Nicholas Owen on a Betchworth armed siege, M25 hamlet destruction and a life in journalism
PUBLISHED: 14:52 12 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:29 20 February 2013
From the destruction of entire hamlets to make way for the M25 to a dramatic armed siege in Betchworth, BBC newsreader NICHOLAS OWEN saw it all during his years as a cub reporter on the local paper
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2012
From the destruction of entire hamlets to make way for the M25 to a dramatic armed siege in Betchworth, BBC newsreader NICHOLAS OWEN saw it all during his years as a cub reporter on the local paper. Here, the regular Surrey Life correspondent, who has lived in Reigate for 30 years, brings us an exclusive adaptation from his brand new autobiography, Days Like This, in which he tells us about his exciting journalism days in Surrey
SELSDON, Sanderstead and Kingswood we moved around quite a bit when I was a child.
There had been great sadness, with my mother dying when I was eight. One thing remained constant. I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter.
Lacking any personal contacts, all I could do was to write to the editors of local ones. Cecil Gegg had been with the Surrey Mirror, based at Redhill, since well before the Second World War. He commuted every day from his home in Dorking by steam train. I never saw him without his jacket on, and I would never, ever have called him Cecil. Mr Gegg gave me a job. I was 17. The salary was seven pounds five shillings (7.25) a week.
Several of his wise pieces of advice have stayed with me. Always be ready, he said, to interview a duchess or a dustman. Getting ones own name in a paper getting a by-line was always an enormous thrill. It is still a thrill to see anything published with Nicholas Owen above it. In the 1960s, especially in the local press, by-lines were extremely rare. Theatre reviews were an example where anonymity could be breached, but only by a set of initials at the end of the article. In my case, the practice had a curiously negating effect on what I wrote. A piece full of what I hoped was useful information and insight would finish with NO in bold type. A couple of full stops would have helped. I expect the subeditors enjoyed leaving them out.
By-lines or no by-lines, I simply adored my local newspaper days. Surrey was changing and developing rapidly.
The M23 and M25 motorways would bring the roar of traffic to what had been quiet woods and valley. When I went to look at the motorway plans, I discovered that the intersection between the two of them would sprawl over 153 acres, obliterating at least one small hamlet in the process. I drove round to have a look at Warwick Wold, the little community that would be buried when the road builders arrived.
A deadline drama
No task bored me. I enjoyed getting, and writing up, every story. Life was reasonably peaceful. The most dramatic incident was an armed siege in the ironically named Tranquil Dale in Betchworth. I still pass it almost every day, and always think back to a dramatic few night-time hours in a young reporters life. Some domestic argument had turned violent in that quiet stub of a cul-de-sac. Nowadays, the police would undoubtedly keep everyone, press and all, well back. Things were a good deal less excitable in Betchworth circa 1966. I parked my rickety and unreliable car a hundred yards or so away, and strolled along Tranquil Dale.
A policeman was crouching beside his car. I wouldnt wander about if I were you, he said. The blokes got a rifle.
Sure enough, there he was, waving the gun out of an upstairs window. I sauntered away. The patience of the police eventually ran out, a small quantity of tear gas was used, and our gunman was marched out and off to the nearest nick. My front page piece ended with something on the lines of: Tranquil Dale went back to living up to its name once more. I have always thought I could have found a more elegant way to express the thought. But it was a very good story.
Sometimes a local reporter had a tale good enough to sell to the national press. Getting involved with Fleet Street was a two-way process. Editors in London wanted stories, and they would often need help to follow up a local angle of a national news item. A network of local correspondents was relied on.
Round our way, it was the Surrey Mirrors chief reporter, one Monty Burton. He was Burton of Redhill to the busy news desks in London. Burton gave in his notice after taking a job with a trade magazine. At his leaving drink-up, in a long-vanished pub close to the Redhill office, I asked him who would succeed him as the stringer for the nationals.
You can do it if you want, he said. I certainly did want. Owen of Redhill became the one agitating to get pieces into the dailies, and grateful for the extra few pounds they paid. The title was of great help when it came to knocking on Fleet Street doors. People knew vaguely who I was. I will never forget the sad but resigned look on the face of my revered editor Cecil Gegg when I told him I was off.
The years that have followed have taken me to several national newspapers, and on in the 1980s to the BBC, ITN, and back to the BBC. There have been many adventures. Journalism is still my passion. So is Surrey, living for almost 30 years in Reigate. And continuing to read the Surrey Mirror every week!
- Nicholas Owens new autobiography, Days Like This, is published by Blenheim Press. Priced at 9.95, it is available from all good bookshops and also online at blenheimpressltd.co.uk (plus postage and packing).