Early Days



Feeding pigeons at Trafalgar Square, September 1950
Mummy and me at Hampton Court Palace, August 1955

The first place I remember my mother and I living was at 32 Morehall Avenue, Folkestone where three significant things happened. The first was in 1952 when we were in the garden busy filling the obligatory pig bins which would be collected to feed the pigs; no food was wasted in the late 1940s and early 50s when rationing was still in force. I remember somebody saying, “The King is dead!” The next thing everybody was looking over the fence saying, “Oh my God! The King is dead!” King George VI had died in his sleep the previous night and I remember that so distinctly as everyone was utterly shocked. It was no distance, just twenty-one miles to travel on the ferry over the channel between Boulogne, France and Folkestone and we accommodated students from a language school. Another time I recall was when our boarder, a French boy, Jean Pierre, brought very smelly cheese into the house and my mother banished it outside. “It’s not coming into my kitchen!” We kept a canary in a cage and the second year we hosted a boarder, Bernard, and whilst he was staying with us, the canary died. My mother thought it was very odd as the bird was absolutely fine and suddenly it just dropped dead. Our neighbour came over and my mother said, “I’m really surprised because the canary’s dropped dead.” He opened the cellar door and it was full of gas; there was a gas leak in the cellar. If we hadn’t kept the canary, the house might well have blown up. Canaries used to be carried down mines by the miners to detect gas. I also remember that a fierce Alsatian dog lived next door, and it would jump at the fence. Once it ripped my mother’s blouse and injured her shoulder. I haven’t trusted that breed ever since. We then moved from Morehall Avenue to a maisonette at 26 Christchurch Avenue, which was close to the centre of town and St Margaret’s School. We occupied the top two floors of the house and it had the most amazing long mahogany bannisters with a roundy-bit; I could get up speed around the corner and slide all the way down to the bottom floor. Other times I practised with my hula hoop and rode my scooter up and down the road.

St Margaret’s School

St Margaret’s School was run by a Persian gentleman, Mr Hassan, and his wife. A number of the girls were Persians because in those days Persia was very pro-England, and the ruling Shah wanted educated women for a modern Persia. When all the terrible things happened in Iran (as Persia then became), I said to Graham, “I wonder how many of those well educated women made it out?” Westernised educated people, especially women, were a major target of the Ayatollahs who persecuted them. Mr Hassan was very keen on dramatics and we put on fantastic pantomimes every year. I have pictures of me as a teddy bear in a pantomime, others of me as a cannibal (I was the head of the cannibals) and a picture of me being presented with a cup. It was a very happy school and I had a lovely time. Mummy wasn’t working, she was just looking after me because it was very difficult for women to work in those days especially if you didn’t have transport. She was on her own with a child; she didn’t have any parents or anybody to help her look after me – no siblings, no one, and employers didn’t want women with encumbrances.
Saint Margaret’s Folkstone
I’m hard right looking scary as a cannibal in the St Margaret’s winning performance of Sinbad the Sailor 1956
The cast re-enact a scene around me holding the trophy
I’m third from the right, Jack and the Beanstalk, St Margaret’s, 1957

When I was living at home with Mummy, I met some of her friends and I read an enormous amount, often by torchlight once my light was supposed to be off; I was a great reader, and I still have many of the books that I read then. Our house is full of books as Graham and I are avid readers.

In the summer we often went swimming at the baths in Folkestone where Cross Channel swimmers would come to practise, and we also spent a lot of time at the beautiful pebble beach. There were many apple orchards around Kent; it was the garden of Eden and during late summer in England there were masses of wasps. On one occasion my mother was sitting on the beach and about to indulge in a jammy dodger; she bit into a wasp hidden in the biscuit, which stung her tongue. It started to swell, and we raced to the doctor who told her she was jolly lucky it wasn’t a bee, because if it was a bee, the swelling would’ve been much worse, and she could’ve choked to death. The ordeal was rather scary. We carefully inspected biscuits before eating them after that.
When I was nine years old, my mother went to work as a school matron somewhere, and I became a boarder at Saint Margaret’s School. Maybe she needed the money or maybe she had suffered a nervous breakdown, I don’t know. I discovered later that Mummy did have mental health issues. Being matron of this other school meant she could take the school holidays off and it worked out very well. I had a great time at school, and I loved it. I already had friends and now I made even more friends with the boarders; I thought it was marvellous.

However, I remember one particular incident at school. My mother didn’t believe in girls wearing liberty bodices, she thought they were unhygienic. It was two weeks into the school term and when I took off my vest somebody went “Ooooh look at you!” I was all spotty and one of the matrons heard this and raced in and said, “Oh no! German Measles; now the whole school is going to have to go into quarantine.” It was a big deal and before vaccines and just about everybody in the dormitory contracted the highly contagious disease. School life carried on; we just weren’t allowed to go out for a few weeks until it passed.

Newspaper article on our trophy-winning cannibal performance in Sinbad the Sailor

Eleven-year-olds seemed absolutely amazing to me as a nine year old as they were junior prefects and one was chosen as keeper of the tuck cupboard; then suddenly I was eleven years old and the keeper of the tuck cupboard. Everyone was given tuck when they arrived at school, comprising sweets and biscuits and their own books, and it was put in the tuck cupboard, which was only opened on a Friday evening. I held the key and it was my job to open the cupboard, and then to ensure that the boxes were put back. I thought it was a huge responsibility!

Academically Saint Margaret’s was a very ladylike school. The students didn’t sit the eleven-plus exam, which is an examination that all children at state primary schools took in those days. Through sitting the eleven-plus exam, you were segmented into grammar school or secondary modern but in a private school it wasn’t necessary because it was assumed that you’d continue with a private school education. When my mother married again, we moved to Portsmouth, where Bob owned a big double-fronted house at 211 Havant Road, Drayton. One of the huge rooms at the front contained a boat that Bob was building, and I thought it was really funny; but it was a big house, and it didn’t matter that a whole front room housed a half-built boat. My mother met him through some sort of early dating system, and he came with two daughters, Mary the eldest of the two, and Ann. His wife had dropped dead from a coronary heart attack on the stairs in front of the girls when they were nine and eight-years old. His girls were motherless, and my mother felt it was high time I had some sort of father figure, so it was most probably a marriage of convenience.

I spent ten days with my godmother Aunty Una who, incidentally, had mumps at the time, which fortunately I didn’t catch. None of us girls attended their wedding. When I reached my new home in Portsmouth, shock horror, the girls were at the local primary school, just down the road and I had to go there for a term. When I started, they said, “Goodness gracious, you haven’t done your eleven-plus!” The exam was usually held in February each year, but there was a contingency date in late May or early June for children who had missed the exam due to ill health etc. Primary school children were geared up for eleven-plus and questioned on a range of subjects throughout the school year. I arrived at Portsmouth Primary School and my teacher was Miss Moore who wore a bun on the top of her head and possessed a terrifying collection of canes of different lengths and thicknesses. Seven of them sat on the top of her desk; I’d never seen anything like it. She called children up and if they couldn’t answer the times table questions quickly enough, they received a whack around the back of the legs. I was told I needed to take the eleven-plus and I asked what it was. “Oh, this child knows nothing, she’ll never pass,” they said. I passed it with flying colours. While I’m no academic I am academically inclined and a quick learner.

I was there the whole summer term and regardless of whether it rained or shined, we lined up in the playground and were counted before being issued with a third of a pint bottle of milk. The milk crates were kept in the sun so when we finally received them the milk was warm and revolting. That was a real eye opener.

Bob and Margaret, 211 Havant Road, Drayton, Portsmouth
We three girls were then all sent to Portsmouth Public Day School and Mary and Ann, who were in the prep school, needed to sit the common entrance exam to get into the senior school, from which I was exempt. Mary wasn’t academic, and the school thought she wouldn’t pass; when somebody suggested she’d have to go to the local secondary school, my mother and Bob weren’t having any of it. “She will not. She has a sister who is a year older and a sister a year younger and they are both attending this school. She will come here, and you will take her,” she said. The school must’ve listened to her as that’s what they did, and it worked out very well. I spent two years at Portsmouth Public Day School, one of the top academic day schools in UK, and it was a wonderful school. We wore grey coats and a grey bowler hat with a big hatband as part of our uniform. The headmistress, Miss Thorn, was as scary as anything; a Cambridge mathematician, she swept about the place in her black academic gown. She only took the really intelligent ones for maths and maths isn’t one of my subjects. One ghastly teacher who taught us Latin, Miss Oppenheimer was German and that was a nightmare. She threw chalk and board rubbers and none of us knew whether she was shouting in Latin, English or German. The only other teacher I remember was Miss Glennister, the history teacher. I had already started to develop a love of history and she really fostered that passion; she was such a fantastic teacher, one whose class you never wanted to leave.
Miss Glennister my history teacher

Portsmouth Life

Sisters. Mary, me and Ann on Swanage Beach
Mummy with Poppet on a beach near Newton Ferrers

Suddenly it was very exciting for me; I was the eldest of three, living in a big house with a huge garden, my stepfather was busy building a boat and I had two sisters to play with all the time. I thought Bob was wonderful, but I didn’t have anything to gauge a father-figure by as all my mother’s friends in Folkestone were widows. Looking back, I probably lived quite a disadvantaged early childhood, but I never considered it to be deprived at all, ever. My childhood was wonderful as far as I was concerned.

My stepfather Bob, I always called him Bob, had worked in the development of radar and so he joined the Admiralty Surface Research Establishment (ASRE) on the hill up above Portsmouth, where they were housed in a forbidding set of red brick buildings. He was an electrical engineer and a brilliant scientist. During the war Bob was instrumental in developing the JYA Table – sort of a radar in a table. People often asked me why I was Edwards and everyone else in the family was Harris. Even at such a young age I felt it important to maintain my own surname.

What Bob lacked in affection my mother made up for plentifully; she was always affectionate. She was very good at keeping us all in order. We were all required to help, and we received pocket money. As there were three of us there was a washer, a dryer and a put-er-away-er, and it was always a fight over who was going to do what, so we made a roster. We’d all come in from school and there’d be tennis rackets, or school stuff thrown all about the place. When we were out doing something, my mother went around with a large box and put anything in it that wasn’t where it was meant to be. She only gave the item back when we paid her some of our pocket money, which for us was disastrous. It worked very well, we learnt quickly not to leave gear scattered around or we’d have no pocket money. We employed an ancient and very deaf gardener, George, who looked after the large garden once a week, and Mrs Paice, a very large cleaner with an annoying little girl, who trod on my precious Lonnie Donegan ‘78 rpm record. I never left a record on the floor after that.

In the past, my mother only needed to cook for two and she never cooked much as she had so little money, it was very simple food; meat and two to three vegetables. Now she needed to cook for five people, so she was able to experiment a bit. Bob’s mother, Grandma Harris would come up from Devon and she taught my mother how to make junket, which my stepfather loved, especially served with clotted cream. Grandma would come to stay, and I would go into the kitchen and say, “Mummy, what is that?” and it would be a tongue, unprocessed lying on the table. “Oh, Grandma is here.” She made what I call, old-fashioned dishes. My stepfather was an extremely fussy eater. If he took us to a restaurant, which he did on our birthdays or Mummy’s birthday, he always ordered Dover sole, never meat because he couldn’t bear fat. If the slightest piece of fat reached his mouth, he’d leave the table, and you wouldn’t see him for hours. Bob loved steak and kidney pies, and pasties which Mummy made, but she had to ensure the meat was clean as a whistle with not a scrap of fat.

As children we had been taken to Swanage for a beach holiday, but generally we stayed local, people just didn’t go overseas for holidays in those days. We often visited Grandma Harris who lived at Newton Ferrers, a beautiful village on the River Yealm in South Devon. She lived in a bungalow that looked out onto the best view in the village, over the pool where all the yachts were anchored. It’s a very picturesque part of the world. We owned a canoe and we enjoyed amazing summers every year there. Bob’s carvel built boat, which had taken so much of his time to build, had been towed to Newton Ferrers and we loved going out in it. We all learnt to row in a little clinker built pram dinghy which was exciting as unless you pulled evenly on the oars you just went around in circles! Bob didn’t sail though, because on one occasion he sailed out past the Mewstone, which is a small island out from Newton Ferrers, and the wind dropped. By the time he returned the pub was shut, so he never sailed again or so he said.

While we always enjoyed these trips to Newton Ferrers, Grandma Harris never fed us enough and it felt like we were always hungry. She was like a little bird and figured that we’d eat the same amount that she did. We were three growing girls and my mother hid food in a hollow tree stump that my grandmother couldn’t see from the house. My mother bought Lardie cake or Dough buns for this purpose from the local bakery or she gave us money and told us to use it to buy a pastie each.

In 1958 Bob moved to a job at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston near Newbury, Berkshire. He was number two under Sir William Penney, a brilliant scientist who apparently rode to work on his bike most days. Cooperation between the USA and Britain must have started up again as Bob often visited Salt Lake City and Albuquerque during his years at Aldermaston. Bob’s focus was atomic warfare, the wicked stuff, whereas Graham’s father’s efforts were towards the peaceful nuclear stuff. We left Portsmouth where we were all very happy and moved to Newbury. At that point my younger sister, Ann, was sent to boarding school in Totnes because she and my mother did not get on. Ann was like her father and highly academic. Bob was very undemonstrative, he couldn’t cope with a show of affection, and I wonder now if he was on the fringe of Asperger’s. He always wore the same suits tailored each year; the same brown corduroy suit for the weekends and a grey suit for weekdays. The same overcoat, with pockets in the same configuration in the overcoat as in the suits. The brown suit went on to be his gardening suit the following year; it was all very structured. Bob was a scientist and an only child. He wasn’t unkind or anything; he was just aloof, even to his own daughters. He considered children only really became interesting around the age of sixteen when he could have an intelligent conversation with them.

Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE)

In August 1946 the United States passed the McMahon Act, stopping its wartime collaboration with Britain on nuclear weapons. From June 1947, Britain began the development of its own atomic bomb under the Ministry of Supply Research Division at Woolwich and the Armament Research Establishment (ARE) at Fort Halstead in Kent.

On the 1st April 1950, high explosive research (HER) work, the expression used to signify atomic weapons research, was moved from ARE at Fort Halstead to a new site at Aldermaston, near Reading in Berkshire (previously an aircrew holding centre for the Royal Canadian Air Force). Other research on the British atomic weapons programme carried out at the Armament Research Establishment in Kent, was transferred to Aldermaston in the same year. In charge was Dr William Penney, who had been one of the British scientists at Los Alamos during the war. In 1954 AWRE was transferred to the newly created United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

Aldermaston was the target of many famous Ban the Bomb marches, in the late 1950s and 1960s where upwards of a hundred thousand would march for four days from London to protest against nuclear warfare. It is also the focus of the Women’s Peace Camp and Campaign, started in 1985, against weapons of mass destruction.

Newbury County Grammar School

I started at Newbury Girls when I was thirteen-years old. Mary attended as well and we both joined the Girl Guides, which became a big part of my life. I wasn’t frightfully sporty, it wasn’t an obsession with me, but I played lacrosse in the winter and cricket in the summer, and I played some tennis and netball in between. The headmistress, Miss Ireland, was a Cambridge maths graduate and she was another one who swept around in a big black gown. I worked hard towards my O-Levels, but I was absolutely hopeless at maths. The headmistress taught the A-stream and I was in the A-stream for everything. One day she came to me and said, “Elizabeth! I’m rather tired of your stepfather doing your homework, so do you think you would like to go into the B-stream for maths?” “Yes! Thank you, thank you!” I was so relieved. Bob did help me with my homework; he’d point me in the right direction. By that time, I’d decided to train as a nurse, and I knew that if I was going to become a State Registered Nurse it was compulsory to have O-level maths. I managed my other schoolwork much better. I sat French and English a year early, and then all my other subjects, including maths at O-level, which I passed by the skin of my teeth. In the sixth form I decided to continue with History, which was my passion, Geography and English Literature. My first boyfriend, Steve, attended Saint Bartholomew’s Grammar School, a six hundred-year-old school excelling in classics, Latin and Greek, and which had produced many classical scholars who went on to study at Oxford or Cambridge. It was located next door to Newbury Girls’ with a fence between; boys on one side, girls on the other. Friendships grew from attending courses and a variety of events in the area. A gang of us formed over time and this group of friends came to know each other really well; in fact, the survivors are all still in regular contact. Steve who was very intelligent was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was twelve. The same headmaster who had thwarted Graham’s aspirations to become a naval officer had said a similar thing to Steve; “You can’t do anything now you have epilepsy,” so he left school at the end of the Lower Sixth. I was the lucky recipient of some of his textbooks. He also introduced me to Science Fiction, which I read avidly then, but not since.



Newbury Girls’ School
Student at Newbury County Girls Grammar School

Public Speaking

The winners of the Berkshire Schools Public Speaking Competition, I’m on the left
Riding Boy
In the sixth form a team was selected to compete in the Berkshire School’s public speaking competition. Our team comprised a chairman (in those days no woman objected to using that terminology) and four team members. We were given topics not previously known to us, to be debated on stage; it was modelled on Any Questions, which is still being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Our team competed several times eventually reaching the county finals in which we competed and won against one of the top public boys’ schools in Berkshire. In the UK education system, ‘public’ equals ‘private and expensive’, while the public system is called the state school system – all rather confusing to those from other countries! I was also rather good at spelling and still am. Consequently, I did well in the school’s spelling competitions where you stood on the stage in the finals and spelt the words fired at you. In my last competition of that nature, I was a finalist and the last word for me was ‘spinnaker’. The other finalist objected as she thought it most unfair that someone who knew how to sail was asked how to spell that word! I won. Whilst we were still living in Portsmouth my mother decided that we girls should all learn the piano and so an instrument was bought, and a teacher found. I suspect Mummy had always wanted to play herself. It must’ve been excruciating to hear three of us practise every day as we struggled to make some sense out of the simple music we started with. I don’t remember how long each of us persevered, but eventually Ann gave up and then Mary. I too gave up but started again in the sixth form and managed to accomplish some Royal School of Music exams.
When we moved to Newbury, I started horse riding at a local riding school near St. Gabriel’s, and it wasn’t long before it was safe enough for me to be riding out, which was fun. I was even allowed on a hunt one Saturday but at the back of the field on an elderly pony. After some considerable way the hunt reached a stream and everyone jumped it with aplomb, except me and my mount, which absolutely refused to jump, and so I had to head back for the stables! Ignominy. Graham learnt to ride in Northern Ireland and so years later in Ndola, we joined the Pony Club and bought some horses. In Lusaka we were too busy for horses, but Graham came back to it when he took up Polocrosse. I was an enthusiastic supporter! January 1963 was a cruel and wicked winter, the coldest for three hundred years, quite extraordinary, and that is when Mummy and I boarded the train at Newbury to attend my interview at Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge. Normally travel time was about an hour and a half but it took us six hours, which made me incredibly late for my interview, fortunately they understood with the weather being so appalling. The matron was new and the first after many decades not to have been trained at Guy’s, which was a huge departure from the norm. She was only in her early forties, very dynamic and a breath of fresh air. At my interview she said to me, “Now Miss Edwards. I see on your application that you’ve only applied to one hospital, and that is Guy’s. Can you tell me why that is?” “Because I want to come to Guy’s,” I simply said. My godmother, Aunty Una who was matron of Southampton General, had warned me not to attend a London teaching hospital, as the medical students would do the trickier procedures, and I wouldn’t get enough experience. I was duly accepted at Guy’s for the intake in January 1964 and planned to leave school at the end of the summer term in 1963. When I informed the school of my intent, Miss Ireland said to me, “We are very sorry to lose you, you would easily achieve your A-levels you know.”
At twenty-one I was to inherit some money and while I couldn’t spend any of it until then, I could borrow against it. I borrowed five hundred pounds and took out a life insurance policy. Then, should I drop dead, the loan was covered. The loan was so that I could buy a little red Mini for my seventeenth birthday. I was very excited when I took possession of my first car and looked forward to being independent.
My first Mini which arrived on 4 November 1962

Learning to drive

Mummy with my first car

Bob had taught me to drive boats, which was easy, and I thought driving a car would be too. I went on an AA junior driver course with three other learners in the car and an instructor, and our class took up the whole Sunday morning. It cost the princely sum of ten pounds for ten practical and ten theory sessions. The first person got behind the wheel and drove for half an hour while we watched all the mistakes and tried to remember how to improve. Then the second person and then the third. Each person actually drove for an hour after spending two hours observing the other people making idiots of themselves.

The first place I drove was on the little roads of Newbury Racecourse, on a quiet Sunday morning when there were no races. I sat behind the wheel and I worked out the clutch and I was going along very slowly, but like most first drivers I couldn’t coordinate everything. The instructor said “turn left” which I tried to do but turned right. “My God!” he said. “You don’t you know your left from your right?”
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Well why are you turning the wheel that way?”
“Well, if you want a boat to go left you push the rudder right, and the boat turns left, and right if you want the boat to go left,” I told him.
“Oh, my goodness!” he said. “I have never come across that in my life!”

Anyway, after ten sessions and ten Wednesday night tutorials on how to change a fan belt, what road signs meant and what one should do after an accident, I had learnt to drive. My mother never learnt to drive so it was my stepfather who took me out for practise every week, and as soon as the course was finished, I was booked in to sit the driving test. When I came back the tester said, “I have to tell you, Miss Edwards…that you have passed.”
“Oh! That’s great, thank you, I’ll be back later Bob!” and off I shot around the block. I came back and picked him up of course, I just wanted to drive on my own. It was such an achievement; I was so thrilled. I even took Mary for her practise driving and one day four girls in school uniform were travelling to school in the Mini when a large policeman stopped us at the end of Wendan Road and asked who the licence holder was. Mary was driving and L plates were on the car. “I am,” says I. “Congratulations,” says he, “but I’d still like to see your licence.”

To this day I love driving. For my seventieth birthday our eldest son, who is a brilliant giver of appropriate presents, gave me a Red Letter Day for Thruxton Motor Circuit, one of the racing circuits in Britain, to drive a very posh Porsche and I raced around the circuit six times.

Guiding and Waterside Youth Centre

During my time at the grammar school I worked at the Waterside Youth Centre for young people. It was a brand-new facility right by the Kennet and Avon Canal on which we held many water-based activities. Steve worked there too as we were interested in the same things. The county council was very generous and sent people on all sorts of courses at Thamesfield and this is where I met Nick, Graham’s oldest friend and got to know a number of others. I went on a health and beauty course run by Elizabeth Arden; a sailing course in a dinghy with an instructor of a certain type; I’d never heard such language in my whole life. I was very sheltered but led a busy life. Girl Guides played a very large part in my life when I was young, and when I was presented with my Queen’s Guide badge, I carried the flag in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
NWN article when I was awarded my Queen’s Guide Badge, 1961
My Queens Guide Certificate
Receiving my Queen’s Guide Badge certificate

Queen’s Guide Award

The Queen’s Guide Award was established circa 1940 and is the highest attainable award for members of Girlguiding internationally. It is a challenging programme comparable to the Queen’s Scout and is considered higher than the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. The Queen’s Guide Award’s syllabus has changed numerous times but traditionally covers five areas: service in guiding, personal skill development, community action, outdoor challenge and a residential experience. The syllabus is normally completed within a year to eighteen months and at the conclusion, the participant submits findings and reports to a suitable peer group.

On completion of the programme the participant is presented with a silver brooch, and a certificate signed by The Queen. In the UK the participant usually has a presentation and celebration locally and is invited to a national celebration held occasionally in London. Although originally awarded to Guides, it is now only attainable by members of the Senior Section (including Rangers, Young Leaders and Leaders) aged between sixteen and twenty-five years old.

I then became a Sea Ranger and started to run the Sea Rangers when the leader left, which included students from the Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf, the only grammar for deaf people in the country. It was hard to explain that words like Boatswain and Forecastle were pronounced ‘Bosun’ and ‘Foc’sle’. I discovered I loved rowing only to find out, many years later, that my father had been a keen rower and won lots of rowing cups. My Aunt Lilian had kept them in her cabinet thinking they were my uncle’s rowing cups, but they were actually my father’s; they shared the same initials: J Edwards. An important trip that we undertook, after I received my Queen’s Guide award, was a seven day canoeing expedition on the Kennet and Avon Canal. As with many of the canals the Kennet and Avon Canal had fallen into serious disrepair, with locks not working and tow paths degraded. John Gould, who lived in the lock keeper’s cottage in Newbury was instrumental in establishing the Kennet and Avon Trust in 1962, and in publicising the plight of the canal. In support of this effort a group of us from Waterside Youth Centre decided to canoe from Bradford on Avon to Newbury. Off we set, seven canoes and fourteen enthusiastic youngsters together with the leader of the youth centre.
Graham and I with Lilian and Denis
My Aunt Lilian
Charles Denis Blyss-Williams

I don’t remember a great deal about the trip, although I do remember having to carry the canoes up the Caen Hill locks, a series of twenty-nine locks, also known as the Devizes Ladder, that were all unusable. A climb of seventy-two meters in just over three kilometres, or one in forty-four gradient. I do know that we ruined the coarse fishing for a few days, as no one had been along the canal for years, and the locals had the fishing to themselves. One lock keeper’s cottage was lived in by Bertha Louisa Tubb who had a licence to sell beer. No singing, no dancing. We sat on narrow wooden benches around the walls in what was effectively the front parlour. Pints of beer, mild or bitter, appeared through the hatch from the kitchen where Bertha pulled them. We drank our beer pretty quickly, partly because some of us were just underage, and partly because of the glares and grumpy remarks from the thwarted fishermen.

The other hazard was mute swans. They also had the canal to themselves, and rushed us on several occasions, but despite our fear, they did not manage to capsize any of the canoes. We actually only canoed as far as Kintbury as time ran out, but we had demonstrated that the canal could be used for recreational purposes if only planning, time and money could be found to restore the canal to its former glory. Thousands of people now use the Kennet and Avon Canal every year especially those in canal narrow boats; Graham’s mum even had her ninetieth birthday party on the Kennet Rose, a commercial narrow boat.

The Kennet and Avon Canal

With an overall length of a hundred and forty kilometers and incorporating a hundred and five locks, the Kennet and Avon Canal is a waterway in southern England. First mentioned in Elizabethan times the waterway follows the natural course of the River Avon from Bristol to Bath before the canal links it to the River Kennet at Newbury, and from there to Reading on the River Thames. It’s made up of two lengths of navigable river linked by a canal. The name is commonly used to refer to the entire length of the navigation rather than solely to the central canal section.

In the early 1700s the two river stretches were made navigable, and the ninety-two kilometre canal section was constructed between 1794 and 1810. After the opening of the Great Western Railway in the late 19th century the canal gradually fell into disuse and was almost derelict in the early 20th century. However, in the latter half of the 1900s the canal was restored in stages, largely by volunteers. After decades of dereliction and much restoration work, it was fully reopened in 1990. The honours were performed by the Queen in acknowledgement of the importance of this restoration inspiring many others. Today the Kennet and Avon Canal has been developed as a popular heritage tourism destination for boating, canoeing, fishing, walking and cycling, and is also important for wildlife conservation.

Kennet – Avon map
Looking up the Devizes Ladder set of locks
Whilst a teenager I went on various guide camps in the UK and on trips to Europe. My first continental trip was with the Girl Guides when I was twelve when we went to Switzerland in the summer. We travelled on the Golden Arrow, a train which left London and went onto the Cross-Channel ferry and through to Basel in France. There, we changed trains and went to Interlaken, in Switzerland where we went on lots of mountain walks. I experienced my first introduction to duvets and wonderful breakfasts of crispy rolls and cherry jam, which seemed so exotic. Another summer trip to Switzerland followed a couple of years later. My first skiing trip, also to Switzerland, was with the Buckleberry Youth Club. We were all measured for the huge wooden skis and hard-to-lace boots, and then stood in an uphill row on a nursery slope waiting our turn to wobble down. The first person off was a portly youngster called Robin, and as he careered down having not listened to the instructions being bellowed at him by the Swiss instructor, he fell, and we all heard his leg snap. Off he went on the back of the blood-wagon down the mountain to be fixed! The Easter before sitting my A-levels, my friend Elaine and I decided to go skiing in Austria. However, the weather was against us as it was unseasonably warm, and the Austrian army was having to cart snow to the ski fields for the Winter Olympics. Not daunted, we decided to go to Paris instead. Our mothers were a tad concerned and so Margaret, my mother, came with us! We visited all the usual Parisian haunts and managed to make it to Versailles. I felt very elegant in my navy suit and emerald green scarf at the age of eighteen. We couldn’t wait to have our bottoms pinched on the Metro, which stank of Gaulloises (cigarettes) and garlic then. Even Mummy had her bottom pinched!
Our chalet in Switzerland
Basel, Switzerland at 5.30am
Feeling rather smart in my navy suit outside the Palace of Versailles

Meeting Graham

So, there I was busy beavering away at the Waterside Youth Centre with Steve, who was a member of The Gang which often met at the youth centre, that was attached to St Nicholas Church. I didn’t go to these meetings because I was too busy with Queen’s Guide. Members of The Gang attended Burnett’s Dance School, but my mother insisted that Mary and I went to Miss Iris Brook’s School of Dance, which was very staid compared with Burnett’s, which was considered a bit racy. Bob would say if he had seen Miss Brooks in town, “I saw Iris Brooks coming down Northbrook Street like a galleon in full sail.” Each year there was a sixth form school dance and I invited Steve along to mine. “We’ve got the sixth form school dance coming up, would you like to come?” “Oh well, I’m not a bad dancer so I’ll take you, that’s fine,” he said. “Actually, The Gang’s going down to Burton Bradstock at Whitsun and I need someone to drive me,” he added. On Whit Monday holiday in the summer of 1963, four of us travelled in my Mini to the beach at Burton Bradstock and after lunch everybody was just mooching about, walking along the beach. I was walking and chatting to Graham, who was soon to go the Gulf and who I knew was a naval officer. During our walk he bent down and picked up a little heart-shaped stone and gave it to me. “Oh here, why don’t you have this?” So, I put it in my pocket, and I thought, ‘He’s really rather nice’, but I was going out with Steve of course; however, I put the stone safely away.

Outward Bound

At the end of my lower sixth form year I left school and went to the Outward Bound school in North Wales for a month. It was the end of October and freezing cold but a fascinating experience for me. I was bundled in with eleven other girls and most of them spoke with strong regional accents. There was a girl who spoke with a Bristol accent from the WH&O Wills cigarette factory, and another, Vera, who was from Newcastle; nobody understood her for a whole week. One of them said, “Well you’ve got an accent!” I said, “Yes, mine’s Received Pronunciation English.” What a snob! (Its’s also known as the Queen’s English or BBC English.) Our day started at five in the morning and we had to run down to the beach and jump into the freezing cold Irish Sea followed by exercises on the beach. We went orienteering and bivouacked on the Welsh mountains. At one stage we rescued a whole bunch of young army Outward Bound chaps who were lost. We kayaked in the Dovey Estuary, screed down the Foxs Path on Cader Idris, we climbed in snow and we abseiled. It was really very hard and one of our group dropped out; she just couldn’t hack it. While I was there for that month it made me think, ‘Do I really, really want to go nursing in January? What if I don’t like it?” I wrestled with this and when I got back from Outward Bound, I went to see Miss Ireland. “Oh,” she said. “To what do we owe this pleasure?” “Well, I’ve been thinking while I’ve been on Outward Bound and I rather feel that if I don’t like nursing, I might need my A-levels.” “Oh, at last you have seen some sense,” she said. “Can I come back to school?” “Of course, but you’ll have to drop a subject,” she said. I didn’t want to drop any of my subjects, I loved them all however Miss Ireland suggested I drop English Literature. I was furious later when I saw the English Literature papers, I could’ve done them standing on my head. Anyway, I agreed to drop a subject and asked if instead I could take Use of English and Human Biology O-level because it would exempt me from some anatomy exams at the beginning of the state registration. Once all of this was agreed I went home and found my mother and Bob.

Outward Bound

Outward Bound’s founding mission was to improve the survival chances of young seamen after their ships were torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic. The first Outward Bound school was opened in Aberdyfi, Wales in 1941 by Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt with the support of the Blue Funnel Line – one of the UK’s larger ship owning and operating companies founded in 1866. It operated merchant ships for a hundred and twenty two years and had a significant role in the country’s overseas trade and in the First and Second World Wars.

The name Outward Bound derives from a nautical expression that refers to the moment a ship leaves the harbour. The Outward Bound motto is: “To Serve, To Strive and not To Yield.” Community service has been an integral part of the programme since the inception of Outward Bound, especially in the areas of sea and mountain rescues and this remains an important part of the training for both staff and students, who range in groups from teenagers through to adults.

Between 1941 and 1965 in the UK the philosophy of the school evolved from ‘charactertraining to personal growth and selfdiscovery. An educational charity, named The Outward Bound Trust, was established in 1946 to operate the school and the first Outward Bound programme for females was conducted in 1951. Outward Bound schools opened throughout the world during the 1950s and 60s with Outward Bound New Zealand founded in 1962.

At the top of Cader Idris, Wales, Outward Bound School, 1963
Cader Idris, Wales
“Now sit down please, I’ve got something really important I want to talk to you about.” You could see on their faces, ‘Oh God, she’s pregnant!’, because in the 1960s there wasn’t much in the way of contraception and it was a real fear for parents. “I want to go back to school and Miss Ireland has agreed,” I said. In unison they said “Yes, fine, fine.” Anything was better than having a pregnant seventeen-year old daughter, not that we were promiscuous in those days because we too terrified of falling pregnant. I went back to school and many were surprised. “What are you doing back? You’re not even a prefect, you would have been head girl!” It was my decision to leave, I told them, and for the rest of the time until the end of that summer when I took my A-levels, I helped in the library as it was being moved into a larger location and through the help of Mrs Morrish, the A level History teacher I became very familiar with the Dewey Decimal system. Miss Ireland had said to me, “Well, of course, you did absolutely no work last year, did you?” “Well no, not really” I said, so I worked very hard for my A-levels. It was around this time that we had a little black and white dog called Poppet. My stepfather said if anybody asked what breed it was, to call it a Czechoslovakian Spaniel, but it wasn’t, it was just a Heinz 57. I took Poppet on a walk to visit my very good friend, Elaine, who lived about a quarter of a mile away, and I remember running down the road to ask her something and it was pouring with rain. Poppet spotted a cat and ran between my legs and I slipped and fell over twisting my ankle badly. I crawled towards a near-by telephone box and at the same time realised I didn’t have four pence to put in the slot. Fortunately, somebody in a car came past and helped me. I went to the doctor who told me it wasn’t looking good. “You’ve pulled everything” she said. “You would’ve done better to break your ankle, you know, this is going to be a real problem.” She strapped my ankle up in a type of plaster and then for every A-level exam I had to sit with my leg up on a chair; it wasn’t easy. It caused me a lot of problems in my first year at Guy’s as my foot was well strapped. Since then it has gone on me twice when I’ve broken the fifth metatarsal bone in the foot in the same place; despite my weak ankle I still went skiing, I just needed to be very careful. I sat my A-levels and reorganised my entry into Guy’s Hospital from January 1964 to October 1964 and spent Easter in Paris with Elaine. By this stage members of The Gang had dispersed to various places but not before we established that we would meet at the Queen’s Hotel on a Saturday lunchtime if you happened to be in Newbury. Graham was in the Royal Navy and he sent cassette tapes about life in the Gulf, which we all listened intently to at the Queen’s. On one of these tapes he said, “Oh, tell that Liz girl that there’s a girl called Liz Gowe coming from Bahrain (or Dubai or wherever), to start as a student at Guy’s.” I said to Nick, “Well you can tell him that she’ll be in the same set as my stepsister.” Mary had followed in my footsteps and was now going to Guy’s too.