It seemed that Les Brown’s life was all mapped out for him at 16, when he left school and donned a miner’s helmet for his first job, at the Langwith Colliery in Derbyshire.
His father had worked in the mine, his grandfather had been killed there – and Les himself recalls how just two weeks into his new job, he witnessed a fatally-injured colleague’s body being carried out.
“Everyone just carried on eating their food” he says. “I suppose that death down there was so common, it was just a part of life”.
But the life of a coal miner was not to be Les’s for long, because a fateful decision by some of his relatives to move to the Isle of Wight in the late 1960s saw his whole life path change.
Les, then aged around 20, decided to make the move with them, not knowing what work he would do, but relishing the chance to make a fresh start.
“I’ve never been a snob when it came to what work I would do” he says, “so I was really prepared to roll up my sleeves and take on anything”.
His first job, as it turned out, was as a labourer, employed on the building of the sea wall between Sandown and Shanklin – probably as far removed a working environment as you could ever get from that of a dark and damp coal mine!
Bouyed by the fresh air and open skies, and working in harmony with the tides, Les was quickly convinced that this picturesque Island was where he wanted to stay.
He moved into a bedsit in Sandown, and after 18 months of sea wall building, decided that he was ready for another challenge.
That came in the form of hospitality work at the Broadway Park Hotel in Sandown – initially in the kitchens, but before long he’d progressed to working as a waiter and then later was promoted to head waiter.
“Imagine coming from a mining area – this was all new to me” he recalls. “I didn’t even have a clue what a kitchen porter was before I started at the hotel!”
But he loved working in the ‘posh’ tourist hotel, and ultimately became responsible for a team of waiters from all over the world.
“My three best ones were from London – they all turned up in sports cars!” he laughed.
“We worked hard but had a lot of fun, and when it came to my stag do, we all went away for three days in Chelsea…”
The girl who had won Les’s heart was Pat, an office worker who’d moved to the Island from Bournemouth.
Once they were married Les was poached by a neighbouring hotel, the Melville Hall, as its bar manager, responsible for big functions.
“I doubled my wages with the tips I got there” he says, “and that helped us a lot when it came to buying our first house in Brading”.
It meant though, that he was working ‘mega hours’ which didn’t leave much time for a home life, and so he started casting around for another change.
The call of coal
His next job was to be an echo of his early life – although above ground this time, as manager of a Co-op solid fuel depot.
It was whilst working there that he was to meet the late Phil Legge, the Island blacksmith who went on to develop the popular tourist attraction Brickfields Horse Country.
“Phil had just moved to the Island from Herefordshire and I helped him to get started. We remained friends until he died” he says.
Becoming friends with Phil also encouraged Les to fulfil his lifelong ambition to ride: he simply went out and bought a horse from Southampton and then taught himself to ride it, simple as that.
“I used to ride out for a local trainer, Alan Aylett, to get the practice – it was like riding a Formula One!” he recalls. “Then I’d sit at the Newmarket gallops and watch them”.
Les then went on to school dozens of tricky horses for their owners. He also got into showjumping and hunting, and bred his own horses, and when he and Pat moved to a bigger home, he built his own jumps course.
He also taught their daughter Victoria to ride and at 31 she is now an accomplished horsewoman.
After four years at the solid fuel depot, Les moved on to work as a gas fitter for a few years – before changing direction yet again by taking a job as manager of a Newchurch nursery business employing physically and mentally handicapped workers.
He remembers it as a satisfying period, not just for the prizes and awards that the nursery workers won at various horticultural shows, but also for the lessons he personally learned from the experience.
“I learned a lot from the people there” he says. “They take you completely as you are, and there was such a lot of humour and good feeling about the job”.
His enjoyment of the teaching and guiding role led Les to his next job with the local education authority, working with youngsters who were not in mainstream school.
He taught them gardening, and then took them out on jobs all over the Island.
One of their biggest projects was putting in raised beds at the Pan Estate in Newport, for which they won an award.
“We had a lot of laughs, the kids could be themselves, and when we won the prize I couldn’t have been more proud of them” he said.
“They’re all big lads now, with families of their own, and it’s great when they come over and see me”.
It was after that job that Les took the decision 12 years ago to set up his own business, Shore Solutions, and began selling his own plants.
He buys in young plants, everything from bedding and perennials to huge palms and trees, and raises them in the polytunnels at his home in Newport.
“It’s a good little business and something I really enjoy doing” he says.
He still has two of his horses, but has given up competitive riding these days, in favour of relaxed hacking out along his favourite Island bridleways.
He delights in visits from daughter Victoria, who now lives in Ireland, and in particular loves spending time with his five year-old grandson Frankie, to whom he’s affectionately known as “Gra-gra”.
“He’s my star man” says a proud Les. “He phones me regularly and loves coming here to stay. I do too… we have great fun when I teach him Motown dancing!”
He might have left his Derbyshire mining village life almost half a century ago, but Les admits that he still cherishes the best of Northern qualities – which he reckons are a gritty determination, a sense of humour and respect for other people.
“You needed humour to survive some of those traditional hard jobs” he says “and you were never allowed to get big-headed. Everyone was called Mr or Mrs – it was a respectful way of living”.
However, despite his loyalty to those northern roots, Les admits he fell in love with the Island the moment he landed.
“I’ve tried to be an Islander and I’ve certainly made this place my home” he says. “I love the fact that I know everyone here, and it’s a great feeling when people say hello and stop for a chat wherever you go.”