When Ernie Dowding’s body was carried out of St Mary’s Parish Church, Bideford, on 22 April to the great Elvis Presley ballad, Shep, there was hardly a dry eye in the place. ‘ERNIE’ made from copper piping, as befitted his trade as a plumber, and a wreath of red roses accompanied his coffin.
Anyone who lives, works or drinks in Bideford will have seen Ernie around town. Short and strong with a great mop of blond-white hair and long moustache, he could be seen disembarking from the Oldenberg, or walking his dog Sheba across the old bridge towards the Tarka trail, or enjoying a drink in the King’s Arms, the Blacksmith’s Arms or the White Hart. As one mourner said, ‘Bideford must be closed down today,’ so many people attended his funeral. The King’s Arms shut its doors for the funeral and hosted a drink for his friends afterwards.
Ernie spent much of his working life in recent years on Lundy where he maintained the Landmark Trust holiday properties. His knowledge of North Devon, but particularly Bideford, was second to none – not just its history, its architecture and its pubs but its artistic inheritance, literature and cultural and social life. He had been a Bideford Grammar School boy, and went on to work with the Leach pottery and with Harry Juniper. He was a talented artist and drew the illustrations on the ceramic ware. He also had fine handwriting.
Born in Hart Street, his family moved to East the Water and Ernie, as a great lover of sport, helped found the Shamwickshire football team and devoted a great deal of time to encouraging and organising Shammy activities over the years.
The great love of his life was Sheba, his black and white dog; the two were inseparable and Sheba was always fussed over in the various watering holes which man and dog frequented. He grew copious vegetables and flowers on his allotment; he was modest (as he was about his talents and his intellect), but he had a natural understanding and love of the earth and nature. I got to know Ernie on his allotment, and picked his brains for advice. He was very patient and, if he was sceptical about my efforts, certainly hid it, as he tried to give me a few elementary tips on horticulture. He loved animals, and was a good illustrator of bird life (Ernie also kept pigeons) and at his funeral a sizeable collection was taken for the RSPB. He died on 8 April aged 70. Bideford has lost one of its most interesting personalities.