After a long and productive working life, the Branch Director for Jewson’s Isle of Wight stores, Ron Bowler, will be retiring from the day job next year – but it’s unlikely to be a ‘pipe and slippers’ retirement for this dedicated charity fundraiser. As he tells Jackie McCarrick, it will just free up even more of his time to throw into his pet project of the past 28 years, the now world-famous Walk the Wight.
It attracts thousands of people every year to walk across the Isle of Wight countryside and since 1991, has raised an incredible £4.5 million to support the work of Earl Mountbatten Hospice, but few people know the humble beginnings of what has become an iconic Island event.
Ron Bowler, however, remembers it distinctly.
At the time, he was admin manager of the old-established Island timber business Morey’s, where the yard manager Bill Bradley and colleague Frank Stevens had been running informal weekend walks for staff. It was in 1991 that they decided to organise walk from east to west of the Island, Bembridge to Alum Bay, and Ron agreed to help marshal the event.
“On that first walk we had 35 people, all Morey’s employees plus some friends and relatives, and it was done really just as a bonding exercise for the business” Ron recalls.
However, the following year, after the wife of one of the company managers died at the hospice, it was decided to repeat the walk as a sponsored fundraiser for the hospice and the hospital scanner appeal, and on that occasion, over 100 walkers took part.
Within a year, an MRI scanner had been purchased – but by then, Walk the Wight was effectively established as an annual event, and is now officially recognised as the largest sponsored walk in Europe, with up to 8,500 people pounding the route.
Recalling the early days when he was one of the volunteers manning the checkpoints, Ron says: “There were just a few of us who used to drive around like idiots to greet the walkers at the next point! You couldn’t do that nowadays – in fact we now have about 250 marshals stationed throughout the course.”
The growth of the event is a source of great pride to him and many others on the Island, so it’s hardly surprising that he intends to stay actively involved with it – and other voluntary work – after his retirement next year.
A passion for life
Never a ‘half measures’ type of character, Ron has always been known for enthusiastically throwing himself into whatever he set his mind to. The only child of Cowes boat builder Bill and Nottinghamshire-born accounts clerk mother Edna, he enjoyed a typical rough and tumble childhood of Scout camps, helping on a milk round with the dad of a school pal, playing football in the street (and later for Northwood FC under the legendary Harry Cheek), and supporting Nottingham Forest FC out of loyalty to his mum’s home county.
He left the old Cowes Secondary Modern School at 16 with no great academic aspirations, but with “a love of numbers and a logical brain” for which he reckoned office work would be a good fit – and a solid work ethic inherited from his dad.
He successfully applied for a commercial apprenticeship at the West Cowes shipbuilding firm J. Samuel White and on his first day, recalls being faced with three desks piled high with purchase invoices.
“There was three months’ worth of it to do, but it didn’t put me off” recalls Ron. “You could say it was a baptism of fire! It means I can file with my eyes shut now – and I never save up filing for anyone else to do”.
Within a few weeks of starting work, the iconic Isle of Wight Festival of 1970 took the Island by storm with its 50-strong line-up that included The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and The Moody Blues – and for the 16 year-old Ron, it was excitement like he’d never dreamed of.
“I just have a memory of there being people everywhere. An older friend of mine had a Mini van so about six of us piled in and off we went. We had no tickets but then there was very little in the way of fences! The stage seemed miles away but who cared? This was our Island and everyone was enjoying it. It was a completely different world that we’d never seen before.”
However, there was trouble waiting for Ron when he rolled home at dawn – his worried father had been out looking for him and promptly grounded him for two weeks.
Cowes Week was another big source of excitement for the young Ron and his pals, and the year after the Festival, he recalls the whole of Cowes ‘coming alive’.
“It was not the big corporate event it is nowadays – Cowes Week somehow felt more colourful and more exciting back then, when you could see Brittania with her guardship plus visiting boats from many other Navies.
“A friend of mine had the use of an inflatable for the week, and on one occasion we went alongside an American frigate and were invited on! Access was by the scramble nets over the port side, and once on board we had our own private tour. I was a lot more agile in those days!
The 1970s were also the heyday of the Island’s nightclub scene – and Ron and his mates were just the right age to enjoy it all. They’d start off at his local, The Horseshoe at Northwood, for games of darts, jukebox or piano music, and then the famous ‘meat draw’ – and then with an elected driver, they’d head off for one of the clubs, such as The Eastcliffe at Shanklin, the Babalu at Ryde Airport (now a McDonalds) or The Prince Consort at Ryde.
Working his way up
For all his outgoing social life, Ron also had a healthy respect for his work. As part of his apprenticeship, he attended the local college as a day release student for three years and immersed himself in business studies. As he progressed with the company, he took on sales invoicing for all departments, took a further course in accountancy, and ended up after 11 years with the company as Accounts Reporting Manager, ultimately reporting to the Head Office in Pennsylvania after JS White’s was taken over by Elliott Turbomachinery.
His opposite number in the States had the unlikely name of Jerry Burger and Ron admits he was somewhat ‘in awe of him’.
“We had a regular Friday catch-up call and he’d tell me all about his hunting, shooting, fishing lifestyle while I told him about the football club I was helping with and what seemed a mundane social life in comparison”.
However, Ron’s Anglo-American alliance was to come to an end when the US company decided to pull out of the UK, at which point, in 1981, he joined the then local timber merchant H.W. Morey.
“I’d had a job offer in Basingstoke as well but really didn’t want to leave the Island” says Ron.
This was partly because by this time he was married to Alana, who he had met at work. Their marriage year, 1978, had been a good one on many fronts, since his beloved Nottingham Forest also won the Football League and then the European Cup.
They’d bought their first house in East Cowes in April 1978, five months before the wedding, but didn’t live there until after they were married.
“Youngsters today can’t imagine that, but it’s how it was then” he says. “There were no lavish overseas trips either – our honeymoon was a week in Torquay and we saved our pre-decimal silver coinage in an old cider flagon to pay for it”.
However, by 1980 they’d been thrifty enough to be able to move from their starter home in East Cowes and take on a bigger mortgage on a large Victorian house in West Cowes.
Within months of the move, though, came the blow of redundancy from Elliott Turbomachinery – happily, to be closely followed by the relief of being offered the job of General Office Manager at H.W. Morey and Son.
A new challenge
In 1981 Moreys was the only supplier of imported timber on the Island , importing directly from Sweden and Finland. It arrived at the wharf in Cowes to be brought up to the Trafalgar Road yard on a series of hired lorries .
The business was made up of the main timber and building material supply business with branches in Newport and Sandown, and it also ran a commercial joiners shop which made bespoke joinery for several projects across the Island.
As well as the Moreys business the directors also ran Alexandra Sharp and Co which was just opening a DIY centre on the site where Curry’s is today, as well as having a small branch in Ryde.
Ron says he loved Moreys from day one: “The directors were very hands-on and the builders and other customers we dealt with were all very friendly, down-to-earth and honest, so it was really a pleasure for me going to work and dealing with them every day, and I think I quickly gained their trust, too”.
When in 1997 Morey’s was bought out by the national chain Jewsons, Ron was the branch manager at Sandown. He’d moved into sales and general management and effectively improved profitability at the branch.
The following year there was more upheaval in the Island’s building supplies market when Sydenham’s moved to the Isle of Wight and took on almost of 40 Jewson’s staff but Ron decided to stay and was offered the General Manager role, with responsibility for the Island’s five branches.
It’s effectively the role he still has to this day, although the title has since been changed to Branch Director for the Isle of Wight Cluster.
He says he loves his job as much as he ever did – but will look forward to a change of focus when he retires next year.
He and Alana – who have two sons, Matthew, 34, and Gareth, 28 – plan to celebrate their upcoming milestone Ruby Wedding anniversary with a three-week holiday in Canada in June next year, and no doubt he’ll have more time for dog walks with the Jack Russell pup they’ve recently bought (and named Ruby in honour of their anniversary).
But there’s no doubt that much of Ron’s retirement will be spent giving time to the causes closest to his heart – chief among them being Walk the Wight, but also doing additional volunteer fundraising for Mountbatten, as well as for his local Rotary Club and giving time to his local Northwood Village Hall.
He’s also keen to promote the work of Mountbatten, which he says a lot of locals “still don’t get”.
“What it does is so much more than providing the 16-bed facility – it’s also there for several hundred carers out in the community and supports countless families who are facing end-of-life care for loved ones with a range of illnesses.
“One thing’s for sure – I may be retiring soon, but I’m not going to be at home much!”