I first met Tessa in 1988, when I left my home in London to work on her father’s mediaeval jousting tournament, which at the time was based at Breamore House, on the edge of the New Forest, just outside Salisbury. Tessa was seven or eight years younger than me, we were from completely different backgrounds and we had markedly different interests, but nonetheless, we got on well and liked each other.
I worked on the tournament for the next five years, so despite the fact that I spent a lot of this time travelling and working abroad, I still saw Tessa regularly when our touring unit returned to Britain. After I’d taken off my armour for the last time and returned to London for good, Tessa and I still kept in touch, so we’d meet up or speak on the phone every eighteen months or so. We’d catch up on what we’d both been up to, reminisce about mutual friends we’d made via the tournament, have a drink or two, then go our separate ways until the next time.
When Tessa was just five years old, or thereabouts, she was trick riding by standing on her father’s shoulders as he galloped on horseback across a field, then she went on to take various parts in the performances put on by her father. Tessa was a gifted equestrian – something else we didn’t have in common – then she went on to work in advertising and IT, making a spectacular success of her new career and prospering as a result. Then, as now, I barely possessed the skill to turn my computer on, let alone operate in IT, but we still stayed in touch and enjoyed our times together. I thought Tessa was a sweet-natured, generous girl with a pronounced sense of humour, so it’s natural that I should remember her by recording one particular event that captured all three of these admirable qualities.
In January 2000, I was living with my young family in a small village on Salisbury Plain and I ended up working for Wessex Archaeology, which was based not far from Old Sarum, just outside Salisbury itself. The first excavation I worked on was at Hamwic in Southampton and from memory, it lasted for around six gruelling months. My friend Vaughan Birbeck was one of the supervisors on the site and we lived in the same village, so each morning, I’d have to get up at some ungodly hour to meet him at his home at 6am, then we’d drive all over Salisbury Plain in a minibus collecting other archaeologists before we finally arrived on site at Southampton around 8am.
We were excavating the site while the remaining buildings were still being torn down, before a new football ground was built there, so we were constantly surrounded by heavy plant machinery and there was pressure on to meet a strict deadline. It was wet, dirty, cold and generally exhausting work, and when we’d finished for the day, I was the very last one home, as everyone else was dropped off first on the return route, so I’d finally get to see my two young children around 6.30pm and I was invariably muddy and soaked through when they ran into my arms as I came through the front door, excitedly asking me what I’d found that day.
At the time, I was around forty years old, which meant that I was around fifteen years older than the majority of others working on the site. My new associates weren’t to know that I’d lived in London for eighteen years, that I’d sung in rock bands, that I’d toured Europe, Scandinavia & Russia on the tournament run by Tessa’s father and appeared on television for six or seven years in different capacities; I’d done a great deal else besides just this, but I largely kept it all to myself, waiting for an appropriate moment to talk about my past.
In the meantime, I had a hard core of recidivists of both sexes who tried their level best to give me a hard time for being ‘old’, for not being a snappy dresser, for having a haircut that was last in vogue during the English Civil War and for a host of other perceived shortcomings on my part. I wasn’t remotely bothered by this – in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to exercise my powers of wit and repartee on what were after all such easy targets, but this is just how it was.
During the course of this long, arduous excavation, I got in touch with Tessa again and she must have been living in Southampton itself at the time. We had, as always, a great chat on the phone and at some point, I told her where I was working and what the conditions were like, something that brought back many memories of my time on the jousting tournament. She found the idea of lesser mortals trying to beat me in a verbal exchange highly amusing, as she’d seen countless others who were similarly deluded being publicly humiliated by me whenever they were misguided enough to try to take me on. Be that as it may, I told her where I was working and she said she’d meet me on the site the next day to take me out to lunch, while there was a tone I can’t describe in her voice that assured me that this meeting would be a particularly memorable one.
The next day was surprisingly warm, but all the same, I was still stuck in some Godforsaken pit, while others all around me slipped and struggled to cross the site with their wheelbarrows laden with heavy, damp soil and stones. We were all naturally looking forward to lunchtime and some respite from the toil, so at about 12.50pm, most people were winding down a bit and casually looking around the site to see others doing the same. I literally kept my head down, however, concentrating on my finds, because I knew what was to come and sure enough, I soon noticed the others in my area craning their necks and expressing amazement at the sight of an unexpected visitor to the site.
I feigned indifference, but at one point, I glanced over the top of my pit to glimpse Tessa, who had turned up in an open-topped sports car and had parked just inside the entrance, close to the communal building where we all retired to eat our lunch. I had to try hard to suppress a loud guffaw, because she’d got out of her car and walked around to the other side, leaning against the door as she peered into a hand-mirror and applied some last minute makeup. She looked absolutely stunning and she knew it, while she was also perfectly aware that her appearance was at complete odds with that of everyone else in the neighbourhood. She also surely knew that the eyes of just about every male on the site was on her, but she didn’t acknowledge anyone’s presence because she couldn’t as yet see the person she’d come to meet.
The other guys I was working with literally had their tongues hanging out at the sight of Tessa, while to judge from their fevered conversation, they were utterly baffled as to why such a stunningly beautiful and exotic creature had appeared in their midst. It was also clear that they fancied their chances, so I could have happily listened to this kind of yearning but utterly futile speculation for hours more, but then one o’clock came and we all made our way off site and trudged towards the large shed where we habitually ate. To do so, at least half the workforce had to make their way past Tessa, so I made sure to scramble out of my hole with some haste, to place myself close to the head of the line.
Tessa made a point of scrutinising each face as the person ambled by, trying to conceal her disappointment, but she gave a loud cry of joy when she saw me, then hurried over to give me a huge hug. The sound of gasps of astonishment and of jaws almost literally hitting the floor threatened to drown out the husky-voiced endearments that Tessa showered me with as she tousled my hair and generally complimented me on my appearance and animal magnetism, so it was impossible for me not to grin broadly as she invited me to climb into her car. I had the iron self-restraint not to look back as she drove out of the site, but I gave a regal wave to all the rubberneckers behind me because I knew, as surely as night follows day, that they were transfixed by the incredible vision of me being whisked away by a girl who looked like an A-list film star.
I can’t remember where Tessa took me for lunch, but I do recall that the proprietor didn’t bat an eyelid at my muddy clothes and boots, simply because I was with someone he was clearly in awe of. As always, Tessa was a fantastically generous hostess, inviting me to order whatever food and drink I liked, asking after my favourites and concerned that I should be at ease and enjoy myself. We spoke to each other of our families and friends and ambitions, catching up on the events of the last few years, telling each other things of interest and making each other laugh. It was a joy as always, so when Tessa pointed out that it was approaching the end of my lunch break, I simply pretended I hadn’t heard her; as a result, I was around forty-five minutes late by the time she pulled back into the site, her face flushed with patent happiness, and bade me farewell.
Once again, she knew she had a captive audience, but she didn’t ham it up in the least. She slipped a half bottle of champagne into my jacket pocket, gave me another hug and a kiss, then climbed back into her car. She had a faint pout, as if to show that she felt I’d been rudely torn away from her, but I knew for a fact that as she drove off, she had a grin like the Cheshire Cat, as did I as I nonchalantly ambled back to my pit.
One of my supervisors hurtled across the site to remonstrate with me, white-faced with anger that I was so late back from lunch, but I acknowledged his spluttering tirade with a regal if dismissive wave of my hand and a “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever” before I reluctantly set to work again, retrieving some Mesolithic flint fragments from the mud with the tip of my trowel. My friends in the same area were simply too stunned to even ask me who this vision of sheer loveliness had been, and why she’d appeared to take me of all people off to lunch in her open-topped sports car, but I could tell that the not-knowing was driving them demented with frustration.
A little later, during our afternoon tea-break, one of my new mates cleared his throat, then asked me if I fancied coming out for a drink with him and some of the others on Friday, their aim obviously being to satisfy their intense curiosity. I politely declined on the grounds that as everyone had seen, I set my social sights vastly higher than mixing with peasants, the simple-minded, acne-infested students or any combination of the three, but for weeks afterwards, I milked Tessa’s appearance for all it was worth, and then some. Those who were desperate to know her identity and relationship with me were forced to gnash their teeth in helpless rage – it was just wonderful, so for this alone and for the superb lunch she treated me to, my gratitude to Tessa knows no bounds.
The last time we spoke, Tessa rang to tell me she was toying with the idea of writing an autobiography of some kind, so I said I’d be happy to help her as best I could. Our conversation moved on to other matters shortly after this and we parted, as ever, on good terms, but while I know a fair bit about her, I’ll never know what tales she might have put into a volume of her memoirs. I can be sure she had hundreds to match the one I’ve just recounted, given the nature of her upbringing, her travels, her work, her social life and her interests, but now each one of us who knew her will have to privately treasure our own separate memories of this wonderful girl whom I was proud to call my friend for over a quarter of a century.
It goes without saying that I was shocked to learn of her untimely passing, while I will miss her terribly, as will her grieving family and her many other friends. Goodbye, and God bless you, Tessa.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2015: I’ve published another post as a tribute to Tessa, entitled More Memories of Tessa Winship.