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Judith Pemberton

Judith Pemberton

If she had not come regularly to choral evensong at All Saints', few of us in Wrington would have known Miss Pemberton. She came always in green wellies, and was usually very late.

She didn't mind missing the first hymn, the general confession, the psalm - but she liked to be in her seat for the first lesson.

On one occasion, for some reason we did not have a sermon, and when she later enquired about it, we ribbed her that she had arrived too late for it !
She was patently unusual and interesting, and we looked forward to talking to her after the service and on the short walk to her car in the Triangle. She related how her mother had come from New Zealand, how she had visited the country, and wouldn't it be nice to go there for 6 weeks every winter.

She was word perfect in French and would translate a little Latin when required. Arithmetic, it transpired, was a weaker subject and it remained unclear to her the reason for the sun's setting in different positions on the horizon. "West is west," she said, "how can that change ?"

After church she went, as she often did, to the White Hart for supper, where a table was reserved. She didn't like preparing food and chose her diet carefully to obtain the greatest nutritional value - 'plebeian' fish and chips included.

After some time it seemed safe to ask where this unusual lady lived. "In a completely un-restored cottage in the woods," she said, "you can't see it from the road. Would you like to come and see it ?" Affirmative. We fixed a date. "Morning or afternoon ?" "As you wish," she said, "but I would prefer afternoon because I never go to bed until the small hours and I get up very late."

We found Woodbine Cottage up an un-made track, to be greeted by a very smartly dressed Miss Pemberton - though in her preferred footwear, the famous green wellies. The living-room had an open fire burning , the cat slept in front of it. Before she made tea she showed us over the old cottage. There was no electricity, but she had by now had water laid on; there was an ancient meat-safe on the table, and a black telephone; bath water was heated by propane gas, oil lamps provided lighting.

From upstairs the ground floor was visible between the floor-boards. You could walk out of the bedroom windows into the wood. One room, the length of the house, was full of furniture, a piano and pictures, and didn't appear much used. To check the time she simply used her binoculars to see the church clock. Coming away after a tour of the garden she gave us an unusual herbaceous clematis.

When asked why land was so expensive, Mark Twain claimed to have heard the reason from good authority - 'they ain't making no more of it.' Perhaps the same reason was responsible for the handsome price this cottage attracted when it came to the market.

On 27th March Miss Pemberton died in her 84th year. Her funeral or thanksgiving service on 9th April in St Andrew's, Congresbury was as unusual and unforgettable as she was herself. The spring sunshine lit up the flower arrangement on the small oak coffin in the centre aisle: a display of bright gold and deep pink roses, ferns, stocks, antirrhinums, larkspur, delphiniums - no funeral arum lilies here. Judith Pemberton had come to her grave full of years "like a shock of corn in its season", and the keynote was celebration and thanksgiving. Then most aptly and unexpectedly, from the chancel came the music of a recorded choir singing Allegri's Miserere. Written to be sung only in the magnificence of the Sistine Chapel in Holy Week, and when the penalty for copyright infringement was excommunication, here in the acoustic of this ancient English church, the effect was riveting. The music ended on cue at 11am. The hymn For the beauty of the earth, the 23rd psalm, the parable of the sower from St Mark maintained the theme.

There followed two addresses: the first by Canon Thomson, a second cousin to Judith, and the second by Mr Arthur Hacking, a friend and neighbour. Mr Hacking said that Judith's parents had come here, like many of their ilk, to serve in the Great War. In her early years in London, Judith could be found among the throng at theatre stage-doors, seeking the autographs of the famous. She particularly loved opera. When she came here she was secretary to the director of Long Ashton Research Station, and then to Mr Reginald Greed of Clifton Zoo. She had bought Woodbine Cottage 35 years ago initially as a weekend retreat. Although she liked living alone, Judith loved company. She worked very hard locally, especially in the horticultural society. For many years she was Hon Secretary of the Congresbury Horticultural Society, and secretary for all three annual shows.

When Mr Cran wrote his history of Congresbury during his incumbency, she proved most helpful; she did all the proof-reading; she held meetings in her cottage. She had no interest in TV or radio, but read the Daily Telegraph minutely, and did the crossword. She would not accept invitations to Christmas lunch, preferring to have a sandwich, stoke up the fire, turn up the lamp and settle down to an afternoon with Jane Austen.

Mr Hacking told how, on her 80th birthday, he had invited Judith to visit the theatre in Weston. She was on time, wearing her hair set with combs. She wore a brooch, shawl, a long dress, &c. As she stepped into the foyer of the theatre, the wellingtons showed beneath the dress ! Mr Hacking held the wellies aloft to the congregation, and, oh yes, her string of safety pins - very handy things to have near when you don't like sewing. When Judith Pemberton changed her car, she didn't, like most of us, leave the old one on the forecourt. No, no - from the earth it came and to the earth she made certain it would return. She had the vehicles crushed and buried in her own garden. Digging extension footings, the present owners have so far unearthed eight. The radio was always removed from the car as soon as she bought it.

At the end of last year, Judith was admitted to hospital with a fractured leg. Someone, hearing of her love of opera, brought her videos - and she was enchanted. When they told her it was time to go to theatre she said "Goodie, goodie, what are we going to see ?"

A short quotation from Hamlet brought the service to more music - Maria Callas singing an aria from Verdi's Rigoletto. Another hymn and short prayers, and at 12 noon the congregation recited Nunc dimittis as the coffin was taken on its way - quite a long way in Congresbury - to the burial ground. There will be many grander and more elaborate send-offs than Judith Pemberton's, so lovingly arranged by her friends, but only improbably one more poignantly memorable.

Trevor Wedlake