Benches – December 2020

Mary Richbell: a Limpsfield life

All villages have a notable resident: someone who rolls up their sleeves for every occasion and whose energy is infectious. Creative and organised, they can be relied upon to ensure the summer fete, Harvest Festival or Christmas market runs smoothly.

For many years in Limpsfield that person was Mary Richbell. Her abundance of community spirit is evident from the day she and her husband, Pat, moved there in 1975. When the local reverend appeared on their doorstep to welcome them and, in the process asked Mary if she wouldn’t mind helping to organise the upcoming Medieval Fair, she agreed without hesitation!

Mary’s bench
If you have read previous editions of this paper you may have seen our new ‘Benches’ series, a feature where I uncover the stories behind Tandridge bench plaques.
The inspiration for this came from time spent sat in the grounds of St Peter’s Church in Limpsfield. The plaque read ‘In loving memory of Mary Richbell, 1928-2009, who loved this place’, which left me curious. Who was Mary Richbell, and what was her connection to this church? Luckily, it wasn’t long before I found out.

An invitation
I posted on Facebook, using Mary’s plaque as an example and requesting information about other benches in the district. Mary’s daughter, Catherine, saw it and contacted me. Her father would love to tell me more about Mary, if I fancied visiting him?

And so I had the pleasure of spending the morning in the home of retired solicitor, and fascinating companion, Pat Richbell, 89. His attention to detail must have hugely benefitted his legal career: he told me so much about Mary I feel as if I knew her myself.

Mary’s father, Alfred Dowell, was a ‘distinguished member of the Bank of England’ and, along with wife Ethel (known as Jane) and their children, lived in Croydon until World War II. The Bank then decided it was too dangerous for its entire staff to remain in bomb-hit London, and many, along with their families, were relocated to Hampshire. Mary, aged 17, embraced her new life, becoming involved in local events and finding work at a local café.

Highly creative
Mary became a certified cake-maker, and Pat was keen to stress how talented she was at many things. A skilled baker and competent flower-arranger (‘not just little bunches, but monumental displays!’), he declared she could do anything she turned her mind to.

When the café owner’s nephew introduced Mary to the Wolfe Café, in Westerham, she seized the opportunity and took it over, moving into accommodation above and putting her cakes on the menu. And then, along came Pat.

On leaving school, Pat served with the British Army, where he was posted to Germany, before beginning his studies at Cambridge in 1950. He joined the Territorial Army, where he met Mary’s brother, and it was through Derek he was introduced to his bride-to-be at a ball. Inseparable from that moment, Pat and Mary married at the suitably-named St Mary’s Church in Westerham, in 1955.

Pat and Mary had strong links with the church, first in Westerham and then again when they moved to Bluehouse Lane, Limpsfield, in the mid-1970s. Pat was a member of the choir and after the Medieval Fair Mary continued to play a pivotal role in church activities.

Pat insisted nothing fazed Mary:

“When she decided to be the secretary for the Medieval Fair I said to her ‘but you don’t know anybody here’, and she replied ‘don’t you worry about that!’ And the fair was a massive success, raising approximately £10,000 for the local primary school and the church. Mary became very well-known in the village after that.”

Village life
As Pat told me about their years in Limpsfield, I discovered he was also an enthusiastic contributor to village life. As well as a full-time job and the responsibility of raising a family, he found time to be a school governor, and Chairman of the Limpsfield Decorative and Fine Arts Society, among other things. The latter also led to a role giving guided tours around nearby Titsey Place.

Pat showed me a picture of him, Mary and their children, Catherine, Jane and Tisha, attending a function at Mansion House. It’s a lovely shot of a smartly-dressed (or as Pat says, ‘looking posh’), happy family. His pride was evident, as he related more about his daughters, his grandchildren and great-grandchild, again with wonderful detail.
In 1993, the Richbells moved to a new house in Limpsfield, where Pat still lives. The large garden overlooks fields, and Pat recalled opening it up to the public during One World Oxted Open Gardens Day:

“We spent a huge amount of time weeding in the run-up to the event but it was worth it, as over 400 people came to visit it!”

A life in photographs
In 2005, the couple celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary: the photos from this party are full of smiling friends and relatives. The final pictures Pat showed me, however, were more poignant: those which were displayed at Mary’s funeral.

I watched her grow and blossom as I moved through them. From beaming toddler to striking young woman, from beautiful bride to devoted mother, they tell of a life filled with love. They were accompanied by moving tributes from those who knew her best:

“One of those rare people who touched so many lives and was loved by everyone she knew.”
“Everybody’s favourite and everybody’s friend.”

Although I suspected Pat had a wealth of tales about his wife still to tell, eventually I had to leave. I walked back through the churchyard, stopping to sit on Mary’s bench again, although this time I knew exactly who she was.



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