Piltown Filling Station

Proprietor(s): Barclay Vincent John Hillyer, and son John Stuart Hillyer.
Location: A376, Piltown, West Pennard.
Years of Operation: 1951-Present
Sold: Originally Esso, now according to value.
Interviewee(s): John Stuart Hillyer.

Barclay Vincent John Hillyer, known locally as Bert, was a character born of a haunting past. Bert fought in South-East Asia during the Second World War, and his boat was sunk by the Japanese as they escaped from Singapore. Forced ashore, Bert and his three fellow survivors had only one gun between them, which they alternated between one another. In a dramatic twist of fate, Bert had just handed the gun on to the next man when they encountered the Japanese. The man with the gun was shot on sight, and the three remaining soldiers, Bert among them, were captured and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Japan.

John, as a young boy, shortly before he moved to Station Road with his family in 1951.

The four long years of captivity Bert experienced at the hands of the Japanese never fully left him, and is probably part of the reason why he is so well remembered by the villagers of West Pennard and surrounding towns. One man wrote an evocative article for a local magazine on his memories of the filling station, and the unforgettable sight of Bert, in his blue overalls and cap, a lit Player’s cigarette hanging loosely from his lips and the petrol pump in hand. A smile is immediately brought to the face of Gordon Pope of Butleigh when I mention Bert. “He was a right character… I’d go up there late at night to fill up with petrol and he’d be sat in the shop watching TV with his nose right up, touching the screen.” John tells me that his Dad used to cover up the window of the shop with posters and flyers because he didn’t like strangers looking in.

After returning from the war, it took Bert some time to recover sufficiently from the trauma he suffered there. He moved on with his life, though, and initially found employment with Bartlett’s Garage of Glastonbury. Bartlett’s seems from my research to have been a hive of activity for the young, responsible for many an apprenticeship. John tells me that at the time when Bert worked there it was operating from the same site known to me as Abbey Garage, so it is possible there was some relationship between the businesses or that they were bought and sold from one another.

Bert and John outside the workshop in March 1978.

In 1951, Bert bought the garage at Piltown, a small hamlet indistinguishable to young eyes from the village of West Pennard proper. Even now the garage is still known to some as Station Road Garage, a name that hailed from the time when the local train station was still operating nearby. In order to buy the business, Bert asked his father-in-law, Mr. Foster, if he could help him out. Mr. Foster, a railway ganger by trade, obliged, selling his home on Aschott Corner in Meare to cover the deposit on the garage.

A view of the pumps from March 1978.

John was born a few years earlier, in 1947, and Bert’s business must quickly have shown its influence on him. From our short conversation it is quite clear that John lives and breathes for motors. Showing some of my period pictures he is quick to try and date each and every photograph by the cars on display. Looking at one of Harris Motors, which I can only estimate to around 1960, John spots a Land Rover and tells me they first rolled off the production lines in 1949. In the more recent photograph he recognises the Mini Special, which were apparently sold first in 1979. There were few cars he could not name and date.

Having already demonstrated his keen eye for detail, John also hints at his long years of service. Amongst my historical photographs is a picture of a Safeways supermarket during its construction in the distant town of Taunton. The picture must have been taken around the year 1994, when planning documents were filed for its erection. “The chap that was doing the forecourt in here, doing the paving… he came from Kent… A contractors? And he came here a few times and he bounced a cheque on me. About sixty quid I think… Yep… I wasn’t gonna go to the bother of going and getting it.”

The business as it looks today, 2010.

The key determining factor for the life of a filling station is, I have been told time and again, location. The favourable direction of traffic past your garage is its petroleum lifeblood. Unlike so many other garages I have visited, Piltown Filling Station is one exception that has not been starved of business by the construction of a relief road and remains a major road connecting the levels around Glastonbury with the towns of Shepton Mallet and Frome. My naive disbelief that an independent petrol station could still survive was confounded totally when I visited to take the photographs shown here – in the short half-hour I was there no less than six vehicles stopped to fill up. Even when I see petrol pumps on an unbranded forecourt I don’t believe my eyes and assume they must be antiques – but Piltown proves that physical circumstances can defy economic ones.

1 Comment

  1. Steven Walker · September 28, 2017

    Excellent coverage. I was a customer and my father before that. He would not deal with anyone else but Bert and John. My father Jacob Walker is now 92 and still lives with his wife in the village and have very long memories.

    Reply

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