In celebration of mother’s life and love of gardens I am sharing the final story of Tales from the Garden. And if you wonder why I like pink… Mollie explains all later.
Chapter 10 – Mollie (The Duchess) Coleman
My daughter thought that I might like to introduce some of my many gardens to you as a break from her own and my other daughter’s beautiful surroundings. I am afraid that I have to go back nearly 90 years to describe my first real garden but luckily I do have one or two photographs to share with you. It is a tough ask to cram 94 years into 1000 words which is what my daughter expects, so I do hope you bear with me!
I never knew my father. For a few months after I was born in the October of 1917, he and my mother Georgina lived in Kent where he was undergoing re-training. He had been badly wounded whilst rescuing his officer and had been awarded the Military Medal. He had been told that he would not be returning to the front and that his role would now only be administrative. They decided to start a family and my Irish father named me Mollie Eileen Walsh.
He was 31 years old when he was killed on November 2nd 1918, just nine days before peace was declared. As people rejoiced in the streets of Britain my mother waited for news. It was to be three weeks after the war before she was finally informed that he was not coming home. She did not know where he was buried and sadly she and I had to move on with our lives without him.
My mother’s family were from Alverstoke in Hampshire and also Bramdean in the rural part of the county. She decided we should move closer to her home and so we arrived in the lovely village of Wickham, famous for its square and horse fairs. We lived in a small cottage off the square but I don’t really remember much of those early years.
When I was seven my mother remarried the village butcher, Norman Welch and he built us a new home on Hoad’s Hill which led into the village from Fareham and Portsmouth. As well as the modern house we had a wonderfully large garden with a small orchard of fruit trees. The following 15 years were a wonderful mixture of village hall dances and bright summer days. Here I am in our orchard at the back of the house which was called Sinclair.
Then another war shattered our hopes of peace and life in the village changed overnight. However, in late 1939, a friend of mine in the Royal Navy introduced me to a tall and handsome electrical artificer named Eric Coleman and within a very short time we knew that we wanted to get married. We made plans to have the wedding on Saturday September 14th 1940, but on the Monday, Eric was given orders to join a convoy leaving for Canada on Thursday 12th and was confined to barracks.
To cut a very long story short…. our vicar got on the telephone to Eric’s commanding officer and persuaded him to allow him leave to marry me on the 11th, returning in time for the ship the next day. The whole village pulled together to get my dress finished and the grocery shop, that shut on Wednesday afternoons, opened to get a cake and sandwiches together for our guests. The vicar’s wife arrived in her car to drive me to the church where I found my handsome husband-to-be.
We had to return to Sinclair for the impromptu reception and the German bombers decided that they would add their contribution by dropping bombs on Portsmouth. Since they would often jettison any left on the countryside on their return flight we did some ducking and diving ourselves.
Here is our wedding party after the all clear including my giant red cat who looked more like a fox. Ironically because of the bombing the night before, Eric’s transport ship left early and he missed it. As I moped around in the garden after just one night of honeymoon, and not expecting to see him for at least a year, he walked in the front door with a week’s leave!
Wedding day Wednesday September 11th 1940
I travelled all over England to be with Eric any time he had shore leave throughout the next two years. In 1942 we had our first daughter Sonia and we moved to Scotland to Dunoon to join Eric who was based there repairing submarines. Our second daughter Diana was born there in 1943. Eric then returned to sea and did not return from the Far East and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) until late in 1946.
Sonia and Diana Sinclair 1944
We had settled back into the house on Hoad’s Hill but sadly my mother who had ill health died in 1945 aged only 52. My step-father moved into a cottage in Fareham and as a family we enjoyed being in our own home and garden for the first time since the beginning of the war. Our third daughter Sally was born in 1953 and Eric was posted to Sri Lanka in 1955. As it was for a two year posting we all went with him. Now that was a garden… or should I say jungle!
We had snakes and monkeys outside the front door and often inside. It was not unusual to find small monkeys helping themselves to my lipstick and pearl earrings on my dresser having let themselves in the window. And we were not just treated to exotic wildlife in our garden. The navy is very good at providing a wonderful social life but travelling back at night could be interesting with leopards and elephants on the move on the narrow road through the jungle.
However, we had an incredible time and arrived back to our home in Wickham in time for our son Jeremy to be born in 1957.
We moved to Old Portsmouth in 1958 to a modern house with a very strange garden… the house was built on the site of an old public house that existed before the Battle of Trafalgar. It had been bombed during the war and three new houses were built as a terrace on the site. However the small garden was built over the old wine cellar of the pub which now served as our garage. Without trees and a lawn I had to make use of old wooden wine caskets that I picked up locally and turned into planters. Every summer I would fill them with pink geraniums and each winter with pansies.
In 1959 we were posted to Malta and then in 1963 to 1965 we lived in South Africa. This was followed by two years in Lancashire before returning in 1967 to Portsmouth for good. When Eric retired we moved across the high street into a lovely flat but my garden became even smaller.
However, we did have a flat roof and I placed all my planters up the wrought iron stairs and around the roof top. Here I am completing the small crossword in The Daily Telegraph with my coffee which is something I enjoyed doing each morning.
We had many wonderful years in the flat, and rather than travel overseas, we made short trips to Scotland, Wales, Jersey and other beautiful parts of Britain. One of the many things that had attracted me to Eric in the first place was that he was a wonderful dancer. We loved nothing better than going away to stay in hotels that had dinner dances on the Saturday nights and we were still dancing all through our 70s.
We would also visit public gardens and would sit in the shade on benches and enjoy their beauty.
Sadly after 56 years together Eric passed away and a year later at age 80 I moved across the road again to my little house with its small front and back gardens. Here I was to live for the next 14 years and my greatest pleasure was keeping my small piece of heaven stocked with geraniums and pansies. My living room window was large and offered me a wonderful view of all the visitors to the garden including foxes, hedgehogs and blackbirds in search of raisins.
There are some gardens that hold very special memories for me. Diana had done some research and early in the 90s had managed to establish where my father was buried. He was in a small military cemetery in a village called Poix-du-Nord along with about twenty of his fallen comrades. I visited with Diana and her husband and then again with Sally who was living in Brussels, only 65 kilometres from his final resting place. It was very emotional to finally see my father’s name carved in granite and I hope that he would have been proud to know that he left behind a family of many bright and happy grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Diana and her husband lived around the corner from me and I would often take advantage of her larger garden. I would sit quietly for hours watching her dog chasing squirrels and the many different species of birds popping into visit.
The years passed and before I knew it I was 94 years old… What a journey and how lucky I had been to have seen so much of the world and enjoyed so many gardens in the company of someone who loved me so much. And if you are wondering? I would be hard pushed to tell you what my favourite flower is but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that if it is pink, it is beautiful.
Oh and if you are wondering too about The Duchess nickname, it is probably because I was rather partial to buying and wearing beautiful jackets, and I was rarely seen without my pearls! I rather insisted on being dressed and ready for the day by 9.00 each morning even if there was nothing on the calendar… I firmly believe that you should be prepared to meet people looking your best. I suspect some might have thought I was a bit grand….
Anyway it was no longer possible for me to remain in my house but I will always remember that last view through the window and the sight of my little fairy princess in the alcove. It is engraved on my heart.
From where I sit now I can watch my daughter’s little black Staffie chasing squirrels and also seeing off the postman and anyone else who dares intrude on this sanctuary. If you catch sight of me perhaps you could do me a great favour and pop a large, cut-glass tumbler of whisky and water, no ice thank you, on the table beside me. I am finding it rather difficult to get hold of these days.
All the best… and don’t forget that whisky and water will you!
Mollie Eileen Coleman (The Duchess)
Thank you for dropping in today and I hope you enjoyed Mollie’s story..