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North Devon men honoured in New Year list today

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 29, 2012

  • Michael Gee

  • Michael Pitt

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TWO men from North Devon are among those recognised in the New Year Honours List today.

Orchard conservationist Michael Gee and former teacher and Royal Air Force veteran Michael Pitt have been awarded British Empire Medals in recognition of their work.

Mr Gee, 69, from Barnstaple, has received the award, which was only reinstated earlier this year to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, thanks to his work on orchards in North Devon.

Mr Gee began orchard conservation work around 20 years ago and has since set up Orchard Live, a 300-strong group which holds training workshops and talks to educate people about the need to preserve the area’s orchards.

He has no idea why he was nominated for a BEM, but thinks it may be to with the fact he is nearing his tenth anniversary with Orchard Live and will be stepping down as chairman this month.

He said: “I’m delighted. It will be a promotion of the work of Orchard Live.

“I got involved 20 years ago. At first it was just people doing talks and events and then ten years ago we formed Orchard Live. I never thought it would get that big.”

Mr Gee has been recognised primarily for his work in reviving orchards in North Devon, the numbers of which have declined in recent years.

“Most of the ones in North Devon were around when people drank cider, not tea and coffee, and they had huge work forces who they used to pay in cider,” he said.

As a result farmers no longer require the apples grown in the orchards and so they have been in steady decline as the land is put to other use.

But Mr Gee is insistent that Orchard Live does not exist to pressure farmers into keeping their land as an orchard, just to offer them the chance to attend one of his courses and learn about the possibilities an orchard can bring.

He has also been instrumental in the revival of the mazzard fruit in North Devon. After working with Landkey Parish Council and securing a lottery grant, the Millennium Green was formed in the village, allowing mazzard trees to flourish there.

“Personally I have been involved with the North Devon fruit, the mazzard,” said Mr Gee.

“It used to grow in North Devon about ten years ago. It is a very special fruit.

“I worked with Landkey Parish Council and we got money for a Millennium Green. Then children helped plant 60 trees altogether.”

But this year’s weather has not made for a particularly good crop and Michael hopes next year will be better.

Mr Gee will be attending an awards ceremony to receive his BEM in summer 2013.

“It will be nice to go up to the garden party and I will probably take my niece which will be lovely,” he said.

The BEM was reinstated by Prime Minister David Cameron after it was scrapped in 1993. It has been described as a working class gong and is awarded to people not of rank for their voluntary work.

Unlike an OBE or an MBE which are awarded by the Queen or the Prince of Wales, a BEM is awarded by a local lord lieutenant.

Mr Pitt has received the BEM in the New Year’s Honours List for services to the Royal Air Force and to the community in Woolacombe.

Mr Pitt, 92, joined the RAF in August 1936, straight from Bideford Grammar School, as an apprentice engineer.

However, like many boys of his age, he yearned to be a sergeant pilot but his dreams were dashed when he failed the medical because of his eyesight.

The Second World War broke out almost immediately on completion of his three year apprenticeship and he was sent to France with the 12th Squadron for ten months.

His squadron lost 25 aircraft in five weeks in the Battle of France.

Mr Pitt said: “Even now I feel the public tend to think the Battle of France was over at the time of Dunkirk whereas we had a very bitter struggle for a fortnight or more after that and suffered terrible losses.”

On being transferred back to the UK, he served with Bomber Command until 1942 before being sent to America for three months.

On his return home he became a Staff Officer at the Air Ministry.

In 1946 he left the air force and became a teacher, working for 25 years at Caen Primary School in Braunton, until retiring.

In 1985 he became involved with the 12th Squadron once again when he joined the Wickenby Register, named after the airfield where the squadron ended up.

Through the association he was able to meet those who had survived operations and others who were prisoners of war.

He also managed to trace relatives of men who had been killed.

Most years, from 1990 onwards, he attended the memorial services in Belgium and France.

He also raised money for the memorials to be refurbished. And he was instrumental in getting current serving members of 12th Squadron to attend those memorial services.

Mr Pitt, who lives in Bayview Road, Woolacombe, was also recognised for his services to the local community.

He served on Mortehoe Parish Council for 21 years, three of those years as a district councillor.

He also founded the Woolacombe and Mortehoe Residents Association.

A widower, he has one daughter and one grandchild.

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