Teaching at Bedales, for Susie, was a dream come true: the culmination of everything she held dear. She loved the English countryside, the free-spiritedness, the creative endeavour, the dramas of everyday life, all the pupils she taught and even the indirect connection with me. Susie was my mum’s cousin and she delighted in sharing stories of Bedalian high-jinks together.
As the second of six children, Susie took on the role of inspirational protector and carer for her sister and four brothers. While her indomitable spirit made her an eldest sister with equally maternal and mischievous qualities, this combination made her a natural and beloved teacher. Coming from a Christian Science background, she was schooled at Claremont in Surrey, whose former pupils include favourite actress, Joice Grenfell; and which instilled in Susie a romantic notion of boarding school which she was so happy to be a part of at Bedales.
Yet the Bedales ethos brought another of Susie’s passions into the mix. When her three children were tiny, and with with her husband away in the Navy, Susie bought a tumbled-down, sixteenth century cottage with a twisty staircase, which she set about returning to the historical smallholding it had once been. Like a real life version of BBC’s The Good Life, Susie kept cows, sheep, pigs and poultry, bee hives and a huge kitchen garden. She baked bread, hung ham, wove wool, and in true self-sufficient style, she traded eggs, onions and handmade tapestries for whatever she couldn’t make herself.
After a couple of house moves, a spate running a guest house and a divorce, Susie found herself in a small village cottage with three teenagers and their many friends. Needing to feed the crowds – or perhaps escape them – Susie combined her early training and aspiration towards acting, with her original profession of teaching, to set up a company offering training in presentation and media communication. A lucky break saw her writing and coaching speeches for John Major as Prime Minister – perhaps the first ever spin doctor! This opened the way for Susie’s natural charm and she soon had a growing business, working with multinational corporations and of course, teaching drama at Bedales.
There is some mystery about exactly when Susie came to Bedales. Even Dennis, our infinitely wise, Bedalian arch-pedagog was not able to give me exact dates. But this is because, like in everything she did, Susie flitted into people’s hearts without anyone particularly noticing and fitted so well that it is hard to remember a time when she wasn’t there. However, in 2009 I spent a week on her idyllic French hillside, where over 20 years she had converted a ruined peasant cottage with roofless cattle stall into a dream farmhouse-cum-mezzanine guest chalet. After many permutations of living, this was her true spiritual home where she was at once peaceful and animated, isolated and immersed in the community, creative, reflective and ever the perfect hostess whose ingrained politeness still found her offering a drink – but not a seat – to impromptu visitors she actually wished she’d hidden from in the first place. So while my son swam in the pool, or played with the two ginormous cats; and Susie wove an extravagant tapestry for the sixtieth birthday of her best friend; I wrote and read out my masters thesis with Susie interjecting comments, questions and a host of hilarious stories about hers, her children’s and even my own mum’s childhood adventures. During this time, with more tall tales of her first crop of students, we finally pinned down her arrival at Bedales to the class of ‘94. Even after she stopped teaching, Susie faithfully returned from France to coach each year’s aspiring batch of Ox-Bridge candidates. As always, employing her boundless enthusiasm, optimism and insight to inspire people into bringing out their very best and engraving her spirit on the hearts of those she touched.
Susie achieved her own dream of writing a book, with the 2009 publication of Field of Stars. An ancient track had sparked her interest when a smattering of weathered hikers appeared along it from time to time. Upon investigation, this pathway turned out to be the centuries old Pilgrims’ path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. A seasoned and soulful hiker, Susie couldn’t resist the promise of making her own pilgrimage, so at the age of 57 she set off on foot, with only her sense of humour, generous spirit and thirst for adventure to carry her on her way. Her book is the recounting of her journey and an invitation to share her inner passion and spirituality.
In death, as in life, Susie had a flair for the dramatic. She had finally found an extended friendly family member to buy her French home, so her vision could live on while she returned to England in anticipation of potential grand-motherhood. But it was not to be, and in the end our Susie’s downfall was the annual fumigation of a Hornets’ nest under the eaves of her cottage. Dressed for safety in her old bee-keeping suit, she had refused all enticement to call in the experts and scaled a ladder on top of self-assembled scaffolding to spray a can of industrial strength zapper into the nest. Sadly, it was all too precarious, and she fell to her death. Her daughter was with her at the end guiding her onwards in a final journey to her own field of stars.
As a living memorial, Susie’s children organised donations to Tikli Village School in Gurgaon, near Delhi, India (www.betsinfo.org). The school is run by dear friends of hers and she had planned to spend several months volunteering there this winter. She would have been delighted to know that more than enough funds were raised to build a new art block in her name. If indeed her life was on earth as it is in heaven, then we we can imagine her abiding spirit pottering happily about in The lake Isle of Innisfree, her favourite Yeats poem.