Reminiscences by Pamela Davis (Tilman’s Niece)

Tilman’s younger of two nieces, Pam, was very fond of her intrepid Uncle Bill. When Tilman’s sister, Adeline, died suddenly, Pam stepped into her mother’s shoes to take care of Tilman at their home in Barmouth called “Bod Owen”. She wrote fondly of his quirks and eccentricities, and the man behind the enigma on this site:

“My first recollection of my uncle was meeting him at Seacombe Ferry, Wallasey, when he was returning from a holiday in Africa. I was very young—I suppose about six—and my mother had taken my sister and me to meet him by car. Our car was of the “touring” kind and I remember it having detachable mica windows that would shatter or scratch if leaned against. We were continually admonished with all sorts of dire threats to avoid damaging them in any way.

After a short wait for the ferry, it arrived, and soon a smallish, tanned man walked up the slipway towards us. He was wearing khaki clothes and a large bush hat adorned with a snakeskin band. I was entranced by the twinkle in his bright blue eyes as he sank into the passenger seat of the car, chatting and laughing with my mother. Suddenly, he turned round to say something to us in the back and accidentally put his elbow clear through one of the mica windows.

‘Damn silly car this!’ exclaimed my uncle. My sister and I looked at my mother in horror, expecting a stern reaction but instead she just laughed.

‘Trouble with you,’ she said, ‘is you’re too used to wide open spaces!’

Not another word was ever mentioned about the mica windows from then on, and it was from this incident that I realized that this uncle of mine must be quite special.

To a small girl, he was a most glamorous figure, appearing from far away places, always with presents—a string of turquoise beads, a small tribal stool, an elephant’s tail fly whisk or an amber bracelet. He would stay awhile, then he’d be off again. My mother always arranged the same celebration for his homecoming: a Christmas pudding. And the night before he left, she would make him a sherry trifle.

He was a very kindly, laughing figure in my childhood. Once, my sister and I were incarcerated with measles or chicken pox, and we decided to open a museum. Collecting all our treasures together—birds’ feathers, pretty shells, and the usual bric-a-brac children collect—we labeled each item and charged one or two pennies to view the objects. I remember Uncle Bill now, dressed in a dinner jacket (he and my mother were going to a dance) solemnly paying his money and expressing great interest in all our treasures. A part of me realized just how kind he was to be so interested in our childish collection when he must have seen such marvelous things abroad.

When we were a little older, he took us climbing at Helsby and in the Lake District. He would patiently haul me up difficult rock pitches where I was unable to reach the next hold. I remember standing on a ledge with a large oxygen cylinder strapped to my back. He was testing it for an expedition to Everest. As I reached up to grab the next hold, a gush of icy cold water rushed down my arm from a rock stream, soaking me to the skin. My uncle hauled me up however and his ‘Well done!’ at the top warmed me through.

Back at the hotel and still with the wretched oxygen cylinder strapped to my back, someone remarked: ‘You’ll give her pneumonia wearing that at low altitudes’ to which my uncle quipped: ‘It didn’t do her any good for climbing either!’ Perhaps it was from that moment that he developed an antipathy towards the use of oxygen.

He was a romantic, kindly uncle and lucky indeed is the child who never has reason to change those opinions in later life.

Then came the war, and Bill soon went off to France telling my sister and me casually, ‘By the way, if I am taken prisoner, don’t expect me back—I’ll be shot escaping…I’ll never stay in a prison camp.’ We never told our mother but I expect she knew. However, all was well for him, and then came Dunkirk and the agonizing wait for news. The phone call came and blowing some precious petrol, I drove to Lime Street Station in Liverpool to meet him. The troop train arrived and tired soldiers flooded off, unshaven, dirty, and in very incomplete uniforms. Not Bill: he got off, his fore-and-aft cap plunked jauntily on his head, shaved, buttons all done up, and carrying a rifle. When I asked him what that was for, he replied, ‘I picked it up off the beach; wasn’t leaving that for those damned Boche!’

For the next five years, our paths didn’t cross but my mother remained the hub that kept the spokes intact. And all of his letters always ended the same way: ‘love to Joan and Pam. Yours ever, Bill.’

In July 1945, I was to be married. We knew Bill was about to be demobbed but not where he was. The day dawned, and the usual hubbub reined. The bride in dressing gown having just washed her hair was imbibing a late breakfast and looked up to see Bill coming up the path. I greeted him with, ‘Oh, you’re just in time to give me away.’ A startled look crossed his face but good chap that he was he appeared in uniform at 2.20 p.m. in time to accompany me to the church. As we paused at the start of the long walk down the aisle, he muttered, ‘This is the worst bit of the war!’ When the vicar said his bit, ‘Who giveth this woman, etc. Bill took a firm step forward and in true parade ground voice replied ‘I do!’. Complete collapse of bride, groom and most of the congregation with laughter.

In 1947, my mother bought ‘Bod Owen’ while he was abroad but he loved the place when he first saw it, and the freedom it gave him to walk the hills. Every day he was home, he had a set routine: breakfast at 8:45 a.m., a boiled egg, coffee and toast with honey that he got himself. He collected and read his mail. He answered letters the day they came in—a rather irritating habit as one was always behind and owed him a letter. He was punctilious even to the extent of thanking people for birthday cards and even Christmas cards. He would glance at the Times crossword puzzle over elevenses coffee and a digestive biscuit, more writing, a book, a lecture, letters. The typewriter would constantly tap from his study. Lunch dead on one o’clock, a light cheese or egg dish, or soup, then another go at the crossword, and dead on 2 p.m. he’d rise, put on his boots, and with the dogs at his heels disappear up the “Panorama”. Exactly at 4:28 p.m., he would re-appear, dogs panting, Bill unperturbed, and head into the drawing room for toast and honey, fruit cake, and three cups of weak China tea, and to fill in the crossword clues he had thought about on his walk. If he had no writing, he would work away in the garden, or clearing the rocks outside the front door. He always appeared at 7:15 p.m., tidy, and ready for a whiskey before dinner at 7:30 p.m.

He had a thing about meals being punctual, and could not understand why they weren’t. I was a very bad time-keeper, and on one occasion when I was cooking supper, he appeared at the kitchen door at 7:35 to enquire what the hold up was. In the midst of my graving-making, I hurled a spoon at him much to my mother’s horror, but which amused him greatly.

Bill never sat over meals. He would leap to his feet as the last plate was cleared which irritated my mother. ‘You’d think he had a train to catch!’ she’d mutter as he sloshed plates and cutlery about in the kitchen sink. It was always a point scored when one found something not quite clean and could shout ‘Reject!’ and toss it back at him. Scrambled egg pans were usually his undoing.

Reading occupied him greatly. He was not a television fan. He watched the news, test match highlights, some documentaries, but not much else. The programs he never missed were Harry Worth and Leonard Sachs. He would wait expectantly for Harry Worth to begin the program by putting one arm and a leg in front of a corner mirror which then reflected both arms and legs going out. He thought that hilarious, and would chuckle at Leonard Sachs’ string of adjectives introducing the next artist, and Bill would join in enthusiastically with the old music hall songs, especially “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”.

He was a great beer and bread maker. The former was potent and usually muddy looking; I christened it Estuary Water. His bread making was quite something however. He usually started to knead it with his hands fresh from painting a shackle, or binding ‘baggy wrinkle’, or knotting ropes round knives or handles on a bucket, with his pipe eternally in his mouth. Flakes of tobacco would drop into the dough, and the odd whiff of linseed oil would mingle with the yeast. All helped the flavor, the cook would mumble, and I must admit all ate it and proclaimed it. I remember so many occasions when I would wink at him as the paeans of praise from some visitor rang out at his skill, and his delighted chuckle would bubble up.

His sense of humor was enormous. In my opinion, the tragedy in his life was that so few people appreciated it. He loved having his leg pulled, and if you could cap one of his quotations (which was seldom as he was a past master at that) he would chuckle until the tears ran down his face. So many people hung on his every word and lionized him which he really didn’t like but was too courteous ever to rebuff them. He would be grumpy and unsociable but it was usually bad back pain which the family came to recognize; a grey look would come over his face.

This back pain was a legacy from a climbing accident in the Lake District in the Thirties. My mother had not gone on the climb that day as it was Sunday, and she felt it was not right to go. She was sitting in the lounge of the hotel when the door opened and what appeared to be a blood stained animal appeared on all fours. To her horror, it was Bill, his back was badly injured (with broken vertebrae) in a fall with two other people, one of whom later died.

He had climbed down a steep pitch where he had seen some other climbers to get help. They weren’t there, so he climbed back to his companions to tell them what he was going to do. He had climbed down again and, unable to stand, he had crawled the four miles into Coniston, and had to be restrained from going out with the rescue party. Later, his doctors told him he would never stand properly again and that climbing was out. His answer to them was to go to the Alps alone for six months. He came back ramrod straight and continued like that to the end.

Another reason for his unsociability was he would be working out the next pages of his book, mind well away from light chit-chat. And he was most awfully shy. He could not make small talk about the weather and the usual stuff; he found it quite impossible. He was infinitely better in men’s company but his sense of propriety overcame him with women. There was nothing he liked better than his hot-pot suppers with the lifeboat crew. All pals together, and when the singing moved more towards the rugger songs, by the end of the evening he’d be joining in with the best.

His sense of propriety was well illustrated when he took me to Belluno, Italy, for the twenty-year celebration after the end of the war. We were met by the old partisans and transported to the best hotel. When we got there, our host said, ‘We have the best room for you and your niece.’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). I began to shake with silent laughter and wondered if we would be on our way before the celebrations had even begun. Bill’s eyes flashed fire. In a voice that was completely clear to all and sundry, whatever their command of the English language, he said, ‘But she IS my niece!’ Hasty re-arrangements of accommodation were made. He never referred to the matter to me, and of course I didn’t either though it took me a long time to compose myself.

He was a man not given to expressing emotion. He felt things deeply, of that I’m sure. He expected family and close friends to keep their troubles to themselves. He kept his and was no moaner or whiner, and could not understand anyone who was. This is not to say that he would not have listened or helped if he could but I for one would have had to be desperate before I asked him for help. He was slow to praise, but his ‘That was a good effort.’ was worth more than anyone else’s fulsome expressions.

Perhaps a little intolerant, he set exceptionally high standards that he himself kept, and woe betide those who didn’t measure up. Pain he accepted almost as inevitable. When I asked him if his back pain was bad, he just said, ‘It’s like the poor—always with us.’ As a patient, he was incredibly trying. He broke his arm once in a climbing accident on Ben Nevis, and my husband took him to a specialist in Liverpool. The poor man wanted to put Bill’s arm in a splint with the shoulder raised. Derek, my husband, remembered well the voices in the surgery getting louder and louder. Finally the door opened and out came Bill and at his side the specialist white with fury. He turned to Derek and said; ‘You know the cobblestones by the overhead railway? Well take him back that way to the tunnel…that will shake him up!’ In the car, Bill said, ‘Stupid man. He thinks I’ll walk about with my arm waving in the air.’ Derek knew better than to remonstrate with him, and in due course the arm got better.

After my mother died, Mr. Jones sent for me as Bill was in a bad way with Flu. When I arrived, I immediately said I was sending for Dr. Howarth. ‘You’re not!’, he croaked. I did anyway, and he was prescribed antibiotics and forty-eight hours in bed at the least. Yet the next day he was up, and hacking away at the rocks in the garden. I left cursing, and saying ‘Well, I hope you fall off the edge and lie there till the dogs eat you!’ which got a laugh. He really was impossible!

He was remarkably cool with children, treating them as small adults. My boys loved him dearly. He was always most interested in their progress and achievements, and this interest was carried through to the next generation of his great, great nephews and nieces. People have called Bill an eccentric. If the old fashioned virtues of fearing God, honoring your king and serving your country are now considered eccentric, then he was. I do not think so. He had an enormous influence on my life and on many others. He had humility, modesty, and great humor that showed mostly in the endless self-mockery of his own writings. Examples of his quiet courage in the face of adversity are legion.

The way of his going was so very right for him. It was merciful that it was not on his boat or on his expedition. He was just a crew member. I shall always be sad for the youngsters who did not return, but for my uncle I feel that the Gods were kind. He sailed into legend and is forever climbing the high peaks of eternity.”