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That Reminds Me: Ron Freethy, country gent

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AS I may well have observed before, there have been certain teachers over the years whose enthusiasm and knowledge lit up their lessons, inspiring pupils to love the subject and even perhaps take it up as a career. I wish I’d had one like that.

I have in mind Ron Freethy, a biology master who wrote more than 100 books mainly on nature and the countryside and history of the North West, became an international authority on water pollution and was a prolific radio and TV presenter.

Ron taught in Burnley from 1962 until 1985, when he became a full-time writer and broadcaster. I would have loved to see him in pedagogical action but sadly he was at Ivy Bank School in Burnley while I toiled away at Nelson Grammar School where biology was the domain of an uninterested, colourless prat and I couldn’t drop the subject soon enough.

I did come to know Ron as a friend, however, after starting work on the Evening Star in Burnley, for which he wrote a nature column. He was constantly dropping into the office with suggestions for stories which he would write himself or pass on to colleagues with invaluable words of advice. He was always cheerful and a joy to be around.

Ron Freethy was born in Barrow-in-Furness in 1936 and attended Ulverston Grammar School before teacher training in London. He had a pen friend, Marlene, who lived in Burnley and they married there after he left college and got the job at Ivy Bank.

A keen sportsman, he played cricket for Lowerhouse in the Lancashire League and was also an avid rugby player. It was on the rugby pitch that he suffered a heart injury in 1971 and became one of the first patients in Britain to be fitted with a pacemaker.

As a spectator thereafter, Ron was a regular at Turf Moor to watch Burnley FC and Old Trafford to support Lancashire Cricket Club. He also found the time to write his Evening Star contributions plus a walking column for the Westmorland Gazette. And then there were the books, some co-authored with Mrs Freethy.

Among Ron’s solo efforts were Memories of the Lancashire Aircraft Industry; Lankie Twang (a book on the local dialect with a foreword by Dame Thora Hird); Cumbria at War; Yorkshire: The Secret War; Memories of the Lancashire Fishing Industry; How Birds Work: A Guide to Bird Biology; Pocket Pub Walks in Lancashire; The Big Book of Yorkshire Wit and Wisdom; Memories of the Lancashire Cotton Mills and, my favourite, Lancashire Privies.

The latter came after a publishing company which had produced several volumes about bogs around Britain approached Ron to see if he fancied writing a local version. He mentioned the subject in his newspaper columns and on the radio, and was swamped with tales of defecation via primitive means. Sadly I was unaware of the project, otherwise I would have supplied the tale of my father being lowered down a long-drop lavatory to rescue a neighbour’s cat. 

One story Ron does record is that of Bobby Hesketh, from Blackpool, who when a schoolboy used to make pocket money by ‘bagging’ – carrying the luggage of trippers who arrived on the train. He decided it would be easier if he had a cart so he got the wheels off a pram and some old fencing wood for the sides. He was, however, short of fixings so he decided to loot his family’s wooden privy in the back garden.

‘I took one hinge from the door and several screws from where I thought they would not show. One day when I was out bagging, dad was in the privy contemplating nature when a strong gust of wind blew the door inwards. The poor chap with his pants around his ankles was smothered beneath a shower of timber and to cap it all the privy bucket fell over him.’ Bobby did not reveal the reason for the collapse until his father’s 65th birthday ‘when I gave him a present of an inside toilet and bathroom which he thought were “reet swanky”.’

I’ll recycle more tales from Lancashire Privies in a future column.

Aside from his literary efforts, Ron Freethy was a pioneer in cleaning up tainted waterways, winning an award for his work in the Mersey Basin. He led a similar scheme in Australia, around the Brisbane area, and in rivers crossing the US border with Canada.

He presented several rural documentaries for Granada TV and made 14 appearances in the early 1990s on the BBC1 Saturday-morning children’s programme The 8.15 from Manchester, named after the train service which left Manchester Piccadilly station at that time for London Euston. I never saw this but with musical guests, imported  cartoons and a quiz section set in a swimming pool called The Wetter The Better, it was clearly a rip-off of ITV’s brilliant Tiswas, which I wrote about here. 

In 2013 Ron and Marlene appeared on the TV documentary series How the North was Built, presented by Robson Green. Later that year Ron was fitted with a new pacemaker battery and was said to be good for another decade. However he suffered two devastating strokes and died in Royal Blackburn Hospital. He was 77.

Ron had continued to supply his columns right up to his death. Marlene told the Lancashire Telegraph, as the Evening Star is now known: ‘We celebrated our Golden Wedding anniversary last year. We shared everything. He would want to be remembered for passing on his love of nature, the environment and local history to future generations through his writings.’

The then Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: ‘I read his columns regularly and did many of his local walks. His love of East Lancashire, its history and countryside was immense and infectious. He will be much missed.’

Among the online comments on that story was this:

‘RIP, Sir. Mr Freethy was my teacher at Ivy Bank High School in the early 80s. I remember we were 24 hours away from walking the Pennine Way and he came round on the Sunday evening to say he would have to cancel. Ron had a pacemaker fitted many years ago and was visibly upset that he would have to let his pupils down. Top bloke.’

I would echo that. Ron, it was a privilege to know you.

Old jokes’ home

A walker taking a short cut through a farm yard bumps into the farmer, accompanied by a pig with a wooden leg. ‘What’s his story?’ asks the walker. ‘That, my friend, is Lancelot,’ replies the farmer. ‘He can do arithmetic. What’s four plus three, Lancelot?’ The pig stamps his wooden leg seven times. ‘What’s two plus one?’ Bang bang bang!

‘And what’s more,’ says the farmer, ‘he’s a life saver. My little daughter had fallen into a pond and was on the verge of drowning when Lancelot dived in, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pulled her to safety.’

‘Blimey,’ says the walker. ‘And what about the wooden leg?’

‘Well,’ says the farmer, ‘you don’t eat a pig like that all at once.’

A PS from PG

‘What a man, Jeeves!’

‘Sir?’

‘Your Uncle Charlie.’ (Silversmith, the butler at Deverill Hall)

‘Ah yes, sir. A forceful personality.’

‘Forceful is correct. What’s that thing of Shakespeare’s about someone having an eye like Mother’s?’

‘An eye like Mars, to threaten and command, is possibly the quotation for which you are groping, sir.’

PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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