16.3 C
Thursday, June 13, 2024
ArticlesHelen Walker

Helen Walker

Helen Walker  for web‘I was born in the first quarter of the last century. My grandfather was a master baker in Clifton and my grandmother taught piano. My mother would sit at my grandmother’s feet whilst she taught. She took up the piano and violin and someone persuaded my grandparents that she should sit the LRAM exams. She became accomplished enough to play in the orchestra of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company where she sometimes had to stand in when the conductor’s migraines got the better of him. She also played with the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
My father’s parents died when he was quite young, and the family were brought up in Eastbourne by the eldest daughter. My father became a policeman in the Federated Malay States. When he was on home leave at one time he was at his sister’s flat in London. My mother was a friend of his sister and told me that she was visiting that day and ‘a very tall, very handsome man rose up out of the armchair.’ There was clearly an instant attraction.
My mother left her job in England and followed my father to Malaya, a very brave thing for a young woman to do. They were married there and I was born in Batu Gajha to the north of Kuala Lumpur. My sister was born three and a half years later. One day I found my mother’s dressmaking scissors and cut off some of my baby sister’s beautiful blonde hair which I threw over the balcony. Suddenly a monkey appeared and snatched the scissors from my hand. My mother would not believe me when I told her a monkey had taken the scissors, so I got the slipper. Only then did a neighbour call to ask if Mother had seen Bonzo, her pet monkey who had escaped from his cage.
I was sent to a boarding school in Eastbourne and saw my parents only every three years during home leave. Out of term time I lived with a surrogate aunt whose mother was a very strict Victorian woman. The school was very well equipped for a girls’ school, and even had a science lab. I enjoyed science and maths. We had a gym and did music, and strangely, Greek Dancing and Sword Dancing. Being the tallest, I was the one who held the crossed swords aloft at the end of the dance!
During the war my school was evacuated to Merriott. I remember one day the air raid siren sounding, and on our way to the cellar we saw an airplane limping home across the hills, its engine stuttering. We never found out whether it was one of ours or a German. My first job was at the school, supervising the girls doing prep. I remember sitting in the staff room holding a knitting needle against the wireless aerial to get a better reception.
My father retired and my parents left Malaya just before the Japanese invaded. They managed to get a steamer home and came to live in Cheddington with a friend from Malaya. For a while I looked after evacuated children in a nursery near Yeovil. Just before the end of the war I trained as an orthopaedic nurse at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Exeter. On V.E. day a group of us nurses went into Exeter to celebrate and I was lifted onto a pillar box by a soldier where I danced for the crowd. We’d had a few drinks! I did my general nursing training at St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, and became a staff nurse at Eastbourne Hospital. By this time my parents were living in Eastbourne. I did my midwifery training at St Thomas’s and at Hackney and Woking.
I met my husband, Sidney, at Woking. He was in a Scottish dancing group who used one of the hospital’s rooms, so some of the nurses went along too. It was not love at first sight—I took my time. Sidney was a civil servant who worked for the Forestry Commission. We were married at Eastbourne in April 1953 just before the Coronation and honeymooned at Boscastle. I carried on nursing—we lived in Woking in ‘two rooms with use of kitchen’. Later with help from my father we built a house at Horsell near Woking. It took a long time to build because there was still a shortage of bricks. Our first daughter was born in 1958 in Woking maternity hospital, but our son was born in our own house. We later moved to Whitehill in Hampshire because of Sidney’s job. We had our third child there, and our fourth in Chiswick.
I got a job at the neonatal intensive care unit at Kings College Hospital. It was an amazing place, everyone felt part of a family. Many of the babies were so tiny, some were born drug addicts and had to be weaned off drugs. I remember they sneezed a lot.  The babies stayed with us for a long time. One patient was the child of an Arab emir and an armed guard was posted outside day and night. The staff watched the wedding of Charles and Diana on a TV in the hospital.
We used to holiday a lot in the West Country, using our VW camper to tour around. When Sidney retired we travelled around Somerset looking for somewhere to move to. We were struck by the friendliness of the people in Ilminster, always greeting us and asking how we were—complete strangers! We purchased a smallholding – three and a half acres—just outside Ilminster by the cemetery overlooking the Levels. We had four ewes, two goats, three geese—Freeman, Hardy and Willis—rescued chickens and some pigs, and our daughter kept her horse there. From our house we could see herons on the River Isle—it really was the Good Life. I was keen on spinning and weaving using our own wool and that of other smallholders. And of course I knitted the children’s clothes, school jumpers, and so on. I also had a potter’s wheel.
I got involved with the Ilminster Arts centre when a friend whose husband was a sculptor asked me to come along to an exhibition of his work. Charles Campbell had purchased the disused Unitarian Church primarily I think because he found one of his relative’s gravestone in the graveyard. He was unsure what to do with the building. Local artist Mary Atherton had the idea of opening it as a venue for the arts for people in and around Ilminster. I gradually got more and more involved. At first I just moved benches and cleaned. Then I took over the shop, introducing more artefacts by local craftspeople. I used to make the Saturday lunches—though mainly soup, because I’m no cook! Later I was asked to become one of the trustees.
The Centre is now a thriving gallery and concert and workshop venue. I still do stints on the gallery desk. I run the knitting and crochet workshops (It gets us out of the house, say the participants). I participate in the felt-making and crazy patchwork workshops. We have a monthly readers’ group and I’m responsible for getting the books from the library. I run an occasional ‘A Way with Words’ where local writers and poets can come and read their work to like-minded people in a supportive setting.
Ilminster is a lovely town, with lots going on. As well as the Arts Centre, there’s the Warehouse Theatre with its associated film club, and the Thursday Club which runs during autumn and spring and has a different lecture every week.
One problem with being associated with the gallery is the temptation of buying some of those wonderful pictures and sculptures I see exhibited. I’ve had to stop now, as there’s no room in my little house for any more.’

Previous article
Next article

Exclusive content

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest article

More article

- Advertisement -spot_img