I remember the first time I met Ian Matthews, out-going Chair of the Guild. As I had walked up the stairs to my first Guild meeting I’d been asking myself why on earth I had agreed to go. Ian introduced himself and opened the meeting with the questions: what brought you to Redhill and what do you like about the area? In the course of the evening I decided that a group who actually liked and believed in Redhill was exactly where I wanted to be. Now he is resigning from the Chair I decided to catch up with him and hear what he’d made of the job and what kind of person he thought we should be looking for to replace him.
We met in The Junction (well, they are Guild members) and I asked him what brought him to Redhill. He came as a trainee accountant at Kingston Smith. “And now you’re a Director there?” I clarified, “You must like them.” He does. It is that quiet enthusiasm that impressed me the first time we met, and because it is one I share it becomes the energising force of a conversation that leaps energetically from families to Guild membership, moving house to Redhill town centre, Cardiff City to Redhill Lobsters, growing parsnips to growing the Guild, the history of town and Guild, the links and differences between Reigate and Redhill, CD collections to raising funds. Trying to get a grip on key facts in this maelstrom of information is like catching Autumn leaves: you continue not because you have high hopes of success but simply because it’s great fun.
Ian is not originally a Redhill man, though he lived here for 14 years. Born in Brighton, his family roots are further afield in Wales, hence the interest in Cardiff City. University was at Durham, where he met his wife. Let me stop there for a minute… Is it not a marvel that someone who has links with those three diverse, historic and beautiful cities should have such an interest and belief in Redhill? So what, exactly, is your problem…?
“There is an interest in the area,” he tells me earnestly, “There is so much potential, all the raw materials to be a thriving hub of business activity it just needs more time and investment. And it’s already coming… from the local council who recognise Redhill as an area that can make significant improvements for the local area; from businesses moving into the area; from the number of people who commute here…” He cites a plan recently published by the Capital to Coast Local Enterprise Partnership based on an intense study that showed surprising numbers of people streaming into the town every work day.
We come back to the problem of the night time economy. I mention the surprise I felt at the scope of the Public Space Protection Order and wondered how that might cause businesses who could be thinking of investing to hesitate. He reminds me of the reputation that Redhill used to have, and though few would claim the British Embassy Nightclub was Redhill’s finest moment, it did
used to draw in people from as far away as Croydon, a town not without its own considerable nightlife. I tell him that in its heyday the Football Club drew crowds of over 10,000 people. Both leisure activities that drew large crowds: you could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if the town is slightly nervous of its own success. That took us inevitably to the Marketfield Road development. Even though it is at least two years away, we talk excitedly about the potential for transforming the town but the conversation rolls to a natural lull and we pause and look at each other, both hesitant of stating the obvious: there are an awful lot of eggs being placed in this one basket.
But talk moves on and he is telling me about how he became involved with the Guild after seeing an invitation in the Surrey Mirror to attend the opening night. Coming on for 50 businesses turned up for that first event at the Harlequin, and although attendees do not reach those figures now, those who come are those with a genuine interest in the town: the Guild has always been more than just a business networking event. Ian was himself involved in setting it up with the enterprise team from Reigate and Banstead Council, Morrisons Solicitors, Generation Redhill and folk from Three Central. Initially it was chaired by Councillor Richard Coad and when he needed to hand it over, Ian was the obvious choice. “I should have seen that coming,” he says ruefully, but there is a smile in the tone that suggests he wasn’t dishonoured by the offer. He is moving on now as his work is now taking him overseas and with a young family at home, there is only so much time.
We mention Andy Nash and the great job he is doing at the Belfry, from events such as turning on the Christmas lights to the creativity behind the newly opened Ping Pong Parlour. Andy has been Vice Chair of the Guild for as long as Ian has been Chair, and will therefore be taking on the role in the absence of a replacement for Ian. Which brings us back to the purpose of our conversation. “What kind of person do you think we ought to be looking for when you go?”
“Someone who has the drive and time and vision to push this forward,” he says immediately. “We are still a relatively young Guild, looking at others the successful ones have been those who have had a chairman who has made things happen.” He dispenses information about what other Guilds have been up to like one who has more facts than he could possibly use himself; he has clearly done his homework. “I’d say it would take two hours a week of your time to be Guild Chair, but really it will take as much time as you can give it.” He leans forward to emphasise his point, “The thing is, we have the right team to support such a person, we just need to find the right one.” To that I would only add that while not an essential, clearly it wouldn’t hurt to have something akin to a Welsh dragon in your soul.
As lunch draws to a close we say our goodbyes and he heads over to the bar to arrange the Guild’s Christmas Drinks Party. I think how everything I have written has come under his scrutiny, I have done my best but sometimes had to admit, “I don’t think I’ve got that quite right…” and he’s returned it without censure but very much more coherent. I’m going to miss him, but not for long hopefully as he is planning on keeping his membership active. And what now for the Guild…? I am reminded of something from my favourite film: “There was a dream,” says Julius Caesar in Gladiator, “That was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile.” The thoughts, feelings and memories that come to mind when we hear the word Redhill are similarly inconsequential and yet they are powerful enough to take on the world.
So I am glad to say the Christmas Drinks have now been arranged from 6pm on 6th December, at The Junction. Please do come and join us, to celebrate some Christmas cheer, to give Ian a grateful and grand send-off and to celebrate the successes, endeavours and stories that collectively create a town.