Alan Billinghurst (22 Dec 1934 - 3 Apr 2022)

For Charitable
Donations To

North Curry Appeal of Bells

Funeral Director

Taunton Deane Crematorium Wellington New Road Taunton TA1 5NE
20th Apr 2022
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In loving memory of Alan Billinghurst who sadly passed away on 3rd April 2022

Alan J Billinghurst, Bridge Builder - The Earth Moved for Him

"On the day that you decide to build a road from there to here
The first thing that you need is a consulting engineer
He will do your thinking for you
He will put your plan in gear
He is the brainy bloke who’s got the know-how

When the plans are all completed and the time is growing near
To begin the job you need a contracting engineer
He’s the expert in the field and he’s the man who’s got the gear
He is the bloke who keeps the job a-rolling

He’s the man, yes he’s the man,
He is the one who has to carry out the plan"
Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, Song of a Road

On 3rd April 2022 Alan John Billinghurst left us the same way he lived: peacefully and calmly. He leaves behind his beloved wife of 60 years, Sheila, and his daughters Tessa (and son-in-law Pascal and grandson Alasdair) and Carla (late son-in-law Patrick and grandson Felix).

He also leaves behind some of the largest constructions in Britain – you wouldn’t think it to meet him, but he built things you can see from space. Go to Google Earth or Google Maps and you can follow the line of the M5 from Birmingham to Exeter, over viaducts and around towns.

Born 22nd December 1934 at the Elgin Nursing Home in Calcutta, in the last days of the Raj, to Herbert Billinghurst and Constance Spearman (who had married on 5th November 1927 at St. John’s Church, Calcutta), he belonged to a family of adventurers: Herbert built howdahs for elephants, the family drove up into the Indian Hill Country and Connie was famous for visiting Indian ladies behind the purdah. They left India in September 1936 arriving in Hereford in March 1937 where Herbert took up the post of Sub-Postmaster.

On leaving Hereford High School for Boys aged 17, Alan had gained 6-GCE ‘O’ levels, failed French and as he proudly said, “achieved no sporting achievements whatsoever”, setting an example for his descendants. He enjoyed the outdoors, however, canoeing the length of the River Wye three times with “Chips” Wood and the scouts, and attending Scouting jamborees and Rover moots in Hereford, Kinver and Coventry and the World Jamboree in Austria 1951. In December 1951 he commenced training as a civil engineer with Septimus Willis, Chartered Civil & Structural Engineer in Birmingham on the princely salary of £100 pa. From 1952 - 1956 he studied part-time at Handsworth Technical College & Birmingham College of Technology for National & Higher National Certificates in Mechanical Engineering plus endorsements for Civils, moving to lodgings in Kings Heath with John Maclean – the beginning of a life-long friendship.

In 1955 he joined the YHA and holidayed in Austria with John Maclean, stopping over in Paris then hitch-hiking & barn-storming around the Saltzkammergut area, over Brenner pass into Italy & back over Gross Glockner. On another hiking/camping holiday in the Black Forest with Richard Prosser & Allen Civil, he often told the story of one night in a castle unscrewing what they thought was a microphone in the floor but turned out to be the bolt holding up the light in the room downstairs.

In 1956 Alan’s father, Herbert, died and Alan was called up for National Service in the Royal Engineers. After applying for a Commission and passing WASB he was posted to Mons for infantry training, Chatham for bridge & explosives training and commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. While posted at Malvern, he took up sailing on the River Avon in a boat called Firefly. His salary was £264 pa. and the ambition of all young officers was to earn £1,000 pa by the time they were 30.

He bought his first car, “Annabella”, for £55 in 1957 and started travelling regularly into Wales rock climbing and walking with the Caving and Rambling Club where he met Sheila Sawkins in February 1958. He sailed a 40 ft racing yacht “Annasona” from Chatham to Holland & back with Mike Clark and in September 1958 spent his terminal leave climbing on Skye with Dr. Campbell Love from Glasgow before re-starting with Septimus Willis on a higher salary of £577 pa.

On 29 August 1959 Alan became engaged to Sheila. To test her mettle, he took her on a sailing holiday from Holy Loch, Scotland in the 40 ft schooner “Siannora”. She passed with flying colours and they were married on 27 February 1960 at St. Nicholas’ Church Hereford with a reception at the Booth Hall, Hereford and then honeymooned at the PYG hotel in Llanberris Pass where they climbed Tryfan Pass! It was a partnership of shared interests that would last more than sixty years.

Alan was appointed as Resident Engineer on Littlewoods new shopping complex in Birmingham and he achieved his Army ambition: aged 26 his salary was £1060 pa!

Tessa was born on 19 February 1961 and christened in April 1962 with godparents Ruth Wigmore, & Richard Prosser.

In 1962 Alan started work with Sir Owen Williams & Partners at their London office and then at Welton, Northants and was elected as a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Alan and Sheila bought their first home, “Orchard House”, in Harpole near Northampton for £2,600.

Carla was born on 23 June 1963 and christened in November at Harpole Church with godparents Wendy Hartwright, Margaret Prosser, & John Butler.

The same year they holidayed in Coombe Martin & Port Isaac with all the parents, somehow managing to cram everyone into a 1958 Ford Consul Saloon.

In 1965 Alan was elected as a Member of the Institution of Highway Engineers and started a long tradition of camping holidays with friends and family in North Wales, Norfolk (catching the tail end of Hurricane Betsy), Clovelly, Wells next the Sea. In 1966 another long tradition began when all the family gathered at Harpole for Christmas.

In 1967 Alan accepted the post of Resident Engineer on the Midland Links Motorway, joining the M5 and M6 motorways. The contract required construction of multiple junctions and viaducts including Spaghetti Junction.

The family moved to “Green Gardens” in Whittington, Staffs, went camping in the Lake District and all of the extended family came for Christmas in Whittington.
In 1968 Alan was awarded a B.Sc. from Aston University. On a camping trip to Northumberland that year, the campsite flooded and in September after a sailing trip from Tobermory, Alan and Sheila welcomed Alan’s mum Connie into a mobile home in the garden at Whittington next to the fishpond where she spent some happy years feeding porridge to the goldfish who grew in both size and numbers. Secret tip for goldfish owners – plenty of porridge!

They quickly became key members of the Whittington community and more family traditions began in 1969 when Sheila and Alan (and most of the village) put on their first Pantomime, ”Dick Whittington” followed in 1970 by “Aladdin”. This became an annual tradition with both of them involved with scripts and directing while Sheila managed the costumes and Alan did lights. His Whittington experiment with blacklight led to Tessa and Carla’s first theatrical performances as fluorescent invertebrates in a blacklight Ugly Bug Ball sequence.

At work, Contract C opened (West Bromwich) while Sheila’s parents travelled to Canada to visit their two daughters there and Alan’s mum went on a round-the-world cruise to Australia because she felt like it, tracked on a map on the wall by her grand-daughters. It’s worth mentioning here that Alan and Sheila simply love to renovate and when the second toilet went in at Green Gardens, Tessa and Carla knew it was time to start packing the teddybears. Sure enough, a big family Xmas at Green Gardens was followed by the 1971 Panto “Babes in the Wood” and then Alan was appointed Resident Engineer on the M5 Motorway Contract 13 in Bridgwater. The family, including Connie, upped sticks to the Old Vicarage in Chilton Polden.

The M5 and the renovation of the Old Vic were both long jobs. At the Old Vic, Alan and Sheila knocked through walls, created an extensive garden and installed a swimming pool which Tessa and Carla insisted on swimming in every April 1st regardless of the weather. Alan added a solar water heater made from an old radiator. Meanwhile on the M5 Alan was successively appointed Resident Engineer on M5 Contracts 12 & 13, Resident Engineer on M5 Contract 14 and Senior Resident Engineer on M5 Contract16.

The family could relax and concentrate on holidays to Charnmouth, Canada, canal cruises on the Brecon Canal, Paris and Hong Kong where they saw the sea, black bears, the Northern Lights, learned how to manage canal lock gates, discovered the French for “cockroach” and explored the joys of floating restaurants and snake bile wine. The Old Vic became famous for its parties and Sheila became active in the Women’s Institute. Alan grew much of the family’s fruit and veg which Sheila cooked, froze, pickled and made into jam.

By now they were driving around in a Hillman Imp and had taken up sailing at weekends. On a sailing and camping trip to Brittany the family discovered just how many bottles of wine would fit into the bilges of a dinghy and on a cruise of the Llangollen Canal Carla discovered that 50/50 is generally not the mix for Irish Coffee although Alan did say it was the best he’d ever had.

Alan’s varied bridge and road projects were always introducing him to new experiences. From aerial flights to take progress photos – “I thought I was going to be fine and then they took the door off!” – to the prefabricated box girders used to build the enormous Huntworth Viaduct from two sides of a valley simultaneously. Did they line up in the middle? Of course they did!

On the M5 contracts there were over 20 bridges and viaducts for Alan and his Bridge Engineer Ron Steele to build. The Huntworth Viaduct was the biggest of them: Southeast of Bridgwater the motorway crosses the River Parrot, the Bristol-Exeter Railway, the Taunton to Bridgwater Canal and two minor roads; furthermore as the alluvium at the site would only support a lightweight embankment, a viaduct carrying the motorway for about half a mile over these facilities was an economic proposition. The design was a twin steel box girder construction with a composite reinforced concrete deck. The main spans are 166 ft. and there are seventeen spans with columns founded on large diameter bored piles which extend well into the keuper marl beneath the alluvium.

From 1978 to 1981 Alan supervised the strengthening of Bray Bridge over the River Thames. 1979 was also the year he bought his first bright red Alfa Romeo - definitely his favourite cars.

In the late seventies Sheila’s mum and dad and then Alan’s mum passed away. With the offer of a job in Cyprus on the cards, Alan and Sheila down-sized to a smaller house in Chilton Polden. When the Cyprus job didn’t eventuate, they looked around for a village a bit nearer to Alan’s work and finally settled in Fosse End in North Curry in September 1982. It was love at first hammer blow! The renovating started immediately and they soon uncovered, hiding behind a truly nasty Victorian brick fireplace, a huge inglenook fireplace built with stone from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and some old ship’s timbers. In other parts of the house they found original wattle and daub construction.

CATS 83 was the first of many productions by the amateur theatre society Sheila and Alan helped to start up in the village. They put on pantomimes (of course), reviews and serious, and January 2000 saw the world premiere of a full-length video called "Marsh to Millennium" written and directed by Sheila with Alan supporting and about 300 people from the village encouraged, conscripted and generally inveigled into being part of it.

Meanwhile 1981 to 1990 saw Alan as Resident Engineer on the Obridge Viaduct, a complex project designed to divert traffic from Taunton’s congested town centre. The viaduct crossed both the River Tone, the Bridgwater to Taunton Canal and the Bristol-Exeter main train line. During the contract, Alan was often asked if he could “accidentally” dig up the power cables to the Tax Office and he once spent an afternoon jumping around with colleagues in a pit they uncovered during excavations, only to find out later they were jumping on the dried crust of a very deep and very liquid Victorian sewerage pit.

The only time to put the girders in place for the section over the railway line was a very short window in the middle of the night. We all went along to watch.

Tessa was studying in France where she met Pascal and they moved to Paris. “Oh good!” said Sheila and Alan, “We’ve always wanted to spend more time in Europe!” And they did with holidays to Alsace, Brittany, the Champagne, Berlin, the Czech Republic, Italy and Norway. Over time, they supported Pascal's family's champagne vineyard by drinking as much of the produce as possible and sharing it with family and friends.

For Alan other contracts followed including Cartgate to Yeovil, Nunney-Catch Bypass, A37 Coppits Hill & Frome bypass.

In August 1989 grandson Felix was born in the Forest of Dean and in December 1990, Carla, Patrick and Felix moved to Australia arriving New Year’s Day 1991.

Other people would have been daunted by the distance but not Sheila and Alan! “Oh good!” they said, “We’ve always wanted to see Australia!” And they did – with holidays to NSW, Cairnes, Tasmania, Perth and New Zealand.

In June 1994 Alan retired and slowed down…and we all roar with laughter and raise a glass because of course he didn’t!

In August, Alan and Sheila sold half of Fosse End & extended th other half. Meanwhile, grandson Alasdair was born in Paris and the Christening was arranged for North Curry church. Any excuse for a huge party, so a bus-load of French relatives were imported (amazing how many bottles of wine and champagne you can hide away in a bus) and billeted around the village.

In a memorable family holiday in 1995, Alan, Sheila, Tessa, Pascal and Alasdair flew to Australia, borrowed a Sydney City Mission minibus running on diesohol from Carla’s work and went touring vineyards up in the Hunter. It was one in a series of holidays in the Southern Hemisphere.

Alan retained his interest in bridge and viaduct construction long after retirement. Holidays were often interspersed with side trips to “look at a bridge”.

In 2012 Alan became Chairman of North Curry Society, following his interest in local history and showcasing local knowledge. As part of his work with the society he made a presentation about motorway building entitled “The Earth Moved for Me Too!”

Travelling and celebrating continued with multiple visits to and from France and Australia and in their 80s, Sheila and Alan and Sheila’s sister Jean and brother-in-law Bob met up in the USA and drove up the west coast, all along the Rockies.

Sheila and Alan celebrated their Golden Wedding in 2010 and their Diamond Wedding Anniversary in 2020. They were 60 years happily married and the celebrations continued for Sheila’s 90th Birthday in September 2021.

In his last years Alan ran North Curry Society and supported the North Curry Bell Fund.

Alan passed away peacefully in his sleep on 3rd April 2022 in Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton. He is missed by people all over the world.

To remember him, please do not send flowers – instead we are asking for donations to the charity, North Curry Appeal of Bells at: As an engineer and an active member of the village and its societies, the Bell Fund was close to Alan’s heart. And every time the bells ring, we will remember him and all those who donated.

"I have never been worried about dying – after all it's perfectly natural, and dying is infinitely preferable to
lingering on and being a nuisance.
I shall miss the love of family and friends but I have wonderful memories to look back on and I will be
eternally grateful for these.
On the plus side, inevitably, sooner or later, all of you will join me and we can have a big reunion party, or a
BBQ, depending on where we finish up. Since I will be there first I will have the pleasure of opening the
door and getting the drinks in.
Until then – take care."
(with apologies to Rowan Atkinson)

There will be a private Cremation on 20th April 2022.
Friends and family are welcome at the Memorial Service at North Curry Church, 7th May 2022 at 2pm.

Donations for the chosen charity, North Curry Appeal of Bells can be made directly by following this link:

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