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“Parish People – Walter Willcox”. Article published in Albury Parish Magazine

21 February 2024

Towards the end of 2021, several friends suggested that I contact Walter Gordon Mason Willcox, affectionately known as ‘Walking Walter’ in view of his passion for rambling.  In retirement, he worked tirelessly on the installation of hyperfast broadband in Albury.  In February 2022, I spoke to Walter at the telephone, when he proved eager to meet up and tell his story.  Sadly, Walter died only a few days later so we never met.  His widow, Jo, daughters, Anneli and Pip, brother Norman, and other relatives and friends have helped put together the sort of answers Walter might have given.  Nobody can imitate the real Walter, but I hope he would not entirely disapprove this posthumous tribute. 

Q.   Where were you born?

A.   I was a wartime baby, arriving appropriately in Aldershot on 27 March 1940, the first child of Cyril and Avril Willcox.  I was too young to remember much about the war, and if I became aware of such things as rationing, air raids and blackouts, they would have seemed perfectly normal.  I remember that my mother kept chickens, as many did then, to help cope with food rationing.

Q.   What are your memories?

A.   My brother, Norman, arrived a year after me, so I had a companion from the start.  Our father was away in Egypt for much of the war and the two of us were brought up by four women (our mother and three friends, probably escaping the London blitz).  We enjoyed a lot of freedom in a rural part of Farnborough, experiencing adventures in the great outdoors.  We did lots of things together as children, like climbing the railway embankment and flattening pennies by placing them on the line for trains to run over. 

Q.   What were your hobbies?

A.   I always liked practical tasks.  An engineer of some note, who lived in our village, taught me to make explosives!  I took to this with some enthusiasm, and some jeopardy for anyone who came near.  A projectile horseshoe was a particular experiment.  Norman and I were taken on Sunday afternoon walks towards Frimley Green through heathland, an area since desecrated by sand pits.  My little brother used to find these quite boring, but I helped him by making our own entertainment as we went.  I always loved the outdoors and adventure, and these provided the opportunity for discovery, for example, our model rocket experiments, which were largely unsuccessful.  

Q.   Where did you spend your holidays? 

A.   My parents took us to a farm in Charmouth in Dorset, where we camped together many times after the war.  There I recall meeting my father for the first time, after his return from Egypt.  On a much later occasion, Norman and I rode our bicycles from Farnborough the 125 miles to Charmouth, stopping at a friend’s house at Wimbourne Minster overnight.  As a teenager, a friend and I set off for France on our bikes, with a little money and a puncture repair kit and scarcely a word of French.  We got as far as Nantes, surviving on bread, cheese and goodwill.  In our early married life, Jo and I accompanied my parents in their camper van to Germany and Austria, and once as far as Yugoslavia. 

Q.   Where were you educated?

A.   First with Norman to ‘Rosemary Lodge’ a kindergarten run by a Farnborough Convent.  Then I attended Salesian College, as later did three of my grandchildren.  Then Farnborough Grammar School.  However, I’m not academic, and prefer to learn practical skills, so I left school to take an apprenticeship with Southern Electricity Board (SEB).  Norman left a year later to work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment.  As an apprentice and the youngest member of a team, I would be the one selected to climb electricity poles in all weathers!  I was given day release to obtain a qualification in electrical engineering.

Q.   After your apprenticeship?

A.   It was 1962 and National Service had ended so I took a job at Decca Radar, which was later acquired by Plessy.  There I worked on radar, and the early computer systems, as an electrical draftsman, and later as a computer operations manager.  It was primitive technology by today’s standards.

Q.   And in your spare time?

A.   I joined the Young Conservatives, which provided an active social life.  That’s where I met Jo Amos, as she was then.  We had our first date at the opening night of the Proms in 1964.  I proposed on the last night, and we married the following January.  We celebrated our 57th anniversary in January 2022.

Q.   Did your work take you abroad?

A.   Sometimes.  Once to Persia, as it was then called, when our relationship with that country was friendly.  Nearer home, I helped install radar at Guernsey Airport.  There I learnt a salutary lesson in health and safety when I was up in a sinking installation rig with its stabilizer feet unevenly into the grass.  I had to jump from some height.

Q.   Where did you live?

A.   Our first house together was on the outskirts of Guildford, where Jo taught Latin.  In 1973 we set up our family home in Merrow, conveniently close to the Downs, which we have kept to the current day.  Both homes provided scope for practical tasks including renovation and rewiring, installing heating and telephones.  Perhaps it was a case of taking my work home.

Q.   Tell me about your family?

A.   Jo and I had three children.  I am very proud and pleased that both my daughters are successfully following careers of their choice.  Anneli as a musician and teacher, married to Andy James.  They live in Godalming, which is close, so we met up regularly.  They have three children Diccon, Danica and Theo.  Our second child, also called Diccon, sadly died at age 22.  Our younger daughter, Pip, lives in Oxford, which is not too far away so Jo can see her quite frequently.  She is a research leader in digital scholarship, focusing on library and archive collections.

Q.   How did you earn the nickname ‘Walking Walter’?

A.   Since childhood, I’ve always enjoyed walking in the countryside.  As our children grew up, we had family holidays in the Black Mountains, a series of ranges shaped like the fingers on a hand.  We walked in all weathers.  Just a question of having the right clothing, and a healthy respect for what could be rapidly changing weather conditions.  I enjoyed teaching that to my children, walking them up and over one of the Black Mountain fingers.  If it looked to be getting towards zero visibility, we would not venture forth that day.  Nearer home, I enjoyed exploring the Surrey Hills, sometimes alone, but often in the company of friends, stopping at pubs with proper draft bitter, such as William IV in Little London.

Q.   How did your career develop?

A.   All occupations undergo changes over the years but in computing and information technology changes have been rapid.  Think of the size of the enigma machine around the time of my birth and the vast and as they now appear, primitive computers of my early career and now the versatility of today in something the size of a mobile phone.  Sometimes one must change jobs to keep abreast of developments and avoid being stuck in one role, where one might become very adept, but the work may become obsolete.  So, I moved in 1975 to Micro Computer Systems in Woking, then to Westcode in Wokingham.  In 1986 I set up my own software engineering consultancy ‘Amos Enterprises’.

Q.   What did Amos Enterprises undertake?

A.   My own boss at last, I could take on tasks that I enjoyed.  I specialised in telemetry systems for anything that flowed, electricity, orange juice, oil, water, gas and so forth.

 Q.  Where did this work take you?

A.   Mostly around the UK. I found beautiful British countryside in all the places I worked, such as Scotland, and Norfolk, where I could also indulge my passion for exploring and walking in my spare time.  This was a very happy time.  Engineering work, and the great outdoors, with the love and support of my family.  Although, in recent years I shocked my family by telling them of some of hair-raising walks I undertook whilst working away from home, for example high up in the mountains in very snowy weather.  I often hadn’t told anybody where I was going, although that was a cardinal rule, which I had taught my children.  I was sometimes able to help other walkers, who had lost their way, directing them back onto safer paths.

Q.   How did you spend retirement?

A.   Blessed with a pension and without the necessity for regular employment, retirement brings great opportunities.  One must certainly keep active, but also stay useful.  Helping people was something I wanted to continue to do into my retirement.  Happily, I have been fit enough to continue working in all sorts of locations, and I would help in small ways such as the BBQ at Albury Sports Club.  Then a big opportunity opened up. 

Q.   What was that?

A.   I heard about Broadland for the Rural North (B4RN), a project that would bring fast broadband to rural areas.  I knew that I should get involved.  Technology can transform lives and livelihoods.  It proved to be better than I’d hoped for.  Here a group of volunteers had taken things into their own hands to bring a symmetrical gigabit of broadband to people’s homes in Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire.  There were wayleaves to sort, equipment to be obtained, trenches to be dug.  I could perfect my technique for blowing and fusing fibre and teach others how to do it.  We might work all day, getting ducting laid and fibre blown, and as far as possible leaving the land as we found it.  A chance to work in the open air in beautiful countryside, in places like Silverdale, Arnside, Wennington and Melling.  There were many opportunities for scenic walking in my spare time, getting to know the quirky lanes and farm tracks.  I made wonderful new friends, working alongside them in this stunning countryside. 

Q.   Where did you stay, so far from home? 

A.   I enjoyed excellent hospitality from the wonderful people in Lancashire, to whom I’m most grateful.  For example, Sheena, who offered her spare room and cooked me huge breakfasts that set me up for the day.  (Sheena reports: “Walter had the confidence in B4RN to be the first shareholder.  His dogged determination in filthy weather ‘oop north’ daunted many much younger than he was when out and about with B4RN”)

Q.   Was your work blighted by bad weather?

A.   Those who complain about bad weather just aren’t wearing appropriate clothing!  As the weather worsened, our determination increased, and our friendships strengthened.  For example, blowing fibre in the snow in the Lowgill Fells we all felt motivated.  We couldn’t just give up and go home. 

Q.   What next?

A.   I had earlier attempted to improve the broadband in Ewhurst, initially through people I had met on my trips to the William IV.  The work did not result in a successful outcome as BT came along with proposals that would have resolved the village and surrounding area problems but eventually, they did not proceed with the project.  (Box Broadband has subsequently improved the broadband service).

       What worked in the north, could work in Surrey.  With the involvement of several people  that I had met on the Ewhurst project, and their contacts, ‘Broadband for the Surrey Hills’ (B4SH) was formed.  I talked my nextdoor neighbour into supplying secretarial support to the fledgling company.  With the help B4RN employees, who came down south to initially help with the early route planning, we started the installation from the connection with the Zayo countrywide broadband spine in Staple Lane above Shere.

       With the willing support of the Albury Estate, with a free wayleave over estate land, and investment from several generous people, we were able to install the service to Silent Pool Distillers and Albury Vineyard and then across the A25 to our first cabinet at Home Farm, which we also used as a base for equipment storage.

       B4RN have continued to offer support to us with regular visits from one of their technical guys, who has passed on his knowledge to several of our technically minded volunteers, and who continue to monitor, and assist as required, with the B4SH service.

       In the end, my health problems started to slow me up (but not stop me!) out in the field, but I ensured that service to parts of Albury, Shamley Green, via a crossing of Blackheath and Farley Green, were a priority, and ensuring that my enthusiasm for community led broadband is passed on to a willing group of volunteers.   

Richard Floyd

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