Introduction (Revd Stewart Fyfe)
Beatrice, Gigi, Tanta (or ‘Tants’), Auntie B. Who was this person with so many aliases? An international person of mystery, perhaps? (I wouldn’t put it past her). What she was, was very dear to each and everyone one of us. The various names to which she answered are testimony to the fact that we all had a unique and special relationship with her and she had that ability to make you feel that you were special to her, so it’s impossible not to feel that that was a huge privilege.
Certainly, I was hugely fond of Beatrice and everyone I’ve spoken to about her immediately smiles and tells me what a special person she was.
So today is bound to be a day of conflicting emotions. On the one hand it is impossible not to feel sad at losing someone so precious. But at the same time, it is a blessing that her suffering was short and that we didn’t have to witness a long, slow decline of someone so special. So I give you permission today to laugh, to cry and not to worry too much about being dignified. Just be yourselves as we gather to celebrate what Beatrice meant to us and to say goodbye.
Tribute (John Dunning)
Beatrice Elizabeth Altham was born at Woodhill Farm, Morecambe on the 15th of March, the Ides of March, in 1932. The daughter of James and Elizabeth Altham she grew up on the dairy farm and attended the Euston Road School. Here her active mind and abounding sense of fun was nurtured at the same rich source as another pupil, John Eric Bartholomew, later known by his stage name Eric Morecambe, who became one of the nation’s most popular comedians.
In 1943, when Beatrice was 10, her parents left her uncle and the family fold, to bring her, her brother James and sister Barbara to Yanwath Hall in Westmorland, an excellent farm with a farmhouse described by Arthur Wainwright and as one of the finest farmhouses in the north of England, but for the occupants, neither the easiest nor the warmest. From there she was sent as a weekly border to the Carlisle and County High School at Carlisle, where she played centre half in the hockey team, (as did Susan some years later). She was a gifted scholar and left school at sixteen with an excellent school certificate to come home and work on the farm as was the custom at that time. Today she would no doubt have gone to university, but at that time coming home was the norm, to help father on the farm and mother in the house.
She was an active Young Farmer which added both a social and educational continuity to life after school and now after work. It was also the marriage bureau for young farmers and on the 21st of September 1955 Beatrice married John Hudson Errington and moved to Townhead Cottage at Townhead Farm in the village of Askham, where John worked on the family farm. The little house was an interesting contrast for Beatrice, who woke up one morning to see the horse with its head through the open bedroom window looking down reproachfully at her in bed.
In 1957 John took the tenancy of Lowther Low Moor Farm. It was quite a challenge for him, but also for Beatrice as the farm had been occupied by the three elderly Sargent brothers who lived together in the house, which in some ways had become an extension of the farm; with a kist of animal feed in the sitting room, a ladder to get upstairs, no electricity, or inside toilet or a bathroom. She rose to the challenge with energy and imagination, fitting out the house with electricity, a kitchen, a bathroom and toilets, together with furnishings and decorations that gave scope to her taste and artistic flair, facilitated by some generously accepted pain to John’s overdraft. The joyful arrival of Susan made additional demands, with which Barbara, by then in her early 20s, was delighted to help.
It was an exciting time to be starting farming, at that time well supported by both government and the public, at the start of the cold war. The farm business was growing, and adding both livestock and buildings, whilst Beatrice had two men living in and often more to feed, as well as errands to the vet, ferrying staff about and acting as both receptionist and secretary. She told the story of one occasion when she had eight men to feed and made a bread-and-butter pudding for them. Thinking she would have her own lunch before they came and judging that she may have made too much pudding, she thought she would eat hers to save time. It was so good that when she had finished, she looked at what was left and thought, there isn’t enough now for eight, so she ate it all and then made them another pudding.
Beatrice and John made many trips abroad on farm visits and they also took holidays. Once they took a canal boat holiday with Bob Gibson and his wife. In passing through a lock where the water was being drawn down to lower the boat to the next level, somehow Beatrice managed to fall in between the boat and canal side, with the water being dangerously sucked out beneath her. Bob had to hold onto John’s feet and lower him headfirst into the lock to retrieve his wife. It was a close call: but they didn’t go canal boating again.
Antony was born in 1959 and he and Susan grew up happily at Low Moor. In time they both went away to boarding school. John and Beatrice led full and busy lives. Beatrice was a member of the Parochial Church Council at this church and a member of the choir. She had had lessons in needlework after leaving school and was gifted at Crewelwork, leaving the family some beautiful creations. She also took up painting, attending classes that revealed her considerable ability. Today many of her landscape pictures and needlework adorn her own and other houses. She was a volunteer with the Red Cross for 21 years, working with many friends in their shop at Penrith every Tuesday. Beatrice was always beautifully dressed and was an accomplished dressmaker.
In 1986 John and Beatrice moved to Park View at Askham, Antony was now married to Alison and taking a central role on the farm, whilst John and Beatrice moved, perhaps reluctantly, towards retirement. Beatrice joined the Tirril Art Club, enjoyed its camaraderie, taking part in exhibitions and group sessions. They integrated with village life and took great pleasure in their garden. Sadly, John died at too early an age and Beatrice had to accommodate to a life without him.
Throughout her life she had been troubled by bouts of poor health, that was at times life-threatening. Throughout these periods of sickness, she showed a grace under pressure that was the essence of her character: always cheerful, always upbeat, in difficulty or in pain. She carried every crisis lightly, not unaware of its gravity, but not allowing it to bear on others. In these times she was supported by Susan, Antony and Alison and in time by Richard, James and John, whilst her great-grandchildren brought a new joy to her final years.
She had outstanding personal attributes: she was beautiful and elegant, had a natural charm and empathy, towards anyone she encountered; she had an infectious sense of humour and an interest in all that was going on. In consequence she had a wide circle of friends from every section of the community, to whom she gave equal attention and engagement. She loved and was loved by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and her many friends. Her love and friendship will be long remembered, with gratitude, and will be sorely missed.
She was a great lady of her time.
Address (Revd Stewart Fyfe)
If I might just add a few words of my own about Beatrice, Beatrice and I spent many hours chatting over the years. Our topics of conversation were wide and varied, from her remarkable needlework, to our favourite books and it was always delightful. She always struck me as having deep wisdom and good practical common sense, beyond that which is common, as well as a wonderful sense of mischief. She also always had very good biscuits and her powers of persuasion were inevitably catastrophic to my waistline. But whatever else we talked about, one topic of conversation that always come up was her family. And what I want to tell you is that she thought the world of you. She was never boastful about you, nor did she put you on a pedestal. Your good points and your bad points were neither here nor there. She just loved you all, as you are, with a straightforward sincerity of affection, through thick and thin. It is a precious thing, that kind of love, one I’ve found all too rare in this world. And I hope you will always hold on to it.
It is a funny thing, losing someone really special. On the one hand, being rational about it, she had 88 wonderful years, which she evidently enjoyed greatly. And her end was about as good as it could possibly be in the circumstances. And yet, it is still hard to say goodbye. Even 88 years of someone like Beatrice, doesn’t seem remotely enough, particularly since there was always something so girlishly youthful about her, even to the end. As I think back to the last time I cheerily waved her goodbye, there was not the slightest inkling that it was the last time I would see her.
It is at times like this when we begin to get a glimpse of eternity and comprehend a little of why it is a universal human longing.
And yet, I also know that it can seem unbelievable, particularly to modern, rational mindsets. Part of that may be because we try to believe unsustainable things about it. Thinking of your loved one as a bright star in the sky may be comforting, but it’s hardly really credible. But perhaps that longing for human life to mean more than 88 years well lived is a window into a better and more realistic hope. Like the instinct to suckle our mother’s milk, perhaps the instinct for eternal life also points to an unseen reality, and the drive to seek it is planted deep within us, to make us search and strive for that which can give us life.
That great psalm, the Lord’s my shepherd, which we read a few moments ago, was written by King David. And though he became a great king, he wrote that psalm when he was a simple shepherd. Being a shepherd can be tough and can be lonely, but it does give you time to observe and learn from what you experience. And those simple days of shepherding taught David a great deal about life – how to lead, how to cope with adversity, how to keep things in perspective and how to understand God. And in the psalm he expresses how he has come to realise that God treats to him as he treats his sheep. God is our shepherd. And from that perspective, he offers us some simple, but important points to cling onto in life.
Firstly, he points out that God makes him lie down in green pastures. I don’t know as much about sheep as some of you do, but I know that sheep love green pasture, it’s like sweets to them. And in the Middle East, unlike Cumbria, it is a rare treat, something that only appears briefly each spring. God delights in giving us the best and rarest of gifts. And the gifts we receive in this world, like Beatrice, are just a foretaste of what he wants to give us eternally.
The other thing I know about sheep is that they only lie down when they have been well fed and are safe from their enemies. And that’s what David said God does for us – he feeds us with the best he has to offer and protects us from our enemies so that when we lie down, it is only to digest what he has given us and rise up again to live.
And the enemy he has in mind isn’t wolves or holiday makers’ dogs, it’s the valley of the shadow of death. We are not to fear that enemy because God himself, as our shepherd, walks it with us and protects us from it. Indeed, like a good shepherd, he took the force of that enemy on himself and allowed himself to die in order to save us.
And that helps us to see eternal life in a different way. Life is a gift from God. We didn’t contribute to our first birth, and yet here we are, living proof that God is our shepherd and wants us to live and thrive. We won’t contribute to our second birth, either, but we can trust to it because the same God is still our shepherd, even in the valley of death.
And we can trust that because of love. Love is the supreme experience of God. The nature of eternal life is of life restored to a true loving relationship with our shepherd and with each other, our fellow sheep. If we had lost sight of it, Covid has surely taught us that we are herding animals and are only really ourselves when we belong deeply together. And that is the vision of eternal life that David offers us in this psalm: one flock, living together with our shepherd. Love is the essential substance of eternal life.
And when we lose someone we love, like Beatrice, who not only showed us personal love, but also helped us to feel like we belonged to each other, we recognise that such a love is foundational to our existence and the loss of it is unthinkable – the real sting of death.
But do not fear, because you will find that that love does not, cannot, die. In grief you will experience the love as pain, rather than joy, but that’s still only an expression of love. That love holds us and will not let us go. The pain you experience is hard, but don’t despise it, because it tells you that love still has a hold on you, that you are still alive, that you are still held by a greater purpose than anything this life has to offer. It will lead you through the valley of the shadow of death and out the other side into new life, if you will let it.
Grief, like shepherding, is tough and can be lonely, but like shepherding, it also gives you time to observe and learn from what you experience. So it’s important at this time to allow yourself to feel the pain and recognise it as love. Don’t harden your hearts, or cave into the temptation to bitterness. That’s how to lose your humanity and your grip on life. Let the pain in, but hand it over to your shepherd. Allow the pain to lead you on and it will guide you to a better place, one where you can be more human and where God can be more real and personal to you. And that is what helps you to recognise eternal life as not only possible, but real.
I am confident of that reality for Beatrice. Like David, she knew the Lord as her shepherd. I know she wasn’t afraid of dying and I know that the prospect of being in the Lord’s house forever was a good one because she knew and loved the one to whom she was going. She knew that she was special to him, and she was.
So painful as it is, we can hand her over, in love and gratitude. And we can find the courage to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that if we just stay close to our shepherd, it will just be a shadow, that he will clear away any lurking enemies, feed us with good and rare delights, and give us new life where we can dwell in his house, with all his flock, together.
So, farewell Beatrice, Gigi, Auntie B, Tanta. Be at peace, my dear, and may God be always with you. Amen.