Rachel Joan Bickerdike 1924-2018

Just over 90 people came to bid farewell to Joan Bickerdike at St John’s Itchen Abbas on Tuesday 28th August 2018.  Revd. Alex Pease led the service and John Purver played the organ.  The hymns were Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Love Divine All Loves Excelling and Thine be the glory. The processional music was Berceuse by Louis Verne and the recessional music was Trumpet Voluntary in D by John Stanley.

We said Psalm 121 without musical accompaniment.   Alexandra Holmes read the poem The Glory of the Garden by Rudyard Kipling and William Bickerdike read the following tribute.

Thank you so much for coming to today’s service of thanksgiving.

Mother always described herself as an optimist and indeed, she couldspot a patch of blue in a sky of overwhelming greyness.  Were she to have had her own theme tune, it would have been Bring me sunshine, in your smile, Bring me laughter, all the while.  At the end of a meal, she would often declare that it was the best she had ever had, before going on to say how lucky she was to live in a village whose residents are the kindest, friendliest and most helpful people you could possibly hope to meet. Her early years, however, were spent quite far from this beautiful and very special part of Hampshire.

She spent much of her childhood growing up in Herefordshire, but she was born in Lancashire and until the age of 5 lived just outside Wheelton, to the south of Preston and Blackburn.  This was because her father, Hubert Eccles, had been a partner in Bottomcroft Mill in Darwen until the business collapsed in the late 1920s. Perhaps looking for fresh opportunities, the young family – my grandparents, my mother and her two sisters – moved south to Sollers Hope, a small hamlet to the south east of Hereford, where my grandfather took up poultry farming, selling his eggs to Bournville in Birmingham.

Sollers Hope is also a beautiful part of the country, and the family led an active outdoor life surrounded by dogs, hens and horses.  My mother and her sisters had a tiny Shetland pony called Blarney, a docile creature who gave them a lot of fun.  It was following a rather awkward incident with the notorious Flash, however, that my mother’s interest in riding started to wane. And this was because she and Flash had ended up one fine day marooned in a lonely wood when actually they should have been cantering across the grassy fields with all their friends.

They had a governess, Margaret Morris, to whom they all remained greatly attached all their life, but in due course Mother attended Moreton Hall near Oswestry, and then Evendine in the Malvern Hills.  She very much enjoyed her school days, was good at games and became a keen cricketer, tennis and badminton player.  In fact, she was probably the sportiest member of my immediate family, as testified on one occasion by a Frenchman who observed us as we reached the end of a canoe outing in France, and commented to my father, ‘Monsieur, vous avez une femme trèssportive!’

By the time she left school, war had been raging for 3 years.  She found a job as a cook at St Thomas’s Hospital, made several lifelong friends whilst working there and had a few hair-raising experiences along the way.  Coming up in the lift to her room on one occasion a V1 flying bomb landed on nearby Lambeth Palace garden shed.  All the bedroom windows of St Thomas’s House were blown in but the lift, though it wobbled, turned out to be a safe place to shelter. On another occasion, more windows were blown in just as my mother and her colleague were preparing lunch. There was glass everywhere, but food was in short supply so the lettuce was rinsed a second time, while the butter was melted down and then strained through a sieve.   On VE Day she was part of the noisy crowd outside Buckingham Palace and she rather intriguingly described VJ Day to her grand-daughter Charlotte as follows: ‘I was with friends at Hyde Park Corner watching the victory parade. To get a better view I was lifted up and tied with their braces to the railings’ – which is rather hard to visualise but exactly what she wrote.

When peace was declared Mother joined the St Thomas’ physiotherapy training course and qualified as a physiotherapist in 1949. She was then appointed to the physio department at Gloucester City General Hospital and continued working there until she got married.  But it nearly did not turn out that way at all, for in the early 1950s she had applied for emigration to Canada, where she had a job lined up at an orthopaedic hospital in Toronto, and might well have disappeared across the Atlantic for several years, had my father not proposed during a skiing holiday in Adelboden. 

Both sides of my mother’s family, the Eccleses on her father’s side and the Barons on her mother’s side, were from Lancashire, as a result of which some of them had long known the Bickerdike family, who lived in Blackburn.  In fact, back in 1877 my mother’s great aunt (Bessie Eccles) had married my father’s grandfather (William Edward Bickerdike), and there is a lovely photograph from 1914 of my two grandfathers, first cousins and both bachelors at that time, posing side by side in the uniform of the Territorials.  My parents, therefore, were second cousins, and had known each other for some time before getting married in 1952 at Frensham church, in Surrey.

Mother continued working for the first two years of her marriage and, judging by the many references to tibias and fibulas in later life, probably gave up her job rather reluctantly.  But it was her war time experiences in the kitchens of St Thomas’ which undoubtedly left an indelible mark, and she could never bring herself to throw away food, always finding ingenious ways to use up the remains.

She was a good cook, and in the 1960s when my sister and I were children the house often seemed to be filled with the smell of jam making or of something freshly baked.  That house was in Farnham, where my parents made many good friends such as the Ropers, the Hadfields, the Bateys and the Todds; mother was therefore fascinated to hear about the recent pub lunch reunion for some of the Lynch Road playmates who had first met 50 years before, and would be delighted to know that some of them are with us here today.

When we went on camping holidays in the 1960s, she would always ensure there was a two week supply of homemade gingerbread, fruit cake, tea bread, rock cakes, Eccles cakes (no relation), shortbread or ginger biscuits, supplementing a somewhat less interesting, though convenient and child friendly selection of Fray Bentos corned beef or steak and kidney.  Christmas lunch, cooked one year by my mother and the other by her sister Barbara in Crowborough, was the result of methodical planning and hours of home cooking.  

But aside from cooking, she had many other talents and was always busy.  She was a keen dress maker, skilful at making curtains, ambitious when painting and decorating, patient when working on tapestries, fearless when bidding at auction and tireless when collecting money for charity in Basingstoke.  She could hang wall paper single handedly and with almost professional accuracy and made excellent pottery.  She was an equally keen gardener, and would spend long hours weeding, mowing, pruning and sowing.  Above all, her vegetable patches over the years gave her great satisfaction, and nothing gave her more pleasure than picking a good crop of runner beans, raspberries or currants from her own garden.  By the end of the summer, her deep freeze would be over-flowing with home grown fruits and vegetables.   For several decades she was a keen artist and enjoyed the art classes she took in Farnham and Medstead and the outdoor painting courses she attended with my father. 

She was sociable and always enjoyed village life. Before coming to Itchen Abbas, my parents lived in East Worldham, in quite an isolated house surrounded by fields. Nothing daunted, she joined the WI and possibly to her surprise soon became its president, a position which she held for 6 years.  She was secretary of the local Parish Church Council for 9 years, and joint exhibition secretary of the Alton Art Society for 5.  She also gave adult literacy classes on a one to one basis. 

When my parents moved here in 1987, Gerald Dunn reassured her that she would certainly enjoy living in Itchen Abbas so long as she got involved.  This was exactlywhat she wanted to hear.  She joined the Northington WI, the yoga group, NADFAS (as it was in those days) and the Valley Gardeners, and became secretary of the Itchen Valley Flower Show, a church sidesman, cathedral refectory assistant, charity fund raiser and postwoman of the village magazine.  But she was also a home maker; she enjoyed being at home and especially enjoyed receiving visits, whether from neighbours and friends or from her four grandchildren, in whose lives, education and wellbeing she took a close interest.   

I mention education because there was always a lurking suspicion that grandchildren brought up in London might be unfamiliar with the delights of country life.  Her fears were confirmed during their first Easter Egg Hunt when she advised them to look for Easter eggs in her hedge.  When the reply came back “Granny, what’s a hedge?”, she decided to take action and from then on visits to farms, collecting eggs, picking blackberries, playing with kittens and country walks all became compulsory.  As the grandchildren grew up she enjoyed helping out at their birthday parties, later on attending the 4th June at Eton, various concerts, confirmations and Edward’s graduation in the Sheldonian at Oxford.  When she and Robert became less mobile, pub lunches locally became the order of the day particularly at The Plough at Christmas time.  She was thrilled to be able to attend Edward’s wedding to Emma in Chalfont St. Giles in July 2016, and just recently was able to enjoy Tim’s wedding to Doré in South Africa from her own sitting room with the help of Skype and numerous photos.  Creating postcards from far flung places using their mobile phones, the grandchildren were always able to keep in touch, and in her dining room she amassed a great collection of cards which she treasured dearly.

She was always an avid reader, even more so in her later years, and her favourite book was The Ginger Tree, the story of a Scottish woman’s heroic struggles in China and Japan in the early 20thcentury. And she had a curious selection of favourite television programmes; in no particular order, Wimbledon, Mary Berry, the Hairy Bikers,University Challenge and … Bargain Hunt.  Perhaps a common theme in all of these is that they are upbeat and generally have happy endings.  As I mentioned at the outset, she was indeed one of the world’s greatest optimists!



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