80 Years of Joyous Service

by Gerry Lynch last modified 22 May, 2014 05:00 PM

End of an era as Peter Custard carries out last formal role in Dorset village church

80 Years of Joyous Service

Peter Custard in his lovely garden.

When Peter Custard read a lesson in St Mary Madgalene’s, Fifehead Madgalen, on Easter Day 2014, it marked the end of an era. Peter has formally served the church in one capacity or another since he was a five year old boy – eight decades ago.

Still active in his middle eighties, Peter works hard at his lovely garden, with a commanding view across the valley of the Stour and all the way to the West Dorset downs. He has a body fit from a life spent working in active, physical, jobs. He was, for many years, a farm manager on the estate at Fifehead Manor, and later worked for a local manufacturer of agricultural equipment – and spent as much of his time as he could there outdoors.

Peter’s first job with the church was as a choirboy, starting at Easter in 1934. He was one of three five year-olds who started singing with the choir that year. “We weren’t really a churchgoing family until I started singing in the choir”, he says. But that tender beginning led to eight decades of loyal service at St Mary Magdalene’s, the village parish church. He was confirmed in Stalbridge Church in 1943, and sang with the choir through to 1950, when he become the Church’s verger. Even though it was a volunteer position, entirely unpaid, he still had to dig the graves when someone was to be buried in the churchyard.

He gave 34 unbroken years of service as verger until becoming churchwarden in 1984. Although he ‘retired’ as churchwarden several times, he kept being brought back for another stint after a break of a year or two.

From the late 1980s Peter has taken services regularly, and completed several courses as a lay worship leader. “This was especially important”, he says, “as the days of us having a vicar of our own were long past by then. As well as taking services, I also spent a lot of time taking Communion to sick or housebound people. Our services are a mixture of Communion and Evening Prayer, and Common Worship and Prayer Book, and I do like the Book of Common Prayer.”

Asked why going to church is so important to him, Peter answers honestly, “I have no idea why I keep coming back! I suppose you could say if I didn’t go to church on Sunday, I wouldn’t know what day of the week it was. It just doesn’t feel right if I haven’t been.

St Mary Magdalene's, Fifehead Magdalen“My wife had a stroke, and was housebound for her last six years. Maybe I’m the stubborn type, but I was determined that I would look after her here rather than see her in a home. I still went to church every Sunday – I left things ready for her and I went off. I couldn’t switch my mobile phone off, though, in case she needed me, and I once even had it start ringing when I was kneeling at the altar.

“We aren’t a big church, but then this isn’t a big village. There are only 90 people who live here, and we have 28 of them on the Electoral Roll and a Usual Sunday Attendance of 18. Our balance sheet is good and the church is in good repair. I’m not sure where the money comes from, but somehow it does.”

Asked if he has seen a lot of changes in the village and the church over the years, he ponders for a bit.

“The church hasn’t changed a lot, but the village has. In the ‘50s, I used to organise and raise money for Christmas – we’d give the kids in the village a party and take them to Bournemouth for the panto. In those days, there were 30 kids in the village. There are only 2 now.

“There aren’t many working age people in the village, and while some of the few there are work relatively locally, some commute as far as London. A lot of the villagers have retired here from somewhere else. Houses have got so expensive young people couldn’t afford to buy them.

“Back in the 1930s, the village was a very different place. Almost everybody was working class and their employment was in the village, mostly on the land. There was real poverty then, with very low wages, some people earning just £1 per week.

“When I was a boy, we still had a resident vicar just for Fifehead Magdalen. The first vicar I knew was a man called Jack Harris, who was quite a character. He sported britches and a bowler, and he was a great woodworker. He used to encourage us young people to help him in his workshop.

“There was nothing much for kids to do in the village on Sundays in the 1930s. Once a month there was an afternoon service in West Stour, about a mile away, and the boys from the village used to walk over the fields with him to attend it.

The view from Peter Custard's garden“The Rev’d J H Arundel was our last resident vicar, and he left in 1952. After that we always had to share our vicar with other villages in the Stour Valley, and at times we’ve been attached to Gillingham as well. Archdeacon Seager was one of the vicars who looked after us from Gillingham, around the 1970s. He was a fantastic fellow but a stickler for things being done right!”

Nowadays Fifehead Madgalene is one of eight parishes in the Stour Vale Benefice served by their Vicar, the Revd Andrea Hagenbusch. All of them small villages – the largest, East Stour, has a population of only 620. Although the total numbers attending are small compared with urban centres, as a proportion of the population this is one of the most strongly churchgoing, and indeed Church of England churchgoing, parts of the country.

Being as active as he is, and with children and grandchildren living in nearby towns and villages, Stour Vale Benefice and St Mary Magdalene’s Church can probably look forward to many more years of having Peter Custard pray with them Sunday by Sunday.

Read more of Peter's reminiscences of bygone days in Fifehead Magdalen, hosted on the village website, dictated to form part of the village's millennium book.

Middle image: St Mary Magdalene's Church, Fifehead Magdalen

Bottom image: the view from Peter's garden towards the western end of the Dorset Downs.

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