Family announces memorial service to celebrate the life of ‘dynamic’ Budleigh Music Festival founder, Roger Bowen

When the founder of the Budleigh Music Festival, Roger Bowen, died at the start of 2023, he was remembered for his ‘vision and determination’ which launched the event in 2005.

Roger, who continued to be a ‘staunch supporter’ of the annual event took on the role of Festival Ambassador, championing access to live music for the community – and young people in particular.

Here his niece, Nicky Cowan pays tribute to her uncle, as Budleigh Salterton gears up to celebrate Roger’s life at a memorial at 2pm, on Monday, April 24, at the Temple Methodist Church, followed by refreshments at Budleigh Croquet Club at 3.15pm.

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I asked my Uncle Roger not long before he died, what he’d like – meaning a cup of tea, a glass of water, a gin and tonic – his answer was: ‘a life.’ For my uncle loved life, and didn’t want to leave it, living it to the full, right up until he couldn’t, writes Nicky Cowan.

The poem – by Dylan Thomas is not just apt because it portrays the force of nature – the dynamic ball of doing energy – which was my uncle Roger – but because, Dylan Thomas lived on the very street where Roger was born and was a pupil of Roger’s father, Ossie Bowen, who taught maths at Bishop Gore secondary school in Swansea.

The story went that Ossie – the son of a miner, Welsh Chapel and labour – and Marjorie, the daughter of a mine owner, Church of Wales and Liberal, found love across the class divide.

Roger’s mother- Marjorie – trained as a primary school teacher, but once married was not allowed to teach, so turned her hand to playwrighting instead, mentored by Noel Coward no less. One of her plays had a successful run at Ramsgate Theatre, and would have transferred to London’s West End, but preparations for World War II put paid to that.

Roger Talbot Norton Bowen was born in Swansea in 1935 and his parents moved to Bearsted, Kent, in 1944 when Roger was ten. Despite this, and despite living for many years in the most quintessentially English of places, Budleigh Salterton, my uncle remained stubbornly Welsh.

Throughout his life, he was a regular visitor to Penrice on the Gower peninsula, where his mother’s side of the family had roots, lovingly restoring a cottage there. He had a big, melodious voice which would not have sounded out of place preaching in a Welsh chapel. He could also sing, and when he was young, played rugby, for county and later, for Oxford University.

Budleigh

Roger on the river at Oxford.
Photo: with permission.

Roger went to Maidstone Grammar School for Boys, where he met his life-long friend, Michael Wickenden. Both went on to Oxford University, with Roger studying engineering at Keeble College; both loved music and both married local Bearsted girls, my auntie Brenda in Roger’s case.

My mother recalls Roger repeatedly turning up at their bungalow in Cavendish Way in a bid to court her sister, Brenda, leaning his bike against the garden wall and braving my mother’s huge Alsatian dog, Ruff, and worse, my mother– five years Roger’s senior – who equally repeatedly told him to ‘Go away, little boy’.

Characteristically, Roger did not give up and go away and he and Brenda married in 1959, once Roger had completed first his military service, then his degree; a suitcase full of letters – love letters? (we don’t know; we haven’t read them) – later.

Bowen

Roger and Brenda at
a dance at Thurhnam Court.
Photo: with permission.

Roger was a good dancer, honing his skills at Nancy Ealy’s school of dance in Maidstone, showing them off with Brenda at Pam’s 21st birthday party at Thurnham Court, a lavish affair complete with a big band and a pianist – as well as at various dinner dances. There were holidays with Michael and his wife on cruise boats on the River Medway – with Roger’s mother embarrassingly insisting he come home every night – and on the Norfolk Broads, and camping trips to the Gower Peninsula on Brenda’s Lambretta (before the Mods made scooters fashionable).

They’d all spent their younger years under the shadow of World War II: Swansea’s city centre had been reduced to rubble by German bombers and Bearsted was under the flightpath of the Luftwaffe discharging their loads en-route back from blitzing London.

There was still military service, and rationing continued until Roger was 19, but as teens and young adults, Roger and his friends enjoyed a freedom denied to others just a few years older and Roger and his friends had fun.

Married life, by contrast was not such fun, with Roger travelling to London to work at Elliot’s Automation, leaving Brenda home alone with two young children – Joanna (born 1961) then Geoff (born 1964), feeling isolated and depressed in various dormitory towns or villages in Kent, Orpington being uniquely awful.

Budleigh

Roger, Brenda, Joanna, Geoffrey, Nicky, and her mum, outside the Ring of Bells pub.
Photo: with permission.

So, in 1969, Roger took the bold decision to leave Kent and move to Exmouth. He joined Heathcoat engineering in Tiverton initially, but in 1970 took a leap of faith and started his own business, raising the funds to buy Marcus and Hodges engineering. By 1972 (aged 37) he was made Chair of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, a position he held for two years, and in 1975 Roger started manufacturing woodburning stoves.

More house moves followed, each time to bigger, better properties which eventually found the family living in a large and lovely home in Cranford Avenue, Exmouth, where Roger and Geoffrey built their own swimming pool with their bare hands – well, with a digger (but they drove it.)

Roger also took up sailing, nearly drowning the entire family, including the dog, when, during a race on the River Exe their boat capsized. Luckily, they were rescued before they could be swept out to sea. Undeterred, Roger bought a boat and he and Brenda learnt navigation, taking the lugger across the channel to France (though thankfully with Geoffrey at the helm).

In 1993 after Geoffrey and Joanna had left home, Roger and Brenda decided to move to Budleigh where this time Roger built not a swimming pool but an entire house – one he’d ordered as a kit and put together himself, even as I remember, doing the electrics.

Summerlands was the perfect house on the hill with huge windows, a deck to drink gin on, an Italian style garden, complete with statues, and an ornamental sundial and bird bath, and a sweeping view of the coast from the Otter estuary to Berry Head.

The house even had its own pet seagull Sydney, which Brenda and Roger fed, even though they weren’t supposed to.

Bowen

Roger and Brenda on Budleigh seafront.
Photo: with permission.

It was Roger’s last home before his flat on the sea front – another bold move, made in his mid-80s and involving several months sitting surrounded by packed-up boxes when the original sale of Summerlands fell through. Roger loved his new seafront home – where Hilary Mantel was amongst his neighbours – as much as Summerlands, and was determined never to leave – and didn’t, until the day he died.

Yet despite Roger’s best efforts, his life did not always go as he had planned. In the early 90s he was, as he put it, ’Thatchered’, after he’d had to move his factory and his bank pulled a promised loan. He was forced to make 80 of his workers redundant and he only escaped bankruptcy because his son Geoffrey’s environmental business managed to keep the firm afloat. This kick in the teeth by the bank as Roger saw it, shook him to the core.

This was a man who had built a successful business from scratch and who’d always ‘given back’ (in 1995, for example, he joined the Engineering Training Board until it was closed by Thatcher’s government in 2005), yet in one blow, everything he’d worked for had been taken, through no fault of his own.

But despite this set back, Roger never lost his fighting spirit. He carried on working for Marcus and Hodges Environment, Geoffrey’s firm, seeing to the finances and accounts, and he continued his work for the employment tribunal service, a post he’d had – along with Brenda – since 1975.

Despite being an employer and a relatively wealthy man, Roger always believed in the rights of working people, he was after all– like his father – a labour man – ironic since he moved to one of the most conservative towns in England.

Roger retired from Marcus and Hodges in 2000, aged 65, and became an Independent Councillor for Budleigh Town Council until 2012, a period he describes in his memoir as one of the most frustrating and least successful periods of his adult life.

More fulfilling was Roger’s work with Devon Historic Buildings Trust, restoring the Haldon Belvedere from near ruin to its former glory, enabling it to open to the public in 1996. Then, when he and Brenda had to give up their work with the tribunal service in 2005 due to a fixed retirement age of 70, he found another outlet for his boundless energy and creativity.

In that same year, he and Brenda established the extraordinarily successful Budleigh Music Festival, spanning every music genre from folk – Cornish sea shanties – and jazz, to classical and opera. The festival rapidly became renowned not just nationally, but internationally.

A spokesperson for Budleigh Music Festival said: “We will miss his energy and wit – one of this year’s evening concerts will be dedicated to his memory.”

In 2012, when Roger felt the time had come to pass the reins of the festival on to someone else, he took to writing books: I counted 13, including a memoir, a history of his Welsh family, a history of my family (Brenda’s), as well as biographies of various Budleigh dignitaries. He published his last book, Budleigh Lives, in 2021, despite already suffering the cancer which would eventually take his life.

When Brenda was alive and well, she always used to worry about Roger’s weight – he liked his food – but for a man carrying quite a number of surplus pounds, when he wasn’t asleep in front of the telly (yet still in control of the remote), he moved with surprising speed and agility. He described himself as the ‘fittest fat man’ or ‘the fattest fit man’ (I can never remember which way round) in Devon.

I don’t think croquet would top anybody’s list of fat burning exercises, but Roger certainly put in a lot of time playing it once he’d moved to Budleigh, with the club located conveniently pretty much behind his house.

For some years Roger was Chairman of the Budleigh Salterton Croquet Club, and was probably as proud of this as he was of his position as Chairman of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce.

Roger and Brenda had a penchant for holidays, invariably with my mother in tow. They travelled extensively, often off the beaten track, and mostly with an itinerary tailor made by Roger. In Jordan, for example, – all three well into their 70s – went round the ruins of the ancient city of Petra on horseback; my mother told me that mounting and dismounting proved a particular challenge.

Budleigh

Roger, front, on his travels.
Photo: with permission.

The three of them visited India more than once, and amazed us all in Turkey at my daughter’s wedding when, in their 80s, they all took to the dance floor with the energy of people half their age. Their last big adventure – again in their 80s – was an epic whistle stop tour covering large swathes of India, designed and organised totally by Roger. The trip involved staying in 15 different hotels in about as many days and according to my mother, it was totally exhausting even for Roger (though I think it served its purpose as research for one of Roger’s books).

Roger wasn’t always the easiest of men, and my visits often involved an argument, a low point being when my daughter and I were thrown out of Summerlands for laughing too loudly at a comedy after midnight. I suspect my uncle Roger had a different take on these arguments from me, and there was definitely an element of Town Mouse, Country Mouse in our spats.

He would regale people with his knowledge, and sometimes his information and insights were fascinating, but sometimes they felt like one-upmanship, with Roger trying to outdo people on subjects in which they were often experts.

But however argumentative Roger could be at times, it never negated not just his achievements, but his attributes: fun, funny, entertaining, interesting – widely read, always abreast of current affairs – and entertaining; warm, generous, and loyal.

When the breast cancer my auntie suffered in her 50s returned in 2017, surgery was followed by the cruelest of strokes – one which left her paralysed and bed-bound and able to understand, but not speak. Roger looked after her at home remaining not just stoic, but positive, with carers – Dawn, Josephine and Sue – who became like family and kept Brenda, and everyone who visited, cheerful in a situation which objectively was anything but.

Then, just a year after Brenda’s stroke, Roger’s son, Geoffrey, died from a brain tumour in January 2018, aged only 53. Roger himself developed bowel cancer which saw him rushed to hospital with abdominal obstruction in the summer of 2019. He underwent surgery soon after, but was no longer able to care for Brenda at Summerlands and she had to go into a nursing home, where she died just before Christmas 2019.

But Roger never turned his face to the wall; he never gave up on life. After Geoff and Brenda died, especially when Roger’s cancer got worse, Roger’s daughter- in-law, Anna, visited weekly, along with Roger’s granddaughters, Martha and Jessie, when they were home.

I phoned regularly and visited as often as I could . Those visits were never boring. They never felt like duty. Roger always had something interesting to say, particularly when it came to politics (usually complaining about the Government or Brexit).

At times, the visits made us sad – because we knew he was very ill and it would only get worse – but they never left us depressed. Roger remained warm – he adored both my grandchildren, who equally adored him – funny and engaged with life.

I miss my phone conversations with my uncle and those visits. Not long after Brenda died, Roger told me that they had an agreement: that whichever one of them died first, they’d wait for the other at the Milky Way. I hope that somehow – across the ether – Roger is now reunited with his beloved Brenda – the woman he was with – for better and definitely for worse, for 60 years – and with his son, Geoffrey. That at the end of that tunnel, wherever it leads, they were waiting for him.

  • A memorial celebration will be held for Roger Bowen at 2pm, on Monday, April 24 at Temple Methodist Church, Budleigh Salterton, followed by refreshments at Budleigh Croquet Club at 3.15pm.

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