In the last edition we asked readers to share their childhood memories. Brighton actress, Kate Dyson, answered the call with some glorious memories of her famous Auntie Dolly…here’s the first instalment.
They might have been likened to a Penny Farthing. She, a handsome six footer, sallying forth in full sail like a magnificent galleon; he, the diminutive five foot nine figure at her side, dwarfed by her majesty. This though, only in stature, for the love these two shared was of equal measure. No question of that. He was Percy Sedgwick, my Great Great Uncle; she, Dolly Shepherd, his wife and my beloved Auntie. And then, of course, there was Molly, their only daughter, an unmarried schoolteacher. A little bossy, though good hearted, she strode forth with a step that would have been better suited to a Sergeant Major, ready to organise anything or anyone like a military operation. Always in the shadow of her Mother on whom she doted, it took me forty years to recognise the fine qualities Molly had inherited from Auntie. If ever there was such a thing as an enlarged heart, not as a result of disease, but because of the disproportional amount of love that was therein, then it would surely be found within these three people.
Was it fate that these distant relatives should play such an important place in the lives of my immediate family? Or was it just good fortune? Who knows? My uncle’s sister Florence, together with her Swiss husband, ran a prestigious international boys’ finishing school in Lausanne and my Grandmother was one of their four daughters. I never visited the school, but that it inadvertently also served as a high class marriage bureau was obvious. My Grandmother married a Portuguese student, and it was agreed that any daughters born to them would travel from Portugal to complete their education at their Grandparents’ school in Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, given the choice of eligible suitors, it was there that my Mother and her three siblings all met their future husbands. Meanwhile, back in England, Percy and Dolly decided to send Molly to the school to perfect her French. Molly looked upon my Mother as the sister she had never had, so when my Mother moved to England, it was Percy and Dolly who welcomed her into the bosom of their home.
From as far back as I can remember, my parents, my sister Christine and I would
spend our summers at Seaview, Auntie’s aptly named bungalow in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In a frenzy of excitement, we would catch the ferry from Portsmouth, where my poor father, who had no sea legs, would disappear for the duration of the twenty minute journey, only re-joining us at Ryde, his face by then, the colour of newly mown grass. The train to Ventnor, with seagulls screeching overhead, further fuelled our excitement until we finally arrived at the bungalow where, running down the long path, we would be welcomed into the ample arms of our darling Auntie, the delicious smell of her bread pudding seeping from under the kitchen door. Then Uncle, who would usually be in the greenhouse tending his plants, would come out to greet us, assuring us that the tomato plants were, as happened each year, eagerly awaiting our arrival so that we could treat them to a watering with our wee.
The whole summer was bliss. Auntie, who walked with a stick, could not accompany us on our daily adventures, but returning to her each teatime was the perfect ending to each wonderful day. My sister and I would gambol across the downs, butterfly nets in tow to capture and shorten the lives of our poor unsuspecting prey. What we did with them then will go with me to the grave. We would enjoy long walks to the accompaniment of our father’s rendering of “Mud, mud, glorious mud” and “Albert and the Lion” which he delivered with a perfect northern accent. We would spend hours by the sea, and Molly, with enormous patience, would teach us to swim. One occasion I will never forget was the day I nearly met my maker. Always a show off and with a sense of adventure, I challenged my sister to join me in leaping head on into the waves. She wisely refused, and looked on as one particularly playful wave took me for a ride. The next thing I remember was my mother, fully clothed, dragging me back to the shore, the red dye from her new cardigan trailing down her legs, and her indignation at my father for not having come to my rescue. Fortunately, the shame of the red dye seemed to override my near death, which meant I was in no way reprimanded for my inappropriate adventurous spirit. Then there was the annual carnival. The build up to this was my mother slaving over Auntie’s sewing machine to make our fancy dress costumes.
One of our greatest treats was rummaging amongst the treasures in Auntie’s loft. She would lower the ladder, and we would scramble up there and play and browse and fantasise to our heart’s content. Eventually we would re-emerge laden with goodies, and it was through the boxes of photographs, a constant source of curiosity, that we learnt of her extraordinary past.
Auntie’s parents had an Ostrich Feather Emporium. Yes. An ostrich feather emporium. Now how glamorous is that to two young girls? But oh dear, there was a down side. Overwhelming though this knowledge was, it left me wondering at my father’s choice of profession. A solicitor was so boring. Head of a boys’ school would have been my first choice, (I wonder why?) and owning an emporium…Need I say more? And then Auntie herself. She was a really famous Edwardian balloonist and parachutist.
Christine and I would marvel at the photos of her, dressed in her beautiful knickerbockers, as she paraded around the Alexander Palace to the roaring crowds, before entering into the wicker basket below the balloon. Our Auntie, our wonderful Auntie was a star. But best of all, she belonged to us, and her bread pudding was not shared by the crowd. Auntie would laugh and laugh at our adulation. To her, all this was in the past and nothing as compared to her life as a wife and mother. She was very modest, and always had to be prompted by Molly to continue her story. To this day there are three enormous murals at the Ally Pally of Auntie in the grounds with her parachute at her side. With our mouths gaping open, Christine and I would beg for more information. How did she come to do this? She told us.
To be continued…