Peter Bowles: charity organiser

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to Peter Bowles who, with his American-born wife Polly, runs the Buckingham Emergency Food Appeal (BEFA), which provides food at Christmas time for needy families and individuals.

In her latest Face to Face interview, KAREN BETHELL talks to Peter Bowles who, with his American-born wife Polly, runs the Buckingham Emergency Food Appeal (BEFA), which provides food at Christmas time for needy families and individuals. The couple, who live at Spa Common, North Walsham, finally married 10 years ago following a seemingly ill-feted long distance romance spanning 17 years and 5,000 miles . . .

After graduating with a degree in modern languages from Trinity College, Dublin, Peter spent 10 years working as a London insurance broker.

A job as export sales manager for a firm of maltsters then saw him based at Stowmarket, Suffolk for part of the year, with the remaining months spent promoting brewing ingredients in far-flung destinations including Africa, Japan and South America.

During one such business trip to San Francisco in 1978, Peter was introduced to Polly, who, at the time, was running a small group of homebrew shops in Houston, Texas.

The couple, who were both divorced with young children, hit it off immediately, and for the following couple of years, they conducted a long-distance love affair, writing often and seeing each other whenever possible.

Deciding that, with 5,000 miles and 3 young children between them, their romance could never work, the couple agreed to part, and while, for a time, they continued to correspond by letter, they eventually lost touch.

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In 1980, Peter moved to Swafield, where he set up a smallholding and vineyard, later buying Muckle Hill Farm at Spa Common. But he never forgot Polly and, 15 years after their last meeting, he decided to try and track her down.

Knowing only that she had moved to Ukiah in northern California, and that she had retrained as a nurse, in 1995 he wrote to her, addressing the letter: “Probably something to do with community medicine - postman, please try and find her”.

After being passed from department to department - and generating a great deal of interest among Polly's colleagues along the way - Peter's letter eventually found her and she wrote back.

The couple rekindled their romance shortly afterwards when, due to take a skiing trip California, Peter suggested they meet up.

He and Polly, who between them now have 6 grandchildren, were married at North Walsham registry office in 1998.

Around this time, Peter was asked by former neighbour and BEFA founder Mike Buckingham to take over the charity's annual collection of sugar from around half a dozen Norfolk schools.

Peter agreed and he and Polly went on to expand the scheme into a total of 60 schools. They now collect around 4 tons of sugar a year, with British Sugar donating a further 2 tons.

Four years ago, the couple took over the running of the charity, which, with the help of an army of volunteers and organisations including the Salvation Army, distributes fresh food donated by the farming community to homeless shelters, domestic violence refuges and Open Christmas schemes in Norfolk and Suffolk, and further afield in Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

BEFA, which last year sent out more than £80,000 worth of food, also uses cash donations to buy turkeys and Christmas pudding for community meals.

As well overseeing BEFA, Peter, 65, runs Christmas raffles at around 20 Norfolk businesses, raising £1500 a year for Sheringham-based charity BREAK.

To make a donation to BEFA, phone 01692 407262 or email

What is the best thing about your job?

Turning round at the end of the day on Christmas Eve and seeing an empty warehouse which, two days before, had been full of food. Ninety per cent of what we distribute is donated and it is nice to know that it has all gone to help brighten up the Christmases of people who would otherwise have had a pretty miserable time.

And the worst?

Quite simply, that we still have to do it; that there is still such a problem of homelessness, and that there is an enormous need, year-round, for the shelters. We know we are not a solution - just a sticking plaster really - but at the very least we enable homeless shelters to concentrate their limited resources on other things at Christmas.

What is the one thing you would save if your house was on fire?

A silver christening mug given to me in 1943 by my godfather, my Uncle Nick.

Where do you go to unwind?

To bed!

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

Probably the one that has the most memories for me, and that is Hunsett Mill. My grandparents lived just down the river in Sutton and, as a child, I spent every summer rowing up and down the Broads.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I'd like to knock 25 years off my age and go back and live those years again - but with Polly!

What is your proudest moment?

I felt enormously proud last year to win the Business in the Community Sieff award for the individual based in the community who has best collaborated with business to benefit society, but I was also very embarrassed as, if there is one thing BEFA isn't, it's that it is not an individual thing - it is very much a team effort.

And your greatest achievement?

Ending up in a place that I love, with a wife I love and a job I love.

Whom to you most admire?

Tony Benn because he's a man who has never varied his principles one iota all his life.

What makes you angry?

Bullies and liars.

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

Book: anything by Thomas Hardy, film: Brief Encounter, and, on TV, I enjoy nature programmes or BBC costume dramas.

How would you like to be remembered?

Just with a smile.