Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Farewell to a special friend 

EVENT of The Week rarely makes it to the top of this column, nor does a funeral. But I make no excuse for doing so on this occasion.

On Thursday of last week Francesca and I accompanied  the Mayor of Lyme Regis, Councillor Sally Holman, in representing our town at the funeral service of Chelsea Pensioner Stan Constable.

Stan was one of the two pensioners who made such an impact when they visited Lyme for the town’s jubilee celebrations in June.

It was, of course, a sad occasion but Stan was 91 and had lived a long and interesting life and the service in the magnificent chapel at the Royal Hospital Chelsea was very much a celebration.

His life, of course, was not without its moments, the most dramatic of which was having to spend five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Prussia during the Second World War after being captured at Dunkirk.

During that time he was witness to some brutal and cruel acts at the hands of the Nazis and before being liberated was subjected to a gruelling march out of Prussia before being freed by the Americans.

For my generation, the majority of whom have never had to look the enemy in the eye, the horrors of such an experience are incomprehensible.

We travelled up to London on the train and managed to avoid talking council business on the three-hour journey, which in itself was a bit of an achievement.

Sally caught up on a bit of her council correspondence (a mayor’s work is never done) and we talked about what an enjoyable summer it had been despite the awful weather and what an impression Stan and his colleague, Alex Murray, had made in such a short visit. 

They  were with us for four days only but during that time they amazed us with their zest for life and their insistence that they wanted to join in all the jubilee events. At 91 and having to walk aided by a stick, this was no mean feat for Stan.

The only time Stan looked distressed was when we entered The Cobb on the torchlight procession and he whispered in my ear: “Is it much further?” before politely refusing our offer to drive him to the end in Dennis Spacey’s Tukxi.

Alex was waiting for us at the gate to the Royal Hospital, a magnificent building which has cared for ex-service men (and now women) since 1682.

Before attending the service we were treated to a three-course lunch in The Great Hall where the table on which the Duke of Wellington was laid out for his funeral is still in use. The walls of the dining room are adorned with boards detailing every battle fought by British Troops since the 17th century.

Lunch consisted of mulligatawny soup, steak and kidney pudding (or a fish alternative) and rhubarb crumble and custard, good wholesome stuff.

The mayor is not known for her appetite but, out of courtesy I suspect, she made a brave attempt but probably did not eat for the next few days!

We had time for a quick tour of the hospital before taking our seats in the chapel and Alex showed us the pensioners’ living quarters, currently no bigger than sleeping cubicles with shared bathrooms but which are in the process of being improved with en-suite facilities.

We were greeted at the entrance to the chapel by Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Lucas, Captain of Invalids at the hospital, who thanked us for making the journey.

Later in a tribute to Stan, Lt Colonel Lucas spoke of the kindness the people of Lyme Regis had shown him during their jubilee visit, saying it was something he would never forget.

Stan’s grandson, Christian Chanel, also gave a touching tribute to his grandfather, recalling some happy days together when he was a child and how much the family would miss his  wise counsel.

We sat opposite a bank of Chelsea Pensioners, all old men, some watery of eye and all with the evidence of brave deeds emblazoned in medals across their chest.

As we listened to the choir singing beautifully I could not help but wonder what wonderful adventures, what dreadful experiences, how many times they had mourned fallen comrades and how many changes they had witnessed during their long lives.  

And here they were, honouring one of their own, soldiers still, bidding yet another final farewell to a colleague and friend.

It was difficult not to shed a tear.

Afterwards we joined Stan’s two daughters and their family for tea in the Chelsea Pensioners Club, the social centre for these grand old men.

And as we ran for our taxi, waving goodbye to Alex, the perfect host, we all agreed that we had been part of something very special, not likely to be repeated in our lifetime. 

We nearly missed our train home and had to make a dash for it down the platform.

Event of The Week? Definitely.

IN ROYAL COMPANY | The Mayor and I pictured 
with Alex next to the recently re-gilded statue 
of Charles II, who founded the Royal Hospital

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