I travelled up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne this past few days to say a final goodbye to a good friend, Jean Southwell, whom I have known for nigh on 30 years and a woman who has been an inspiration and joy to me. And someone who taught a great appreciation for gin, it must me added.
She has been ill for nigh on four years and despite living with cancer for all this time, has been a positive spirit, travelling as much as she could with family and friends, seeking out art, conversation and diverse opinions, attending choir and playing her steel drums (pans) in the band at the Sage Centre, and hosting regular dinner parties with friends made and kept over many decades.
We saw her at the beginning of December and she cooked us lunch and made great company. It snowed that day and she laughed at the spectacle. She had so wanted to see it snow. Christmas was spent with all her family, from hemispheres North and South and not content with providing a full festive menu, went on later to furnish a full Turkey Pie Day for the whole family. Christmas was her favourite time of year and she made it past this last landmark.
At the celebration of her life, her four children spoke, one of her two sisters too, and it was a privilege to be there and hear their testimonials. When I think of Jean now it will be fondly. I hope I will remember the best of her and ask myself – and others – what was the highlight of the day? A good question especially at the end of a busy or stressful day. Always seek out the positive.
I know she loved the wild moor and highlands of Scotland – and her gardens, in Hexham where I first met her – before she moved to Newcastle – and the Birch and Cherry in her front garden there, and the colourful patchwork in the back yard. I had though forgotten that she had volunteered for many years at the remote Castle garden on the holy island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast.
The picture above was taken many years ago, a photo tacked to the shed within the blasted garden walls – it was on a day full of squalls and showers (hence the smudged image – Jean is third on the right).
She worked there come rain or shine and the garden is – despite its diminutive size and far-flung situation, much-visited and much-loved. It has more recently been put back to the Gertrude Jekyll design of the early 20th Century and is in summer a bright joyous colourful planting among the bare rock on the bleak promontory beneath the castle walls. Wanting to put wildflowers into the battlements of Lindisfarne Castle itself, she took to both to lowering small children in panniers down from the castle windows – and loading shot guns with wild flower seeds before shooting at the sheer walls. Gertrude I mean, not Jean – though she may have thought of these methods too.
Hence a not-so-tenuous link to my horticultural world and a tribute in these pages of the Teddington Gardener. You would have loved her too and if you can, visit the garden she worked on at Lindisfarne.
National Chrysanthemum Society
I should also mention I met the membership secretary of the National Chrysanthemum Society, who had come down from Dundee for the service. Now I don’t know how she knew Jean. I mentioned my love of roses – and was reminded the National Rose Society had gone bust – and on remarking on another late-summer border filler, the dahlia, was told they were referred to among her members as ‘weeds’. A character full of mischief methinks. From their website I’m assuming the person I met was Dr Dorothy Spencer.