Former Mayor honoured at Council Meeting

Denise (centre) with Henry Chipperfield and Preb/ David MacGeogh at the opening of the Tor Fair in St John’s Car Park in 2018

Former Mayor Denise Abbott was honoured by Dr Tim Hopkinson-Ball ahead of the October Full Council meeting.

Denise Abbott

Denise was an exceptional friend who I first got to know some 30 years ago. So, I thought a few words about her earlier life are appropriate, as the Denise that most people in Glastonbury knew, was not the Denise I first met in 1992. At that time, she was in her mid-40’s and it was difficult to keep up with her many ideas and activities.

At university, aside from her degree course (she received a First from Cambridge), Denise loved drama. Travelling abroad with a Shakespearian troupe during the summer vacations, she spent time in Italy, where Denise was taken under the wing of an Italian Cardinal who personally escorted her around museums and galleries in Rome. It was then that she acquired a life-long love of the Italian language. Although Denise toyed with staying on at university – indeed, she started work on a PhD thesis addressing renaissance magical gemstones – Denise instead joined the Civil Service, where she worked for the Commission for Racial Equality. Gravitating towards politics, Denise actively involved herself with the Liberal Party and remained sporadically engaged with the Liberals for the rest of her life.

Leaving London, Denise moved on to Lancaster where, at 19 Castle Hill, she established ‘The Ordinary’, an eighteenth-century style eating house, where authentic food, costume and a period environment were all lovingly recreated. It was her time at Lancaster which lead Denise into professional historical re-enactment, a career which she pursued until her retirement.

Moving to the Cambridgeshire fens, Denise worked in the Elizabethan kitchens at Kentwell Hall, before moving on to Peterborough and Ely Cathedrals, where she set up educational programmes for schools. At that time, Denise inhabited a tumbledown cottage in the hamlet of Ramsey Mereside. In the middle of her kitchen, slightly elevated amongst the chaos, stood a chaise lounge. Sleepy dogs could often be found sprawled upon it, while humans were expected to stand or find somewhere to prop themselves. Dogs were perhaps Denise’s greatest love. She could often be seen walking her dogs in Abbey Park, here in town. Denise always took on rescue animals, often with problems, but she had infinite patience and never gave up on them.

Denise was next engaged at the Castle in Wisbech, a Regency villa in the town’s centre, where she created a number of educational days for primary school children. These including Tudor, World War II and Victorian ‘experiences’. The Victorian day ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was the most popular. Denise was very much in charge, playing ‘Mrs Tuffs’, the House Keeper. Her back ram-rod straight, clothed in a steel grey dress, with her hair in a tight bun and a stick at her side, Denise genuinely put the fear of god into children, who had rarely meet with such a stern figure. Her time at Wisbech was hard work – she provided four days of re-enactment a week, for 60 children a day – but it was tremendously rewarding and something at which Denise was sublimely gifted, effortlessly slipping into different persona and knowing just how to spark a child’s imagination.

During her time at Wisbech, I often talked to Denise about Glastonbury’s history and traditions. Growing interested herself, she spent time in the South West took before moving to Somerset. Living briefly in Evercreech, Denise settled in Glastonbury, immediately engaging with an art course at Strode College. Producing all manner of mixed-media, fabrics and ceramics, Denise excelled at the latter, using the abbey as inspiration for her final year major project. Some of you may recall the strange, yet delightful ceramic tree she exhibited in the abbey’s orchard. Denise’s creativity was something people often overlooked, but she was never happier than when she was bringing an idea to fruition.

Persuaded to stand as a candidate for the Town Council by Tessa Munt, Denise was duly elected a councillor, before becoming Deputy Mayor in 2017 and Mayor in 2018. Having already acted as Denise’s escort for a year, she decided that I would make a good Mayor’s Chaplain. Now, having arrived in Glastonbury, Denise explored all manner of spiritual paths, including crystals and mediumship, tarot and Druidry, and it was the last of these to which she loosely adhered, building a small stone circle in her garden in Bere Lane. But she had no true spiritual allegiance, other than her love of dogs and her friends.

Acting as her chauffeur, chaplain and dresser, I shared a remarkable two years with Denise, as she both proudly and soberly represented Glastonbury to the wider world. Always standing out in the crowd, she regularly sported brightly coloured glasses and impressively feathered hats. Her last formal engagement was at the Town Hall in Axbridge, a bitter sweet occasion, as Denise thought it would probably be her political swan-song as both Mayor and Councillor, and indeed it was.

It is impossible to sum up a life, but I can say this. Denise put the community before herself and always tried to work for the greater good, even if it resulted in disapproval from some quarters. She was a quirky, single-minded and generous woman, who could on occasion be difficult, or just as easily, be so very kind. I know that she hoped to be reunited with her dogs after her passing and I sincerely hope that where ever she is, and where ever they are, they are together again and at rest. I’m sure I speak for all us that knew her, when I say I’m not just grateful for Denise’s service to this council and to this town, but for her friendship and her love.

T.F. Hopkinson-Ball