Monday, 12 January 2015

Annie May Spawton 1944 - 2014

Annie May

Annie May (nee Hilltout, later Ommanney - took the name May which was one of the Christian names of her paternal grandmother whom she loved dearly) was born at the Anglo-Italian Hospital in Alexandria on 3rd April 1944. Her Italian-born mother Tita had followed her father to Egypt but they separated early. Tita then married Max, a naval officer, who became Annie's step-father and they lived for a while in Hong Hong and Malta. A half-sister, Frances ('Fanny'), followed in 1950.

Annie grew up in and around Droxford and went to Miss Etheridge's kindergarten school in the stables at Fir Hill House, then owned by the Hulberts, where she was the contemporary of Will Martin and Herry. She later claimed that she bit Will ('and everyone') but we only have fond memories of her in those early days. Her mother Tita was a formidable woman - among other things an Italian Olympic swimmer. She had a fiery disposition and she and Annie clashed from an early age. And it was not until Fanny was 15 that Annie took her aside and told her that she was her half-sister. In 1962, she attended Les Rosey School in Lausanne and later went to finishing school there. Needless to say, she spoke perfect French.

Because she moved around so much and because of her schooling abroad, she didn't join the active social life of the rest of us until later. We were rarely out of each other's houses and pursued a constant round of tennis parties in the summer and dances in the winter. But she attended the naval parties at HMS Dryad in Portsmouth and at one of them gave the previously gnawed-on Will his first kiss. Soon her attractiveness, vibrancy and wit made her irresistible and in her late teeens she became one of the gang. In those days though there was no 'pairing off'. As Annie later put it, we enjoyed 'rushing around in a heap' too much.

Annie apparently fully clothed on a li-lo in the pool at Stocks. Mervyn Archdall on the side

I remember driving around with Annie sitting on straw bales in the back of one of the farm vans, probably with Richard Courtauld (who Annie was rather keen on) and on other occasions, following her car though the lanes in my Mini with my lights off so that I could surprise her at the other end. We held dinner parties at Stocks that on one famous occasion began with carefully disguised vodka consommé (frozen so that the vodka was effectively tasteless) that degenerated more quickly than usual into games and helpless laughter. It might have been on that occasion that Nick Duke attempted a barrel roll out of the drawing room window and smashed it. And it was at Annie's wedding in 1969 that I first drank anything stronger than Coke and was found laughing helplessly and had to be taken home.

Annie married a submariner, Lt Stuart Thorpe, and moved  to Bishops Waltham, next to the Knollys' (Cmdr. Hugh and Curly and parents of Willow). Curly was an artist and became a close friend, while Hugh's attentions were less welcome.  The house became a magnet for parties while her artistic talents came to the fore and she painted and made things and wrote interesting plays. There were no children so Annie and Stu adopted Toby and Barney but soon divorced and Annie moved to Wales in 1979.

Annie painting children at Fuff's farm, Castell Howell in 1980

Annie met Geoff in 1978 and became a couple in 1981. In 1986 Annie decided to go to university and later graduated with a degree in classics, which became her passion (after Geoff, who was the love of her life!). Annie married Geoff in 1990 and in the same year became Grannie Annie for the first time when Laura (Geoff's daughter) had her first son. In 1991 Annie and Geoff moved to Panteg Farm, which was owned by the writer Hammond Innes. Here they started to breed Pedigree Highland Cattle and Welsh Mountain Sheep. Whilst enjoying a very hands on role at the farm Annie also taught Classics at the University in Lampeter. Her teaching brought her into contact with many mature students. Several declared that Annie's positive approach and clarity of presentation had changed their lives.  Over the next few years The May Fold of Highland Cattle developed and Annie loved showing the cattle at local shows and had much success. The height of her success in the show ring was winning Champion Male and Reserve Overall Champion with a home breed heifer 'Dora Mina 3rd of the May'.

In 1998 Ralph Hammond Innes died and left Annie and Geoff the farm ‘for all their kindness and in admiration of the achievements at Panteg'. Later that year they bought Gilfachwen which became the home that Annie loved. She was a fabulous cook and adored entertaining in the house which was often full of laughter – created by the quantities of food, drink and company!She even wrote a cook-book, 'Take a Sharp Knife'. 

Annie used to come to London a least once a year and gave lunches for her friends at at her club, the University Womens' Club in Mayfair, usually accompanied by her very well-behaved collie, Pansy. 

In 2009, she and Geoff came to a party in Droxford which I organised for my family (she was my son Edward's godmother) following a Christmas and New Year spent in Ireland and as always lit up the room.  

Such was her energy and love of teaching that she started a young person's drama club - the Lampeter Youth Theatre (LYTss), that became enormously popular and successful.

Annie became ill in March 2014 and in July was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Annie decided that she would enjoy her 70th birthday at home as already planned. The party was on a glorious warm weekend at the end of August with 30 of her best and oldest friends and despite being uncomfortable she was on marvelous form.  The photograph of her at the end of this piece was taken by Belin Martin at that time. She also decided to go ahead with the holiday she and Geoff had planned on a widebeam on the  Kennet and Avon canal with her much loved dogs, before embarking on her treatment in September. Sadly Annie lost her  battle in December only three months into her treatment. Never once did she make any fuss or want any sympathy, she was brave and strong to the end.

A couple of her posts from Facebook capture her true farming spirit and love of nature: 

'That was very lucky! Had quite a chase through the snow to get the cattle into the box. Total white-out as we left grazing ground. The weight of the cattle box made steering very difficult. No shopping, of course, but home for tea and hot buttered toast absolutely, triumphantly, exhausted!'

'Been on the road feeding stock since after breakfast. It's heavenly out there! You can see the Brecon Beacons from the Mountain as if they we across the road not 40 miles away! And the air's like wine! Just footling on FB while I wait to change for dinner!'

Annie was interested in everybody and everything and looked for the best in everyone. She was also a wonderful listener. Consequently she always hugely interesting to talk to. Laura - who Annie loved dearly as the daughter she never had - spoke movingly at her funeral - said that she could always talk to her about anything. She was full of generosity and fun and there was always laughter wherever she was. Her death has left Geoff , Laura and her family and many friends deeply saddened but also with an inextinguishable memory of a bright and beautiful light. 

For more photos of Annie, click here


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