When we first looked around the house across the street it had only been half cleared. Though many of the previous residents’ most personal effects had been removed, heavy 1950s furniture remained, a thick marble slab in the pantry, an empty vase or two on a shelf – things like that.
Opening a cupboard in the master bedroom we found a handwritten sign inside the door ‘Happy Anniversary you gorjus crittur. 55 years of paradise’
55 years of paradise. It was the first thing I told most people about the house as we were waiting to make an offer, joking that we HAD to live there in the hope we might absorb a little for ourselves.
Doreen and Bill Bellerby’s paradise lasted 73 years in total. They met at a dance at the Ritz in 1939 and were married in Lanelly in 1940. Bill was allowed seven days’ special leave from the army, and honeymooned with his new wife in Lanstedhan before returning to the Queen’s Royal Regiment. When he demobbed in 1946 he was based in Stoughton. After he wrote a letter home to Wales asking for his dancing shoes to be sent up, Doreen decided to deliver them in person – and that was the start of their life together in Surrey.
Bill became a teacher, teaching at schools across Surrey and retiring in 1979 after 19 years as a head. Alongside his work he and Doreen dedicated themselves to public service.
They were both active members of the local Labour Party, Bill ran for election to parliament twice, and as a councillor served on almost every single council committee over the years. Doreen campaigned tirelessly on women’s issues, and they both committed themselves to education and the arts.
The Bellerbys were awarded MBEs in 1991 for their services to the community, and were both mayor of Guildford at one time. The flags on municipal building flew at half mast in Bill’s memory after his death.
When it comes to service to the community, the former residents of our house are a fairly tough act to follow. However, the most compelling part of the story for me has to be the love they shared together for so long. Friends say he always told her she was the most beautiful woman in Guildford and nobody else could beat her. She died in his arms, at home, when she was 95 and he was 98. Two years later he read the local paper on the morning of the day he died – intending to take the news up to her.
At Doreen’s funeral, Bill discussed a side of her not revealed in her public life:
“When she was at school her English teacher encouraged her love of poems and she used to regularly go to the library and take out poetry books.
This carried on when we settled in Guildford and every night before bed we would read poetry to each other.
We said these poems to each other every night all through our marriage to the point when she could not take part any longer.”
Our night time rituals are more likely to involve stacking the dishwasher and fending off toddlers than poetry, but Doreen and Bill Bellerby remind me of the unsaid things between us.
So, as we strip back carpets, wallpaper and electrics … while we fell trees and knock down walls we will hold on to the heart of this house as we hold on to each other. Because despite regularly driving each other bananas, frankly I can’t get the drill bit out when it gets stuck or reach high enough to trim the top of the hedges, and for all his many talents Nick Solly is not known for his creative eye or fine work with a paintbrush.
We’re only 6 years in to the marriage bit of this partnership, but if we’re making handwritten signs for each other in 49 years time, I’ll take that as a win.