4th August 1946
When choosing William Burke for this series of “A year in the life of”, I knew in my own mind he would be one of the most inspiring people I could ever have the privilege of interviewing. It is therefore my hope and belief as you read his life story and hear about his work, you too will be greatly touched by his commitment, not only to the Churches that are his responsibility, but to the wellbeing of his Parishioners. I have every confidence that you will find him the same as I have – a truly remarkable person.
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William was born in Redruth, Cornwall on the 4th of August 1946 to Alexander who was serving as air crew with the RAF in Burmah, and Rachel who was Scottish and had lived in Perthshire before moving to Argyll and thence to Cornwall. William’s early wish was either to become a Priest or a Shepherd out on the Trossocks. Although he has achieved this former desire, the nearest he has got to the latter is always ensuring there is a traditional breed of sheep grazing in the Churchyard. These are normally Black Hebredian or Soay, rare breeds contemporary to St Kyneburgha, the Royal Abesss who was buried at the village Church of Castor, in the seventh century and is where William has now been the Rector for nearly 20 years.
Whilst his father was serving in Northern Ireland, William’s school days were spent at Kings, Worcester where he tells me he did not excel. Some may think otherwise! However, as a nineteen year old he decided that a career in the army would be the ideal move, so in 1965 it was off to Sandhurst where in 1967 he was commissioned into the Inniskillings. During his time at Sandhurst he realised it had certainly been the right decision to join up and his life as a successful and most respected soldier was just beginning. William partook in the pleasures that both Horse and Hound can bring and hunting with the Staff College Drag, Garth and South Berks, Mr Goschens, South and West Wilts as well as the Royal Artillery became an all important part of this young Soldier’s recreational activities. The horses he hunted had plenty of experience and were supplied by the Mounted Infantry or the Garrison Saddle Clubs. On Wednesday afternoons whilst at Sandhurst, Hal Chavasse his Company Commander ensured there was time for his men to enjoy some beagling. This was with the Army pack, the Sandhurst, whose hounds were kennelled in the grounds of the College.
Throughout the period from 1967 to 1990 William served with various special service organisations but mainly with the Inniskillings, which later became the Royal Irish Regiment. There were tours out to Northern Ireland, Germany, Cyprus, Belize and the South Atlantic and life was never dull for William. Suddenly, out of the blue, news came of the harrowing death of a colleague and very close friend. The horrific incident was to change William’s life forever, and his early wish of joining the Priesthood returned to him and was to become a reality. In his own words “this was going to be something far flung from what it is like to be a regular soldier.” At that time though William knew in his own mind, he was being called to the Church and deeply wished he had been at his friend’s side at the time of his death”.
Like many good soldiers, William’s life until then had been entirely devoted to the Queen and Country. His life since, has been devoted to God and the Church as well as Queen, Country and everybody around him. Being a thoroughly good man it made perfect sense for him to go off and study Theology which he did at Ripon College, Cuddesdon in Oxford. He was ordained in 1992 and it wasn’t long before he, his wife Diana and their family found themselves in an Inner City Parish in Watford, where the biggest single ethnic group were Asian/Muslims. It was an Anglo/Catholic Parish and was where William worked out the theology of his priesthood. This means dealing with people as you find them, accepting them as they are and seeing how one could help. His lasting memory of this period in Watford was being privileged to spend his time amongst what he describes as, a really good solid group of hard working Parishioners, who were totally committed to the Anglo/Catholic tradition of the Church. In his typical warm hearted way William also worked closely with those from the Muslim faith, which he found to be most beneficial to both communities. He was Priest here for four years and sums this up by saying in this most humble way, “I really did learn more from them than they did me, you know.”
In 1994 William met Sir Stephen Hastings and a while later was asked to lunch with him at Milton Hall, close to the City of Peterborough. Sir Stephen as well as being a former MP and Master of Foxhounds was the Patron of the Livings of Castor, Marholm, Sutton and Upton as these churches were in need of a Rector. After a while they agreed between them and a move was made from Watford to the Eastern Counties. The people and the whole area were totally new to William, but there have been as you would expect, no regrets whatsoever. To leave the army was one thing, to go to an Inner City Parish was another, but to then up sticks again for Parishes that were surrounded by one of the largest family estates in rural England was a different challenge again. The decision was made much easier for William, as one very special person committed herself to making his time here work. This was the Hon Lady Hastings, fondly known as Lizzie Anne, a staunch Roman Catholic and was loved and adored by all who knew her, from whatsoever background they came. Looking back on those early years when the Burke family first moved, he remembers that Lizzie Anne became the most wonderful source of advice and support he could ever have wished for. Sadly only three years after they arrived, Lizzie Anne was diagnosed with cancer and whilst she fought it with great guts and determination, sadly it beat her in March 1997. A remarkable person and a truly great friend had been lost to all of us who lived and worked at Milton. As a tribute to her William arranged for all his Parish Churches to hold Roman Catholic Services, something she would have been hugely proud.
Whilst it became well known after Lizzie Anne’s death that the foxes on her Milton and Wentworth Estates started to behave in a rather strange manner, William related to me the true but lesser known story of a hare. Lizzie Anne as was a most enthusiastic Egyptologist and adored hares. So much so she always made sure there were cushions depicting this animal scattered all around the house. In the twelve years I was at Milton I never once saw one in the Park and I do not believe anybody else did. The Beagles and Bassets both hunted regularly up to the wall but no hare was ever seen crossing into the Park. It was not because they couldn’t, it was just somewhere they didn’t seem to go. However, two days after her death Sir Stephen was working at his desk when he happened to look up and there was a hare lolloping about on the drive in front of the house! Instead of running off, she came right up to the window. (This incidentally was exactly the same place a fox was seen a day or two later.) She then turned away and totally disappeared, seemingly into thin air. When Sir Stephen mentioned this to William, he said with confidence, that Lizzie Anne had sent a sign to say, “don’t be anxious, don’t be afraid, I promise you I am alright”. For two foxes and a hare to do the same thing is extraordinary and there is no doubting it makes us stand back and think. After this experience both Sir Stephen and William agreed that a hare should feature on her tomb stone and that is exactly what they did, as you will see from the picture to the right.
Life is never quiet with six Parishes to look after and William’s year is dominated by the seasons as he sees them, Christmas, Mothering Sunday, Easter, Harvest and Remembrance. The way that Christmas Eve is celebrated in Castor and Ailsworth is certainly a little different to most, and this is entirely down to William. For many years now the Fitzwilliam Hounds have met on the Green and as the hounds trot down to the Meet, William ensures the Church Bells are rung loud and clear to welcome them. This is the beginning of the celebrations and brings together a large crowd which fills the village green to over flowing with those wishing to savour this very traditional experience. Later that afternoon many of those who already will have been to the Meet are there attending the family Carol Service. Under his watch this has become a most special occasion, with donkeys, sheep and even the odd camel taking part. He recalls the time when a lady, who had not been to Church for thirty five years, decided to go and take her grandchildren and the donkey stopped abruptly right in front of her, there was no budging it. Eventually it put its head forward and stared straight at her for a few minutes before deciding in its own time to move on! The certain lady is now a regular church-goer!
The traditions of Castor and the surrounding villages are beautifully demonstrated on a tapestry which was created for the Queen’s Jubilee. Village life, farming, and scenes of the Fitzwilliam Hounds in full cry have all been created into an eight foot by four foot piece of work, which hangs in the Church and is much admired by those who visit. The local fox has also found himself featured on it and so he should as he is just as an important part of life in and around there as everything else!
Each season has its own distinctive character and William makes the most them by using different themes that will appeal to his
congregation, which of course covers all different ages. He loves his work and as a result attendance at the Parish Churches of Castor, Marholm, Upton, Sutton and Water Newton, and Stibbington are very healthy. The input that goes on behind the scenes in organisation is what makes the difference between success and failure and the Church is no different. Whilst preparing for Services takes up a considerable amount of time, Baptisms, Weddings, and Funerals all have to be fitted into the calendar, some of course at very short notice. William and his small team around him have to be well organised. There is one other ingredient of life in his Cambridgeshire Parishes which is hugely important and should never be overlooked, that of visiting the elderly and the sick. Many he will have known for a considerable number of years, through their working lives to retirement and old age. A call to see them, a cup of tea, and maybe a quiet moment of prayer makes all the difference to somebody living in lonely circumstances and William knows just how much a visit means to them. I was reminded just how well respected he is by old and young alike when I called to see him recently. As we made our way to the pub we met some young people walking down the road. He knew them all by name and they knew him with smiles and a nod being exchanged. This does not only tell us of the popularity of the man but just how important his role is in the life of the villages around him.
As William enters his final year in these parts, he looks back at his days which have been happily spent in the beautiful buildings and stunning churches of his parishes, in the company of generous people that work so hard for their community. To each and every one of them he is eternally grateful. Quoting Mathew Chapter Six, it tells us, “The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we should see that and honour it in the people, our animals and the countryside around us”.