Morna Thomson (nee Yarrow)

I have been asked by friends and relatives across the UK and world unable to be at Morna’s funeral if they could have a copy of the tribute I read that day. Posting it on my blog seemed the simplest thing.

Those of you kind enough to follow my farming and wildlife postings  may wish to skip this one!



Morna was born 86 years ago in London to Vera and Kenneth.  Vera, my grandmother, was born in Shanghai, her father being a pioneering eye surgeon there – this eastern connection was to reappear throughout Morna’s life.  Ever adventurous and brave, Vera, as a young girl and accompanied only by her younger sister was sent on the long boat journey back to the UK to be educated.  Here, in her late twenties, and an accomplished violinist, she met my grandfather and fell passionately in love. She was an extraordinary, vivacious person, and no doubt had a huge impression on her daughter, Morna.

Morna’s childhood was spent at Bovingdon Grange in Hertfordshire.  She has told me so much about this time I almost feel I was there with her.  It was a full and happy childhood.  From an early age she revelled in the hustle and bustle of a large and vibrant tribe of cousins, aunts and uncles from all sides of her family – friends and relatives were encouraged and welcomed at Bovingdon where she led a full and social life.  She was, though, she assures me, a shy and gawky child.  Time was to do away with both – she grew into a confidant, beautiful and elegant, woman, tall for her time and much admired.

When my mother first went to school she packed a trunk twice her size with all her most important possessions and could not be parted from it for the first year – a habit of being well prepared that never left her.  She was sent to boarding school at St George’s and hated it from the start – she was dyslexic, a condition not then recognised and punished frequently for her apparent slowness.  This scarred her for life.  At school she was desperate to paint and explore her artistic talents but not allowed to, being forced to focus on mainstream subjects, a great shame as it was later to transpire.

After school, my mother went to a finishing family in Switzerland.  Whilst there war broke out and she had to return to England.  She tried nursing for Red Cross, then driving for the MTC, but only found her true vocation when given a posting in the Wrens.  Remarkably, not long after joining she and four others were chosen to be the first Torpedo wrens – the first time women had worked alongside men in the forces doing equal jobs – and this was much acclaimed.  It did a huge amount for her self esteem.

While doing the job of servicing torpedoes, my father, a naval captain, came across her sitting on the deck of Peter Scott’s boat swigging rum out of a bottle, surrounded by a group of captivated men! (My father’s version and one she hotly denied!).  It was love at first sight.  Those five pioneering Torpedo Wrens formed what they called the “Straw Club” in a rented basement flat in Brighton, and who knows what happened there!  Wild parties for sure.  I have photos showing that they lived life to the full…. Morna and Ian married during those heady yet precarious war years.

My father was a banker in a small, but growing merchant bank, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now the HSBC!).  After the war he was given an immediate posting to the Far East.  He went out ahead, to Jahore, my mother joining him in a garret flat, with only a primus stove to cook on.  Quite a shock for the English rose she was!  It was boiling hot, humid – no air conditioning and life was very different to anything she had known.  But my mother soon made friends, as she always did – this was one of her great gifts.  After they moved to Kuala Lumpur (KL) she began to enjoy all that ex-pat life had to offer – she threw herself into it, despite the scary difference of it all. She had a great love of dogs, adopting a stray – her adored Whisky.  But most of all she wanted children.

In 1950 they came back to the UK on leave, and on a visit to my father’s family in Ireland, I was conceived much to Morna’s joy.  She ate thousands of unripe green apples all through her pregnancy, so everyone tells me!

They returned to the Far East, and I was born in Hong Kong.  My childhood there was wonderful.  To me my mother was a magical being and I adored her.  I was never left as so many others were just in the care of amahs, and was encouraged to have lots of friends.   Morna was an amazing story teller.  She and I made fairy gardens together, and the fairies left me little gifts, tiny silver balls, silken threads of gossamer, sparkling dew drops.  It was all so real to me that even when I was once seriously ill, all I could think of was ‘I wonder what have the fairies left this time’? I still vividly remember glass vials of  magic coloured waters she conjured up – I was never bored.  She had a wonderful imagination.

During her time in Hong Kong, she was able at long last to put her passion for painting into practice, and learnt the formal art of Chinese painting, at which it turned out she was extraordinarily talented.  So talented that one of her paintings when exhibited alongside those of local artists won first prize.

Although she embraced all aspect of life abroad, she still yearned for England, and constantly told me stories of the far away land she called home.  While on leave in the 50s they found a house in Benenden, this was Greenways.  Morna was over the moon.  It was only after the purchase they realised that they had 7 acres of woodland – woodland that was later to play a large part in Morna’s life.

We travelled – Bombay, Penang, Singapore.  Always, she made friends, making the best of circumstances.  Then I, her only and much loved child, was sent back to school in England.  This was agony to both of us. We sobbed.  Why did you send me, I asked?  But it was the accepted way of doing things back then. Our letters were very poignant throughout my school years – I hated being away from her and she from me.

Then, unexpectedly, my father got a posting to the London office.  I think it must have been 1966 or 7.  So they came to live in Benenden for good.

Morna threw herself into her garden and the woods at Greenways, something she had craved for her whole time in the Far East.  Squirrels and rabbits were her bane.  Compost and leaf litter were made to perfection.  She truly had green fingers.  Herbaceous borders, rose pergolas, rock gardens, ponds and streams with a vegetable garden and fruit cage second to none.

Morna soon found her niche in village life.  She worked with extraordinary energy: the Conservatives, the Benenden fiddle and umptytiddlyone committees, she raised money for many worthy causes.  Together with my father she ran the church fete for a good many years (I can still remember their agonising…is it going to rain? Is it going to be dry? Or sunny? Will it be out? Or will it be in?) Little changes, I think.

All the while she maintained her eastern friendships and was always there for their families and her many god children.  She loved to make people smile, and always had a sympathetic ear for anyone with a problem.  In fact, in Benenden, she found her idyll –her dream came true.

I moved to the West Country in 75 and started to farm.  My parents came to stay with us, in a caravan, and were over the moon when I presented them with their first grandchild – three others followed soon afterwards!  It became the custom for us to visit Benenden over Easter, the boys have vivid memories of Easter egg hunts, counting oast houses and visiting castles! Some of you present will probably remember our unruly gaggle moving down the street?

On Christmas Eve her grandsons particularly remember her reading A Night Before Christmas– something which became a family tradition.  Indeed, traditions were an important part of Morna’s life and the ways our family celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter have been handed down through her.

In due course, Morna and my father moved from Greenways to Oakdale, just off the Green here, where she continued her gardening, restoring a Victorian greenhouse.  But when my father died in 1988, devastating her, she realised that Oakdale was too big, and sensibly decided to move to Thelveton, opposite the paper shop.

At this time her imagination became ever stronger and her mind began to pay tricks on her: she started to struggle to find reality.  But to most she remained the charming and lovely person she’d always been. Audrey Bridgeland was a huge help to her, and to me, during this time. It was really down to Audrey, and Morna’s brother Ian, that it was possible for Morna to continue to be independent and part of the village scene.

After my uncle Ian died in 1997 Morna agreed the time had come to move closer to me, to sheltered housing in Devon.  However, part of her stayed in Kent and in the Far East. As time went by that part grew and she lived two or more existences.  Those years were confusing for both of us.  For me, it was hard to accept that someone who had been so important in my life was failing, and it was difficult for her to accept that she needed my help.

But as time progressed we overcame these difficulties, and I to understand that she saw things differently from me.  We grew very close once more, as we had been when I was a child. Gradually dementia set in. In some strange way it started to ease her mind, to make her at peace with herself, and to allow her to enjoy and relive her many vivid and varied memories .… perhaps on a train in the Far East, perhaps walking favourite dogs, Rusty and Max, perhaps entertaining friends or on a trip to London to catch up with family.

All the girls at her final home, Spring House, loved her for her charming behaviour, the different worlds she took them to. This Christmas she was the happiest I have seen her for a long time. Taking my hand, and with her face squiggled up with pleasure, she said “I love Christmas, I absolutely love it”.  Two days later she had a fall, and began her last journey close by me.  She never once failed to recognised me or respond to my voice so together we learnt to let go and how to travelled this last path.
She died peacefully and quietly, without fear.

The day before she died I was oiling her skin and singing – and guess what, she began singing with me. So can I ask you all to join me in singing Morna’s last song Morning Has Broken.

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009