Joyce Thomas' Fondest Memories Of Ross-on-Wye

PUBLISHED: 10:54 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013



Joyce Thomas, former mayor of Ross-on-Wye, shares her fondest memories of the town. Photographs by Shaun Thompson.

When my husband John and I came to live in Ross-on-Wye in 1957 we were welcomed most warmly into the community and it didn't take us long to realise what a wonderful place it was.

I was born in Woolhope, of farming parents. When I was 17 I was appointed clerk to the parish council, the youngest parish clerk in the country at the time, and it was then that I became interested in the workings of local government.

In 1956, at the age of 23, I married John, and we moved temporarily to London. But then John applied for the position as Head of Physical Education at the old Ross Grammar School. I came with him when he had his interview.

Although I had grown up in Woolhope, I had only ever visited Ross-on-Wye a couple of times before. While I was waiting for John I remember sitting in a little caf in the middle of town, and then I took a walk around. I walked through the market place and I couldn't believe it - it was just full of people: all hustle and bustle. I can only describe it as magnificent. It was a joy to see - they had rabbits to sell, chickens, eggs, butter and cheese. The feeling was magical. I thought, 'Oh, I do hope John gets that job, I would love to live here'. And he did get it.

John's position at the Grammar School was advertised with 'accommodation included' but we were so excited that he had been offered the job that we forgot to go and view the accommodation in question. When we turned up with our possessions we discovered that our new home was to be one of seven ex-army wooden huts at Three Crosses that had been taken over by the Education Authority. We stayed for five wonderful years and enjoyed every minute of it. We made some great friends, many of whom I'm still in touch with to this day. We were very happy there.

When John and I tried to buy our first house in the early 1960s, it was very hard to find anyone prepared to offer us a mortgage. Although nearly 20 years had passed since the end of the war, money was still very tight indeed. But eventually we managed it and we spent many, many happy years in our family home in Ross-on-Wye, which we named 'The Barclays' because, at that stage, Barclays Bank owned far more of it than we did!

I have seen many changes in Ross. When we were first here I vividly recall the delightful elderly gentleman, Mr Jack Harris, who used to go around with his grey Shire horse, Kate, and his dray. He cleaned the streets and checked the drains.

The two department stores, Rayners and Vines, have gone and have been replaced by a surprising variety of new and interesting independent shops, including butchers, a baker, a cobbler, jewellers, Lucas's motorcycles, General Tool Store, upholsterer and florist. And where else would you find a fruit and veg shop with such a variety of merchandise as the Market Garden in Broad Street? Everything from duck and goose eggs, honey, seed potatoes and bulbs.

Ross is surrounded by beauty: the lovely River Wye, Symonds Yat rock and nearby the Forest of Dean. The approach to the town from Wilton is spectacular, where St Mary's church can be seen, floodlit at night and from many directions. It must be one of the most photographed scenes in Herefordshire.

I remember a conversation I had with Sir John Harvey Jones, the famous entrepreneur who lived nearby, when he said "I love Ross-on-Wye and I regard it as the jewel of the Wye".

My favourite view is from the Prospect, overlooking the horseshoe bend of the river Wye. When my husband John died I found myself walking there on many occasions. It is such a peaceful spot. Recently archeologists have discovered Roman and other remains there and of course it would have been the main site of the beacon for the town. It was used during the Civil War as an observation point.

There is a great richness within the community of Ross-on-Wye. It never ceases to amaze me how much is happening behind the scenes. There's a huge network of volunteers who keep everything going. The work they do for the elderly, socially deprived, the young people, etc is fantastic.

In 1974 I was elected to the Hereford and Worcester County Council as an Independent, representing Ross-on-Wye, and continued on the Council until five years ago. In 1976 I was Mayor, which was a great privilege and an honour. It was the most memorable year of my life.

At that time Herefordshire Life published an article about me, saying: 'Councillor Thomas is an attractive woman and has the reputation of being one who speaks her mind, even if it gets her into trouble. What's more, she was the first woman to be elected to Ross Town Council in 25 years when she topped the polls in 1970 - in spite of all the shaking of heads - and she was the first woman Mayor in the Council's 80-year history.'

It was during my Mayoral year that I found a piece of empty land near to where Ross hospital is now. Although in the centre of the town it had become a dumping ground and was littered with old shopping trolleys, unwanted fridges, freezers and cookers. I contacted the owners of the land, who were more than happy for someone to take on the responsibility of cleaning it up, and then I set out to raise the funds for landscaping and planting. The project took a year to complete, and is now known as Dean Hill Park.

In 1981 a local solicitor, Barbara Jordan, and I opened an independent advice centre, offering free advice to anyone needing support. Operating every Saturday from a space between two ice-cream refrigerators in the storeroom at the old Roxy cinema, it was a great success from day one. When we looked for a permanent home, Dennis Potter, the well known local writer, and Ross Rotary Club gave a substantial amount of money to buy us a Portacabin. After we had run it for eight years the responsibility was taken on by The Citizens Advice Bureau, which continues to operate an extremely popular and busy office.

Over the years I have seen some very positive changes. The Ross Pre-School playgroup was formed 37 years ago and is still going strong. One organisation in the town had the bright idea of creating a much needed day centre for the elderly in Pigs Alley and set about building it themselves (my husband John was one of them). It was and still is a huge success.

One particular example which brought the whole community together was when there was a possibility that the old Cottage Hospital would be closed and not replaced. I was one of the people who championed the cause and after considerable support from the League of Friends, Doctors, MP and the community The Health Authority agreed to have a community hospital on the grounds of the old Dean Hill Workhouse. Princess Anne came to open it.

I am particularly proud to have been instrumental in providing a much needed waste disposal and recycling facility in Station Street, strongly supported by my colleague Councillor Joyce Davies, and warmly welcomed by the people of Ross-on-Wye.

These are just a few of the many wonderful things that have happened over the years I have lived here which have proved to me that if the need is there people will rally around and work together.

Although I retired as a County Councillor five years ago, I am still very much involved with local issues and organisations. I have been a Governor at John Kyrle High School and Sixth Form Centre since the school became comprehensive in 1979. I am currently Chair of the Personnel Working Party and am involved in the appointment of staff alongside the Headteacher, Nigel Griffiths. Nigel is an excellent headteacher and he, the staff, pupils, parents and governors thoroughly deserved the recent 'Outstanding' grade from Ofsted. It is a wonderful school and I thoroughly enjoy my association with it.

Five years ago I was awarded an MBE by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of my services to the community, and the day at Buckingham Palace is one that I will never forget. I was also commissioned as Deputy Lieutenant of Herefordshire.

Recently I moved to Fownhope, where I will be making more time for my favourite hobbies, walking and gardening. My 1991 Nissan Figaro turbo convertible still takes me wherever I want to go! Fownhope is a delightful village within easy reach of Ross-on-Wye and Hereford. It has wonderful facilities, an excellent village shop Post Office, school etc and I have been made to feel very welcome here. I still have wide horizons, and look forward to the future here, just two miles from where I was born and spent my childhood.

With thanks to Mike Morgan.

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