One hundred and counting

desmondleeatonehundred06Away from the centre of Shipton lives a rather remarkable couple. Desmond Lee, who reaches his hundredth birthday on 16th April, who still drives the family car, who lives in close warmth with his Belgian-born wife, Nicole, is alert and cheery, an enviable example of the joys that old age can bring.

Born in Barcelona in 1920, he attended a kindergarten and primary school in Bournemouth before secondary school at Felsted in Essex. His grandfather, John Strong, had been headmaster of St Mary’s School in Shipton but Desmond was not destined for an academic life. His parents, Roy and Olive, gave him good advice as he pondered where his working life would take him:
“A good position in a good company is what you want.”

And so, in 1940, he joined Unilever, but before long the armed forces called and Desmond was enlisted in the RAF, training to be a radar operator. He rather apologetically describes his time in military service as a “Cook’s tour” as most of the time was spent on duty across the Mediterranean, albeit in the vital task of supplying air cover for the 8th army, away from the majority of the action. Away, that is, apart from his ship being attacked by the Graf Spey on Christmas Day 1941, necessitating a hasty retreat to Gibraltar.

Once the war was over, work with Unilever resumed in a succession of oil palm plantations in what was then the Belgian Congo. It was there that he first met his wife-to-be, but these were difficult times politically, with uprisings and unrest. However, it was in this troubled land that Desmond spent 26 years before he and Nicole returned to England upon retirement from Unilever. That was not the end: up until 1989 he worked as a tropical agriculture consultant in Francophone Africa while based in Thame.

Nicole had spent all but the first nine years of her life in Africa so the move back to Bromley in 1973 was, for her, a hugely exciting adventure – the big city, the bright lights. Five years later the novelty had perhaps worn off and the decision was taken to return to Shipton where Desmond’s mother, Olive, lived with her immaculate garden at Lane End, almost opposite the village shop. This was where he had spent so much of his time when home on leave.

Desmond was back where he belonged, back with old friends and relations, glorying in the wildlife which was remembered with such fondness from earlier days: the trout that could be seen under Black Bridge at the furthest end of Meadow Lane, and the huge variety of birds that visited his garden in those early days. This was the world of so many of his best memories: of carol singing with Elma Coombes and Mary Dee, of swimming in the Evenlode at Black Bridge, and of following the Heythrop Hunt with his grandfather.

Of course, there are regrets. Nobody of his age, upon returning to their roots, can ignore the changes that accompany a rural setting. He regrets the loss of the old village character and the passing of so many friends and relatives. But at the same time, he delights in his marriage – “just the two of us” he says gently while a wide smile crosses his face. The hundredth birthday beckons.

April – May 2020