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PICTURES: Seaside resort blooming lovely thanks to multi-million legacy

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 25, 2014

  • Lina Laitane aged 28, admires the daffodils on Park Hill in Sidmouth, Devon which have bloomed thanks to Keith Owen's legacy.

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A seaside resort is awash with colour thanks to the dying wish of a wealthy investment banker who left it millions of pounds - to spend on flowers.

Keith Owen, 69, made his fortune in the financial industry and travelled the world but always returned to his beloved Sidmouth in Devon.

When he was diagnosed with cancer and given only eight weeks to live he wondered how his £2.3 million fortune could ensure his favourite British idyll remained forever beautiful.

So he decided to say it with flowers - bequeathing the entire sum to the Sid Vale Association on the stipulation that some was spent on one million bulbs.

His dying wish became a reality when the town's residents mobilised last Autumn to plant the first 178,000 flowers - more than 10 for each of its 15,000 inhabitants.

And the daffodils, snowdrops, bluebells and crocuses he longed to see carpeting Sidmouth's parks and promenades are now bursting into life in an eruption of blooms.

Keith was born near the resort and spent most of his holidays in the coastal town admiring its beach, Regency architecture and picture-postcard charm.

He became an RAF pilot and in 1976 moved to Canada where he worked as an investment banker.

But Keith would regularly return for holidays in Sidmouth, where his mother retired, describing it as the quintessential English resort.

He even became a member of the Rotary club and supporter of the Sid Vale Association, Britain's oldest civic society founded in 1846.

While on a trip to the UK in 2007 Keith, who had no children, was told he had lung cancer and had only a short time to live.

He urgently gathered civic leaders to discuss his bequest before changing his will, leaving #1.5million in cash and £800,000 in property to the association after his death in December of that year.

The will stated that the capital should remain untouched but each year the estimated £125,000 interest should be spent on sprucing up Sidmouth and the nearby villages of Sidford and Sidbury.

Nearly £500,000 of Keith's money has already been spent on youth projects, including a new scout hut.

Civic leaders eventually hope to plant all one million bulbs to honour his last request, though they say it could take several more years because of the sheer number involved.

The Rev Handel Bennett, SVA president and chairman of the Keith Owen Fund, said: "Keith wanted to feel that he had left his money for a good purpose.

"We took down notes in his presence about what he wanted to do, one of those being to plant a valley of a million bulbs.

"We had an open plant the bulbs day last October with people coming, young and old, to support us.

"We had an 18-month child planting bulbs with his grandfather.

"We also had one lady who had been an evacuee here during the war years and she travelled back because of what Sidmouth meant to her.

"I think that's the sort of community spirit that Keith was trying to achieve.

"The first swathes of daffodils came bursting through a few weeks ago and there are more on the way. It's a wonderful thing for the community.

"Of course, Keith didn't just leave his money for bulbs, he left it for the benefit of the people living within the boundaries of the Sid Valley - and that money has strict geographical limits.

"He wanted to encourage local people and volunteer organisations to come up with ideas to help the residents who live here and to encourage young people."

Ever since 1819, when the future Queen Victoria was taken there on holiday as a baby, tourists have flocked to Sidmouth's beach, majestic red cliffs and Regency architecture.

Poet Sir John Betjeman once described it as 'a town caught still in a timeless charm' and it still attracts over 100,000 a year.

Speaking in 2007, Keith's only relative, brother Gordon, said: "Keith lived in Canada and had travelled around the world. But he fell in love with Sidmouth.

"Our mother retired there and he used to visit her a lot. He did not have any children or family so he left everything to Sidmouth.'"

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  • Sowester  |  March 25 2014, 2:48PM

    That's Peak Hill actually. So far throughout the town the daffodils appear to be all of the same classic variety. Rather unimaginative when there are so many interesting types available to achieve a more colourful effect. Let's hope they are still to flower.