Village with characterful tales to tell

Words by:
Melanie Burton
Featured in:
January 2015

The Lincolnshire village of Billinghay may lie on one of the county’s bustling highways, but it has all the hallmarks of an historic rural place with a close-knit community.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book, its name originates from a Saxon name for a fishery and in ancient times it would have been a small settlement on a gravel mound surrounded by marsh, which was flooded in winter.

But Billinghay has moved with the times and is now a village with its own open-air swimming pool, three different churches and a forward-thinking parish council that is doing all it can to provide for visitors and residents alike.

The swimming pool is charity-run and was built in the 1970s for use by residents from Billinghay and the surrounding area.

Parish Clerk, Carol Willingham said: “The pool is community owned. The villagers dug it themselves more than forty years ago. It is a big asset to Billinghay and the surrounding district.”

Billinghay also has a children’s centre, and a play area by the village hall includes a skate park and zip wire for the youngsters to enjoy. There is also an enclosed play area nearby for the youngest children.

“There are plans to improve the children’s play area and we have a Billinghay I-play system,” said Mrs Willingham.

The I-play system has been designed to get children away from the sofa and into the playground. It aims to break new ground in playground equipment through the invention of a facility that will promote high energy exercise for the young.

Under the scheme, youngsters can enter their scores in the ‘My I-play’ section of the website and view the scores of others on the system league table. The parish council has been trying to draw up a neighbourhood plan which outlines what the village can expect over the coming years. But at the moment it is struggling to engage the residents.

Its community office is in the Old Vicarage Cottage in Church Street, with a working blacksmith’s forge as its neighbour. It is a rare example of the mud and stud buildings found in the village, prior to a fire in 1864.

“The cottage is 350 years old and a record of the parish minutes shows it was in disrepair in 1980, so the district council took it on and put it back into use to save it,” said Mrs Willingham.

The cottage dates from the mid-1600s and was originally the vicarage until 1724. A dramatic fire in 1864 destroyed much of the old village but fortunately the cottage survived.

Constructed in the Lincolnshire vernacular building style of mud and stud walling, it has been restored using traditional skills and materials.

“Many of the houses in Billinghay would have been of this type but the fire burnt out most of the village,” said Mrs Willingham.

A walk around the village yields some very interesting features, not least the unusual village signs, called zoetropes. These are placed in strategic areas and tell the tales of legendary villagers such as a Mr Maplethorpe, Fred Gilbert and Nickel Bavin.

Mr Maplethorpe, otherwise known as Suky Flash, was a local tailor in the 1920s with an unusual party trick. He was so double-jointed that he could lift a beer glass balanced on his foot, slide between the legs of a wooden chair and then return to his seat.

Fred Gilbert was a piano teacher who rode around the village on an old-fashioned bicycle. He was so short-sighted he wore up to three pairs of specs on his nose at the same time. Lessons were spent looking for lost pairs.

Nickel Bavin was a local prizefighter in the 1920s, who would always oblige if called upon for a fight. His contests happened in the Market Place on stones and gravel and he was a popular attraction at the annual October Fair.

The Parish of Billinghay has three active churches. St Michael and All Angels’ (Church of England) is Grade 1 listed and is traditional in design; the earliest portion of the fabric was built in the thirteenth century, and the nave and roof timbers date back to the fourteenth century.

Bethel Chapel (Baptist) was built in 1847, since when there have been six pastors. Pastor James Mansfield took up the role in January 2003. The Methodist Church in Victoria Street is a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel built in 1869 on the site of an older chapel, which was destroyed in the fire of 1864.

Another interesting feature is the mosaic which tells a potted history of Billinghay, including the settling of the Romans there in the 1st century AD; the seventeenth century draining of the Fens to create farmland – which then saw the crops ground in the village windmills; 1987 when Billinghay was twinned with French village Ballon and the great fire of 9th September 1864.

The mosaic was created by a local group called the Billinghay Nibblers between 2000 & 2007.

As well as a market place and war memorial – erected by the parishioners in dedication to the villagers who lost their lives during the two world wars – there are three long-established family-run firms which help to put Billinghay on the wider map.

T&C Robinson was originally founded in 1905 by Tom Robinson, a farmer’s son from Rutland who served his saddlery apprenticeship in Billinghay. The firm provides saddlery services and sells casual clothes, country clothes, footwear, riding wear, horse care products, horse wear and shooting and hunting accessories.

Local car retailer Twells of Billinghay has been a main Vauxhall dealer for thirty-three years but has been trading as a family business for ninety-three years. It has once again received the highly coveted Vauxhall Customer Excellence Award.

And Billinghay Sawmill was established back in 1975 by its current owner and stocks a large range of different wood types to suit all tastes and styles. It offers an in-house fitting service and has a large permanent stock of floors in its warehouse ready for immediate collection or for delivery.

“There is a lot of diversity in the village. We have a lot of groups that fundraise and there is plenty for people to get involved with,” said Mrs Willingham.

One interesting feature not to be missed in Billinghay is the unusual street signs which form part of a village trail and which are based on eighteenth century cinematography.

Called zoetropes, they portray amusing stories of some of the more extraordinary villagers, which helps to encourage visitors and residents alike to look more closely at the area they are in.

Smith of Derby was commissioned to create a series of five zoetropes for the Billinghay Trail – a regeneration project spearheaded by the local council in conjunction with villagers.

The zoetropes are placed at strategic points along the trail, which formed part of the Market Place renovations project. Each one animates an individual villager’s story, which is also written on complementary traditional finger signs which were manufactured by the local blacksmith.

As well as ones dedicated to Mr Maplethorpe, Fred Gilbert and Nickel Bavin there is one called Walk Tall which tells of farmers walking through a flooded field on stilts to get into the village and then leaning the stilts up against the church wall, and a one-finger sign telling of Billinghay boys who used to ride around on the sails of the former post mill in Kyme Road.

It was an ideal fairground ride for them. The boys used to wait for a sail to swing round, jump on it and ride the whole circuit while clinging on for dear life.

Billinghay has more than its fair share of successful, long-established family firms and they help to put the village on a wider map.

Tom Robinson, who founded T&C Robinson in 1905, became the village saddler after serving his apprenticeship in Billinghay and, with the help of his two sons and local man Joe Vickers – who stayed with the firm for more than sixty years – the business grew and its reputation spread into the surrounding areas.

After the war, a partnership was formed between father Tom, and son Charles, and the firm is still known today as T&C Robinson. Indeed, to many customers it is known simply and affectionately as T&C’s.

Charles and his wife Clarice continued to expand and develop the firm. They modernised the old village workshop and adapted their service to not only specialise in heavy horse harnesses but also to provide saddlery requirements for all types of horses and for riders in particular.

T&C Robinson has become well respected further afield, specialising in the finest quality bespoke saddlery and bridle work. The firm also undertakes repairs of every description and has another store in Stamford, as well as its main shop at Billinghay.

Charles died in 1989 but the business continues to maintain the high standard which customers have come to expect. Clarice now runs the firm assisted by her son John, who is a qualified Master Saddler, and daughter Anne, who joined the business having formerly been a buyer with Harrods of London.

From its small beginnings early in the century, T&C Robinson is still going strong. Some staff have been with the company for more than thirty years.

Master Saddler and qualified saddle fitter John Robinson is a third generation member of the Robinson family to be in the business.

Shop manageress and buyer Jane Maplethorpe is approaching her thirtieth year at Robinson’s and David Jacobs, also a Master Saddler, is another long-standing member of the workforce with a vast knowledge of his trade and a skilled craftsman when it comes to leather.

A newcomer is Peter Robinson, who has recently joined the firm as a saddler’s apprentice and in sales after finishing at university and then spending eight months farming in New Zealand. Aged twenty-four, he is now the fourth generation of Robinsons to work in the business and will learn the trade from his father.

Twells of Billinghay is another family firm with a long association with the village. Owner and retail operator John Twells and his team are justly proud of their achievements.

The Vauxhall Customer Excellence Award recognises and rewards top performing retailers for the quality of the service they give to their customers and is based on customer satisfaction for the first two years of ownership.

Twells was one of only thirty-eight Vauxhall retailers out of 340 in the whole of the UK to have achieved the standards required to qualify for the national Customer Excellence Award.

It has been in the top ten every year since the programme was introduced in the year 2000.

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