More memories from my 55 years in journalism

  Posted: 22.02.21 at 13:00 by Philip Evans

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In last week’s column I reminisced about my days as a cub reporter in East Devon, working for the Express & Echo, the Exeter daily paper which is now a weekly.

I actually went from being a paper boy to a reporter because, prior to getting my first job, I delivered the Express & Echo to about 40 houses in my hometown, Lyme Regis.

The Echo was delivered to Lyme on the old Puffin’ Billy train which ran on the branch line between Axminster and Lyme, stopping at Compyne Station, before being axed by the Conservative Transport Minister, Dr Richard Beeching, in the disastrous reshaping of British Railways which saw the closure of 5,500 miles of track, the sacking of 67,000 railway workers and the closing down of 2,363 stations.

In fact, I rode on the last train between Axminster and Lyme on which there was standing room only with the passengers, including many civic guests who dressed in Victorian costumes, among them Len Duke, chairman of Axminster Urban District Council.

If the Bluebell Line had survived, imagine how popular it would be today as a tourist attraction?

Lyme Regis was always a fringe area for the Exeter-based Echo and I was keen that the paper should continue to be read in my hometown. So on my way home from work each evening, I carried on delivering the paper for around three months before we found a replacement.

I started my journalistic career based in in Honiton under the supervision of David Haydon in rather dim offices above Arthur Dimond’s stationery shop in the High Street.

It was just two rooms – one for the reporters (David and me) and one for veteran photographer Courtenay Harris.

On Fridays I attended Exeter College to study for the National Council for the Training of Journalists qualification with young reporters from all over Devon, which often led to long, boozy lunches and not a great deal of study until our final year.

Axminster was included in our patch and, as I lived in Lyme, I covered most of the stories at that end of the county, including Axminster Rural District Council mentioned the last Newsletter, once I was entrusted to do so.

That’s where I first met the incomparable Wally Fellender, doyen of all reporters ad one of my journalistic heroes (more of which later).

It wasn’t long after I started that David Haydon left the Echo to cover Honiton for Pulman’s Weekly News, a switch that I also made later. The big attraction in working for Pulman’s was that you got a company car and worked from home.

Without a senior reporter supervising me, I learnt the hard way, usually after a rollicking from our chief sub, a fiery Scotsman called Andy Buchan.

Two big faux pas spring to mind...

One Friday morning I was on my way to Exeter College when I came across a serious fire in Fenny Bridges. In those days we used to phone in our stories from telephone boxes.

Having summoned our photographer, I filed my story and went on my way to Exeter College. Later in the morning I got a message to phone the news desk as soon as possible.

There were two hotels in Fenny Bridges – the Fenny Bridges Hotel and The Greyhoud. Apparently, I named the wrong hotel, which just happened to be a good advertiser, and a humiliating (for me at least) apology had to be printed on the front page of the Echo’s second edition.

Another embarrassing moment came for me when I was covering an air crash at Crewkerne. I was working that morning with photographer Tony Scrivens who was a very keen rally driver. I was filing copy from Whimple and the news editor came on the phone asking how quickly could we get to Crewkerne, 45 miles away, where a French jet aircraft had crashed on a petrol station.

Tony said: “Tell them 30 minutes.”

He drove like the Devil in his souped-up Mini and we got their in 33 minutes. I’d never been more frightened in my life.

The scene looked a bit like a war zone when we arrived. The French pilot ejected safely but an elderly man died of a heart attack as he ran up the hill to see if the pilot was OK.

I wrote the story in my notebook and filed it to the Echo. I was instructed to go back to the Honiton office to file a more extensive story to the Western Morning News.

When I got back to the office I realised I had left my notebook in the telephone box in Crewkerne so back to Crewkerne I rushed in my own Hillman Imp, taking 54 minutes. But there was no sign of my notebook. One of the other reporters had obviously ditched it.

I completed my three-year apprenticeship at the Echo and then took a job with the Somerset County Gazette series to help launch a new paper for Axminster – the Axminster News – working longside Chris Carson, who has just retired, and Jill Skerman.

We had an office in a small room in the Axminster Printing Company building in West Street, owned by Tony Rockett and Jim Sweetland.

And then the dream job came up. Wally Fellender was retiring as Pulman’s district reporter after 40 years of service and I was appointed to replace him, covering Axminster and Lyme.

In next week’s Newsletter: ‘Following in Wally’s footsteps’.

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