Further tributes have been paid to former Marling schoolteacher Peter Hendy who has died at the age of 77.
Here, friend Jeff Gillett recalls Peter’s love of folk music and much more in a life well lived.
Pete Hendy really became a dance caller by accident. His wife, Marj, persuaded him to spend an evening at the Witcombe Square Club (as it was then known); a small group of teenage boys at Marling School decided that playing folk tunes was a good way of avoiding having to be outside during cold, wintry lunch-breaks; the impending conversion of the Bisley Tythe Barn into cottages provided the opportunity for the newly-formed staff/pupil ceilidh band to play a valedictory dance, with Pete calling. Soon after this event, girls from the neighbouring High School were welcomed into the pool of musicians (making the whole operation more attractive to pupils from both single-sex schools!) The Downfielders were born!
More gigs followed: for school PTAs, village socials, birthdays, weddings… Pete never claimed to be a great musician himself, making light of his contributions on the Eb bass at the Chalford Silver Band (although he was well-known for his playing of the spoons at Downfielders sessions). But with his awareness of what dancers needed from the music, he shaped the Downfielders into a very capable band which has so far lasted for 35 years, providing opportunities for a stream of very talented instrumentalists. Pete’s enthusiasm and his sense of fun were inspirational. But he also treated the young musicians as adults. This helped develop their professionalism, but also contributed to the lasting esteem in which he was held. Many have gone on to form their own ceilidh bands, developing a lasting love of traditional music. But even those whose subsequent musical direction proved to be very different – into classical, jazz, film music or rock – have fond memories of the time they spent in the Downfielders.
For his audiences – the dancers – Pete proved to be a naturally gifted caller who put people at their ease, explained things clearly without being too precious about it all, and tried to make sure that everybody had a good time. Calling for schools foreign language exchanges and for twinning groups turned him into a leading exponent of the not-quite-bilingual ceilidh. And his jokes were as bad as his French. In explaining a dance, he would often say: ‘The top of the set is the end nearest the stage,’ and then, referring to the largely teen-aged band, he would add: ‘The band is on the stage. If at some point in the evening, they should disappear, don’t worry: it’s just a stage they’re going through.’
Pete found that he was in demand for calling with other bands and for other dance-clubs. He and Marj, whose gentler style of calling made her an excellent foil for Pete, became a regular part of the Chippenham Folk Festival and also called at all of the big three, week-long folk festivals: Sidmouth, Broadstairs and Whitby. He was an important contributor to folk-dance at the folk arts centre at Halsway Manor, in Somerset.
But some of Pete’s most lasting impact will no doubt have been on the primary school pupils at Chippenham Festival Schools’ Day and at primary school dance festivals in Stroud (particularly), Gloucester and Cirencester, who were captivated by the gentle giant with his energy and humour. The schools festival in Stroud had previously been quite a formal showcase. With Pete calling, it underwent a considerable change of character. As a teacher, Pete always had an impressive degree of presence, but on these occasions, far from intimidating and controlling the kids, Pete often seemed to be winding them up. The square dance, ‘I Want to be Near You (You’re the one for me)’ is forever, for many people who grew up in the Stroud district, ‘The Monkey Dance’, during which the Leisure Centre hall would echo with the gleeful strains of ‘I want a banana: give me one for tea!’
Pete was a big man, but his character and influence were many, many times bigger. He leaves behind him a host of happy memories and a wonderful legacy of music, dancing and fun.