Roy Formby 1929–2017
By Pat Ashworth (Pat has known Roy since the club’s early years).
Roy was born in Wigan and proved to be an enterprising and determined individual from a young age. He attached himself to the Scouts before the official age, and developed his love of adventure and the outdoors. On leaving school at 14, he persistently sought work in an area that interested him, as against his father’s fish shop. Starting in the drawing office of an engineering firm, Mellings, which made colliery winding gear, he moved to practical engineering, commissioning parts for the winding gear. He took over his father-in-law’s bike shop in Wigan, which he ran until he felt his wife Joan’s health would improve if they lived in the Lakes.
I first knew Roy when he was still in Wigan. He joined us in some of the small skiing groups that were a precursor to our massive Club holiday programme. He had been a member of the Ski Club of Great Britain and had tales to tell of ski touring holidays with SCGB reps. The holidays provided a break for Roy who cared for Joan through long-term mental illness.
It was on a holiday in Val d’Isere, a few years after his wife Joan had died of cancer, that we realised a new relationship was in the making, as he was phoning Whitney every night. As Whitney was brought up in Colorado, they went over to visit her family in the States and skied there until Roy found he was no longer fit to do so.
Club members who knew Roy knew that they would always have a welcome if they called into his shop in Grasmere. No longer bicycles but antiques, art and gifts. He has been a prominent member of the Grasmere community, and was President of the Grasmere Society at the time he died. Roy loved the fells, and sailing on Windermere. He was a risk-taker, not afraid to do things on his own, but also happy to share his pleasures. It is typical that he was out and about on his mobility scooter enjoying the environment when his scooter overturned and he sustained the head injury from which he died. Our thoughts go out to Whitney who was in Verbier with the club at the time. Whitney has expressed her appreciation of the support that her fellow holiday-makers gave her.
I encouraged Roy and Whitney to book into the same hotel as the Club when we went to Sauze in 2014. It was good to spend a day with Roy reminiscing. I can still recall a wander down the street in Val D’Isere after dinner with Roy informing me about the true value of the gifts and souvenir ‘tat’ in the shops. On another day in Sauze Roy took himself off the roads and ended up below the town in snow that was too deep to handle. A kind person rescued him from the deep snow and gave him a ride back on a snowmobile.
Roy has been in my life for 65 yrs and he was always a firm friend, never judging or commenting on my escapades but always gently suggesting answers or alternatives in his kind sensitive way. I am sure many other relatives and friends benefitted by his modest wisdom as did I.
Roy was born in Wigan in 1929, the youngest son of two boys born to Ada and Harry. They lived in Delph Street, which Roy later called Rat Avenue. The skin and hide works were over their back wall—and yes the rats were about and would run the length of the street’s shared attics. Times were hard. His mother took in sewing and was marvellous at making ends meet for the two boys even making their clothes. Ada eeked out the housekeeping from her sewing. She was an economical, practical and hardworking lovely lady. She was well known for her ‘Oven Bottoms.’ She used the leftover pastry from The Pie. It is Wigan after all. This was baked in the bottom of the oven with whatever she could find. There was one in her oven on the day she died.
When Roy left school at 14 his father wanted him to go to work in the fish market. Roy never liked fish - as some of you know. So at 14 and still in short pants he went to Mellings Ironworks at Worsley Menes to ask for a job. After repeated visits, the boss saw him in the hall and said ‘who are you and what are you doing here?’ My name is Roy Formby. The owner, Mr Melling, said I’ve heard about you, Come into my office. Roy’s determination got him a job in the drawing office. But everyone in the drawing office had a secondary education, so they sent him to Coventry. For the benefit of the Americans here, that means they wouldn’t speak to him. Being mechanically gifted, he became an asset to the firm. He insisted on going on the shop floor with the men to see how things were made. He later travelled all over the country assessing and asking the blacksmith to make special parts to repair the colliery winding engines that Mellings manufactured amongst other things.
He always loved the outdoors and looking back to when his brother joined the Scouts he would follow him to the meetings and jump up below the window to see what they were doing. His enthusiasm was rewarded and they allowed him in as a cub-let. Scouting was great fun. He learned about camping and walking too. He later had a bike and thought nothing of cycling to the Lake District on the weekends with his pals and walking some of the high fells and then cycling back to Wigan. Those skinny legs carried him a long way.
After the war, when Roy served his National Service, he was seconded to Chester for his mechanical abilities and he repaired the Famous Enigma Coding machines. The Enigma machines were used many years after the war up until recent times. It was then that he spent some of his time off in London. And where he saw his great Arctic hero, Scott’s ship Discovery, moored on the Thames. The Sea Scouts used it as a training ship until 1979. He went aboard to see if he could have a look around. They weren’t too happy, but when he told them of his Scouting background and that he was a Scout Master, they offered him a bed on weekends in London. So every weekend he got breakfast in bed with a copy of all the newspapers from Fleet Street. His Superiors thought he was joking when they questioned his weekend billet as being Scott’s ship, Discovery.
His talent with mechanical things helped him when he took over his father- in-law’s dwindling bike shop. He had to learn how to build a wheel. And again, success followed hard work. This is when Roy came into my life when I was 10 yrs old. He was then married to Joan, my father’s cousin. They took my brother and I into their life as if we were their own. The bike shop in Wigan was like an Aladdin’s Cave. We both helped Roy servicing the bikes. And Roy’s nephew Ian later helped him in the bike shop as well. From Roy I gained the inspiration to lead a useful life along with a great sense of determination.
When Joan became ill during their marriage he thought a quieter life would benefit her, so they moved to Grasmere where he set up Lakeland Antiques Art Gallery. He was a rock throughout her illnesses. He never wavered and I admired him for that. He found time to become involved in village life. He was a Trustee for Great Cross Housing Trust and a long term member and President of Grasmere Village Society. He kept up his membership of Manchester Ski Club, another of his great outdoor loves. And he found time to make visits back to Wigan and see family and friends.
After Joan his first wife died, he used the Art and Antique shop in Grasmere as his bolthole. He had a dog Tammy, but Tammy died not long after Joan. Once a neighbour spoke to him and said he’d lost his wife and now his dog, was he going to get a new one? Roy replied—Dog or Wife? Well in Dec 1996 he went to report an accident at Ambleside Police Station. The lady behind the counter was Whitney. He picked up on her American accent and asked where she was from. When hearing she was from Colorado, Roy said ‘I cracked 2 ribs skiing there in Steamboat.’ She said Steamboat was where she was brought up. He later got the private number for the police station from the Postmaster, Alan Green, who was a lifelong friend. (By the way, that number is a National Secret). He rang up and asked her to dinner. She did not give a reply until she had checked him out with the other bobbies, to see if he was a reliable person. He obviously passed the test.
They were married in 1998 in this church and a honeymoon to Africa followed. Whitney later worked in the shop with Roy and they made a good team. She was afraid that working all day with her husband and then going home at night would be hard, but it worked well. They both loved the outdoors and enjoyed many walks. They were able to travel a great deal especially when Roy retired and sold the shop. Roy accompanied Whitney to her church most weeks and got to know a whole set of new friends. Whitney has been there for Roy throughout various health problems, including heart surgery.
Roy faced all his difficulties with an enduring stalwart approach, never complaining. Whitney really looked after him and carried on regardless, taking him on holiday for extended periods to the USA, and last year to Greece and his beloved Isle of Skye in September. Roy’s nephew, Ian, has also been a great help in looking after Roy in his later years. And Roy always enjoyed Ian’s company and the time they spent together.
Roy loved to tell stories and one of his favourites goes like this:
One year Roy and Joan attended Lowther Horse Trials. Roy had his dog with him and needed the loo, as we men do. He saw a nice portacabin that he assumed was the loo. He tied the dog up and went under the rope bordering it. He went in and thought ‘This is nice, beautiful white towels with a crown on’. He used the loo and then went outside leaving the seat up. It was then that a young army officer shouted. ‘Will you come here!!’ He asked what he was doing there and that he had sneaked in’. Roy said he hadn’t and he had tied the dog up and then gone in. Roy then looked over past the officer’s shoulder and could see the Queen laughing in her Land Rover. He had had a Royal Flush.
Roy was the kindest, gentlest and most inspiring man I have ever known. His ethics and his honesty were an example to us all. I will greatly miss him.
I should perhaps begin by saying that my wife and I are not among Roy’s relatives or even his oldest friends, many of whom date back to his boyhood in Wigan. We came on the scene when he and we were half way through our lives.
In many ways it was an unlikely friendship. Our origins were similar—working class areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and South Wales. But our lives had developed in very different directions and at the time our paths first crossed I was an academic with a doctorate in music, teaching in a University and my wife Janet was a professional singer, performing all over the continent and crossing the Atlantic from time to time while Roy’s life had developed mainly through engineering and then commerce. On the surface it would seem that we had little in common beyond a mutual love of this wonderful area that we call the Lake District, a love that led Roy to settle here and us to come back time after time. But there was some additional spark that brought about a friendship that lasted for close on forty years.
We first met Roy in his shop. We had gone in to buy something—I cannot even remember now what it was: that doesn’t matter. More importantly we became engaged in conversation. Not that there was anything unusual in that. Roy was a good conversationalist. That, I am sure, was one of the reasons why he enjoyed working in the shop so much: he wasn’t too keen to do the VAT accounts but he loved meeting his customers. He was easy and comfortable talking with people from all walks of life and he was pretty knowledgeable on a surprising range of subjects. Above all he a had a great sense of humour. I have always maintained that in all adult Lancastrian males there is a standup comedian trying to get out and that was surely true of Roy. Conversations with him were always peppered with jokes, puns and humorous anecdotes.
Our conversation that afternoon became engrossing and when the time came to shut the shop Roy suggested that we might continue it across the road in the Red Lion. This we did for another half hour or so until we went our separate ways. And that might well have been that. But we have long been in the habit of coming to the Lakes two or three times a year and a few months later we called in the shop again and picked up where we had left off. We arranged to go walking together; we visited the house in Easdale Road, got to know Joan as well as Tammy, their cairn terrier, a little dog with a big personality, and very soon we had established a tradition that has continued every time we have come to the Lakes. Down to Easdale Road for a chat, arrange a walk and a dinner date at our hotel in Langdale.
We have a store of memories of our visits to the Lakes and a fair number of them involve Roy.
We were here when Tammy took his first walk on the fells. He was a six month old puppy at the time and it was a bitterly cold January day: the poor little chap didn’t know what to make of all the ice and snow up on Silver Howe. That was a day we have never forgotten for a different reason. When we got back to the house Joan had been on the phone to some friends in Cheltenham who had told her that it was snowing heavily and that our journey back to Bristol was likely to be hazardous—and so it proved; we left Easdale Road at about four in the afternoon and arrived home well after midnight.
We had many more walks with little Tammy over the next few years. He had a habit of choosing a stone which he carried in his mouth on the entire walk and whenever we stopped he would drop the stone at the feet of one of us. We then had to throw it for him to retrieve. Roy practised all manner of tricks to land the stone where Tammy wouldn’t find it but sooner or later it was back at our feet to be thrown again.
We were here for what we have always referred to as the one-and-only meeting of the Howtown Rambling Club. The Ullswater lakeshore path has long been a favourite walk; we have done it many times with Roy and Joan and then with Roy and Whitney. On that particular occasion our group of four was swollen by the addition of neighbours, friends visiting from Wigan and even an American couple who were in England on holiday, had gone into the shop and, surprise, surprise, had got into conversation with Roy. There must have been at least a dozen of us that day, with Tammy running around in circles and covering three times as much ground as any of us.
We were here for Joan’s sixtieth birthday; and we were here, quite by chance, the day she died—and we attended her funeral a few days later in this very church.
We were here when Tammy had his last walk among the fells. It was on a winter day in Little Langdale and the dear little dog, now very old by cairn terrier standards spent most of the time being carried in Roy’s rucksack, his little head peeping out over Roy’s shoulder. Roy was lonely at that time and probably kept the little dog alive a bit longer than was ideal. Next time we came he was gone.
We were here too when a new relationship began to flourish. I remember us going down to Easdale Road to find a chap doing some repair work on the front steps. “Is Roy in?” we asked. “No” was the answer. “He’s out somewhere with his new girlfriend Wendy”. Wendy of course proved to be Whitney and before long we had begun another friendship that has lasted twenty years already. We were here of course for their wedding and with Whitney’s collusion we paid Roy a surprise visit in the hospital in Blackpool when he had his quadruple bypass heart operation.
We were here for his 80th birthday when we all climbed Great Gable, quite a feat on his part given what had gone before but a testimony to his determination and strength of character.
We will continue to come to the Lakes for as long as we are able—and no doubt we’ll start each visit by coming over to Easdale Road, chatting with Whitney, perhaps arranging a walk and a dinner date. But Roy will no longer be there and that will take a bit of getting used to.
Farewell, old friend. Thanks for the memories. We’ll miss you a lot.