Brian Barnes


Brian Barnes tells Jo Duckles about an accountancy career that saw him held up at gunpoint and 33 years as a church warden in rural Fingest, Buckinghamshire.

I meet Brian in a coffee shop in Oxford. His wife Margaret has come along for the ride, taking advantage of the chance to fit in a little shopping while she's in town. She joins us later in the interview.

Brian grew up in Hayes, west London, where his parents were married before the Second World War, and his first memories of church worship was school assemblies.

During National Service in the Army he went along with a friend to "try out this church business". The pair turned up at a building he describes as "awful".

"It was like a Portacabin on a camp in Wiltshire with a tinny recording of church bells. I still remember one of the first times I was there I was asked to take the collection. I had no idea what to do and was given a big dish and went to tip the money up into the vicar's hand when I was asked to hand it over during the service," says Brian, who continued going to church occasionally throughout his Army career.

He started worshipping more seriously when he met Margaret, whose parents were churchgoers. "She went along to church too, so we continued to go when we got married."

Within a few years of joining St Bartholomew's, Brian was confirmed and not long after asked to be churchwarden.

"Naively I thought there were lots of older wiser people who were more suited to the job.

"I was in my 40s and it took a while to realise they wanted to off-load it onto someone younger," says Brian, who enjoys the role but says it does make it hard to relax in services.

"I am responsible for putting on the show. I'm on edge, especially when there's a big service such as a carol service."

Brian trained as an accountant with the Civil Service after leaving school aged 17. He worked in the Land Registry, the Department for Trade and Industry and The Treasury until his late 40s, when he moved to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, a job that took him to Belgium, France, Italy, Libya and Canada. He remembers a trip to Tripoli in Libya, where he was held up at gunpoint by guys in black leather coats, who looked like something from the Gestapo.

"The Embassy sent someone to meet me but I was still marched across a square all for not having the right stamp in my passport. I was quite worried as this all took place soon after the Libyan Embassy siege in London and UK subjects were not the favourites of Colonel Gaddafi."

From Tripoli Brian arranged to meet a finance officer in Benghazi to negotiate the return of £30,000 that they owed the Commission. He was to be driven 700 miles and says: "When I put my seat belt on, the driver looked at me as though I was silly. But each time we came to a road block he put his belt on for it wasn't me they wanted to check but him. Every time they thoroughly scrutinized his papers," says Brian.

"It was scary as the last couple of hours of the journey were in total darkness. They think that if you put your headlights on it uses extra fuel and meeting heavy lorries coming towards you down the middle of the road was worrying. It's not a place I would like to go for a holiday."

Brian also had to travel to Canada, on a trip on which he took Margaret, who had never flown before and says she never will again.

Meanwhile in Fingest, Brian has been involved in major church projects.

One was for restoration work on the church tower.

"Ten to 15 years ago we had to raise £80,000 and the whole village joined in. The church is well loved and if we had told the village the church had to be demolished they would be up in arms about it. We had a number of fundraising schemes, but the one that continues today is 'teas in the churchyard'. People from all around, walking and cycling groups have it in their diaries and come every year," said Brian.

"For the past two years this has extended to our Candlemas day when many walkers and cyclists come for tea and homemade cake. The volunteers at these events are wonderful. It is like the fishes and loaves - cakes seem to come from nowhere."

The big project involved the unusual Saddleback Tower. He believes there is only one more like it in the UK, in Wales.

"It needed a lot of work, the scaffolding cost a lot of money on its own," says Brian.

"Some of the money was generated by a local landowner on his wife's 60th birthday asking friends to write a cheque to the church rather than buying her a present. One recent problem has been Gift Aid. In earlier days people arranged with their bank to create a covenant over five years but with the change to Gift Aid, the covenant scheme stopped and members of the congregation just used the Gift Aid envelope each time they attended a service."

The difficulty was that the income in recent years was the same as it had been ten years or more earlier but the expenditure was continually rising.

So a letter was drafted to all of the villagers, written by Jill, the other churchwarden, and Helen, the treasurer.

We have asked people to take out covenants in the form of a standing order, which puts a set amount into the bank each month on top of their offering at the service.

The response has been very good and has shown a marked improvement in our accounts. "Brian says that in the time he has been in Fingest he has not seen any real changes, apart from in technology and social media.

He says there are few children in the village as the cottages that used to be sold for next to nothing have quadrupled in price and are lived in by principally the retired or those commuting to one of the larger towns nearby.

Now only the farmer, the publican and the vicar actually work locally. So the challenge in our church is to continue getting double figures in terms of attendance.

The Hambleden Valley group of churches being a United Benefice has produced opportunities and challenges and the hope is to get more congregations to join together, moving around the Hambleden Valley.

Special services are a great help. For example on the first Sunday of each month there is only one service in the morning and one in the evening in the whole of the Valley in rotation.

This brings more people into each church, for Fingest for example every August there is a big service in the churchyard, weather permitting, with 60 to 80 people.

Candlemas is another particularly big event with 100 plus candles around the church," says Brian.

With a choir, a good congregation, a warm church and just candlelight the service is quite magical. Brian chuckles as he remembers the time Archdeacon Karen visited for Candlemas.

He says that during her sermon she noticed one of the candles was crackling and catching light to some greenery and suggested someone had better do something about that. In his "spare time" Brian enjoys offshore sailing and is also an RYA instructor, playing 5-a-side football, is a member of the Board of Management at the High Wycombe YMCA and chair of the Bucks Coeliacs.

Brian has been married to Margaret for almost 50 years.

The couple have two sons, Andrew and Duncan, who are both married, and three grandchildren.

Page last updated: Tuesday 25th January 2022 11:44 AM
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