Riviera People – John Risdon

Posted by: on Apr 15, 2016 | No Comments

Riviera People – John Risdon, a new champion for Brixham’s ‘Vault

Renowned local historian and ‘disciple of heritage,’ John Risdon has long been immersed in the maritime world that is Brixham.  Now as new president of Brixham Heritage Museum he wants more people to discover this precious treasure ‘vault’. Anita Newcombe met up with him to find out more.

John Rsidon with a Brixham seafarer

Many around the Bay know John Risdon for his fascinating local walks and talks as well as his books on the Dart and Dartmoor. Now he wants to use his connections to inspire people to support Brixham’s Heritage Museum.  I popped in to see John’s favourite exhibition within the maritime gallery, so beautifully evocative of Brixham’s fascinating past.

Born locally in Brixham Cottage Hospital in April 1942, John’s life has been tightly entwined with Brixham.  During the 60s he managed a business called Brigantine in Brixham, working for the Walker family. Brigantine was a boat building and repair place with a chandlery and an early tourist shop.  It plied its trade on Overgang where the Mission to Seamen would subsequently be opened. Business was good with brisk sales of fishing tackle, fishermen’s smocks and the live bait that came in every day.  This era was very much the beginning of mass tourism for Brixham and it was an exciting job for a young man. Later the business was taken over by the Spiers family. Mrs Spiers, a charismatic American, opened a café and introduced the first American hamburgers sold alongside traditional cream teas. John remembers, “Jo Spiers had a wonderful American drawl and the fishermen loved her.”

Brigantine was also involved in many specialist services around the harbour such as overseeing experimental rafts that would test paint samples and bolts to see how they would weather.  This was done on behalf of some of the country’s largest industries so it was a parochial life that constantly rubbed shoulders with the bigger, outside world.

John’s education in all things maritime thus commenced and this developed through the knowledge and skills of Brixham shipwright, Ralph Hopper and his associates. John says, “Ralph introduced me to the wonders of the sea. Watching him working with eye and adze to create working masterpieces was spellbinding and humbling to a so-called ‘educated’ young man.” John also enjoyed a season at Goodrington helping Bob Walker run the tourist floats and pedalos. He says, “I was a beach-bum that year.”

Eventually Brigantine closed and John decided to retrain as a teacher in Exeter having met his teacher wife-to-be, Jenny. They bought a cottage in Galmpton where they still live today. Rather sweetly, they had originally met as 3 year olds at Roundham Nursery but were then separated until a friend reintroduced them many years later.

After qualifying as a teacher, John worked at Furzeham Primary School for four enjoyable years.  Here he enjoyed a close relationship with many children (now in their 50s) and their families. John remembered those seemingly utopian days in the classroom, including spontaneous nature walks down to the beautiful Churston Cove.

John subsequently moved to Dartmouth Secondary School (to become Comprehensive) where he taught history and geography for ten years and became Head of the Lower School. Here he continued his rewarding associations with many Brixham families who sent their children over the river.  He was also regularly involved in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme with his pupils, getting out onto the moor as often as possible.

In later years, John moved into local book publishing and opened a bookshop in Torquay Pavilion. However, he wanted to continue using his teaching skills so he joined Brixham Adult Education under what he calls “the admirable leadership of Jenny Harriman” and started teaching land navigation (using compasses and maps). This in turn led to him starting to offer the guided walks for which he is now well known.

With lecturing, guided walking and writing as his mediums, John likes to think that his love of South Devon as a whole and his birthplace Brixham specifically, has given him the identity of ‘disciple of heritage.’

All this experience means that he has much to offer Brixham Heritage Museum as he starts out in his latest new role as their president. He certainly seems determined to make a difference, telling me, “In the year 2015 the title ‘museum’ can be perceived as rather dull. It can be a turn off, especially for the younger generation.”

This is rather ironic as far as Brixham’s rather excellent museum is concerned as it has gained many awards as a family friendly museum.  John explains, ”I would suggest we identify our museum as a vault, similar to that within a bank. Our vault though, does not contain currency or gold but treasures of time, literally a ‘time capsule’ identifying us with our past.”   

Of course, having a great local museum or ‘vault’ is not only important to us all as local residents, it provides a major asset to the tourist trade. Visitors to the Bay are fascinated with the story of Brixham as ‘the mother port of trawling.’ Brixham fishery with its supportive, co-dependent community is rather special.  It’s quite unique and dynamic and and gives us a really powerful way to interest both tourists and locals in the history of our beautiful old town.

Although the Heritage Museum includes incredibly important records which can now be safeguarded electronically, it is the three dimensional artefacts that allow us to compare and wonder and these treasures appeal to all age groups.  The museum has some wonderful galleries full of character and personality such as Brixham Bone Caverns, Fisherman’s Cottage, Police Cell, Maritime Gallery, Lifeboat and Coastguard Display, Victorian House and Nursery, Berry Head Barracks, Toy Display and the Railway Room.

John tells me, “Our ‘vault’ is a rather antiquated building for these days and difficult to maintain but it’s what we have and has wonderful character; it is a part of old Brixham.  The custodians of Brixham’s Heritage Museum, led by Philip Armitage, exemplify the present positive and pro-active attitude I find within the Brixham community today.”

And it’s true that Brixham is rather good at rallying round. Sixty local volunteers, unpaid, support the day-to-day running of the museum.  John explains, “For the past few years, and still today, its survival hangs by a thread being largely dependent on the following year’s grant.” He speaks with feeling when he says, “I’m sure, like me, many local people would be devastated should Brixham lose its wonderful museum. If you haven’t visited recently I think you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. We look forward to welcoming you.”ο