Audrey Diana Brayne, a six-decade-long Sheringham community stalwart, died in the early hours of Wednesday 21st April, a few days before her 94th birthday.
In the dark of that night, a truly unique light was extinguished, of a forward-thinking internationalist who championed issues, movements and protests long before they were fashionable.
Audrey entered the world in 1927 in Peshawar in what is now Pakistan, arriving to the complete surprise of even her mother Kathleen fifteen minutes after her identical twin Phyllis. No-one had known that twins were on the way.
Her father (later Sir) Herbert Thompson had been a fighter pilot in the First World War and was now District Collector in India’s North West Frontier province, early in a distinguished career with the Indian Civil Service, the ICS.
Along with her two sisters, Audrey spent much of her early childhood in the grand palaces of the Raj. The family moved on from Peshawar to Hyderabad and Jaipur, then Madras (now Chennai) and Lahore as their father rose through the ranks of the ICS.
But the girls were packed off early, as the children of colonials were at the time, to boarding school back in England, first in the grounds of Windsor Castle and then close to their beloved grandparents in Wilmslow, Cheshire.
In 1940, as the Luftwaffe began its bombing campaign on English cities, Audrey, Phyl and Elspeth were shipped out to what was hoped would be the safety of India. But as India itself became unsafe with the threat of invasion by Japan, they were soon evacuated onwards with their Governess to Australia, their refugee ship with its cargo of children, alarmed and excited in equal measure, zig-zagging across the Indian Ocean to avoid Japanese submarines. Their next four years were spent in the state of Victoria and the all-girls private Clyde School near Melbourne.
By the time Audrey and her sisters next set foot on English soil in 1945, she was engaged to the young Thomas Lugard Brayne whom she met in India on her way back from Australia to prepare for entrance to Oxford University. She read modern languages at St Hilda’s, intending to support the work of reconciliation across nations, and spent time immediately after war’s end as nanny to a family in Belgium. This hugely influenced her views, and future work in conflict resolution and unity.
Thomas shared with Audrey the experience of an Indian childhood and colonial administrator father, and the two were married as Thomas studied agriculture at Cambridge University. In 1950, by way of several months in a caravan outside Cambridge as Thomas completed his studies and their first son Mark was born, they moved to a small farm near Holt in North Norfolk.
By 1957, there were four children – Mark and Hugh, then Peter and Carol – but the marriage did not survive. In 1962 Audrey and the children moved from Barney to Sheringham, from where she worked first at Runton Hill School in West Runton, then at Norwich High School for Girls teaching German and French and, later, Careers.
Audrey pioneered Norwich’s exceptionally successful, and still active, twinning links with Heilbronn, and from the early Sheringham years, her home in Links Road and then in The Rise would echo throughout the summer to the French, German and other languages of paying guests from abroad keen to learn English. Many of these early visitors became lifelong friends, bringing their own families on holiday to Sheringham and keeping in touch until the end, as well as inspiring Audrey’s children to explore the world.
Audrey rapidly became a bright thread in Sheringham’s town fabric. The Little Theatre, the Girl Guides, the RNLI, Churches Together, Sheringham Preservation Society and Museum, Meals-on-Wheels, Break and the University of the Third Age U3A (where she was still holding German conversation classes until a couple of years before her death), Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, the UN Association, various bird and nature charities, the Quakers … It was the longest list, all experiencing Audrey’s extensive and persistent voluntary efforts.
She established and for several decades led The Smugglers, an acting group for the town’s youngsters, writing and directing an idiosyncratic annual play involving over the years many hundreds of local children, each of them with a specially crafted, if often rather short, speaking part.
On the international stage, Audrey’s engagement was remarkable. She was passionate in the founding and promotion of annual twinning exchanges between Sheringham and Otterndorf in Germany. She participated in many exchanges with Muzillac in France and was an early pioneer of personal links with Russia, with pen friends in the Soviet Union and visiting in person both before and after the end of Communism in the early 90s.
Audrey was exceptionally active in Amnesty International, writing letters on behalf of incarcerated political prisoners, raising money and highlighting the plight of refugees. Several displaced families from conflict zones came to stay over the years, sometimes for a considerable period as they rebuilt their lives. She helped establish Sheringham’s Asylum Seekers’ Annual Picnic, taking refugee families for a paid-for day by the sea. At the peak of its popularity, local train companies would lay on an extra carriage to accommodate the hundreds who took up the offer.
Decades ahead of public sentiment, Audrey campaigned for the environment, especially for trees, recycling, ecological diversity and the soil. She would write regular impassioned letters to the EDP lamenting the damage being done to the countryside, and when the Council was reluctant to agree to her request to plant new trees in Sheringham, she took matters into her own hands. With friends and in the dead of night, she organised the rogue planting of dozens of saplings along Cromer Road by Sheringham’s market place, and on the Common, keeping them protected and watered until they became today’s beautiful – and officially celebrated – stands.
Audrey will be remembered as an altogether unorthodox and improbably active member of the Sheringham community, ready with unquenchable enthusiasm to get stuck into any good cause. With her regular and muscular swims in the sea, long before and long after the less hardy would venture into the water either side of summer, and with her love of nature, birdwatching and what might be termed a rather eccentric cycling style through town, she was a fiery local force full of wit, warmth, humour and compassion.
Long before society stigmas began to erode Audrey helped and counselled many, as friends and equals, on issues from sexuality to mental health. Throughout her life she was passionate in the support of younger people.
A good, and later rather successful, example was a certain James Dyson from Holt, whose mother Mary was one of Audrey’s dearest friends. She encouraged young James’s early designs by purchasing his very first prototype ‘ballbarrow’, a technology later repurposed for the famous Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner. Two simple wooden beds which she commissioned from him are still doing service half a century later.
A distinctive painting by James of light pouring into Coventry Cathedral still graces the stairwell of the house in which she died.
It’s a poignant echo of Aud’s passion for reconciliation with Germany, where the Church of Our Lady in Dresden was similarly destroyed in World War Two.
Audrey’s final years were increasingly marked by dementia. But until close to the end she retained her vibrancy and pleasure of connection. Her two outstanding live-in carers, Getrude and Clara originally from Zimbabwe, have become much-loved family members. Despite her decline, Audrey’s quality of life during these years was as good as it possibly could have been.
She died with daughter Carol and carer Getrude by her side, joined in the dark morning hours by a succession of family members both local and already summoned from afar, sharing thanks for the inspiration, love and sheer force for life which will remain her legacy.
Shortly after Audrey moved to Sheringham in the winter of 1962, a profoundly difficult but also liberating emotional time for her, she captured her very essence in an entry in her diary (emphasis as in the original):
“I shall, please help me God, try and pull this enthusiasm for life into everyone I have anything to do with. Some people will hate and mistrust me for it, I know. I will be discouraged – but I believe in the value of life – life is to be lived, not hidden away from.”
Audrey was progressive. She was inclusive. She was incredible.
Audrey Diana Brayne 1927 – 2021
By the Brayne Family May 2021