectrum of subjects, demonstrations (often with group participation), outings, walks and social gatherings. In more recent times, we have opened evenings to our menfolk as well when we feel events would interest them as well. One popular event was our annual guided walk by local historian Dr. Geoffrey Mead, visiting parts of Brighton, Lewes, Shoreham, and Seaford we didn’t know much about!
Members and local residents, organisations and businesses have been an interesting source of speakers. From members we have had talks on competing in the World’s toughest yacht race, being a Toast master, jewellery making, surviving in the Channel Islands during the war and being an evacuee. Local residents such as Elvi Rhodes (the late author), Lynda Hyde (former Mayor of B & H), Arthur Collins (former High Commissioner of Papua New Guinea), Norman Cuddeford (former radio broadcaster), Sarah Piper (head of wigs and make-up at Glyndebourne), and past vicar Father Martin Morgan (with cookery demonstrations, talks about his comedy writing for TV, etc.) were all regular visitors. All sorts of arts and crafts were included – from making stained glass to weaving, as well as local and general history – from the history of the Brighton workhouses to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Also, health and fitness – from Tai-chi and Chinese medicine to line dancing, use of a defibrillator to the work of a Macmillan nurse. We had speakers on their trips to all parts of the world - one memorable Speaker was Cliff Dargonne on his expedition to climb Everest. He decorated the room with the prayer flags from the mountain together with his boots, oxygen cylinders, and other equipment. Accompanied by slides he talked us through every step (and slip) or his adventure. He returned – by popular demand – on his expedition to Antarctica.
Local businesses include various florists giving seasonal demonstrations, computer experts, the local veterinary surgeon, holistic practitioners across a whole range of treatments, various local boutiques with many a fashion evening. So, you could say we went from antiques and architecture right through to wellness and yoga – we never quite made Zumba!
Private evening visits were made to local vineyards, garden centres, and businesses, as well as Brighton Pavilion, etc. We would hold film evenings, Summer Drinks Parties (enjoying the garden of the Cottage), winter get-togethers with mulled wine, and each year would enjoy a Christmas meal often at local restaurant, Bistro Gourmand.
We have supported many charities over the years across a whole spectrum of good causes, including local ones such as the Beachy Head Chaplaincy, Sussex Heart Charity, The Samaritans, RNLI, Guide Dogs for the Blind, ……as well as those further afield such as schools in Africa and Madagascar, the locals of Nepal after their disaster, etc. One of our regular charities we support is The Shoe Box appeal, organised each autumn by David Hunt – sending essential items and little treats to people in poorer eastern European countries.
We have supported St. Margaret’s Church over the years with donations, sponsorship or taking part in their Flower Festivals and Christmas Tree Festivals, and we also donated to the Millennium Window. Our closing donation is to Rottingdean Heritage, who gave the matter considerable thought and suggested the idea of a flowerbed in the Grange Gardens inspired by Gertrude Jekyll to represent the women of Women’s Group. To call it a flowerbed is in fact a disservice, and their proposal presented by Rowena Lusty has now been carried out after the hard work of excavating and clearing the site. It is a lasting, living memorial to past and present members of the group.
The pandemic stopped our being able to meet, and then we heard The Cottage was being sold. We considered alternative venues and discussed these with our members, but all came with drawbacks; also, Lois relocated to Australia this spring. Catherine and I enjoyed a much-anticipated reunion lunch at Bistro Gourmand this July and invited, as our guest, founder member Thelma Cooper. It was lovely to reminisce and chat things over with everyone. We have decided that now is the right time to close for the time being.
There has been so much laughter and joy over the years, and it is thanks to the lovely ladies (and gentlemen!) who have supported the group. It has been an absolute privilege for us to have been part of this great village community.
We want to say a heartfelt thanks to Gill and her colleagues, firstly for thinking about us in the first place, and secondly for all the work that they did for the benefit of others.