Wednesday, 11 November 2015

For Sarah

A tribute to my friend Sarah Cullen, nee Chavasse, at whose memorial service I was privileged to say a few words this afternoon.

'Sarah was my best friend at junior school from the ages of four and five when we both started in Kindergarten at Walthamstow Hall until the summer of 1976 when I left to join my two older sisters at Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls.  I found school very difficult.  I am dyslexic, though no one knew that back then.  I was one of the last in my class to learn my times-tables; there may even be some others here today who remember the dreaded felt mice with knotted string tails and the shame of being slow to achieve the required 12 knots, one for each times table! I was also slow to achieve the required standard for neat hand-writing and to progress from a pencil to a fountain pen.  Sarah, on the other hand, was exceptionally bright despite being the youngest in the class with a September birthday.  She never judged, was kind and constant and quietly encouraged me in my efforts to achieve.  She was also my yearly partner in the three-legged race which we won triumphantly in our final year.  It was the only occasion upon which I won anything at junior school!  Our career ambitions were clear from an early age. I would be a nurse, following in the footsteps of my maternal grandmother and aunt. Sarah would be the Astronomer Royal.  I marvelled at her knowledge of the constellations and her superior intellect.

Sarah had the best birthday parties in which her father, Michael, was a key figure.  Such parties invariably involved the Kim's game, a test of short-term memory at which I always failed miserably.  However, I shone at the eating part of such gatherings and I remember being showered with praise by Sarah's father as I bravely ate his burned barbequed sausages and proclaimed them to be delicious.  Sometimes Sarah held fancy-dress parties.  One year I won the fancy-dress competition when I came dressed as 'Queen of the Bathroom' in a quilted dressing-gown of my mother's, curlers in my hair, fluffy slippers and a sponge-bag draped nonchalantly over my arm.  Praised by Sarah's mother Rose for my wit and creativity, it was all a sham.  My sister had attended a different party wearing the same outfit the week before and I had simply stolen her idea!

My memories of Sarah and the Chavasse's lovely family home in Chevening Park were not just of parties.  I was privileged to be invited back to play after school.  Though our own house in Otford was very comfortable, I suffered from inexcusable envy over the beautiful portraits of the Chavasse daughters that hung in the drawing room, the feeling of importance as we drove past the sentry box and through the estate in Mrs. Chavasse's sky-blue 2CV, tooting as we went around the corners.  And the soda-stream machine which seemed to me to be the very height of luxury and modernity. Visiting the dairy farm at Chevening to see the calves being fed; playing in the garden with Jason the standard poodle; spending hours on girlish pursuits in Sarah's bedroom and walking through the park up to the Keyhole, a distinctive arboreal feature in the Chevening grounds; these are very happy memories for me.

Recently, in celebration of my 50th birthday, a milestone that Sarah sadly did not achieve, I walked the length of the North Downs Way National Trail that passes the top of the Keyhole and affords views down to Chevening House. Once again I felt the pain of my separation from Sarah keenly. We kept in touch until our early twenties when I visited her in her rooms at Oxford.  However, my nursing and midwifery career took me overseas and we lost touch.  In the past few years I, with several other school friends, tried to reconnect with Sarah, all remembering her warm friendship and wanting to rekindle it.  However, Sarah was not to be found through the internet or social media, the family had moved on from Chevening and we learned that Sarah had been ill and known trouble in her adult years.  It is a great sadness to me that I did not make a greater effort to stay in touch with Sarah; that I never managed to renew our friendship; to tell Sarah how much she meant to me and to let her know how she made my experience of school and childhood so much richer and happier.

My faith has always been a comfort to me in times of sadness.  I don't know whether Sarah, or indeed her family and friends here today, had or have a faith.  However, I feel strongly that I saw in Sarah a reflection of the love and gentle nature of God in whose image I believe she was created.  In the Bible, we find a verse in Paul's letter to the Philippians, Chapter 1 verse 6, which says: 'I am certain that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion...'. I love singing and indeed have memories of performing with Sarah in our school's production of 'Joseph and his technicolour dream-coat'. I'd like to finish this reflection with a verse from a hymn by the modern hymn-writer Stuart Townend, called 'There is a Hope'.  It is my hope that these words will comfort you as they also comfort me.

There is a hope that lifts my weary head
A consolation strong against despair
That when the world has plunged me in its deepest pit I find the Saviour there!
Through present sufferings, future's fear,
He whispers 'courage' in my ear.
For I am safe in Everlasting Arms
And they will lead me home.

Thank you.'

To listen to this hymn follow this link 


  1. I'm not on Facebook/Twitter etc. and couldn't find any way to contact you just to say that I knew Sarah Chavasse at Oxford and was sad to learn of her death from a Trinity magazine (published Sept 2016), after which I came across your tribute online. Sarah came to a quiet living faith during her time at Trinity and warmth radiated from her, as you can well imagine. I have a lovely informal photo of Trinity college members where she's holding up a teddy called Ted-Look (I seem to remember she spelled it that way but pronounced it Ted-Luke) … actually I think I may even have a letter 'from Ted-Look' amongst my Trinity memorabilia! I did languages, so I was off in Spain for what would have been Sarah's 3rd year and we didn't keep in touch, but from 1984–1986 I knew the friend you described in your tribute and I heard her chatting quietly to God in a simple and heartfelt way at Christian Union meetings. I hope that's a comforting image for you.

  2. thank you for this comment. I will pass it on to Sarah's sisters, Camilla and Julia. I know they will be very pleased to hear your reflections. I'm glad you found my blog. Joy


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